A Journey in Southern Siberia, by Jeremiah Curtin, , at sacred-texts.com
THE morning following my arrival on Olkhon the golovar of Kutul, who had accompanied me to the island, returned to the mainland, after sending for a man whom he said could tell me much about the religion and customs of the people, and I was left to the devices of the islanders and others.
The messenger came back alone—the story-teller had gone to the Angara to fish, and would be away for some weeks. We were discussing the position when we saw two men riding in from the direction of the lake, and all called out, "There comes the story-teller." But instead of the story-teller it was Ilbik Urbashkin, the starosta of the second division of the Abazai clan. All the Buriats of Olkhon belong to this clan, but it has two divisions.
I now sent in various directions for men supposed to know stories, but when they came they could give me no information of value.
I had slept two nights on the floor of the little prayer house when the Russian in charge returned from fishing, and immediately deprived me of a shelter. He was an ignorant, self-sufficient peasant whom neither kind words, money, nor documents showing government protection influenced in the least. He was angry that the building had been opened to me during his absence and without his consent. He was in authority, and his authority had been ignored. It was impossible to reason with him. He strove to hide the real cause of his anger by repeating continually, "God's church has been desecrated by being used as a lodging." I was forced to move out.
I had become acquainted with the people of Seven Pines, and a young Buriat, who had recently built a one-roomed house,
said that I could occupy it as long as I remained on the island. A stove, a couple of chairs, a pine table, and a bedstead were all the furniture that the room contained. He and his wife were exceedingly kind people. The woman cleaned the room with great care, and the man came several times each day to light the samovar and do what he could to make us comfortable. When not serving us they were busy in a meadow near by, cutting and raking grass. It was pleasant to witness their pleasure and gratitude when at parting I rewarded them for their kindness.
Meanwhile the search for knowledge continued. At last the starosta of Olkhon assembled a crowd near my cottage and questioned each man; but no information was to be obtained. "My father knew much about the old time." "My grandfather was a very wise man, and could have told you a great deal." "I had to work when a child, I had no chance to learn the lore of my people." Such were the answers given.
After a few days of very unsatisfactory work I decided that it was useless to remain longer on the island. Lazareff was uneasy, and anxious to go. He had relatives on the mainland, he said, "who knew all about the Buriats of the old time. They were more intelligent than the islanders, and would give me much valuable information." I was aware that Lazareff had his own interests in view, not mine, but I consented to visit those wise relatives as I wished to meet as many of the Buriats as possible. And on August 13 we left Seven Pines.
When we reached the Baikal a sturdy young girl, wearing pants, boots, a dark shirt and very short skirt, assisted the men in getting the wagons on to the boat, and was afterward one of the rowers. Two men and two small boys managed my boat.
When I turned and looked back at the rock faces, I thought that they had a satisfied expression, as though down in their rock hearts they were glad that we were leaving their sacred island.
It was evening when, greatly wearied, we reached the first post station, which after our experience on Olkhon seemed a very clean and hospitable place. The mistress of the house had returned and we found her an intelligent, kindly woman. At noon the following day we were at the "Ragatz" station, where
we were forced to remain the rest of the day and the night. In the morning, after traveling a few versts the carriage gave out, and we stopped at the little village of Kuntin for repairs. The blacksmith, a good-looking old man, with bushy gray hair, was an Italian from Udine near Rome. When he heard his mother tongue once more his eyes lighted with pleasure, and he could not express his delight at meeting some one who knew his language and his country. While he was mending the carriage we took shelter in the house of a certain Petrof, a Russian who owned the vodka shop of the village. The old man boiled eggs and heated the samovar for us, and provided tarasun so liberally that I was afraid that we should have to leave Lazareff in Kuntin. When we returned to the blacksmith shop I snapped a photograph of our outfit, "en memorium," as the old Italian said.
We had a splendid run out of Kuntin; dozens of dogs flew after us, like the wolves after Mazeppa. The horses went at full speed. It was splendid! glorious!
