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From Pekin to Calais by Land
Harry de Windt
CHAPTER I. GRAVESEND TO PEKIN.
CHAPTER II. PEKIN.
CHAPTER III. PEKIN TO KALGAN.
CHAPTER IV. KALGAN, OR CHANG-CHIA-KOW.
CHAPTER V. THE DESERT OF GOBI.
CHAPTER VI. OURGA TO KIAKHTA.
CHAPTER VII. KIAKHTA TO IRKOUTSK.
CHAPTER VIII. IRKOUTSK.
CHAPTER IX. IRKOUTSK (continued).
CHAPTER X. IRKOUTSK TO TOMSK.
CHAPTER XI. TOMSK.
CHAPTER XII. PERM TO CALAIS.
OUR CARAVAN (GOBI DESERT).——DAWN.
There are two Englishmen at present living in Shanghai who have travelled overland from Europe to China. I was told, when there, that these gentlemen are continually receiving letters from England asking for information relative to the journey from Petersburg to Pekin and vice versâ, and in the Gobi Desert and Siberia.
It is mainly owing to this circumstance that I publish these pages, for I fear the general reader will find little to interest him in this record of our monotonous pilgrimage through Europe and Asia. I feel that an apology is needed for its publication, and need hardly say that it does not aspire to the title of a book of travel, being merely a record of my impressions in the less civilized parts of China, and in that weird and melancholy country, more perhaps from associations than aspect, Siberia.
The voyage is, though somewhat original, sadly devoid of interest. Urga and Irkoutsk are, no doubt, well worth seeing, but a passing glimpse of these unique cities far from repays the discomfort, not to say hardship, which must be undergone on the caravan route.
I can only trust this book may deter others from following my example, and shall then have some satisfaction in knowing that its pages have not been written in vain.
M. Victor Meignan concludes his amusing work “De Paris à Pekin par terre,” thus:——
“N’allez pas là! C’est la morale de ce livre!”
Let the reader benefit by our experience.
H. de W.
“From China to France overland! Why, surely it’s impossible. I thought one could only get to China by sea!”
Such was the remark made by a young lady whom I had the honour of taking down to dinner a few days previous to embarking upon the voyage of which I am about to narrate my experiences. Although I trust there are not many educated persons who, like my fair friend, are unaware that Pekin and Paris are actually undivided by sea, I imagine there are but few who, if put down at Calais, and told to find their way overland to Pekin, would know how to set about it, fewer still who have any practical knowledge of that vast but comparatively unknown country separating the Chinese Empire from Russia proper, Siberia.
It had been a long-projected voyage. Lancaster, (a fellow-traveller in many lands,) and I had talked it over for at least two years before: in the early spring of 1887, we finally decided to put our project into execution, and start for the great unknown.
Unlike most voyages which in these days of travel are an accomplished fact as soon as decided upon, this one was fraught with innumerable delays and annoyances. Our difficulties commenced at the very outset, for nowhere in London, or indeed anywhere else, could I glean the smallest information respecting the journey; the only book I succeeded in finding on the subject being one written by John Bell, the English traveller, in 1788, but, as may be imagined, the information contained therein was somewhat obsolete.
Nothing more modern, however, could I procure. Jules Verne’s amusing and clever book, “Michel Strogoff,” deals largely with Irkoutsk, Lake Baikal, and other regions we were about to traverse, but I hardly felt justified in taking that versatile author as a travelling-guide. That we landed at Tientsin——China——and saw the sea again at Calais——France——was all we definitely knew; of the time it took to do, or how the journey was to be accomplished, we were quite in the dark.
About a week before our departure, however, I had the good fortune to meet a gentleman connected with the Russian Embassy in London, and to him I confided our difficulties. M. de ———— was indeed a friend in need, for in less than twenty-four hours our difficulties had vanished like snow in the sunshine. Not only was the route from Pekin to Moscow clearly laid down for us, but we were provided, in addition, with a letter of introduction from M. de Staal, the Russian Ambassador in London, to the Russian Minister at Pekin. Had it not been for this, I doubt whether we should ever have got further than the celestial city.
The route (we now found) was as follows: From Shanghai to Pekin by steamer and house-boat, from Pekin to Kalgan (or the Great Wall of China) by mule litter, and thence across the Great Gobi Desert to Kiakhta, the Russo-Chinese frontier, by camel caravan. From Kiakhta to Tomsk, viâ Lake Baikal, Irkoutsk, and Krasnoiarsk by tarantass or Russian post carriage, and thence by steam communication on the Obi and Irtish rivers to Tobolsk and Tiumen. From the latter place our journey was easy enough. Four days’ sail and seven of steam would bring us to Moscow, practically the end of our voyage. As to the time the journey would take, no one, even at the Russian Embassy, seemed to know. So much in this journey depends (as we afterwards found) upon the weather, the facility of obtaining camels at the Great Wall, and last, but not least, the state of the roads in Siberia. We were starting at a good time, however, and with luck might expect to reach Moscow in the early autumn. If detained in Siberia by floods or other casualties, we might not arrive in Europe till the new year. This was all we could ascertain, and with this somewhat scanty information were forced to be content.
The outfit question did not trouble us much. A Terai hat, two or three tweed suits, and an unlimited supply of cigars and tobacco met our requirements. Everything we took went comfortably into two small-sized leather portmanteaus. A rifle, fowling-piece and brace of double-barrelled pistols (not revolvers) were also taken, and this completed our wardrobe and armoury. I often wonder what the West End outfitters would do were it not for the yearly increasing number of Globe-Trotters. Be it understood I mean Globe-Trotters, not travellers, for there is a vast difference between the two. I have often been amused at the utterly useless articles forced upon the unhappy G. T. by the Bond Street or Piccadilly haberdasher, who probably knows rather less of the country his customer is about to visit than the Khan of Khiva does of Pall Mall. The Globe-Trotter pur et simple is seldom (so far as I have seen) of high intellectual attainments, but one I met a few years ago, while on a voyage to Sydney, eclipsed everything. He had provided himself with enough thick clothes and furs to fit out an expedition to the North Pole. On asking him the reason, he replied, “Oh! We shall get to Sydney at Christmas, you know, and it will be so awfully cold after the tropics!”
