Russian Bags and Baggage - The River Angara - Its beautiful Scenery - Lake Baikal - A Steamer made in Newcastle - A Fellow-Britisher - The Wonderful "Baikal" - The Yabloni Mountains - Our only Tunnel - The Buriat Mongols - A Scotch-like Land - Chita|
WHAT travellers Siberians are! On the morning I left Irkutsk for Trans-Baikalia I found the station crowded with people, as though a plague had stricken the city, and everybody was making mad haste to escape. In such a sparse population as Siberia has, you might imagine that often the trains would be comparatively empty. On the contrary, they are always full, packed with officials, wives, children, merchants, and chiefly the peasant class.
I had thought that when Irkutsk was reached the flight eastwards would cease. Not a bit. And the trains going west, back to Europe, were just as full.
"Where are these peasants making for?" I asked, seeing so many one day in a train bound for Moscow.
"Those are the immigrant wasters going back to their old sordid life in Southern Russia. They came here two, three, or more years ago on free tickets, and got land from the government. But they have grown homesick; they declare they can't live in Siberia, and so they are returning. That is one of the colonisation problems; so many poor folks come out here who know nothing about the agricultural conditions, and so there is hardship and misery."
As in all unsettled lands, there is a great mass of the discontented in Siberia, people who believe that a fortune is to be made in every other place than where they happen to be. And as the travelling is ridiculously cheap - about a shilling a hundred miles third-class - there is a constant human surge up and down the Trans-Siberian line.
The uproar and confusion of departure is deafening and bewildering. There is usually only one platform, and sometimes two or three trains standing parallel. If your train happens to be the second or third you must clamber through the carriages of the first and drop into a sort of passage between two trains, where, although there will be no starting for another hour, people are rushing with gesticulatory madness, hunting up lost relatives, or searching for missing pieces of baggage.
Every Russian is an old woman in the matter of baggage. A kit bag, or a bag of any sort, in which they can carry tll their belongings, they have not. On an average everyone has eleven pieces of baggage. First there is a bulging bundle, that can only be tugged and punched and squeezed through the doorways. That consists of a couple of pillows, some rugs, and some sheets. Then there is a sort of satchel, with a lot of trappings about it, and a swollen neck suggestive of goitre. There will be three wooden boxes of various sizes, also paper bundles and hand-btgs, always a kettle, a badly wrapped up loaf of broad, and, if the struggle is very great, you may find a man rubbing a cooked fowl across your shoulder.
Everybody takes everything into the carriage with him, and by necessity everybody is a nuisance to everybody else. Then the squabbling! At times you are certain there will be a free fight.
It is the endeavour of everybody to travel in a better class than they have paid for. The third-class load up the second-class carriages, the second-class passengers take possession of the first-class carriages, and when a legitimate first-class passenger comes along there are terrible rows, and life threatenings in the clearing of everybody out.
Military officers are entitled to travel in a class higher than they pay for. But now and then a high-handed warrior spark will have a third-class ticket and travel first. There was a Cossack officer who mounted the train at Irkutsk for the little station of Baranchiki on Lake Baikal side. When the usual rumpus commenced, and the officials came along to straighten matters, he was requested to travel second. No, he wouldn't! Why? It was his pleasure! But why not obey the regulations? Regulations! Phew! It was his pleasure to break them! Would he make room? No, it was his pleasure to travel first. And travel first he did.
At last away we rolled, once more eastward bent. For forty miles, until Lake Baikal was reached, the line hugged the bank of the river Angara, blue, clear, and rapid, acting as an escape for the mighty inland lake, and dropping 400 feet between Baikal and "the Paris of Siberia."
Plains and forests were left behind. The river was bordered by a beautiful mountainous country, rather like the Hudson as you see the hills from the cars on a journey between New York and Albany. The weather was exquisite, so genial, so bracing, that I broke into snatches of song.
In early afternoon we rumbled into the lake-side station of Baranchiki. In the rich glow of late summer there was the great inland sea to admire. But there was no time just then to admire scenery. It would not have required much strength of imagination to think I was at Folkestone. Porters seized the baggage, and, losing pieces of it, scampered along the pier, where lay a steamer belebing black smoke. A string of grimy men were pitching coat from a truck down to the engines, and another steamer laden with horses was snorting its way seawards.
