A piercing wind, searching and paralyzing, meets the tarantass beyond the crest at the southern border of the forest: it is Gobi's compliments to Baikal, the salute of the great desert to the great lake. The horses stumble through the drifted snow, scarcely able to walk. The driver, blinded, half-frozen, keeps to the general direction of the obliterated trail. Barely one verst an hour is made, until, under the shelter of the bald white range of hills, the road reappears and the wind is warded off. A rolling plain between the heights is the next stretch of the way. The afternoon sun, dimly bright, creeps haloed through the lightly falling snow. Deep in the mist appears a dark moving mass. It grows, focuses, and takes shape into a shaggy beast of burden, and camel after camel emerges from the haze, loaded with square bales of tea.
"Ask if there is shelter near," you shout to the muffled head of the interpreter. "I will ask," he replies. Then to the caravan leader: "Sein oh! " he cries in greeting. The foremost camel stares stonily as its Mongol driver twitches the piece of wood which pierces its upper lip, and the whole train stops. "Gir orhum beine?" "Ti, ti, orhum beine!" comes the answer. "It is close at hand." Forward the caravan slowly paces, each camel turning his head to stare as he passes out into the mist again. One of them has left a fleck of blood in each print of his broad spongy foot which the driver will cobble with leather at the next halt. Along their trail you drive: southward. The mist is clearing as you rise, and the sun shines down on the snow which has crystalized in little shafts an inch high. These spear-shaped slivers have a brightness and a sheen of extraordinary brilliance, and like prisms show all the colors of the rainbow. They cast a gleam, as might a mirror, a hundred yards away. It is as if upon the great white mantle had been thrown haphazard treasuries in rubies and emeralds and diamonds and opals,---myriad ever growing rivals of Dresden regalias. The sun goes down with its necromancy. Beyond, the soft blanket enfolds the rolling hills. It drapes the rocks and weaves drooping festoons about the barren mountain-sides.
"Mongol yurta!" calls Andre, turning to point out with his whip the low dome-shaped hut, black against the darkening sky. On its unknown occupant we are to billet ourselves, sheltered by the rule of nomad hospitality. As the tarantass nears the wattled corral, the watchful ravens stir from their perches. The picketed camels turn out to stare. A gaunt black hound stalks out, with mane erect and ominous growls. "Nohoi," cries out Alexsimevich, to the inhabitants of the hut; then adds to you, "Very bad dogs! It is a Mongol proverb: "If you are near a dog, you are near a bite.''
Beneath an osier-built lean-to, a woman is milking a sheep, with a lamb to encourage the flow. She calls a guttural order to the dog, which slinks back. Then she comes to the wattled fence, while the sheep which had been getting milked escapes to a far corner of the yard. The woman's head is curiously framed by a triangular red hat, and silver hair-plates, which hold out like wings her black tresses. The shoulders of her magenta dress are padded up into epaulets two inches high. She is girded with a sash. "Sein oh!" says Alexsimevich. "Sein!" she answers, and opens the gateway to the inclosure around the hut.
Andre drives in among the sheep and cows, and you climb lumberingly down with cold-stiffened limbs. Andre puts his whip upon the felt roof, for it is a deadly breach of etiquette to bring it into the house. "You go in," said Alexsimevich. It is like entering a kennel, this struggle through the narrow aperture, muffled to the eyes in double furs and awkward felt boots. As you straighten up after the crawl through the entrance, a red glare from the fire just in front meets the gaze. Stinging smoke grips the throat---you choke in pain. It blinds the smarting eyes. You gasp and stagger. Then someone takes your hand and pulls you violently down on a low couch to the left where in course of time breath and sight return. There is no chimney, nor stack for the fire of the brazier, which stands in the center of the hut. One can see the open sky through the three-foot hole above. The smoke, finding its way toward this aperture, works along the sloping wooden poles which form the framework of the felt-covered tent, filling the whole upper section with its blinding fumes. To stand is to smother. Sitting, the head comes below the smoke-line.
With recovered vision, one can look around within the hut. The couch of refuge, raised some six inches above the floor, is the bed by night, the sitting-place by day. Against the wall at the left hand, and directly opposite the door, is a box-like cupboard, along whose top are ranged pictures of grotesque Buddhist gods, before whom are little brass cups full of offerings, millet or oil, in which is standing a burning wick. Beside the door is a shelf loaded with fire-blackened pots and kettles. Branches of birch for fuel are thrown beneath. On the far side of the room, three black lambs, fenced off by a wicker barricade, are huddled together, quietly sleeping.