Our final preparations completed, we took passage for Shanghai, and the rainy, gusty morning of the 7th of April, 1887, saw us steaming down channel with half a gale of wind in our teeth, looking our last on the white cliffs of England, while to our left was just visible the low-lying coast of France, the goal we hoped to reach in safety, before the following winter, and from which we were separated by the length of Europe and Asia.
I will not inflict a description of the voyage out upon the reader. It would be superfluous in these days of travel, when a man secures his berth for Sydney or Yokohama with much the same indifference as twenty years ago he took a ticket for Rome or Vienna. The life on board a P. and O. ship is familiar to most of us. Suffice it to say that our fellow-passengers were of the usual kind: the Colonial bishop, who buried himself in a deep theological work before we had cleared Land’s End, only to emerge from it at Colombo; the Hong Kong merchant and his family living on the usual terms of armed neutrality with the Indian Civil Service official and his wife, an Indian Major-General, a sprinkling of bank clerks and coffee-planters, two or three soldiers rejoining their regiments, and a pretty grass widow, returning to her husband, an Indian Judge. These, with half a dozen more or less uninteresting young ladies “going out to be married,” completed our party. The ages of the latter seemed to increase in proportion to the distance they were going. The one whose fortunate fiancé resided at Hong Kong must have been fifty at the very least. I had almost forgotten a nearly perfect specimen of the Globe-Trotter, who joined us, resplendent in purple and fine linen, at Suez; a young gentleman somewhat inclined to take more wine than was good for him, and who was going abroad for the good of his health——presumably also for that of his friends and relations at home.
There is a very false impression existing among those who have never travelled in one, as to the delights of a voyage in a P. and O., and the endless gaiety and amusement on board these floating hotels. I have made at least a dozen voyages by this particular line, and must confess that the gaiety and amusement, if it ever existed, has escaped my observation. Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but I must own that I have invariably found the life on board these ships deplorably dull. The mere fact of being cabined, cribbed, confined, with three score of one’s fellow-creatures, the majority of whom have not a thought or feeling in common, is surely sufficient to account for a lack of enjoyment. At the same time, to the casual onlooker, who is wise enough to keep out of them, the petty rows and scandals on board ship are amusing enough. How Major-General Jones has had the audacity to take the seat next the captain at dinner, instead of Commissioner Brown, who, as everybody ought to know, if they don’t, always takes precedence of him at Brandypore; and how Mrs. Commissioner Brown has felt compelled to cut Mrs. Major-General Jones in consequence. How the wife of Surgeon Squills, of the Bengal Staff Corps, has forbidden her daughter to speak to the third mate, and that matron’s subsequent mortification on discovering that the tabooed officer is the second son of an Earl. How, in our case, one of the future blushing brides (the Hong Kong one) only wished that poor dear Judge could see how his wife went on, although to unbiassed eyes, that cheery little lady’s sole crime consisted in being more than pretty, and absurdly good-natured. How the Globe-trotter overcome by (let us say) the heat in the Red Sea offered to fight the captain for a dozen of champagne on his own quarter-deck,——all this could I descant upon at length, but fear lest I weary the reader, forgetting that a good joke at sea is but a sorry jest ashore.
Light and favourable winds favoured us to Malta, that shadeless, bustling rock so happily christened by Byron “The little Military Hot-House.” A few hours here allowed of a stroll ashore and a visit to the mess of that cheeriest and best of regiments, the “Black Watch.” Then, after dinner at the club, and a chat over old Cairo-days, off again in the moonlight to the Bombay, and, three days later, Port Said. Here an unexpected delay awaited us. The P. and O. S.S. Rome had gone ashore (the commencement of a series of disasters for the Company:) which meant a detention of five days, at least, at the glary, unsavoury canal port.
Small-pox was raging in this den of publicans and sinners, and several cases having occurred on the homeward-bound P. and O. ships, we were requested by the captain not to land, if we could possibly help it, during our stay. A prospect of five days cooped up in an atmosphere of coal-dust and sand, to say nothing of the noisome odours off the shore, was anything but inviting, and eight o’clock the next evening saw us sitting down to dinner in the cool, comfortable dining-room of Shepherd’s Hotel, Cairo.
There is a charm about Cairo peculiar to itself. Nowhere else do we find that strange mixture of western civilization and eastern barbarism that exists in the Egyptian capital, which seems, by the way, to be yearly increasing in popularity as a winter resort. Everything in the place is original and therefore charming, and, although surrounded with every European luxury and comfort, so utterly unlike Europe.
A telegram was received during our stay here, announcing the total loss of the P. and O. Tasmania, and the drowning, among others, of her captain, poor Perrins, than whom no more popular commander or smarter sailor ever lived. We were continually seeing or hearing of wrecks on our voyage out. Besides passing three lately sunken vessels in the Red Sea, we got news at Colombo of the largest ship in the Nord-Deutscher Lloyd line having gone down off Cape Guardafui; at Shanghai of the sinking of the M.M. Steamer Menzaleh between that port and Japan.
We had a favourable passage through that exaggerated bugbear the Red Sea, which, by the way, I have found cooler three times out of four than the Indian Ocean. Aden was not touched at, and a quick run of nine days brought us to Colombo, where we bade adieu to the Bombay, which was proceeding to Calcutta, and embarked on board the Piacenza, a vessel considerably smaller but as comfortable in every respect as the leviathan we had left.
Twenty-four hours here gave us time for a run out to Mount Lavinia, where we received a hearty welcome from the jovial German Herr (surrounded, as usual, by a menagerie of domestic pets) who manages that picturesque seaside hostelry. A comfortable dinner in the breezy salle à manger in full view of the cool blue sea and yellow sands, coffee and a quiet cigar in the verandah, were a pleasant change from the stuffy saloon of the Bombay. Then back again to Colombo in the moonlight, along the palm-fringed road, heavy with the scent of jungle flowers, refreshed inwardly and outwardly, and ready for the long weary days of sea to Shanghai.