The pestering thought that the chief thing of British manufacture I had found in Siberia was sauce, vanished as I saw the big steamer was the Angara, built by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co., Newcastle. Here, at least, England was holding her own!
I looked for the great Baikal that is supposed to scorn ice packs and does carry three trains across the lake. But she was not to be seen, though there was the special jetty which gripped her when trains wore run on board, and a hundred yards away was a black monster of a floating dock, where she can be housed when repairs are necessary.
It is certainly an advantage being a stranger in Russia. Foreigner spells "good tips" to servants, and so the cabin steward on the Angara gave me a good cabin, saw my luggage safe, and handed me the key.
Lunch? Certainly! There was a nice little buffet on board, and a hobbling old waiter, who had all the habits of his tribe, though he was four thousand miles east of the nearest European city, brought me cutlets and peas and bottled ale.
I saw somebody glance sideways at me through the window, somebody with a ruddy, clean-shaven face and a little cloth cap. So I went out.
"By the cut of your jib you're a Britisher," I said.
"Yes, Isaac Handy, of Sunderland. Glad to see you."
Here was an honest-tongued north-countryman who had come here with others to put the Baikal together after she had been sent out in pieces from Newcastle. Also he superintended the building of the Angara on which we now stood; he was giving an eye to the building of the floating dock, also keeping watch on the steamer Ftoroy, specially built for the rapids on the Angara river. It was his duty to be about and be useful if anything went amiss with the engines which the Russians could not understand. He was one of the modest army of Britishers one drops across in odd corners of the world.
We went on the main deck and chatted with the captain, who had been in the Baltic trade, and spoke English well.
It was a delicious afternoon, and the forty-six miles across Lake Baikal were like a holiday cruise. There were two ladies aboard - of whom more anon - most industriously snapshotting their fellow passengers. Other folks had out maps and binoculars, and down on the lower dock huddled the peasantry among their bundles, a little afraid, some of them, for they had never seen so much water before.
The Angara was striking from Baranchiki to Misovaya, in Trans-Baikalia, where another train would meet us. Some day the railway line will be carried round the southern end of the lake, some two hundred miles, but the track will have practically to be blasted out of the face of the solid rock. The line is necessary, for the icebreakers of Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. cannot always break the Baikal ice in mid-winter.
There was no suggestion of winter, however, that balmy September afternoon as I took my ease lounging about the deck of the Angara, admiring the picturesque lake scenery and the entourment of high black mountains.
A wonderful stretch of water is this Lake Baikal. It is probably the deepest freshwater sea in the world. It has been plumbed to a depth of 4,500 feet. It is 420 miles long, and has a breadth of from ten to sixty miles. There is plenty of good fish, and about 2,000 seals are killed annually. The timber on the hillsides is cedar, and in the sheltered valley, grow apples and cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and whortleberries.
As the vessel slowly churned her way across, Mr. Handy told me about the lake. He pointed out a huge boulder lying in the mouth of the Angara which the natives regard with awe, because they believe that were it removed all the water would run out of the Baikal. Certainly the water tears into the river at a terrific speed. This is not to be wondered at, as the Baikal is nearly 1,600 feet above sea level.
Presently there came steaming down the lake huge four-funnelled vessel, white painted, by no means pretty, and rather like a barn that had slipped afloat. That was the Baikal, one of the most wonderful vessels in the world, coming back from Misovaya, and carrying two goods trains fully laden. If necessary she could carry three trains and eight hundred passengers, but at present the Baikal is used for merchandise and the Angara for passengers.
The Baikal passed sufficiently near for me to appreciate her great size, and as the fore gates were open I caught a glimpse of red-painted goods waggons. The ship is of over 4,000 tons, close on 300 feet long, and has nearly 60 feet beam. She has three triple expansion engines of 1,250 horse-power, two amidships and one in the bow. This power is required in the ice-breaking. She will break through ice 36 inches thick, and her bow is made with a curve, so that when the ice is thicker she can be backed and then go full steam at the ice, partly climb on it with her impetus, and then crush it with her weight. This means that the Baikal sometimes takes a week to cross the lake.
The Baikal is sometimes frozen from December till April. But although the ice puts a hindrance in the way of ships, the lake is busier than in the summer. I have before mentioned that winter is the great time for cheap transit in Siberia, because sledge travelling is easy and quick. So a road is made across the lake; the track is marked by pine trees stuck in the ice; a man holds a contract for keeping the way in repair for the post, and if there is a nasty crack he must board it until it heals by freezing; and all day long there is a constant procession of sledges coming from Trans-Baikalia, Mongolia, and Manchuria, and making for Irkutsk.
