THE PARTING OF THE WAYS
We did not pass through any towns of interest till we reached Krasnoyarsk, the great fur-trade centre, which is very prettily situated in the midst of wooded heights, a relief to the eye after all the flat country. Marvellous furs were brought to the train for sale and some of the married men remembered their wives in England. Silver foxes were offered for about 10 pounds to 15 pounds the set, furs that in succeeding years, during the boom in New York, were sold for $1500 to $2000. I regret to say that neither my slim purse nor those of most of my companions allowed us to yield to temptation.
Then came Irkutsk, a day and a half later. This town is at its best in summer, for the Angara which flows through the town is one of the widest rivers in this part of Siberia. Its waters are of a singular transparency and of a wonderful shade of blue, while the current is so rapid that the fishermen do not need to use their oars in going down stream towards the Baikal. They simply let the current do their work.
Irkutsk had suffered much from the recent civil war and severe fighting had taken place. The Bolsheviks had shelled the town with guns mounted on boats lying in the river. The houses along the quay were riddled with bullets, and some of them were nothing but a mass of ruins. The centre of Irkutsk, which had formerly been the most prosperous and modern part of the town, had been entirely burned down, some inflammable stores having caught fire during the bombardment. Nothing had been repaired owing to the great scarcity of building material, which had to be brought from Japan or China. Great holes still gaped in the walls of many houses and disclosed the gaily papered walls of the rooms inside, and nearly all the windows were mended with brown paper, as glass was not available.
The loss of life had been considerable. Numbers of the pupils of the local cadet school, mere boys, had gallantly laid down their lives fighting on the side of the White Army. It was characteristic of the times that their bodies still lay in a nameless grave where they had fallen before the Governor's house. The Government in power was afraid of provoking political demonstration, which might lead to street fights, should the recent civil war be brought too strongly to mind by an official funeral ceremony. Not far from the Governor's residence stood a monument to the Emperor Alexander III. Curiously enough this had been spared, both by the bullets and by the revolutionary mania for destruction. This was also the case with an ornate landing-stage, farther along the quay, which had been put up by the Town Council on the occasion of the Emperor Nicholas II's only visit to Irkutsk, when he had crossed Siberia as heir to the crown.
It was strange to see these monuments and to know that the people who hurried past them, talking and laughing, scarcely remembered on what occasion and in whose honour the familiar landmarks had been put up. The disappearance of the Monarchy had already become a distant memory. So much had the events that followed it affected each man's private life that even such a stupendous national event had been forced into the background.
We passed a couple of churches, more interesting than were the generality on account of some old frescoes that were painted on their outer walls. The climate was dealing hardly with them; the plaster was falling off in many places, but the mellowing of their tones caused by the rain and snow beating upon them for years had given these paintings a delicate softhess that was very charming.
The brief Siberian day was drawing to its close when we drove back to the train. As the sun disappeared we felt acutely how low the temperature still was. Close to the station I saw some pigeons pecking grain that lay on the ground. They were so much numbed by the cold that they could not fly! They waddled off slowly as I came up. Unable to believe that they could not use their wings I threw my muff at them. Even then they only moved slowly, and one bird remained stationary. It had been drinking some water that had evidently just been spilt: its claws had got into the puddle and were frozen to the ground!
Beyond Irkutsk the line winds in and out of the numerous tunnels of the Trans-Baikal Railway. He was the finest scenery that I had as yet seen. Owing to the bright moonlight I was able to admire it, and sat up till late, entranced by the view of the immense snow- covered Baikal. Whenever we emerged from a tunnel I saw the lake surrounded by high mountains that rose rugged and dark from its very edge, reminding me of the Norwegian fjords in winter. Towards the horizon the white shimmering plain seemed to merge into the great masses of clouds that in this light assumed weird and fantastic forms. There was something mysterious and enthralling in the picture. Neither bird nor beast dared raise its voice to disturb Nature in her great winter sleep. Only the shrill whistle of our train broke the spell and echoed in the distance.