We had the Piacenza pretty well to ourselves. There were but twenty first-class passengers in all, among them two pretty girls fresh from Devonshire, with the good looks, and clear, fresh complexions that county alone seems able to produce. It seemed a sin so to take them to a clime notorious for stealing the roses from the youngest and fairest faces. In the second class were some ten or twelve Protestant female missionaries bound for North China, whose religious zeal was unparalleled. They were for ever hunting up lost sheep among the passengers, hot as it was. I do not fancy, however, that their efforts were very successful. Only one of them made converts. She was eighteen, and very good-looking.
The remainder of our voyage was uneventful and tedious enough. Hot, sleepy little Penang; Singapore a vision of green hills and red dust, a sickly odour of pepper, cocoa, nut-oil, and drains. Hong Kong, for all the world like some Spanish or Italian town with its white terraces, and coloured venetians, nestling in masses of dark green foliage at the foot of the bare rugged peak; all these were passed without incident worthy of mention excepting the meeting of the fifty-year-old bride with her fiancé at the latter port, which was affecting in the extreme. It was a relief to find that, at any rate, the bridegroom was something near her own age. Five days later, on the 21st of May, six weeks to a day since leaving Gravesend, we dropped our anchor in the broad, muddy waters of the Yangzekiang, whence a small tug conveyed us in six hours up the narrower and still muddier Woosung river to Shanghai.
Shanghai cannot be called a picturesque place. Vast alluvial plains of rice and cotton surround it on every side, while the view from the bund or esplanade fronting the river, is not unlike the Thames at Blackwall, with its flat banks, forests of masts, and grey stone wharves and warehouses. The town itself consists of three distinct settlements, English, French, and American, divided one from another by small tributaries of the Woosung river. These settlements, quite distinct from the native Chinese city, were formed by their respective governments in 1846, and occupy a space of ground rather more than a mile square. Shanghai, in 1883, contained a population of four hundred thousand, of whom two thousand were foreign residents, and an idea of its commercial importance may be gained by the fact that its trade in silk, tea, and opium now equals thirty to forty million sterling value of imports and exports.
Were I ever condemned to live in the far East (which Heaven forbid), I should certainly choose Shanghai for a residence, for besides its other advantages, there is a marked absence among its European inhabitants of the ill-nature and scandal that makes anything but a very short stay in other colonial settlements almost intolerable to those whose occupation does not compel them to reside there. Whether it is the effect of the climate on the liver, I know not, but for envy, hatred, and malice commend me to the European communities of China and the Straits Settlements.
There is a capital club (one of the best if not the very best in the East) at Shanghai, of which (thanks to the kindness of Mr. C————, to whom we had an introduction) we were made honorary members, no mean advantage, for the Shanghai hotels are by no means models of comfort or cleanliness. We intended making a stay of at least ten days before going on to Tientsin, the port of Pekin, for many things had to be thought of and procured for the long journey across the Desert of Gobi, which we now ascertained, for the first time, is nearly a thousand miles across.
There seems to be no lack of amusement at Shanghai, and the merchants and other Europeans located there appear to have what Americans would call a “real good time of it” all the year round——so far as regards gaiety and sport. For those who care for it there is any amount of shooting. In winter there is no lack of duck, teal, snipe, and other wild fowl. Indeed from here all the way up to Pekin the country teems with game, big and small, the former including wild boar and deer, while further north in Manchuria are found lion, tiger, and bear. Nor is shooting the only sport, for there is a capital race-course, polo and cricket ground. I attended a match on the latter, in which was playing, in Chinese dress and a pigtail (!) a lately celebrated English cricketer, well known at Lord’s and the Oval, who had adopted the native costume in accordance with the rules of the Mission of which he is now a member. The loose clumsy dress did not seem to interfere with his play much, for he was quite in his old form, and made over a hundred runs first innings.
But the Race week is the real Shanghai carnival. At this festive season offices and warehouses are closed, and everything given up for the business of the meeting. Nearly all the horses engaged are Mongolian ponies, and half the fun of the thing is getting a “hot one” down from its native plains and keeping it dark till the day of its engagement. The figures paid for these little animals are something fabulous. People at home have no idea of how our countrymen live in China. “Light come, light go,” seems to be the motto of the cheery, hospitable Shanghai merchants, who, although they make such enormous fortunes, never seem, to the casual visitor, to have anything to do but entertain the stranger who has the good luck to find himself within their gates. It will be long before I forget the kindness they showed us, although (before we met Mr. C.) we did not know a soul in the place.
It was curious sometimes to cross the iron bridge separating them and take a ramble from the English into the French town. It was like crossing the English Channel——indeed, I doubt if Dover and Calais present a more striking contrast than do the settlements of their respective nations at Shanghai. One left the broad regular roads, asphalte pavements and severe, business-like architecture that the mercantile Briton takes with him wherever he goes, to emerge the other side of the narrow stream on a boulevard, that first thought of every colonizing Frenchman——lined with cafés, gaily striped awnings, and little zinc tables, at which Auguste and Alphonse sat sipping their absinthe or “Mazagran,” waited upon by bustling, white-aproned garçons. The sleepy looking Douanier, with baggy trousers and képi, the grass-grown cobbled streets, the dark blue enamelled plates at the street-corners, with Rue de la Republique, Rue de Paris, &c., thereon in large white letters, the general air of stagnation and idleness among the population, seemed to carry one in a moment over leagues and leagues of land and sea to some quiet provincial town in far-away France. It needed not the tricolor floating from the mainmast of the ironclad anchored mid-stream, off the Consulate, to tell us that we were no longer on English ground.
