A Tour in Mongolia

Beatrix_Bulstrode Reader’s will know I have a strong attachment to Mongolia so look for opportunities to promote the country and to dispel some of the false impressions we may have of Mongolia and the Mongols from our upbringing and reading such historical source material as W.E. Johns’ Biggles books. I do from time to time come across a gem and one of my contacts put me in touch with the following book:

A Tour in Mongolia
Beatrix Bulstrode
(Mrs. Edward Manico Gull)
with an introduction bearing on the political aspect of that country by
David Fraser
(“Times” Correspondent in Peking)
Illustrated by the Author’s Photographs and a Map
Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W.C.

This book was first published in 1920. It was written at the time the Republic of China had invaded Mongolia to quash Mongolian independence, or at least, Mongolia’s autonomous position in the Qing Empire. In December 1911, Outer Mongolia took advantage of the Xinhai Revolution to declare independence from the Qing Dynasty. The Mongolians set up an absolute theocratic monarchy led by Bogd Khan. However, the newly-founded Republic of China considered Mongolia as part of its territory. In the 1915 tripartite Kyakhta agreement, Russia, which had strategic interests in Mongolian independence, but did not want to completely alienate China; the Republic of China and Mongolia agreed that Mongolia was to be autonomous under Chinese suzerainty.

However, Russia was focussed on the First World War and then the October Revolution. Mongolia was threatened by The Russian Civil War as it was drawn in by White and Red Russian forces in the area. In the summer of 1918 one of the factions in Mongolia asked for Chinese military assistance. The Chinese deployed a small force to Urga. Meanwhile, the Mongolian nobility had become more and more dissatisfied with their marginalization on the hands of the theocratic government, and, also provoked by the threat of the Outer Mongolia’s independence from the pan-Mongolist movement in Siberia, by 1919, were ready to accept a return to the old Qing system, i.e. to be governed by Beijing, if that meant the restoration of their old privileges.

Bogdos bodyguardThe Occupation of Mongolia by the Beiyang Government of the Republic of China began in October 1919 and lasted until early 1921, when Chinese troops in Urga were routed by Baron Ungern‘s ((I first came across the good Baron in 2007 when looking for something else – naturally – see Imperial Council of Princes and Counts of Germany and Europe ))  White Russian ((from a wargamers point of view, the good Baron is a most interesting character and one that would be perfect in a wargame set in Mongolia in the 1920s – perhaps using Pulp Figures for another Rough Adventure )) and Mongolian forces, who, in turn, were defeated by the Red Army and its Mongolian allies led by Sukhbaatar by June 1921. This bought an end to the Bogd Khanate government of Mongolia and led to the formation of the Mongolian Communist Government.

This then was the environment that Beatrix rode into on her camel and reflects the country she wrote about in her book.

A Tour of Mongolia is available online as a digital print, and the original illustrations from the book are included in the digital edition – a very worthy read.

As a taster, I have included the first chapter below:




“What is outside the world, daddy?”

“Space, my child.”

“But what is outside space then?”

THE fascination of the unknown, a deep love of the picturesque, and inherent desire to revert awhile to the primitive – these were probably some of the factors that made a little tour in Mongolia so essentially desirable to me at a period when, instead of turning my face homewards, I merely felt the compelling desire for more. The remark, “Such a pity you did not come here before the old order of things passed away,” had assailed my ears like minute-guns throughout my eighteen months in China, and here in Mongolia was at last an opportunity of meeting with mediævalism untouched.

The most delightful, and by far the most interesting, expedition that lures the traveller for a couple of days from the gaiety of life in Peking, is that which leads him out to the Ming tombs and a little farther on to meditate upon change and decay from the summit of the Great Wall. The Great Wall may well have been the ultimate goal of all his wanderings in China, a goal indeed at which to pause and reflect upon all he has learned and seen through the months spent in journeying up from the turbulent south to the heart of China in the north. But even so it is a little disappointing upon arriving at the Nank’ou Pass to be informed that this, impressive though it be, is merely a relatively modern branch of the Great Wall itself, added no less than 1700 years later to the original construction. To see the real Great Wall then, the wall that has withstood the ravages both of Huns and Tartars, the wall that played a not unimportant part in warfare two centuries before the Christian era – this furnished me at least with an excuse to get away to Kalgan; and in a visit to Kalgan, the starting-point for the historic caravans which penetrate the desert, across which prior to the existence of the Trans-Siberian railway all merchandise passed to the north, I foresaw the germ which might, with a little luck, blossom out into a little expedition across the frontier.