At five o'clock that afternoon, during a heavy rain storm, we reached Kosostép. Seven versts farther on lived Lazareff's relatives. He urged me to continue the journey that evening, but I was weary of bad roads and rain. The station was untidy and miserable. Our supper consisted of bacon and eggs, which for the sake of cleanliness we cooked for ourselves. Lazareff, like most of the Buriats, did not eat "pig meat," so bacon was cut out of his menu. Education had freed Vassya from this prejudice and had roused in him the desire to live as Russians live, hence he shared our supper with pleasure.
The Buriats, even those who are rich, live much like American Indians. There are no regular hours for meals, or any apparent forethought regarding them. Rye bread and mutton are the staples. When guests come, or a family gets hungry, a sheep is killed, skinned, cut up and boiled, and the tough meat is eaten with great relish. Occasionally a cow or a horse is slaughtered for food. If all of the meat is not disposed of immediately, it is dried for future use. Ice, one of the luxuries of modern life, is unknown, except as the covering of lakes and rivers during winter months. If an official or some person whom they wish
to show more than usual respect arrives, hidden-away "Russian dainties" are brought forward, and a "lunch before dinner" is served. But this is the reception meal, and will not be repeated.
I was glad to get away from Kosostép early in the morning. The ride, after the rain of the evening before, was delightful.
On each side of the road were meadows where Russians and Buriats, both men and women, were busy mowing and turning grass. The dress of the Buriat woman—pants, boots and a short loose sacque—is convenient for field work, but it is not picturesque. A Russian woman of the laboring class wears a short dark skirt and a bright colored waist, and usually ties a red or red and yellow kerchief around her head. The hay fields that clear cool August morning were animated and dotted here and there with brilliant colors,—a beautiful harvest picture.
With a different climate the rich, black soil of this district would be exceedingly fertile, but as it is wheat will not grow; oats, though they ripen, are not good and the only reasonably sure crop is rye. Grass, however, grows wonderfully well, and at this season of the year nearly all of the men and women were busy in the hay-fields. There is no fruit in any part of Siberia which I have visited. The only berries I have seen were blue-berries, and those were cultivated.
On my arrival at Alaguersk-rod, a beautifully situated little village surrounded by meadows, I found that I was expected. The Uprava, a building used for government purposes, had been made ready, and a samovar was boiling. The "writer," or official translator, and twelve or fifteen Buriats were there to meet me.
The writer, a Russian exiled for life, is an educated and interesting man. Though only forty-five years of age his face is deeply lined and he looks worn and sad, for he has suffered much; fifteen years of his life exile have already past. Later, from an official at Irkutsk, I learned that the man had been in the army, and had been exiled for striking a superior officer.
After drinking tea the work of obtaining information and stories began. The hay-makers, glad of an excuse to leave the field, crowded into the uprava, and soon the place was dark with
the smoke and vile with the odor of bad tobacco. An old man commenced well, but was interrupted by a young man, who said that he was not telling the story as he (the young man) had learned it. Then he tried to tell it himself, but could not; the old man was angry and the story was left unfinished.
A man from the Trans-Baikal gave me much important material, but after an hour or so a Buriat from the village, who had been drinking heavily, interfered, and tried to prevent his giving a foreigner information regarding the religion of the country. Only after much uproar and talk and a wearisome answering of questions, asked to establish my position, was the enemy silenced by his neighbors and the officials. In the evening when the crowd had dispersed and the room had been cleared the man in charge of refreshments brought us a dish of beef cut into small bits and boiled—not tempting, but we ate it, for we were hungry. The next day work went on well for a couple of hours, then the story-teller informed me that Irkutsk merchants had sent him to Alaguevsk-rod to hire men to go to the mouth of the Angara to fish. As he had contracted to have the men at the river within a week he could not stay with me longer. I was unable to find another man who could tell me anything of importance.
Lazareff, tired of his relatives if relatives they were, went back to Kosostép at once. I remained for the night, for accommodations, though poor, were better than at the post station. The crowd disappeared, only the exile remained. The man was poor, and his life was one of hardship and anxiety. Later I went with him to his home and met his wife, a frail woman whom trials and poverty have greatly disheartened. I promised to speak a good word for her husband and a few weeks afterward was able to fulfil my promise in such a way as to make his position somewhat easier.