The Shanghai bund and esplanade on a fine afternoon was amusing enough, and we whiled away many a pleasant half-hour watching the motley crowd that assemble there for a ride or drive in the cool of the evening. Here might be seen every grade of colonial society, from the solemn and portly merchant and his family rolling solemnly along in an English-built landau, to the San Francisco demi-mondaine, all powder and patches, dashing about in a Victoria drawn by a pair of pulling, tearing Mongolian ponies. Europeans in buggies and on horseback, Japanese in rikshaws, Chinese in wheelbarrows (the reader may smile, but this is a public conveyance in Shanghai), crowds of every conceivable nation and colour strolling under the trees by the water’s edge, the esplanade at Shanghai on a fine evening is a sight to see and remember.
At night electric lights every twenty yards or so convert the bund into a perfect fairyland. The inauguration of the Jablokoff system, however, was attended with a slight contretemps. Crowds of natives and Europeans turned out the first night to see the effect, but for a good hour none was apparent. The place was wrapped in total darkness, and the expectant crowd beginning to show signs of impatience, it was found that the engineer had fixed the lights above the trees, whence the dense foliage very naturally obscured it, instead of under. This trifling mistake was, however, soon rectified, and the brilliant illumination so took the fancy of the natives that all the principal Chinese thoroughfares are now lit by it.
The native city of Shanghai, is walled and separated from the French and English settlements by a deep, muddy moat. Some clumsy iron cannon, said to be the oldest in existence, are mounted upon its dilapidated grass-grown battlements. This was our first experience of a celestial city, and we did not, after visiting it, look forward with unalloyed pleasure to the two hundred odd miles of country we were about to traverse between Pekin and the Great Wall of China. But I did not then know that Shanghai is renowned as being the dirtiest city in the Chinese Empire, and certainly we never afterwards came across one to equal it in this respect. Pekin itself was a paradise in comparison.
The streets of Shanghai proper are none of them more than ten feet in breadth. Some are even considerably narrower, and the tottering, tumble-down dwellings, the majority built of wood, bend forward on either side until they nearly touch overhead. The thoroughfares are thus always, even on the brightest day, in a state of semi-darkness. The pavements, rough and uneven, are formed of huge stone slabs, some of them, judging by the characters inscribed thereon, many hundreds of years old. Worn away by time and use, many are broken away in parts, revealing underneath the sewage and filth of years, which, slowly rotting away, infects the whole city with a hot, sickly odour of putrefaction. It was a hot, muggy day when we visited it, and the stench from these places was something beyond description. I was not surprised to hear that cholera and typhus number their victims by thousands at times, and that an epidemic (of some sort or another) always exists.
Yet it seemed a busy, bustling place, and we could scarcely make our way along the sloppy streets for the continuous stream of traffic. It was exactly like a human bee-hive, and we should very soon have lost ourselves without a guide in the crooked, tortuous streets that ran in all directions like a maze, without any regard to regularity or order. We came suddenly in the very heart of the city, upon an oasis in this desert of filth and squalor, a space about a quarter of a mile square. A large circular lake overhung with weeping willows occupied the centre. Great white and yellow lilies lay here and there on the surface of the smooth clear water, in which one could see the gold fish swimming lazily to and fro about the thick green weeds and stems, ten or fifteen feet deep. About fifty yards from the shore, and connected with it by a light bamboo bridge, stood a large pagoda gorgeous in vermilion and gold, with countless little gilt bells hung around the roof, which, with every breath of air gave out a sweet, musical jangle. Seated in this were a crowd of men and women, talking, laughing, and drinking tea. All were dressed in the richest silks, the men in dark blue or plum colour, the women in lighter shades of green, heliotrope, or orange, their necks and arms loaded with heavy gold ornaments, their quaint, impassive, doll-like faces thickly smeared with paint. On the banks around the lake were booths for the sale of sweetmeats, fans, silks, cigarettes, and jewellery, while jugglers and acrobats plied their trade among the busy crowd, or at the little tables set out by the waterside and occupied by noisy chattering tea-drinkers. I stood for some time watching the curious scene, which was for all the world like a bit broken out of a willow-pattern plate. It seemed so odd to walk suddenly out of the filthy, sewage-laden streets into this hidden corner of cleanliness and picturesque revelry. But China is full of such contradictions. I afterwards discovered that we had strayed into a tea-garden (there are a dozen such in the city) and that the pretty pagoda was used as a kind of private box for the better classes, just as our own smart people at home occasionally patronize the Alhambra and other music-halls to gaze at a respectful distance on the manners and customs of the “Oi Polloi.”
The Chinese, I found, are great believers in the art of fortune-telling. We passed on our way homewards many of the shops, or rather boxes, in which the professors of the art received their subjects. They seemed to have many methods, but the favourite one consists in dipping the thumb into a piece of hot, soft, black wax, and then impressing it firmly upon a piece of parchment or white wood. The lines thus obtained are supposed to predict the future. The professors seemed to be doing a roaring trade. Their fees were not extortionate; a couple of cash (about ½d.) each consultation.
The most important thing we now had to consider was the purchase of stores for our journey over the “Great Hungry Desert,” as Gobi is called by the Chinese. It was by no means easy to decide how much or how little to take, for no one in Shanghai seemed to know whether in the eight hundred odd miles lying between the Great Wall of China and Ourga food of any sort or kind was procurable. However, hearing that everything in the way of provisions was outrageously dear at Tientsin, and unprocurable at Pekin, we decided to lay in our stock at Shanghai, and curiously enough furnished ourselves with exactly the right amount, for our stores failed the very day before we reached Kiakhta. The claret, whisky, and soda-water gave out some time before, but we had plenty of lime-juice, which made the brackish desert water drinkable.
Were I to do this journey again, I should certainly send everything of this kind straight out from England, for the camp furniture, saddlery, and stores we bought at Shanghai were, besides being outrageously dear, of very inferior quality. On opening the cases in the desert, we found at least a quarter of the provisions uneatable. The American firm who furnished us must make a good thing of it if they do business with all their customers on the same terms.
The operation of packing was by no means easy. As the reader is perhaps aware, the weight on a camel’s back must be quite equally distributed on either side, otherwise (in Mongolia at least) the animal lies down and utterly declines to move a step. Eight strong wooden chests, with padlocks, met all our requirements, and having made our adieus to our hospitable friends, we embarked, the 31st of May, on the coasting-steamer Tungchow for the port of Pekin, Tientsin.