When the sun in ruddy haze had dropped behind the mountains, a clumsy breeze came scudding across the waters. So we went below to drink tea. Mr. Handy brought out a collection of photographs, his own work, and while we talked about the superstitions of the people in this little-known corner of Asia, I was turning over snapshot views of Lambton Castle and Rodear and keels on the Humber.
Up on deck again we found billows of cloud tumbling from the mountains, racing over the dark waters of the lake, shrouding the world, so that we steamed through smoking mist, till a wailing wind crept down from the north-west and drove back the clouds, and filled the rigging of the ship with Valkyrie cries. Then in the darkness I heard tales of the furious storms that often ribbon the lake into tattered foam.
They say hereabouts that it is only on the Baikal in the autumn that a man learns to pray from his heart.
Twinkling red and green lights appeared on the right, and soon we were splashing alongside a little jetty flooded with electric light and a long train waiting.
So I found myself in Trans-Baikalia, the far eastern part of Siberia. But the train didn't go on for four hours. However, I sought my carriage and made my bed, and smoked my pipe, and read my novel till drowsiness came.
And when I awoke it was broad daylight, and at a long, heavy, plodding pace, the train was rolling, through a stretch of wild Scotland. That is what it looked like. There were the bleak hills and the clouds clinging to them, the sullen crags, and the fierce rivulets; then great hollows with sedge-bordered lochs. Mist floated to mist, and hills waved to hills, and a cold gauntness was on the land.
I rubbed up acquaintance with my neighbour, a stout Teutonic-looking Russian from Nicolaievsk, at the mouth of the Amur. He spoke English about as well as I spoke Russian, but also stuttered. It took him twenty minutes to wish me good morning.
A mutual desire to snapshot some of the Baikal tribesmen brought the two ladies whom I had noticed on the boat and myself together. One was a Russian lady who spoke French, and the other was a French lady who spoke English and Russian. They were Moscow residents, and were taking a little round trip across Siberia, then intending to visit Japan, China, India, Egypt, Turkey, and get hick to Russia at Odessa by Cbristmas. They were proud of their adventurous voyage, and enjoyed the curiosity of the other passengers as to what they were doing.
The Russian doesn't understand the occupation of "sight-seeing." He can understand being sent to Siberia, or going to Siberia to earn money, but to visit it just to look at it suggests to him you must be a bit of a fool. At last, on the second evening, the ladies told me all the train knew why they had come to Siberia. Neither was in the first flush of youth, and as there were ninety-three men to every seven women in Siberia their object was to find husbands! They were intensely amused.
The distance from Misovaya to Streitinsk is 605 miles, and it took the train three days to cover the distance. The line had ust been opened, and as the metals were just spiked to the sleepers, and the sleepers just laid on a light bank of soil, speed was out of the question.
Everything indicated haste. There were no platforms at the station-houses, and the station-houses were all in course of erection. Whenever possible, the line kept to the bank of a river, and where there was no river, but only mountains, it took great horse-shoe curves to avoid cuttings and tunnels.
We climbed right over the Yabloni Mountains, one engine snorting in front and another puffing, and pushing behind, until we got to an altitude of 3,412 feet. Then, with long sweeps, we swung down to the edge of the Ingoda river. After that, for 300 miles, the line never left the side of the Ingoda or Shilka rivers.
Once - only once from Moscow to Streitinsk - we ran through a bit of a tunnel, not a hundred yards long. For half a minute the train was plunged in darkness. There was shrieking of women and bawling of children, and when we got into daylight the men looked scared. Tunnels were things they knew nothing about. When some of them saw I was laughing at their fright, reassurance gradually came back.
For hours we would roll between mountains, skirting the edges of great swampy basins. At long intervals I would see a rugged patch on a plain far off, and knew it was a village.
We saw clusters of tents exactly like Red Indian tents. They belonged to the aborigines, Buriat Mongols, who are vanishing before the Muscovites as the Redskins are vanishing before the Saxons.