The following morning was so chilly that a fire was needful. There was delay in starting, and it was noon before we reached Kosostép, where I found horses waiting, and we were off at once. At the first station beyond Kosostép we were treated to Siberian fruit—blueberries—which we ate greedily, though they were hard and sour. From this station a sturdy young Russian was
our driver. He whirled us over twenty-nine versts rapidly, rushing through Hogotskaya to the post station as fast as the horses could run. Priestoff, the stanovoi of the town, called immediately and invited us to dine with him that evening. This made a pleasant break in the monotony of our return journey.
From Hogotskaya to Baiandai the horses were miserable; one side horse especially was contrary, and would not pull. The driver unharnessed him at last, and hitched him between the thills, where he was forced to work.
Upon our arrival at Baiandai Lazareff and Vassya learned of the death of a relative's child, and, though the child was only a few days old, they made the death an excuse for hastening to Usturdi. Lazareff had been of little help to me, he had caused me much vexation and expense, and I was glad to say: "God speed you."
Baiandai is a curious place. It is a collection of Buriat villages with one Russian settlement. In this settlement nearly every man and woman is either an ex-convict or a person exiled for life. I could have easily gathered many stories there, life tragedies, vastly interesting for a man who wishes to study all phases of life, but I was in Siberia to obtain Mongol material, and did not wander from my task.
Baiandai houses, like most of the houses in Siberia, are unpainted, except the casings and blinds, which are painted white; they get black and old quickly. Many of the buildings have shattered roofs and look uninhabitable, still they are occupied. Though a large place, there was but little to eat; no butter, white bread, or meat of any kind could be obtained. My bed in this village, or collection of villages, was made by putting two doors on two boxes and placing my carriage mattress on those doors.
The Russian secretary of the village was away, but the assist-ant secretary was very kind, and made every effort possible to find "wise men" for me. He was an exile from Little Russia, where he had held a government position. Losing in some way a thousand rubles of government money, he was sent to Siberia for twelve years, leaving at home a son and a daughter, and a position which gave him more than a hundred rubles a month.
[paragraph continues] He had already lived through eleven years of this exile. What he will do when the term ends he does not know. His health is broken; evidently exile has been a frightful experience for him. It is doubtful if work in a mine is worse for an educated and refined man than the monotony and associations of such a place as Baiandai.
After a time a story-teller came. I paid him and sent him away, for he knew only fragments of folk-lore; another came who was not much better, and still others. I remained three days in Baiandai searching diligently for folk-lore, but I could find nothing of value.
The man detailed to care for me during my stay was Danilo of Moscow, a rogue. He was sent to Siberia when nineteen years of age, under sentence to work in the mines, in chains, for fifteen years. Seventeen years ago, when he had served out twelve years of that sentence, he was pardoned. He came to Baiandai, married, and nine children have been born to him. His own account of the crime he committed was that at a festival, when intoxicated, he, with three associates, beat and killed a man whom they had long hated. He has the appearance of being a quiet, inoffensive person, but I found him tricky and wholly unreliable.
Now a great excitement rose in Baiandai: fifteen hundred soldiers were on their way from the Yakuts country to join, at Irkutsk, forces which had been ordered to China. It was reported that they were unruly, destroyed property, and did as they pleased in the villages they passed through. Two hundred were expected in Baiandai; they must be fed, supplied with bread, and the population must furnish carts and horses to carry them to the next station. Officials assembled to keep order. Five hundred rubles were raised to pay for bread, and every competent housekeeper was ordered to bake a certain number of loaves. In this time of unrest I made the acquaintance of Arkokoff, a rich Buriat, who invited me to visit him, and promised to find men familiar with the folk-lore of the country.
August 23, very early in the morning, there was a wonderful commotion and turmoil. The two hundred soldiers had arrived. The uproar was made principally by cart-drivers, those who
had brought the men, and those who were to carry them away; by Buriats disputing and quarreling, and by dissatisfied soldiers, who had received mouldy bread when fresh had been paid for. Some exhibited this bread. I heard one soldier declare that it was not fit to feed to hens, another said that pigs would refuse to eat it. The breadmakers defended themselves, and there was a noisy battle of words. But at last the soldiers were off, and when the squeaking of the rickety carts had died away in the distance Baiandai sank back into its usual apathy.