We were presented before leaving Shanghai with a so-called itinerary on the journey we were taking, written by an Englishman resident in China, who had travelled the caravan route from Pekin to Europe in 1872. Things must have changed considerably, both in Mongolia and Siberia, since those days, for almost all the book contained, including distances, was so inaccurate and misleading that we discarded its use long before we reached Kiakhta.
The “Tungchow” was more like a yacht than a cargo boat, and the run up coast was delightful; with bright sunshine and light cool breezes, exactly like Mediterranean weather in early spring, though the nights were very cold, and one was glad of an overcoat. We passed daily numbers of fishing junks, their dark brown mat-sails and bright red and yellow banners standing out in picturesque contrast to the clear blue sea, which often for miles round us was dotted with net corks and men in small canoes. A gale springs up in a few minutes in these latitudes, and during the typhoon season many of these poor fishermen, unable to get back to the junks, are blown out to sea and drowned, their companions on the huge, swirling craft, being, of course, unable to render them any assistance. The captain of the Tungchow told us that many lives are lost annually in this manner.
We reached Chefoo late at night, and were therefore unable to land, as we were off again at daybreak. This is the Brighton of Shanghai and Pekin. There is capital bathing here, and many good hotels, which are crowded to overflowing in the summer months by Europeans escaping from the damp, steamy heat of Shanghai, and the no less disagreeable odours, and “dust fogs” (I can call them nothing else) of the capital.
The coast lying between Chefoo and the mouth of the Peiho river is strikingly like parts of Devonshire. But for the absence of houses and bathing machines, one might have been off Torquay or Dawlish. Precipitous red cliffs, with smooth green sward growing to their very edges, met by broad smooth yellow sands, while here and there great masses of rock run out for a considerable distance into the clear blue water. Further inland neatly trimmed hedges, clumps of fir-trees, and snug-looking farm-houses surrounded with orchards and gardens, recalled visions of clotted cream, and pretty peasant girls in that loveliest of all English counties, the true garden of England: Devonshire.
At daybreak on the 3rd of June we passed the celebrated Taku forts and entered the Peiho river. It was a bright lovely morning, and as a bend of the river hid it from our sight, and we looked at the blue sunlit ocean for the last time, it was not without some misgivings at the long land journey before us. The thought that when next we saw the sea, it would be at Calais, made us realize, perhaps more than we had as yet done, the difficulty and length of the voyage we had undertaken across the breadth of Europe and Asia.
Unlike most rivers, the Peiho seems to widen as you ascend it, being considerably narrower at the mouth than at Tientsin, thirty miles inland. The town of Taku, a wretched-looking place, built for the most part of mud houses, is by water inaccessible for five months of the year, on account of the ice in the Peiho and Gulf of Pechili. It is a curious fact that although Taku is so cold in winter, it never snows, and there is usually a bright, cloudless sky and cutting north-easter blowing. Wretched as is its appearance, Taku looks a busy place, and contains a Chinese naval dockyard. The Taku forts commanding the entrance to the river have been greatly strengthened during the last ten years, the work being carried on under the personal supervision of German officers.
We were rather puzzled, on first entering the Peiho, at what appeared in the distance like a number of large merry-go-rounds scattered over the flat swampy plain surrounding the town, and revolving without cessation. It was only by the aid of glasses that we made them out to be salt-mills worked by huge mat sails. The sea-water is pumped into the vats by the aid of this irrigation and allowed to evaporate in the sun. The salt which remains is then piled into large stacks and covered with thick matting. The effect at a distance of these dozens of huge mills revolving on the bare desolate plain with not a living object near them, was curious in the extreme. The river scenery from Taku to Tangchow very much resembles that of the Nile, the houses of dried mud, with their flat roofs and terraces, the absence of trees except occasional palms, remind one not a little of an Egyptian landscape, while the uniform dark blue garb of the peasantry, of exactly the same shade as that worn by the Fellaheen, heightens, at a distance, the illusion.
Although only thirty miles distant as the crow flies, Tientsin is quite eighty by river from Taku, for the Peiho is, towards the mouth, the most tortuous river in the world. It is not unusual to steam steadily on for an hour, and find yourself, at the expiration of that time only a few hundred yards from where you started. The effect produced by the shipping ascending and descending the river is very odd, the intricate bends of the river giving the steamers the appearance of moving about on dry land. The marshes I have mentioned do not extend for more than about ten miles inland. They are then succeeded by rich fertile plains of rice and cotton irrigated in the Egyptian manner by means of “shadoofs” from the waters of the Peiho. The country seemed pretty thickly populated. Some of the mud villages by the water side must have contained quite a thousand inhabitants, but in China, where the population is so enormous, this is looked upon as a small hamlet!
There is a large coal-wharf a short distance from Taku, where the coal from the Kai Ping mine, fifty miles distant, is brought by means of a small railway and barges. The coal, though rather dusty, is excellent for steamer purposes, and the private company working it make a very fair percentage. It has always seemed curious to me that coal is not more extensively worked in the Chinese Empire, when there are more than four hundred thousand square miles of it! There are, however, but very few mines in existence.
Tientsin, which has a population of about nine hundred and fifty thousand stands at the junction of the Grand Canal with the Peiho river. It is not a prepossessing place at first sight, nor did its dusty, bustling quays, warehouses, and noisy, perspiring coolies, make us at all anxious to prolong our stay longer than was absolutely necessary. The trade of Tientsin is not great when compared with the other treaty ports. Nearly all the tea exported thence goes to Russia and Siberia——occasionally by way of Pekin——but in most cases viâ Kalgan and district across the Gobi Desert to Kiakhta, without touching at the capital. The Russian merchants are therefore nearly as numerous as the English at Tientsin.
