Irkutsk - The Paris of Siberia - The Irkutsk Laboratory and its Ingots - The Heathen Chinee - "Ways that are Dark" - A Mushroom City - A Felt Want - Fashion and Wealth|
THE great lumbering train, travel-smeared with eight days' run from Cheylabinsk, made a last wayside stop.
That the greatest city of Siberia was at hand was shown in the altered appearance of the passengers as they sprang from the cars and hastened to the buffet for tea, coffee, and fresh rolls. Men who had worn the same flannel shirt for a week came forth in white front and collar and bright tie. Razors had been busy, for many a ten days' scrub of whisker was gone. Women whom I had seen with light shawl thrown over head and shoulders fluttered in the glory of tailor-made jackets and radiant hats.
The only folk who still wore the same clothes, the bright shirts and patched baggy trousers and cumbrous big boots, and who hadn't shaved or washed or combed, were the peasants.
At the wayside station were other passengers waiting. They were boys and girls from ten to sixteen, the lads in grey, with a black belt round the waist and a peaked cap, and on their backs cow-hide bags containing school-books - smart lads going into Irkutsk to the Gymnasium. The girls were dressed exactly the same as you find school-girls of the same age in Leeds or Manchester or Edinburgh. They carried their school-bags neatly strapped and behaved demurely, as young misses should, though their brothers were noisy youngsters, crowding into the same carriage and yelling and behaving exactly as their Anglichani cousins five thousand miles away behave when they go from their suburb to school in the big town.
It was a raw, grey morning, that Thursday, September 5th, as the train crawled upon the wooden bridge spanning the dead blue Irkut river, broad, sullen, and strong, sweeping to the mighty Yenisei, and emptying thousands of miles away within the Arctic circle. Over the low-hanging fog peered the dome of a cathedral, and great buildings loomed. There was the whistling and shrieking of engines. As we waited on the bridge for the signal to go on I thought of the stop on Grosvenor Bridge, over the Thames, before the south country trains rumble into Victoria Station.
Slowly we went on. There was a road crossing, with a mass of carts and people waiting till the train had passed. The axles creaked through a goods yard. Then, before we quite realised it, we were in Irkutsk Station. Porters boarded the train like banditti, and fought with one another to carry baggage. The corridors were blocked, and people got angry, and there was swearing and indignation, and - well, the scene was not at all peculiarly Siberian. It might have been any European station.
When my belongings were packed on a droshki, away I was carried, humpity-bumpity, over the vile, uneven road. I felt. I and the droshki were playing a game of cup and ball. I was caught every time. There was a tributary of the Irkut to be crossed, the Angara, by a jolting, uneven bridge of boats. We banged across it. And so we were in Irkutsk, four thousand miles east of Moscow, further east, indeed, than Mandalay: a thriving, jostling, gay city "the Paris of Siberia" you call it when you want to please.
It is not a description I would apply myself. Irkutsk is more like a restless, bustling Western American town near the region of gold diggings. There is one street two miles long, and all the others are at right angles.
It is a white and green town. Most of the buildings are stucco-faced, whitewashed, with sheet-iron roofs painted green. The effect is one of cleanness and coolness.
The weather during my stay of nearly a week was exquisite. All day long the sky was of Italian blueness. There was not a cloud anywhere. The middle of the day was torrid, and to walk along the sunny side of the street was to do so blinkingly.
The nights were nipped with frost. In warmest summer the earth, six feet beneath the surface, is frozen. The altitude of the place is some thirteen hundred feet. The air is dry, and I was told there isn't a single case of consumption among the sixty-five thousand inhabitants.
In the old days all the caravans of Chinese tea, after a long, slow march across the bleak Gobi desert, came to Irkutsk. The caravans now are but shadows of what they were. Prosaic steamships and more prosaic railways have done much to send tea another way. Still, there are thousands of tons brought into Irkutsk, caked like black brick, for there are old-fashioned Russians who declare that tea loses its flavour if it gets within breath of sea air. They must have tea that has crossed the Gobi on camel back, and been hauled into Irkutsk on sledges in winter. They are willing to pay for it. Modem business methods have, however, travelled to the Far East. I remember, a year or two back, when at Hankow, on the Yang-tze river, the centre of the Chinese tea trade, a Russian merchant laughingly telling me he sent all his tea by sea, round by Hong Kong, Singapore, Ceylon, the Suez Canal, and the Bosphorus, to Odessa; that it was sold at Moscow as "overland tea," and that not a single tea drinker was the wiser. Still, in Irkutsk there are men who have become millionaires in roubles six times over out of the tea trade.