A few hours later I started for the summer home of the Arkokoffs, fifteen versts distant. As the road was smooth and level and the horses were good, we were soon there. Within one immense enclosure are three houses built on the Buriat plan, and one on the Russian, together with sheds and storehouses. The gate of the high board enclosure was open and we halted in front of the Russian house out of which came a very old and very dirty woman and two of the dirtiest men I have ever seen. Arkokoff himself came from one of the Buriat houses. He invited us into the Russian house, and ordered a samovar. While that was preparing he spoke of his wealth and position. He had several thousand head of cattle, four hundred splendid horses, five hundred sheep, and goats as well; a hundred and thirty thousand rubles in the Irkutsk bank, many houses, and a great deal of valuable land. He was a man of influence, for he had money to loan.
When the samovar was brought the steam from it had such a terrible odor that it made us ill at once. Upon asking what caused this peculiar odor Arkokoff said that the water they used was from stored snow, and asked me to go with him and see how well he had it protected.
Back of the houses was a small building, with a door loosely hung and always open. Inside of this building was a hole twenty-five feet deep with steps going down to the bottom. This hole, or reservoir, was filled in cold weather by shoveling in snow, stamping it down and packing it as solid as possible. Men in the reservoir trampled the snow as others threw it in. The well at this time was about one quarter full. The snow had turned to ice,
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ARKOKOFF, HIS WIFE, SON, AND SON'S WIFE.
In background a Buriat official
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LAZAREFF AND HIS RELATIVES.
Lazareff stands at the end dressed in white. Vassya stands in the centre
and there was water over the surface. This water was of the color of tea and was full of dirt. A man brought up a bucketful for my inspection. The odor was nearly as bad as from the steam of the samovar.
On looking around outside I saw that the houses and the cattle-yards were on higher ground than the reservoir, and in such a position that the well was to a certain degree a drain.
I decided to leave at once if this was the only water supply. But when I said that I had never used snow water, and thought that undoubtedly it would make me ill, Arkokoff sent men to a small river, quite a distance away, to bring water for my tea.
I now made the acquaintance of Mrs. Arkokoff, a short, fleshy, determined-looking woman about sixty-five years of age. She wore a double-breasted Canton silk coat, blue pants tucked into the tops of long-legged boots, and a pair of new, heavy rubbers—Buriat women think that the gloss of new rubbers gives a dressed-up appearance, and they wear them over their boots in the driest and hottest weather—On her head was a round felt cap, and over her shoulders a bright kerchief, knotted in front. She could speak only Buriat, hence my conversation with her was somewhat limited, but I saw that she ruled every one, with the possible exception of her husband. Later on, in Usturdi, I learned that a few years earlier Arkokoff had married a young woman and taken her to his home. Though among the Buriats it is not unusual to have two wives at the same time, Mrs. Arkokoff No. 1 was very angry, and young Mrs. Arkokoff did not live long.
The old man had a curious collection of people around him. In the kitchen of the house in which I was given a room was a queer-looking woman, a Russian, the widow of an exile. Her sole occupation was making rye bread, and though she complained bitterly of Arkokoff as a miser, who would not pay his help, and when they revolted would say: "Go and sue me; I have money, you have none. See how you will come out," she had labored for him twenty-four years, for three rubles (about a dollar and a half) a month. Near the oven in her untidy kitchen stood a tub of rye flour and a tub of yeast. On a bench, not far from the flour tub, slept, during the day, the night-watch, a man who had served out a sentence for murder. He was tall, lank,
and always barefooted; his face unwashed and beard and hair unkempt, a wretched specimen of mankind, mentally unbalanced. He had been a servant in the Arkokoff family for twenty years.