Seated beside the fire close by is the girl of nineteen who has just saved you from asphyxiation. The long fur-lined working-dress, common to all ages and sexes of Mongols, is buttoned on her left side with bright brass buttons, and is belted in with a sash. She has not the padded shoulder-humps, nor the spreading hair arrangement, which gave to her mother, who welcomed us, so weird an appearance. Her complexion is swarthy like an Indian's, not the chalky Chinese yellow, and she has red cheeks and full red lips. Her eyes are large and black. The rest of the party have stayed a moment outside to ask about hay; and water. You have made this solitary and awkward entrance. The girl has no more notion than a bird who the strange man of another nation may be, who has stumbled into her home. But it does not trouble her in the least. For a moment she looks you over calmly, with a smile of amused curiosity, rolling and wringing with her fingers a lambskin which she is softening. Then composedly she bids you the Mongol welcome, "Sein oh!" and holds out her hand. Her grip is as firm and frank as a Siberian's.
Now Alexsimevich comes tumbling through the door, and next Andre. Both are used to these huts, and artistically stoop below the smoke-line. All our impediments---blankets, furs, pots, kettles, bread-bag, rifles---are heaped in a mound within the space between the couch and the tethered lambs. The girl has not stirred from her work. "They are friends of yours, then, Alexsimevich?" you ask.
"No, no, I never saw them," he answers. "Any one may take shelter in any yurta in Mongolia."
A small head suddenly makes its appearance from the pile of rugs on the sofa opposite on the women's side of the tent. There emerges, naked save for a bronze square-holed Chinese cash fastened around her neck, a little slant-eyed three-year-old. The water in the small cups offered to the dokchits has long been ice, and one has full need of one's inner fur coat and cap in the hut, where the entrance, opening with every visitor, sends a draft of air, forty degrees below zero, through from the door to the open hole which serves as chimney. And still this tot can step out naked and not even seem to feel it. "The child's name?" asks Alexsimevich. "Turunga," replies the girl. "And your own?"
"Sibilina," she says, and smiles.
Turunga carefully inspects you, and solemnly accepts a lump of sugar, which she knows what to do with, even if it is a rare luxury offered to gods. She sits down, in an evidently accustomed spot on the warm felt before the brazier, to play with the scissor-like fire-tongs, carefully putting back the red coals that have fallen out on the earthen platform. The tarantass driver, having piled up your impedimenta, excavates from its midst the bag of rye-bread, which he sets to thaw. He gets next the little bag of pelmenes, the meat-balls covered with dough-paste which you carry frozen hard. The mother comes in from under the yurta's flap, and, placing a blackened basin over the brazier, puts into it a little water and scours diligently with a bundle of birch-twigs. She brushes out this water on the earthen floor near the entrance. This is the picketed lambs' especial territory, to which the felt rugs before the couches and the altar do not extend. A big bag of snow which she has brought from outside is opened and the chunks are piled into the basin, where, while one watches, it melts down into water.
"Boutzela! boutzela!" she cries soon, holding a lighted sliver over the basin to see it by: "it boils." Into the Mongol's pot go our pelmenes, to brew for a few moments. They come out, however, a combination of hot soup and dumplings, very welcome after the long cold day's drive across the plains, the frozen marsh, and the rolling hills. The wooden Chinese bowls from the bazaar at Troitzkosavsk are filled now with our hostess's big ladle, and the application of warmth inwardly gradually thaws the outlying regions of the body. But there is trouble in camp. Turunga is moved by the peculiar passions of her sex and her age, curiosity and hunger. It does not matter in the least that she has home-made pelmenes every two or three days---she wants these particular meat-balls. The little mouth begins to pucker and the eyes to screw up. No amount of knee-riding by the mother takes the place of the pelmenes. We fill a heaping ladleful and Andre furnishes his own bowl. The mother receives it, holding out both her hands cup-fashion as is the etiquette, and Turunga is satisfied.
The mother looks kindly to the stranger and smiles at Andre, then throws more sticks of the precious firewood on the embers. Andre has caught, likewise, the not un-admiring glance of the young maid. The girl who waits in Troitzkosavsk is not the only one who appreciates our six-foot Siberian hunter.
The dog barks in the yard, but without the menace which hailed us, and the crunch of a horse's hoofs sounds on the frozen ground outside. The flap opens, with its rush of freezing air. Stooping, there enters a typical Mongolian, squat of figure, round of head, with broad sunbrowned face and a short queue of black hair. He wears a funnel-shaped hat, magenta-colored, and is enveloped in a long shuba, with brass buttons down one side like a fencer's jacket. About his waist is a sash with jingling knives and pouches. He is the head of the family, come in from herding his horses. He turns back the fur-lined cuffs which have protected his gloveless hands and stretches out both his arms for you to place your hands over his. It is the man's ceremony of welcome. Then he produces a little porcelain snuff-bottle. This must be received in the palm of the right hand with a bow. It is to be utilized, and passed back. If the herder is out of snuff, the bottle is offered just the same and you must appreciatively pretend to take a pinch. Such is etiquette.