The settlement boasted of but two hotels, and these of a very fifth-rate description. Small-pox having broken out in one, our choice was limited, for we did not care to run the risk of being laid up for three or four weeks in the native hospital at Pekin. Bidding adieu to our genial skipper, who cheerfully expressed a hope that he might see us again one day, though he very much doubted our ever leaving Siberia, we made our way, accompanied by a yelling crowd of half-naked coolies bearing our luggage, to the American Hotel, an uninviting, dilapidated-looking hostelry enough. In the verandah, reclining on many chairs, and at intervals refreshing himself from a huge beaker of brandy and soda, was an individual pointed out to us as the proprietor (a fat, sleepy-looking Yankee), whose welcome was hardly encouraging.
“Can we have rooms here?”
“Sure I don’t know, you’d better ask.”
“But you’re the manager, aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes, I’m the manager.”
A pause, during which our friend takes a long pull at the brandy, and, emerging considerably refreshed, composes himself calmly to slumber.
“Who are we to ask?”
“Who are you to ask?” half opening his eyes; “Oh! I don’t know, you will see some of the China boys about. How should I know who you’re to ask?” is his parting shot as we leave him and cross the dirty sanded billiard-room, hung with tawdry prints, and redolent of stale tobacco and spirits, that precedes the entrance to the “bar.”
Here we glean from a dishevelled, greasy German in shirt-sleeves, who looks as if he slept among the sawdust and empty whisky bottles that litter the floor, that no rooms are to be had that night, or for the next week to come, for love or money. A huge travelling circus belonging to an Italian, one Chiarini, has taken every available room in the place. “Then could we have the billiard-table?” “No, we could not possibly have the billiard-table, for the ‘gentlemen’ connected with the circus always played till three or four in the morning. Still, we could have it then, if we liked, on payment of a small remuneration to him (the occupant of the bar), but we must keep it dark from the boss.”
Our experience of the “boss” did not quite justify our taking this course, and we left the hotel, sadly and slowly followed by our string of sympathizing coolies, utterly at a loss to know what to do till the bright thought struck Lancaster of at once hiring the house-boat which was to take us to Tungchow (the landing-place for Pekin), and living on board her till we left for the capital. We managed this, not without some difficulty, for we had to get the boat through our friend the sleepy Yankee. He woke up a little, however, at the prospect of swindling two helpless and friendless fellow-creatures, and by sundown we had everything on board, and the boat snugly moored off the hotel wharf. We were alongside a large open drain, with a most abominable stench, and there was always the possibility of being run down in the night by a passing ship, but one could not afford to be particular. The sight, however, of a large passenger steamer bound for Japan which passed close to us towards sundown was depressing in the extreme, the cleanliness and luxury on board contrasting so painfully with our own surroundings. For a few moments we almost regretted (by no means for the last time) that we had ever undertaken this voyage, the discomforts and difficulties of which now seemed to increase with every day.
Early next day we presented our letters to Mr. S., the Russian tea merchant, who was to provide us with letters of credit for his agents at Irkoutsk and Tomsk in Eastern and Western Siberia. Mr. S. did not give us a very favourable account of the journey before us. Like almost every other Russian we met, first question was “Mais que Diable allez-vous faire en Sibérie?” We got into the way at last of never arguing this question. In the first place it was useless, and only caused waste of time; in the second we had literally no reason to give, except perhaps the one so dear to most Englishmen: “The country had been crossed by so few travellers before!”
Among other pleasant and encouraging items of news, we now heard that we should probably meet with serious delay, not only at Kalgan, the Mongolian frontier, but also at Pekin. “You had better not think,” said Mr. S., “of making any definite plans till you arrive at Kalgan. This is the worst time of year you could have chosen. It is not the caravan season; the camels are all out on the plains. It may be two or three months before you are able to cross the Gobi, and then you will get into Siberia at the very worst time of year, when the roads are next to impassable from rains and floods. Any day you may be detained by a broken bridge or a landslip, and have to wait in some dreary, wretched village in the wilds of Siberia, till the snow sets, and enables you to finish your journey in sleighs. You cannot, I feel sure, have rightly estimated the difficulties before you. Why go to Siberia at all, when that earthly paradise Japan is so near?” &c., &c.
We at last succeeded in making Mr. S. understand that we were determined to get as far as Pekin at any rate; and, our interview over, had nothing but the purchase of some provisions for our river journey (our Shanghai store was not opened till we reached the desert) to detain us in Tientsin. Nor were we sorry to get away, for the dust and filth of this city were almost unbearable. We had not then experienced the odours of Pekin, which would accustom one to cheerfully live in a main drain.
Our second night here was not so pleasantly passed as the first. A shower of rain at sunset brought out legions of mosquitoes, from which, not having brought curtains, we suffered a good deal of annoyance, and the intolerable stench of the drain near which we lay was so increased by the rain that we had to smoke incessantly till past 3 a.m., almost regretting we had not accepted the barkeeper’s offer of the billiard-table for a bed. Even the “circus gentlemen” would have been preferable to the sewer. We got to sleep about 4 a.m., only to be awoke at daybreak by a crashing sound and to find the water rushing into the boat, with an unpleasant conviction that our craft was heeling over at a very uncomfortable angle. We had become entangled in the hawser of a large ocean-steamer, which, had it not been let go in the nick of time, would have upset us altogether. We escaped with a ducking, however, and soon got the boat righted and baled out again.
The distance from Tientsin to Pekin is rather under eighty miles overland, that by river one hundred and forty, viz. one hundred and twenty miles to Tungchow, and twenty miles thence by road to the capital. Although it takes two days longer (sometimes three), we chose the water route in preference to the other. We should, we thought, have quite enough land-travelling during the next five months; besides which, the Chinese inns between Tientsin and the capital are even filthier than those between Pekin and the Great Wall——which is saying a good deal.
It was about ten o’clock, on a bright, clear morning, that we hoisted the huge mat-sail, and, with a favourable breeze, soon left the bustling city and its high cathedral towers (where the Catholic nuns were so brutally murdered in 1870) low on the horizon.
The traffic on the Peiho river for some miles above Tientsin is enormous. We must have counted at least four hundred boats and barges in the space of an hour the afternoon of the day we left, while the whole way to Tungchow the river was alive with boats of every description whenever we passed a village, from huge junks to tiny sampans. At times, near Tientsin, one could have crossed the river, or walked three hundred or four hundred yards up it, dry shod on the boats.