I was invited to visit the Buriat houses in the enclosure, three in number. In the first lived the old man and his wife; in the second their son and his wife; in the third the widow of their elder son, and her four children, one boy and three girls, whose dress—pants, loose shirts, long-legged boots, and caps with visors—made them look precisely like boys. Near the widow's house was a long wagon shed in which were ten or twelve large barrels, each three-fourths full of curd left after distilling tarasun. This curd is given as food to the shepherds, herders, and other laborers. Arkokoff said that it was excellent. The barrels are never covered. When the curd dries and hardens it cracks, as does mud under the heat of the sun. Dust fills the cracks and covers the top. Fresh curd is put in each time that tarasun is made. Curd dried in this way lasts for years. When needed a chunk of the vile stuff is chopped out and cooked with rye flour. Tarasun is distilled almost daily, but fresh curd is seldom eaten. For economy's sake they use the dried. The dust comes from the horse, cattle, and sheep yards near by.
In the Buriat country nearly all the milk from horses and cows is made into tarasun. The Arkokoffs make a great quantity of this liquor, but they also make butter of which the master of the place is very proud. A large panful was brought for my inspection. I noticed that it was covered with specks. I asked to have a section cut out; this was done, and I found that the butter was permeated with fine dust.
A dish of soup, a piece of roast mutton, and some rye bread were brought for our supper, but I did not enjoy it, for the mutton was very tough, and I had seen the breadmaker.
The only possible place for us to sleep in this rich man's house was on the floor of the room which had been given me in the Russian house. The family slept on benches in the Buriat houses. My mattress was brought from the carriage and spread on the floor. The door into the kitchen where the old Russian woman slept, and where the night-watch, the ex-convict, came and went while on duty, could not be locked. Of course I had money with
me sufficient to meet traveling expenses and pay men. But I was too weary to borrow trouble, and slept in spite of everything.
Next day story-tellers came and went. Many men crowded into the room to listen, and were a great drawback and annoyance. I got one fine folk-tale, and sent twenty versts for a man who had the reputation of knowing a good deal. He came, but declared that he knew nothing about the old time. Arkokoff insisted that he did, but neither urging nor money availed. I paid him for his lost time and he went home. Another man came; as it was late in the evening he said he would stay and begin work in the morning. In the morning, although I was up at daylight, he had disappeared. At noon an old man arrived, who told one good folk-tale, then his memory failed, and another man took his place. During these hours of waiting and annoyance tea acted as a wonderful sedative. It was fortunate that I had plenty of Russian tea with me, and also rusks, for in Arkokoff's house the only meal during the day is a dish of mutton and a loaf of rye bread, some time between four o'clock in the afternoon and nine in the evening. The family lives mainly on rye bread and tarasun. I had seen the rye bread made and could not eat it, but I derived great pleasure from feeding it to an old, lame, sore-backed dog. My translator was a Russian in the employ of Arkokoff. I paid Arkokoff more each day for the loss of the man's labor than he paid him for a week's work. I also paid the man in the same proportion.
The third day I had no better luck with story-tellers than the second day. My rusks were gone, and at four o'clock I ordered the horses, which a tall Buriat had had in waiting for two days, and in half an hour we were on the road to Olzoni.
Though I was weary and hungry and had paid exorbitantly for my experience, I was well satisfied, for I had spent three days in a typical Mongol family. Arkokoff professes to be greatly devoted to the old religion; perhaps he is. One thing is certain, he is tremendously devoted to making and hoarding money and drinking tarasun.
The Olzoni station was commodious and clean. I should have spent several days there had it been possible to find folk-tales. Trembovski, the Polish merchant, came to welcome me
and assist me in getting stories. I had brought Arkokoff's man to aid me, having paid Arkokoff in advance for the time I expected to keep him. But as soon as we reached the village he began drinking and after that I was not sure of him for even half an hour at a time.
In spite of worry and vexation, I remained four days in Olzoni. Then, taking my drunken servant, for fear that I should not get a better one, I started for Upper Kudinsk.
The country we passed through was uncultivated though the soil was rich. I have noticed that there are many wild flowers in Siberia and that they are usually of a purple tint. Daisies of a lavender shade grow everywhere.
At Upper Kudinsk the "People's Quarters" is in an open field half a mile from the village. The house is surrounded by a very high fence. The guest room is small, the bed simply a wooden bench upon which one is expected to put his carriage mattress. The window-sills were packed with tall plants which kept the light out and made the air bad. The official in charge, a Buriat, was very obliging and sent off immediately for "wise men."