At Dr. Morrison’s hospitable board, to which drift inevitably those travellers who want something more than the social round and the sights provided for the globe trotter in Peking, I was fortunate in meeting a couple of Norwegian missionaries who were good enough to make arrangements for me to stay in their compound at Kalgan. The husband, after many years’ work, had abandoned the hope of converting the Mongols to Christianity, and had placed his unique knowledge of the people and of their country – doubtless in return for a handsome salary (on paper) – at the disposal of the new Chinese Government. In common with every one else to whom I mentioned my project of travelling in Mongolia, these good people did their best to put me off, but finally, seeing that I intended to carry out my idea willy-nilly, they helped me in making my plans, engaged the Chinese who accompanied me, and lent me the various accessories of camp life, etc., in the most generous manner possible.

For some weeks past threatenings and rumours of war had been dribbling in from various points on the Mongolian frontier. Mongol soldiers (converted robber bands) in ridiculously small numbers, but effectual, as having been armed and trained by “the Urga government,” which to all intents and purposes is another name for Russian officers, were said to be marching south, “plundering everywhere and killing Chinese and Mongols without distinction”.

The Chinese in Peking were doubtless growing uneasy, and the following paragraph which appeared about this time in the “Peking Daily News,” a Chinese-owned newspaper with an European circulation, suggests that the authorities were somewhat late in the field with their honours and encouragements for those Mongols who even now were perhaps flirting with presents of roubles from a more northern source. Already the storm was brewing past control:–

“The Bureau of Mongolian and Tibetan affairs (in Peking) reports that a petition from the Shang Chia Hut’ukt’u has been received, stating that the Shang Chodba has supported the Republican cause and requesting that he be rewarded.

“As Pa-yen-chi-erh-ko-la, the Shang Chodba and Dassak Da Lama, has been loyal to the Republic and is highly commendable, he is hereby permitted to sit on a Green Cart and to use Yellow Reins, as an encouragement.”

No very highly imaginative mind is surely necessary to conjure up a scene of wonderful picturesqueness from the foregoing. To see a beaming “Da (or great) Lama” seated upon the shafts of his new Green Cart and driving a hefty white mule with his lately acquired Yellow Reins, feeling tremendously encouraged thereby in his loyalty to China, the recently established republic of Mongolia’s suzerain it was worth while, – coûte que coûte!

Peking, so far as I was concerned, had more than come up to its reputation for kindness and hospitality. I had certainly put the former to the test during a short but sharp bout of illness I had encountered there, when I can only say that my room presented the appearance of a conservatory and that rarely an hour passed without some friendly “chit” of enquiry and sympathy. All the same, it had been much borne in upon me that any deviation from the narrow path to the golf links, or from the delightful picnics held in one or other of the recognised show places within hail of the Legation quarter, was looked upon with cold disfavour. Few things seem to cause a certain type of mind more annoyance than that one should care to travel on lines other than those parallel with their own.

The less, I felt, that I discussed my projected plans the better. Therefore, informing merely a couple of friends who happened to be dining with me the previous evening and who, by the way, did not in the least believe me that I was off in the morning to Kalgan for a few days, I set forth for the Shih Chi Men station (the terminus of the Peking-Kalgan railway) at the break of one glorious day of April in 1913.