The Siberians love their great "Sea," as they call the Baikal, and have a beautiful song about it. This has a haunting tune of much sadness, and its solemn chords are a fitting expression for the picture it evokes.
Next morning we again saw traces of civil war. We passed several battlefields, and as the snow crust was much thinner here, we could distinctly make out the contours of trenches and shell-holes. Debris of all ldnds still lay strewn on the ground; and wrecked carriages lay beside the railway line. A burned-down station building, with heaps of wonderfully twisted rails and rusty wire, was also a legacy of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks themselves had dispersed, but separate bands were said to be roaming about in the surrounding forests and they still sometimes held up the trains.
We were now approaching Manchuria. The mountains got lower and the country, instead of being an all-white picture, became a yellow one. Sand plains dotted with rocks alternated with sandy hillocks, and snow lay only in the hollows between them. The cold, however, was nearly as intense as in Siberia, for not a tree was anywhere to be seen, and piercing winds swept the barren country. Wretched hovels were dotted about here and there, and the greyish-blue tint that was prevalent in the family washing fluttering in the breeze was repeated in the clothes of the many children we now saw at every station and denoted our approach to the Celestial Empire.
At Chita General Knox was visited by the notorious Ataman Semenoff, who ruled the district and whose Government was then still independent of Kolchak. Semenoff had been the first to call together all the military anti-Bolshevik elements, but on the strength of this arrogated to himself the rights of a chieftain of the Middle Ages, levied taxes on all who passed Chita, and extended his rule far into Manchuria.
I saw him entering the train, a tall man, with a commanding manner, wearing Cossack uniform. He was accompanied by a retinue of officers, among whom, for some unknown reason, was a priest. They all talked loudly and authoritatively to the English staff officers while their chief was closeted with General Knox. They were doubtless brave men, but seemingly lacked both discipline and tact, to judge by their behaviour on this occasion. They could not hope to gain any sympathies by their manner, and their outward appearance largely corroborated all the tales that were repeated of the riotous living at Chita. I could not believe that such men could ever hope to become a stable power.
At the first Manchurian station we tried to shop, but this proved a hopeless undertaking. In the course of a few minutes we were surrounded by hosts of Chinese of every age and description, thrusting their wares upon us. Not many knew even a few words of pidgin English, but they chattered volubly, pushing their goods under our very noses, plucking at our sleeves to make their appeals more forcible, and repeating "Khorosso, Khorosso" (good), in broken Russian. They sold silks for the most part, some very ugly bright ones which were depraved copies of European stuffs and designs, and others which were evidently manufactured for their own use and were delightful in colouring and texture but very narrow in width. The difficulty was to ascertain their real prices, for not one of us could speak Chinese, and the vendors did not seem to understand either Russian or English numerals. They were so persistent, however, that we finally marched off with various silks thrust on us, devoutly hoping that we had not cheated our uncomprehending Chinese, who seemed inconsolable at the thought of our going away empty-handed, and who showed us by gesture the sacrifice they were making in our favour. I only hope that their commercial sense did not desert them in their desire to deal with such distinguished customers!
At this time the line in Manchuria was guarded by Japanese soldiers. The Japanese Government had sent troops as had the other Allies, but had kept their men strictly within the precincts of the Manchurian frontier. At every station we saw them, neat and dapper in their field uniforms, a small, alert officer with white cotton gloves always coming up to meet the train. Harbin was not under their control, but was ruled by the civil administration of the Manchurian Railway, and General Horvat, its head, was the supreme authority in the Russian part of the town, the Chinese having their own administration in their half of Harbin.