A Chinese house-boat, though comfortable enough for all practical purposes, must not be confounded with the luxurious, flower-bedecked craft that line the banks of the Thames in summer time. The Chinese house-boat resembles the English only in name, for there was no attempt at decoration, and very little at cleanliness. About forty-five feet long, it was decked completely over, except in the centre, where a sort of well covered with planks, with space enough for two to lie or sit in, formed the cabin.
Our crew, five in number, slept in a kind of hutch under the deck forward. How they all managed to stow themselves there at once was a mystery to me, for they were great, tall, hulking fellows. We sailed, as a rule, our broad mat-sail sending the old tub along at an incredible speed with the lightest breeze. When the wind dropped, the men rowed incessantly, day and night, till it rose again. The amount of work they got through was simply marvellous. Nothing seemed to tire them; morning, noon, and night they plied the heavy, awkward sweeps without cessation, except to eat a dish of rice and fish and take a drink of cold tea once every twelve hours. Cheery, good-tempered fellows they were too, considering the small wages they got. The fare, including everything, was only $13, and our Yankee friend must have got at least two-thirds of this sum as his own share of the transaction.
The first two days of our river journey were enjoyable enough, save for such small annoyances as rats and cockroaches, which latter took forcible possession of our cabin at night-time. But the delightful weather and novel scenery amply atoned for such small discomforts as these. The Peiho is a thick, muddy stream. Its banks are continually slipping down and being dammed up by the natives, which accounts in a great measure for the dirty pea-soup colour of the water. These landslips are not of weekly or even daily occurrence. They occur incessantly, and it was curious to watch, as we ascended the river, the continual dropping away of the land on either side, while, here and there, gangs of men repaired the damage by means of cemented bamboos. The riverside villages were like human beehives, so crowded and dense did the population of them appear, even at midday, when so many of the inhabitants must have been out at work in the fields. One could not help wondering how even such an enormous country as China can support such a dense population, numbering, by the last census, some 400,000,000. And yet, from the time we left the coast till we reached the Mongolian border, there was always vegetation of some kind or other to be seen, and vast fertile plains of corn, barley, and millet stretched away on every side to the horizon. Everything in North China is on such a large scale that for a few days one scarcely realized how enormous the population and fertilization of this huge empire really are, how great its resources and demands.
Our days on the Peiho were amusing enough. There was always something to look at on the bank, and a capital towing-path to walk on when one’s legs got tired and cramped in the boat, so that we had nothing to complain of in the way of variety, and the first two days, bright and sunny, wore away as idly and pleasantly as summer days up the Thames or Wye in England. It was pleasant to sit out in the evening in the cool, clear moonlight, on the little deck, the silence unbroken save by the regular plash of the oars, or twang of Chinese fiddle or guitar, as we passed some lonely, riverside cottage, the arms of the solitary, half-naked musician gleaming white in the moonlight, as he rose and waved a good-night to our crew. When we passed a village after dark it was like some weird transformation scene, for up to midnight these waterside settlements appeared, from the river at least, to be given up to revelry. We never, however, ventured into one, preferring to gaze from a respectful distance upon the flaring torches throwing counter effects of light and shade over the quaint, picturesque houses and pagodas, the hurrying crowds on the banks; while the clashing of gongs and cymbals from the joss-house or theatre heightened the effect of the strange scene. Then on again along the silent moonlit stream, with its low sedgy banks; nothing to mar the flat, monotonous outline of the moonlit landscape, but, here and there, a huge square mound of earth, the tomb of some departed mandarin or village magnate.
But the morning of the third day looked dull and overcast, and by ten o’clock the rain was pouring down in torrents. There was no keeping dry, for the ramshackle roof leaked like a sieve, and the floor of our cabin was in a very few minutes almost ankle-deep in water. About midday a terrific thunderstorm broke over us. The lightning was so vivid that although every nook and cranny of our dilapidated hutch was tightly closed, and the place in semi-darkness, it almost blinded one. I have never, even in the tropics, heard the thunder so loud and continuous. One peal lasted quite a minute without cessation.
I have seldom passed a more miserable day than that one moored by the muddy banks of the Peiho, for progress was impossible. Cooking or lighting a fire, too, was out of the question. Everything, including matches and fuel, was sopping through and through. Looking out of our wooden prison, nothing met the eye but grey, driving mist, and steady, unceasing rain, falling with a persistence and violence that lashed the brown muddy waters around us into a sheet of grey foam. The men forward were battened down, and seemed unconcerned enough, as snatches of song rising from below and occasional whiffs of smoke emerging through the chinks in the deck testified. We almost envied them their warmth, shivering as we were like half-drowned rats. About five o’clock a break in the grey, misty sky appeared, and half an hour later the sun was shining in a sky of cloudless blue, while we rapidly cut our way through the water before a light but piercingly cold breeze, so sudden and complete are the changes of weather in these latitudes.
Early the next day a chain of precipitous mountains broke the horizon. Beyond them lay our destination, Pekin. We were, however, still two days off, for the river here shallows considerably, and we frequently stuck hard and fast during the day. At these times the whole crew would divest themselves of their clothes, and, fastening a couple of stout ropes to the bows of the boat, tow us off again into deep water. Landing here was impossible, for one could not get within ten yards or so of the bank. Some of the larger junks were being towed by as many as thirty or forty men. On the deck of one a huge deal case bearing the name of Maple and Co., London, in large black letters, looked strangely out of keeping with the uncivilized surroundings.
It was only the fifth morning after leaving Tientsin that we hove in sight of Tungchow, a “village” of something over one hundred thousand inhabitants. This was our first experience of a real Chinese town, far from European influence; and we were rather agreeably disappointed, for at a distance, it looked clean and inviting. A closer acquaintance, alas! Somewhat modified first impressions.