Next morning my translator was wonderfully and fearfully drunk. Fortunately I now understood the language so well that I could dispense with his services. A man came who knew folk-tales, and he gave me much valuable information. In the after-noon a middle-aged, blue-spectacled man appeared, and stated that he would tell me "all about the Buriat religion." With him was the son of a Shaman, a bright, intelligent fellow. The middle-aged man, whose name was Kongoroff, was the son-in-law of Arkokoff. He had turned away from the religion of his. forefathers, and was perfectly willing to show me his abandoned gods and tell me about them. I was glad to meet such a man.
That evening there was a good supper, the first enjoyable meal I had had for more than two months: beefsteak and baked potatoes, such potatoes as I had not seen since leaving London, and they were grown in a garden near the house, there in the Buriat country, where I had frequently heard it stated that no vegetable would grow.
But if we had a good supper we had a miserable bed, and a wonderful experience with cockroaches. The moment daylight
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KONGOROFF AND HIS WIFE.
The other persons of the group are neighbors who crowded around to listen to Kongoroff. K. sits at the end of the picture near his wife, who is standing
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ANDREI MIHAILOVITCH, MIKILOFF AND HIS YOUNG WIFE
AT RIGHT, VASSYA.
disappeared they came from their hiding-places and raced everywhere, up the walls, down the walls, on the table, floor, stove, bed, and baskets. Only once before in my life had I seen so many. That was in Guatemala, where in my sleeping-room they ate everything available; ate even the films off photographic plates which I had set up on a shelf to dry. These Buriat cock-roaches were very aggressive, when I tried to sleep I found it beyond the possible. Toward morning I surrendered, dressed, and went out on to the porch. There I found a Jew tailor whose home was in Lodz, Poland. He had been exiled for eleven years, for smuggling, but at that time had only one year longer to serve. He was a peculiar-looking man with curly hair, white, except at the back of the neck, where it was jet black, which gave him a remarkably odd appearance. He had no friendship for the Buriats, whom he said the excessive use of tarasun was destroying as a people. As he spoke German he could converse freely without fear of being overheard, and we had a long talk, mainly about the country and the Buriats.
In the morning, as soon as I could get horses, I started for Kongoroff's. The ride of fifteen versts would have been pleasant but for the horses and the driver. The first were wretched, pitiful; the second was inhuman. The land was rolling and the road heavy, the horses lean and underfed. I was afraid they would give out, but urge or threaten as I might I could not make the heartless driver rest them.
Kongoroff's place was disappointing. The house was so badly kept as to make tea and lunch undesirable. A German from Riga, as he himself declared, came in and began talking rather rapidly. Kongoroff had him turned out soon, and quite rudely, I thought, excusing the act by saying that the man had been drinking. Later he appeared a second time, but was sent off promptly. It seemed much as though Kongoroff, who did not understand German, feared that the man might make some complaint. When I was going the exile came to the carriage, shook hands with me, and said in German, "God sees everything."
Kongoroff brought his Ongons, took them from the boxes, and nailed them to the side of the house to be photographed. They were much like those shown to me by Andrei Mihailovitch.
[paragraph continues] Kongoroff told me their names and attributes. The visit was not very pleasant, and though I obtained a few important facts, I was glad to get away from the place.
Another night-conflict with cockroaches and I was off for Usturdi, accompanied by Zabailenski, the translator, who had made good promises. The trip was delightful. There was just the right temperature and the proper breeze. It was a beautiful day! I had been away one month.
I was anxious to go to Irkutsk, but was determined to get the rest of Manshut's folk-tales before going. I sent for him immediately. My messenger soon returned with word that Manshut was sick. I did not credit this, so I got an order from the chief of the village for the old man to come to the uprava. The man who carried the order was gone an entire day. When at last he came he brought the same message as the first man: Manshut was sick. I did not know what to do. There had been a festival, and nearly all the men in the village were intoxicated. I tried hard to keep Zabailenski from bad company, but toward evening of the first day he disappeared. Andrei Mihailovitch was also drinking heavily. Vassya was about the only man in Usturdi who was not to some degree intoxicated.