The Chinese town was said to be interesting, and as we were to stop there for nearly a day we decided to go sightseeing. Even at the station we seemed to see representatives of all the populations of the East in the crowd that shouted and jostled each other to the trains that were to take them to Vladivostock, Siberia, and China. Here were rich Chinamen in fine furs, less opulent members of the nation in long, skin-tight, black satin garments, wearing the old-fashioned small black Chinese skull-cap with a coloured knob on the top to indicate the wearer's rank. Here were Chinese soldiers, dirty and untidily dressed, ill at ease in their new, badly cut uniforms and suffering torture in European leather boots. Further we met country people wearing many layers of clothes, and lastly beggars, crowds of beggars of that persistent quality of which the Orient has the speciality, and from whom our Siberian beggars could still find much to learn!
Among the mixed crowd of Chinese and of North Siberian tribesmen we saw well-dressed Russians walking about, for the Bolsheviks had never had a hold on Harbin, and few of the poorer refugees had penetrated so far. Harbin was in 1910 nearly unchanged from pre-war days.
Some rather dilapidated rickshaws and one or two cabs were waiting for customers at the station. I had, as yet, not got over the feeling of aversion from being dragged by a human being, so we selected a local Chinese cab for our tour. Having made our intentions known to the driver by signs, we started off. Our jogging conveyance was a kind of small victoria, drawn by two shaggy Mongolian ponies that did not keep step, one trotting while the other started off at a canter. We crossed the long bridge over the railway lines which connects the European town with the Chinese. From the glimpses we had of it we saw that the first was like the usual Siberian town, with nothing distinctly Manchurian in it. On getting further away from the centre, however, the buildings became gradually smaller, the streets narrower and more crowded. We met with fewer Europeans, and at last we reached real Chinaland. It so happened that this was the time of the Chinese New Year, a festivity which the Celestials keep for several days. The manifestations of their joy were of a somewhat noisy nature. Tom-toms were beaten, and the piercing screech of some kind of native pipe was heard on every side. The unmusical public took part in the general rejoicing by pulling crackers and shooting signal rockets. Brightly painted shop signs fluttered in the sun, but all the shops were closed except those that sold food- stuffs, which was a sad disappointment to us.
The food dealers apparently drove a roaring trade, for inside the shops, the doors of which were wide open, we saw crowds of Chinese and heard them jabbering in their unmusical language. Evidently the haggling, without which no single deal is made in that country, was proceeding in full swing. It is etiquette and a pleasant pastime for both the salesman and the client. From what we saw exhibited in the numerous open-air booths, none of the delicacies would be tempting to a European palate. There were candied carrots, curious bright red berries strung on sticks, and dark wet apples swimming in some sticky liquid of an indefinite hue. From the roofs swung dried fish of various shapes and strong and unattractive odours. In fact, the smell of a Chinese quarter is its principal drawback, and the whiffs that escaped from the houses and were wafted to our nostrils were strong and pervading. Old Chinamen, crouched on the ground, were frying whitish, thick round cakes in castor oil on little iron braziers. Stolid, narrow-eyed, dirty-faced children, all in clothes of varying stages of raggedness, swarmed around them, eyeing the dainties with longing eyes.
The Chinese did not seem to have taken any special care of their toilet in honour of the feast. Except for an occasional man or woman in brighter raiment they all wore layers of wadded coats. The noise in the streets was deafening. The beat of the tom-toms tried to drown every other sound, and issued with clanging persistence from the open doors of numerous tea-houses. Our conveyance could proceed only with the greatest difficulty, as the narrow streets were crowded with bullock-carts of every description as well as with pedestrians and street vendors. Some of the vehicles were inordinately long, two-wheeled wooden carts that blocked the whole street when they turned. There were also the local carriages called fountounhas, and rickshaws of every description. No one kept to any definite direction, and to steer our way at all was not an easy matter.
Suddenly, in turning a corner, we heard a recrudescence of sounds, a wilder noise of tom-toms and flourish of pipes and penny drums. Down the street came a procession carrying paper lanterns and all kinds of flags decorated with signs. This was the great New Year procession. Blue-coated men headed it, carrying a huge, many-coloured paper dragon high over the people's heads. Rockets were exploding right and left, terrifying even our mild little horses that reared and neighed. Children danced about, trying to catch the dainties that their elders threw them. It was pandemonium indeed when all the people in the tea-houses rushed out to join the followers of the dragon, bringing their own musical instruments to swell the medley of sound.
