A Journey in Southern Siberia, by Jeremiah Curtin, , at sacred-texts.com
ON September 6, my birthday, I hired a troika for four rubles and a half and set out to bring in Manshut, dead or alive. The day was beautiful, the air clear, sweet; the sun shone brightly, and there was a breeze just strong enough to give tone to the atmosphere.
The troika moved not too quickly, but still briskly over the country, which was slightly rolling. The road was excellent, and soon we were abreast of the Hill of Sacrifice, then beyond it. Manshut's village was said to be twenty versts from Usturdi, but it was a short twenty versts. At last we came in sight of several villages, one not far from the other. At the first I inquired for the house of Manshut's employer, and found it by driving through what seemed to me a series of unfenced cattle-yards. In front of the house were half a dozen stolid, stupid women, one of whom was the employer's wife. She gave no information except that her husband was away, and Manshut, who was not at work, was somewhere with friends. Just at that juncture the worst-looking man I have ever seen ran up from somewhere around a corner. His red face was decorated with a nose which was an immense lumpy knob, red as blood. He was terribly repulsive, ragged and dirty beyond description, a man who had drunk barrels and barrels of tarasun.
"I will show you where Manshut's house is," said he. The driver made room for him, and we went, at his direction, toward the end of the village where there were several tumble down houses.
My guide said that Manshut lived with his mother in the second house, but we found that he lived in the first house, not with his mother, but with an old, weird, witch-like creature, who was at
the second house sitting on the ground outside with three other very old women. When I asked where Manshut was she did not answer, but got up and going to her own house sat down by the door. Then an unsatisfactory conversation began; one story was that Manshut was visiting somewhere in the neighborhood, another, that he was off cutting grass. I thought that he might be hiding, so I gave the woman some money and she let me go into the house and look around. He was not there.
Meanwhile, the knob-nosed man, with fifty copecks in hand and a promise of more, had gone off to hunt Manshut up. Seeing the man start away the old woman laughed, and said, "Red-nose is a terrible drunkard; you will not see him again."
I decided to go back to the employer's house. On the way I met a Russian-Buriat, who had seen me with Andrei Mihailovitch at the Horse Sacrifice. He was drunk, but gave me more information than I had been able to get hitherto. He said that Manshut's employer had a great deal of grass to cut, and would not let the old man go to Usturdi. He offered to go to the hayfield with me, if I wished. The driver objected to this. He said that the place was across the river, and more than a verst away; his horses were too tired for the trip. I sent for other horses. Then he did not want his wagon to cross the river. At last, very reluctantly, with an increase of pay, he decided to go to the hayfield. The drunken man took his seat by the driver, and we were off.
After driving about half a mile we halted in front of a small house built on the Russian plan. I inquired why we were stopping. "To get a drink," answered my guide. "It is hot; I am terribly dry."
The small house was a dram shop; fortunately it was closed. When he rapped heavily on the door two children came to a broken window, but they refused to let him in; their mother, who was at work in a field quite a distance away, had told them "not to unfasten the door for any one." The man insisted, offered them money, scolded, but they would not disobey. I told him that I was in a hurry and could not wait; that it was almost night. At last, when my patience was nearly gone, he took his seat and we started.
Just at that moment some one who was running across the
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BURIAT YOUNG LADY, ISLAND OF OLKHON.
field hailed us. It was our knob-nosed friend, who when near enough called out,
"I have found Manshut!"
We turned back at once. The man had somewhere pro-cured a bottle of tarasun. A Shaman came up and a drinking bout began. The bottle was emptied quickly and with great gusto. I was afraid that the driver would get intoxicated; but accustomed to tarasun it had no visible effect.
The knob-nosed man and the Shaman stood up on the back of the wagon and we drove on. Just outside the old witch's house we came upon Manshut. He was ragged and dirty, and had an old handkerchief tied around his head.
Without waiting for words I greeted him, and said: "Get up by the driver. It will be night soon, we must be off immediately!" He took his seat, not hesitating for a moment, and we started.