Moored alongside the flat muddy banks were a perfect colony of junks, two thousand or three thousand in number; an interval of flat boggy ground cut up by innumerable cesspools, open drains and dust-heaps divided these from the town wall, which, standing back about a couple of hundred yards from the water’s edge, hid the town from view, except where, at intervals, a tower or pagoda overtopped the loopholed brick battlements. Although the sun had but just risen, the banks were crowded with people, and the keepers of hundreds of stalls and booths were already doing a brisk trade in the sale of cloths, pigtails, tea, sweetmeats, and fans to the junk population, while here and there a barber plied his trade, which in North China is anything but an appetizing one to look upon. Dirty as the place and people were, the bright, cloudless sky and sunshine lent a gaiety to the scene, which for colour and animation I have seldom seen equalled in the most picturesque Turkish cities or bazaars of the far East.
We were ready to start at midday, and had all the baggage safely stowed away in Pekin carts, a more dirty or uncomfortable vehicle than which does not exist. As it is of the same construction, although smaller than the carts in which we crossed the desert, I will leave the description of these “torture-boxes” to a future chapter. Seeing with the naked eye whole regiments of vermin crawling over the one destined for our reception, we preferred to ride ahead, on donkeys, under the guidance of a small boy, whose powers of conversation were limitless, and who talked incessantly the whole way, frequently interlarding his conversation with the words “Yang Qweitze” (Foreign Devil), the uncomplimentary title bestowed on every European, of whatever nationality, in the less civilized parts of China. Nor was the filthy state of the carts our only reason for riding. We had serious misgivings as to whether the clumsy, heavily-laden conveyances would reach Pekin before nightfall, in which case we should have had to pass the night in the open outside the walls. The gates of the city are shut at sundown, and no human power (short of the emperor’s special command) will open them till sunrise the following day.
It took us nearly an hour to get clear of Tungchow and into the open country. The town is (for China) fairly clean, though the streets are narrow, tortuous and ill paved, and in some places there were holes two or three feet deep in the centre of the roadway.
The natives in this part of China present a striking contrast to their countrymen at Shanghai and further south; whereas the latter are for the most part puny, pasty-faced creatures, these were fine, strapping, broad-shouldered men, with healthy, ruddy faces. The women too were better-looking, though doll-like and thickly painted, with the baggy, shapeless figures, deformed feet, and stoop peculiar to their race. Many of the shops were devoted to the sale of Manchester goods and cheap cutlery, which find great favour among the people in this part of China. Here and there a large tea-house, gorgeously decorated, was filled with customers taking their morning draught of the cup that cheers. The tea drunk by the Chinese is as different to our idea of that beverage as it can well be, and is, to a European palate, utterly flavourless. “Chacun à son goût.” Many Russians say that real, unadulterated tea never finds its way to England, nor would the English drink it if it did.
It took us quite an hour to get clear of Tungchow, for the streets were crowded to overflowing. Although so few Europeans are seen here, the people took very little notice of us, excepting the juvenile population, ragged little wretches, a crowd of whom pestered us for cash, which, when refused, drew down upon us yells of derision and curses on the “Yang Qweitze” in general.
The road from Tungchow to Pekin lies through a fertile, well-wooded country, and is for the first three or four miles raised some ten feet from the ground on either side, and paved with huge stone slabs, apparently of great antiquity. Although now in a very dilapidated condition, this must in former times have been a splendid thoroughfare. It reminded one of one of the old Roman roads, some of the slabs being quite ten feet long by five feet broad and two thick. The going was very bad in places where these stones had fallen away. Turning away to admire the scenery, I was somewhat suddenly recalled to the situation by finding that my donkey had slipped into one of these chasms about four feet deep. We got out, however, with nothing worse than a few bruises. This road is said at one time to have extended as far as Pekin, but, with characteristic carelessness, the Chinese have allowed it to become so dilapidated, that after two miles or so it ceases altogether, and our way lay along narrow, raised paths, running through millet and barley fields. Eight li from Tungchow, we passed the picturesque bridge of “Palikao,” from which the French general takes his name. Hard by a little tea-house clustering in the shade of willow-trees afforded us grateful shelter for half an hour, and we dismounted and took a few cups of the cool refreshing drink, for the road was dusty, and the sun very powerful.
As we sat on mats, enjoying the cool breeze from the river, half a dozen soldiers rode by with a prisoner, whom they were taking to Tungchow, to undergo sentence of death by the “Ling Chi.” The poor wretch looked ghastly pale, and well he might, for this is perhaps the most barbarous and revolting of all Chinese punishments. The word “Ling Chi” means literally to be cut in ten thousand pieces. As the reader may care to know how the operation is performed, I will give a brief account of an execution of this kind which took place at Canton only last year.
“As soon as the signal was given the victim was stripped of his clothing——the process of binding and gagging being made unnecessarily long. By the time it was over the poor wretch was almost fainting with terror. Previous to the commencement of the operation a draught of arrak was given him, and then commenced the work of butchery.
“Two deep cuts over each eye commenced the operation. Gashes which turned great pieces of flesh over, and left the bone exposed. Then a cut down each cheek, and a deeper one across each shoulder, nearly but not quite severing the arm from its socket. A circular cut to the bone in each upper arm and fore-arm followed, and then, stepping back to get more scope, the executioner hacked off the right hand with one blow. A large piece of flesh was then cut or rather dug out of each thigh, and from over each knee, and the flesh torn off both kneecaps. The calves of the legs were then cut off.
“Up till now a straight heavy sword had been the weapon used. The human devil who acted as executioner wielding it with as much ease and dexterity as if he had been carving a fowl. The sword was now put aside, and a thin-bladed knife, about a foot long, driven in to the hilt, under the right breast-bone, the executioner working it slowly round and round while his assistant fanned the victim with a large palm-leaf fan for the double purpose of keeping the flies off, and hiding the contortions of the poor wretch’s face, who was not yet dead, as evinced by the twitching of the fingers of his remaining hand. Ten or twelve seconds more of this diabolical torture, and the victim was cut down from the cross, to fall, inert and helpless, on his knees and face. He was then decapitated and the sentence completed.”