It was impossible to move in the street after this. Though we saw in the distance the entrance to a temple which we had hoped to visit, it was quite useless even to attempt to enter on such a festive day. We felt, too, that the time for our train's departure must be near, and we decided to return. This proved to be no easy matter. Our Jehu did not understand a single word even of pidgin English, and did not seem to realise that we wanted to get back to the station. He persisted in driving on and on into the mazes of the Chinese town, the one-storied houses of which seemed to stretch on endlessly. The streets were so narrow and the houses so close together and so much alike that we found no landmarks to guide us. There was not a single passer-by to whom we could turn for help, for no one could understand a word we said. We began to notice hostile looks and were beginning to think, anxiously, that we would never get back to the train in time and would be left behind when I saw in the distance the glittering cupolas of the Russian church which I had noticed on coming from the station. This was our beacon of salvation, and by much gesticulation we managed to make our Chinaman take us in that direction. When we reached the station we found the train waiting for us, and the relief felt at our reappearance prevented the scolding which was, I fear, in the air.
On the morrow we reached Vladivostock, the last point of my Siberian journey. I saw the rocky Pacific coast for the first time, and thought how lovely was the town's situation with the wide expanse of the ocean beating against the rocks, but found later that a total lack of vegetation robs it of any charm. Vladivostock seemed built in a haphazard manner, without any consideration for the effect the buildings might produce. It was so new as to be quite uninteresting. As one of the Englishmen said to me, "God Almighty did His best when He made this coast, but man has done nothing to it since."
It was strange and sad to me to see the lack of life in the harbour of what had formerly been a prosperous commercial port and one of the great naval bases of Russia. All was changed. There were only a few Japanese steamers in the commercial harbour and three or four old Russian destroyers anchored in the military one. The small cruiser Kent, Wolfe Murray's ship, lying in the centre, was the largest vessel to be seen.
Vladivostock, being the base of the Allied forces, was full of foreigners. There was the military element as well as representatives of the various Red Cross units, some Canadian detachments that had never gone any farther, as well as civilians and diplomats. There were Siberians, too, who had come East during the early stages of the revolutionary movement and who had still managed to keep some of their possessions. On that account the hotels were over-filled, and General Knox invited me to stay at his house till my boat sailed. Captain Cazalet and General Blair were the other inmates, and all three were admirable hosts.
Among the people I met at Vladivostock I noticed a perceptible difference from those I had seen at Omsk. The realities of the political situation had been toned down here, and many, even Russians, had lulled themselves into a kind of fictitious optimism. The foreigners who had not been to Omsk did not, I thought, quite grasp the real state of affairs. The whole of Vladivostock life was artificial: there were parties, there was even dancing, and great talk of triumphant campaigns in the spring. Under the surface disaffection was smouldering, while Siberia was preparing for the overthrow of the Kolchak regime and the reinstatement of Bolshevism.
All my travelling companions came to see me off when, under the escort of Captain Coussmaker, I embarked on a Japanese steamer for Tsuruga.
It is certainly owing to the fact of having been able to leave Siberia when I did that I escaped falling again under Bolshevik rule. I feel the greatest gratitude to General Knox for this, but more still for all the warm sympathy and genuine kindness shown to me by him and his staff. I felt that I was parting from real friends when I said good-bye to them - they had been so wonderfully good to me and so full of tact and understanding.
It was a poignant moment when I saw the Russian coast fading away behind me while our steamer ploughed its way amidst the floating ice of Amur Bay. (This was the middle of February.)
I was leaving Russia. Would I ever see my country again, and in what condition would I find it if I ever returned? Who among my friends and relations would have survived the storm? The Russia I had known, the old Russia, disappeared slowly from view.
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Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.
Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:
The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910
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