When the train halted I had a good opportunity of seeing these people. They are first cousins to the Chinese, but all I met struck me as being broader, more sturdily built than the Chinese. Their faces are round rather than long, but their cheekbones are prominent. The eye is a warm, good-natured brown. Their skins are not the Chinose sickly sallow, but ruddy bronze. They are good-looking men, but had I met them in Nevada it would never have struck me they were not Red Indians.
The women folk, however, would have put me right. Without being accused of lack of gallantry, one may say that the Indian squaw is one of the last ladies on earth for whom it would be possible to rouse admiration - coarse, fat to unwieldiness, and with as much expression as a potato.
But these Buriat women were often handsome with the kind of good looks you sometimes see among Spanish Jewesses, only much darker. The features were well cut, the nose refined, and the eyes black and brilliant. Their hair was really black. As they walked about in their gay, red print frocks - and no other colour would suit them so well - they had a long, easy swing of the limbs that showed good physique. The elder women get wrinkle-faced and rather uncertain in their gait. Yet distinction remains with them.
About both men and women there was a shyness whichwas blushingly apparent when I wanted to take their photographs. They didn't quite understand the camera. But when it was explained they were pleased, and laughed, and hung back, and after many persuasions from the onlooking crowd - what a medley we sometimes were, Russians, Chinese, English, French, German, in all sorts of costumes - they would stand forward with the awkward delight of a yokel who is getting his five shillings from the squire's lady for showing the best cabbages at the village flower show.
I found the Russians had a kindly admiration for the Buriats, extolling them for their simplicity and honesty. These Buriats, though they live in tents, are not really nomads, but keep to one particular district. Although the children of Mongols, once the terror of the world, there is nothing of the warrior about them, except their splendid horsemanship. High banked and uncomfortable do their saddles look, but they manage their horses, which are light brown with black manes and very swift, with wonderful agility. They know well how their ancestors once swept Europe, and they have a firm belief that some day a leader will arise and regain their lost kingdom.
To me there is something very pathetic in this confidence among races once powerful, but now subjected, that the day will come when they will re-inherit their own. Perhaps it is well they should have this little glow of patriotism in their hearts.
To-day the Buriats are pastoral. They live chiefly on milk, millet, and sheep killed on feast days. Their wealth consists in immense herds of cattle; some of them even possess forty or fifty thousand head. Though sons and daughters marry, the new wives and new husbands must come and live in the family camp.
In religion they are Buddhists, but have only been so for three centuries. They are fond of making pilgrimages to Urga, where there is a "living Buddha." So great is this devotion that a Buriat will frequently surrender the whole of his property to some shrine on condition that he receives just enough to live upon.
So, among this wild, Scotch-like land we took our slow way, the shriek of the engine making long, eerie echoes among the hills.
Then we got to Chita, a big place that got its name from a band of Italians who came here gold-hunting long ago. Just as usual, the station was miles from the town, though the line, in American style, runs through what is practically the main street. First the train stopped at Chita station in the late afternoon, and gave us half an hour to go into the buffet and swallow dinner.
I saw the town ahead, and asked the usual question, "Why isn't the station in the town?" A shrug of the shoulders was the reply.
The train puffed about, and stopped in the very centre of Chita. Here was a shed with "Chita Town" painted on it, and twenty yards behind was a big station in course of erection.
"But why wasn't this made the station when the line was put down eighteen months ago?" Another shrug of the shoulders.
The train halted for an hour at Chita, and as this was in the evening, at the time the Russian has his promenade, all the town came down to peer at the passengers.
It was a bright and merry sight, just as un-Asiatic as you can imagine. There were plenty of slouching, unwashed Chinese coolies and moudjiks in rough sheepskin coats and hats. But they were alien to the town, and kept well away from the other folk.
The other folk were well-dressed Russians, mostly wearing the conventional peaked cap, but still there were plenty of hard felts to be seen - even one silk hat and a frock coat - and tan shoes and tan gloves.
Some of the women retained the old Siberian habit of just a shawl thrown over the head, but most had feathered hats and light jackets.
Groups of young fellows stood about smoking cigarettes, and casting glances at the young ladies who walked up and down, arm-in-arm, three in a row. There wasn't much taste or good fitting in the ladies' garments. It was apparent all this finery was a thing of less than a year. But everybody was happy, and the air was full of light chatter.
Again and again I marvelled at the way Russia was throwing its cities far east, bringing to the people all the trappings of civilisation. I had to look long and continuously at the map to understand I was to the north of Mongolia, and almost as far east as Pekin.