The soup is gone now; the pot, cleaned out for the tea, is again on the boil and leaves are thrown in. Andre has borrowed a hatchet from his host, and has chopped off a piece of milk, which goes in as well. It is in order to ask the new arrival, Subadar Jay, to pass his wooden cup for some of the beverage. He takes it and the lump of sugar without a word of thanks. The Mongol language has no expression to signify gratitude. Silence does not, however, mean that he does not appreciate. The dozen pieces of Mongol sandal-sole bread which he gives you later are worth two bricks of tea in open market, and this current medium of exchange---caravan-brought tea---is worth sixty kopecks the brick. No small gift, this bread, to an interloping stranger who is brewing tea by his fire, and camping unasked on his bed. A Tibet-schooled lama knows the Buddhist maxim, "Only accomplish good deed, ask no reward." But the unlettered Mongol layman knows its practice.
Little Turunga has played naked before the fire long enough now; she is caught up; her reluctant feet are put into the boots with pointed upturned toes, and her body into a miniature sheepskin "daily," such as her mother and father wear. The little girl is as smiling and shy and coquettish as any child of white skin and complex clothes. "Will you sell Turunga for a brick of tea?" "No, no," says the mother, gathering the little one quickly up into her arms, while the rest of the family smile at the offer and her solicitude. "No, no, not even for ten bricks!" Everybody laughs, Turunga with the rest, in a child's instinctive knowledge that she is the center of admiring attraction.
Far more petting than the Russian babies get is lavished on the little Mongols. Perhaps the much smaller families (only two or three children to a hut) allow more attention per capita. The mother hands Turunga over to her father,---unheard of in Siberia,---and he plays with the child, giving her pieces of sheep's tail to eat from his mouth, answering her prattle or baby-talk and endless questions. At night, about eight o'clock, the mother takes the child to the couch and they both go to sleep, Turunga cuddled warmly under her mother's shuba. Meanwhile we men sit cross-legged by the fire and talk of many things,---of the pasturage for the sheep, of the snow on the road, of the beauty of the housewife's silver head-plates, of water and roads, of whether or not the Mongol dokchits on the altar are like the Gobi wolves that hate Chinese.
It is interesting to note how some of the words used (few, however) have a familiar sound---although there is said to be no common ancestry with the Indo-Germanic tongues; perhaps it is only the instinctive sound imitation which makes the Mongol baby cry "Mamma" to its mother, as does the child in Chita and in Chicago. "Mine," for instance, is mica; "thine" is tenei. A horse or mare is mari. The word for "it is," "they are," is beine, a fairly respectable form of the verb "to be" in Chaucer's English. The grammar is delightfully simple. In the vernacular there is no bothering about singular or plural. "One hut" is niger gir; "two huts," hayur gir. "Milk" is su; and apparently the word for "water" was formed from it---ou su. If one wants to know whether it is time to throw in the meat-balls, he says, "Ou su boutzela?" with a rising inflection ("Water boils?") and the answer is, "Boutzela." The "moon" and a "month" are sara, and the years go in cycles of twelve. If one wants to compliment the host on the excellence of the sandal-shaped bread which he hands out, loaded with gray chalky cheese (hourut), one says, "Bread good be" (Boba sein beine); this gives him great pleasure.
Some of the written numbers are somewhat like ours: 2 and 3 are nearly the same, but they have fallen forward on their faces; 6 has an extra tail. When the teapot over-turns, they say "Harlab!" to relieve their feelings. There is no word for "so good," "farewell,"or "much obliged." These are just squeezed into the heartiness of the final "good" (sein). So when one leaves, he holds out both arms, palms up, for the host to put his own upon, and says loudly, "Sein oh!" A not unbarren amusement to study out one's own derivation for some much explained words. Tamerlane is often given as meaning "the lame." Why does it not rather come from temur (iron) and mean " man of iron," as the ruler of the Khalka tribe was called Altan Khan, the golden king? The Amur River has khara-muren (black water) usually given as its derivative root. Why not the Mongol word amur, which means simply "quiet"?
In the hut tonight, while we are comparing mother tongues, the brazier-fire has burned to red brands. The girl reaches into a basket beside the door for pieces of dried camel-dung, and puts them on, that the embers may be fed and live through the night. These argols do not smoke; she may close the chimney-hole with the flap of felt, and the hut will be kept somewhat warm through the night. The Mongols prepare for sleep: they take off their boots, and slip their arms from the sleeves of their fur shubas, in which they roll themselves up as we in our blankets. But how hardened they are to the cold: a naked arm will project and the robes become loose, but they do not wake.
We keep on all our inner clothing, and roll ourselves about with skins until we are great cocoons. Andre gives a good-night look to his horses; then he, too, lies down. With our heads beside the altar of the gods, we sleep in the Mongol's gir.
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. VI: Russia, Austria-Hungary, The Balkan States, and Turkey, pp. 187-197.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998