There are more men, however, who have become millionaires out of gold. Irkutsk is in the middle of the gold district, stretching far down the banks of the Lena, far into the mountains of Trans-Baikal, and also among the fastnesses bordering Mongolia, only a hundred miles away. The law is being modified, but till recently all the gold from mines in East Siberia had to pass through the Government Laboratory at Irkutsk. Only about half of it did. Even then six hundred million roubles worth of gold passed through in the last thirty years - that is 1,173,456 pounds avoirdupois of gold.
There are stacks of yellow ingots at the Irkutsk Laboratory that would make the mouths of Bank of England directors water. Two old men guard it at night. A force of Cossacks formerly guarded the gold. But one evening they marched off with the lot. Thereupon the mind of the Russian authorities went to work. Their reasoning was thus: "It is dangerous to have a body of stalwart fellows on guard, for they might up and away with the gold any hour. It would be much better to have two old men who couldn't carry a bar between them." The possibility of these two being hit on the head some night with a mallet was lost sight of.
The other half of the gold has been squandered in riotous living. If you are a miner, and have stolen gold, you must dispose of it somehow. In side streets are greasy, blue-bloused Chinamen, ostensibly dealers in tea. Though never a cake of tea enters their stores, they grow rich. Their enemies say they buy the stolen gold.
How to get gold out of Russian territory without discovery requires cuteness. But the ways of the Chinaman have become poetically proverbial. Even Chinamen die. And a dead Chinaman must sleep his long sleep in his native land. So his good brother Chinamen in Irkutsk embalm him, and put him in a box, and burn candles over him, and send him away to rest with his fathers.
Peeping through a, keyhole at an embalming operation not long ago, the Irkutsk police saw gold dust blown through a tube up the nostrils into the empty skull. So they discovered why the Chinese were so anxious to give the soul of their dead brother peace by burial at home. His head was to serve as carrier of gold till he reached the Flowery Land, and then the dust was to be extracted.
The Irkutsk people and Siberians generally have, I found, "a guid conceit" of themselves. They say they are Russians with all the latest improvements. I talked through an interpreter with a good many of them that week, from his Excellency the Governor-General and mine-owners worth a million sterling to the hall porter at my hotel and the droshki driver who took me about. They each and all had a gleam of satisfaction in the eye when they asked, "Don't you think Irkutsk is one of the finest cities you have ever seen?"
It is getting ahead in public buildings. The Greek Cathedral is an imposing building of heavy-domed architecture. There is a resplendent Opera House that cost £32,000. There is a museum of all things Siberian from the days of the mammoth to the latest device in gold-washing, in charge of an intelligent young Russian. There is a school of art, a public library, and, besides the gymnasium for the better class boys and a high school for the better class girls, there are thirty-two other schools, and all sorts of philanthropic institutions, including an orphan home.
The town is under the control of a municipality, elected every four years. It consists of sixty members, and the mayor is chosen from their number. The rates imposed are slight. Still I have seen some shrugging of the shoulders as to what becomes of all the money.
There are houses which for outward appearance rival some in Park Lane. The restaurant where I lunched and dined each day was Parisian, save that there was one of those huge hurdy-gurdy organs playing archaic music-hall tunes. Fancy "A Bicycle Made for Two" being played in Eastern Siberia!
The shops are fine. You can buy anything in them - even English patent medicines. There are drapery stores that seem like a bit of Regent Street. The hairdresser's shop near my hotel was as well fitted up as any such establishment on the Boulevard des Italiens. The electric light blazed everywhere.
And yet with all these there is a rawness about Irkutsk that made me exclaim a hundred times, "It is just like a mushroom city in Western America."
The roads were no better than tracks, either all dust or all mire. The pavement was a side walk of boards, some of which were missing. A grand new building had as neighbour a rough wooden shanty. All the sanitary arrangements were insanitary. Everything costs about three times as much as it does in London.
There is a small fortune awaiting the man who will build a good hotel. There are several hotels, but, while they are all dear, they are all dirty. I have met several Europeans here - Europeans as distinct from Russians - and after mutual agreement that the popular idea in England and America about Siberia is all wrong, the conversation has invariably turned to the domestic habits of the Russian people - which are not cleanly - then to the filthy state of the Irkutsk hotels, and finally - not a polite topic perhaps - to the size, behaviour, and intelligence of the Siberian bug.
There was a long-shanked American gold-digger - who wore a frock-coat, flannel shirt, brown felt hat, while cigars stuck out of one waistcoat pocket and the business end of a tooth-brush stuck out of the other - who betwixt oaths and the ejection of tobacco juice declared he has no pity, but with his six-shooter plugs them through the heart at sight. Then a mild Britisher described how the previous night, as an inspection of the walls of his room was not satisfactory, he pulled his bed into the middle of the room and encircled it with insect powder. He saw the enemy approach, but that barrier was not to be got over. Then they held a consultation, crawled to the wall, crawled up it, crawled along the ceiling till just above the bed, and then dropped! You see, even the stories in Siberia get a Transatlantic flavour.