Usturdi seemed far away that September evening, for the horses were tired, and the air was chilly. It was nine o'clock when we reached the village. It had been a holiday and of course the Buriats had feasted on tarasun; the effects of it were evident everywhere. With great effort we succeeded in getting a samovar and a few pieces of rye bread. It had been a strange birthday; but I was content. I had fought a battle and won a victory.
Manshut told folk-tales for four days, and his work was very satisfactory; nevertheless they were hard days, for my provisions were gone, except tea. No matter how large a Buriat village may be there is never a meat market. Occasionally at the little grocery shops one can buy bacon, kept for Russian customers, but it is of a very poor quality. At this time Usturdi lacked even bacon.
In a Buriat house, as I have stated, there is but one meal in twenty-four hours; tough mutton, rye bread, and tarasun. This meal is eaten without ceremony. Plates and knives and forks are placed on a table which usually has an oilcloth cover, a dish of mutton and a plate of rye bread are brought, and each person serves himself. Tea is used in the morning. The poorer classes drink what is called "block tea," the odor of
which is very disagreeable. The well-to-do drink ordinary Russian tea. I am sure that the constant use of tobacco destroys their desire for food, for the rich live as badly as do the poor.
Buriats smoke almost continually, using a pipe with a large bowl and long stem. I have seen children five years of age smoking. Young girls seem more addicted to smoking than boys are, if possible. They are dissipated in every way. It is only after marriage that morality is expected, and then it is strictly enforced.
To the large majority of Buriats Russian is an unknown language. It is difficult to find a man able to carry on an ordinary conversation. Buriat women make no effort whatever to learn Russian. There are no Buriat schools.
I was rejoiced when I had on paper all that Manshut could tell me, for he was so unkempt as to be exceedingly repulsive. I recompensed him well for his time, and his knowledge of ancient tales, and he went away satisfied. Zabailenski was happy also, for I did not count out the days that he had been so intoxicated as to be useless.
We left Usturdi September 13. I was glad to go from the Buriat country, where, though I had gained considerable knowledge, we had endured many hardships.
Seven versts beyond the first station I passed through Iyók, a town of about four thousand ex-convicts, Poles, Jews, Russians, and Tartars, mainly peasants. It is a town with one immensely long street of unpainted houses and fences, all in a more or less tumbled down condition. When we reached Kudà (Where), it was already dusk and we remained for the night, not only because it was difficult to get horses, but because I thought it unsafe to travel in the night time, as within two or three years there had been several murders at this end of the route.
At the Zemski quarters I found the ispravnik 1 of Vernolensk, an uncultured, stupid man. He was on his way to Irkutsk. His wife and aunt had met him at Kudà, and he and they occupied the guest room with trunks and bags which should
have been left outside. This was vexatious, but I had an opportunity to study the real character of the man. He would have been officious and guarded had he known that I was traveling under government protection.
The woman in charge of the house gave me a small room where I tried to sleep on a huge box which occupied a good part of the chamber. But at midnight a party of young officers arrived with the governor-general's order for horses. When horses were not to be had there were high words and disputes. They had been ordered to Iyók to make arrangements for quartering a regiment of soldiers there for the winter. As they would not wait for station horses private horses were found, and they continued their journey, much to my satisfaction.
Next morning we were on the road at an early hour, carrying with us the house mistress' blessing, who said, as we parted, "If you never pass this way again I hope to meet you in that other world."
It was a cold and rainy day, and our driver informed us that thereafter there would be "little heat and much cold."
That evening I dined with the governor of Irkutsk, and went with him to the opera. In this quick change from life among the Buriats to the refinements of civilized life in the capital of Siberia, I experienced the striking results of some centuries of social evolution,—an evolution which through its effects upon humanity enables the man of cities to step back in a moment and with no mental effort from the wild, free life of fancy to the prescribed surroundings of material facts.
. . . . . . . .
Thus did I leave the heroes of the past, who fought so bravely with the many-headed Mangathais, and return to the no less valiant men of the present who, struggling with the evil forces of indifference and ignorance, are bringing to Siberia the prosperity that country so well deserves to call her own.
90:1 Captain of police.