Between five and seven in the evening - when the heat of the day is softening, and the chill of night has not set in - all Irkutsk, fashionable Irkutsk, all who are somebody or who think so, Government officials, officers, their wives and daughters, the wives and daughters of the millionaires, Tom, Dick, and Harry, Betsy, Jane, and Mary, are to be seen on the main boulevard called the Bolshoiskaia.
Cyclists go whizzing past; a man comes tearing by in a light-built American gig with his body bent, his arms outstretched, just showing the paces of his horse; a neat carriage drawn by three black, long-maned horses, the two outside animals running sideways - quite the "swagger" thing in Russia - rolls along. The two gorgeously-clad ladies, its occupants, receive the sweeping bows of the young officers. Several ladies and gentlemen taking horse exercise advance at a trot, and it is noticed the ladies are sitting astride the saddle. I cannot say it struck me as a "horrid exhibition." The dress was of dark blue with a sort of short petticoat. Indeed, to my pagan mind, it appeared rather becoming.
If of the towns I know I sought one that Irkutsk is really suggestive of, I would select San Francisco. Physically they are unlike. But the social atmosphere is the same. There is the same free-and-easy, happy-go-lucky, easy-come, easy-go, devil-may-care style of living.
All the business is one of dealing, importing European goods, re-selling to far-away towns in Siberia, working mines, buying skins, and exporting to Europe. The smash-ahead commercial people here are Russians from the Baltic provinces, really Germans. They are all energy. The Russian himself - with that ineradicable strain of the Tartar in him - is more dilatory. The impulsive Britisher or American, hustling about, is to him something of a madman -clever, but still mad.
Money-making in Irkutsk has been so easy for several generations that the new whirl that has come into the town with the Trans-Siberian Railway has startled even the millionaires. They are sturdy old men, most of them, with character written deep on their strong faces. For all the new-fangled Western ideas that have swept into the town they have a little contempt. Several of the wealthiest still keep to their rude peasant clothes.
But Irkutsk is beginning to put on airs, and even a grimy millionaire in red shirt and dirty top-boots will not be tolerated in the fashionable restaurants. A police order was issued recently that anyone not wearing a white shirt and collar could be refused admittance. Also there are notices stuck up requesting the guests not to get drunk, but to remember they belong to a civilised country!
Some of these millionaires - one named Khaminoff, who came to Irkutsk half a century ago as a carter, died recently, and left eleven million roubles made out of tea, skins, and gold - have travelled in Europe. They have seen London, Paris, and Vienna, "Ah!" said one of them to me, "I was glad to get home. After all, there is no place like Siberia!"
The intellectual people of the town are the political exiles. They have suffered for their opinions by being banished to Siberia. But for the fact, however, that they cannot return to Russia, they lead exactly the same life as any other resident. Most of them are clerks in offices, and some hold exceedingly good appointments. Five years ago an English girl, who went out to Irkutsk - as governess to a wealthy family, married a political exile. She submitted to the conditions of her husband's life. She can now never leave the country.
Apart from the political exiles, the town is besmirched with the criminal class, the really degraded. You have to see the men in prison to understand even a little of the brute nature of many of these people.
There are great prisons around Irkutsk. To these for generations men have been sent from Russia to expiate murder and unmentionable horrors. At the end of their imprisonment they have been released. But the Russian authorities have not taken them back to Russia. They left them free to do as they liked - preferring they should stay in Siberia. The men made for the big towns, chiefly Irkutsk, because it is the gold centre. Accordingly a great part of the population consists of such men and the children of such men. No wonder, therefore, there is, on an average, one murder a week in the town. There are drunken quarrels, and then a hit over the head with a spade. Life is held cheap, and murders are committed in order to steal a few shillings. Robberies with violence are common. Burglary is prevalent. Yet there are hardly any police in the town. Everybody is supposed to look out for himself. It is dangerous to leave the main street after dark without a revolver. The timid householder opens his window and fires a shot before going to bed, just to inform prowlers there are firearms in the house.
You can drive along the Bolshoiskaia at eleven o'clock at night and not see a soul. But if you go into the big restaurants you find them crowded, and they remain so until three and four in the morning.
There is a noted restaurant that I visited. The place was full of men and women, eating and drinking and smoking. There was a platform, where a troupe of girls from Warsaw sang lewd songs, and then came and drank champagne with the audience. It was a replica of a San Francisco sink.
And yet all this was four thousand miles east of Moscow. When I got to my room I looked at my map, put my finger on Irkutsk, and tried to realise I was in Siberia. Facts somehow did not seem to fit in with a life's conception of the land.