Two ‘ricshas were necessary for myself and a very modest amount of luggage, and to each ‘ricsha two coolies, for the Shih Chi Men is at the extreme north-west of Peking, to gain which one has to travel diagonally across the Tartar city, skirting the rose-coloured walls of the Forbidden City through which at that time the traffic was not allowed to penetrate. The road is bad and exceedingly dusty, and being the sole European upon arriving at the station, I had the inevitable uproar with my coolies as regards payment. One of the untoward influences that we westerns seem to have exerted upon the Chinese coolie class is that they will always try to bully anyone who is at a disadvantage – a condition of affairs I never once experienced up country, off the beaten track, where I met with nothing but chivalry. The quartet followed me, shouting and yelling, on to the platform – I having taken good care not to pay them until my belongings were safely out of their hands – only to be buffeted and finally kicked out by the station officials.

The journey from Peking to Kalgan has many points of interest, and I decided to break it half-way in order to pay a second visit to the tombs of the Emperors of the Ming dynasty, stopping overnight at the quaint little half-westernised hotel kept by a Chinaman at the foot of the Nank’ou Pass. There was not much choice as to the means of covering the eleven or twelve miles between Nank’ou and the tombs, and I decided in favour of the solitary pony instead of the unattractive looking mules, or the chair of the indolent which is carried on poles by four coolies. I had confidently expected to make the expedition in peaceful solitude; but not a bit of it. A pockmarked mafu, or groom, insisted upon accompanying me on foot, and it was soon evident that he set the pace not I. It was some little time too before I discovered the reason of the pony’s reluctance to trot except when we came to a strip of grass – he had four very tender feet, and my way lay across extremely rough country, along the boulder-strewn beds of mountain streams and rocky little paths bordering the planted fields.

The beautiful pail’ou of five arches was the first indication that we were nearing our destination, but even then there were two or three miles along the uneven and loosely flagged avenue of huge symbolical stone men and beasts, camels, horses, and lions standing in silent attendance on the spirits of the departed rulers. The tombs, temples in effect, whose golden roofs rise out from among deep green cypresses and masses of white blossom, are enclosed in many courtyards by high rose-coloured walls pierced by magnificent gateways.

To the chief of these gateways I rode, followed by my mafu, and offering the customary fee of twenty cents, I proposed to enter. Seeing that I was alone, the doorkeeper, an unusually tall man even for Chihli, began a bullying argument for more money. Not wanting to waste time, I compounded finally upon something like three times the proper sum, and he opened the great doors and admitted me into the courtyard. Here amidst the most dreamily beautiful surroundings of pure white marble terraces, weathered memorial archways, steps carved in low relief and the mellowed rose-coloured walls always for background, I felt very much at peace with the world as I sat and rested in the crook of a blossom-covered tree after my hot and wearisome ride.

Greatly refreshed by the beauty and stately solitude of the scene (to say nothing of a delicate little lunch which had been so thoughtfully provided for me by my excellent host of the Ching Erh hotel), I now felt inspired to explore further, and walked over the grass to the entrance of the chief temple. Dropping from the clouds (or, what seemed more likely, appearing from the nether regions) I was again confronted by the same burly janitor who rather threateningly marred my way and demanded more money. I had now not even the support of my pony boy. I had no intention of being baulked of the whole object of my long ride, neither did I mean to be bullied into paying the rascal all over again. Seeing that I was not inclined to give in, the man began to lock up the great doors, which usually stood open, when, turning as though I were going away, I made a sudden move, pushed past him, and was inside the temple. He was very angry and for the moment nonplussed, swore at me volubly, casting aspersions doubtless upon. my ancestry in true Celestial style. Quite unexpectedly, however, he stopped, and before I had time to realise his intention, he slammed to the door and turned the key in the lock.

I made a desperate effort to escape, but I was too late. I was now in pitch darkness and as to when or whether he, my gaoler, intended to let me out, I did not know. I could hear him walking off and clanking his great keys triumphantly as he went down the flagged path. I was far too angry to be in the least frightened, and of all things, I had no intention of letting the ruffian think that he had scored. Recovering a little from my surprise, I groped my way about among the dusty gods and devils, thinking that probably there would be some other exit, and finally came upon a low door at the back of the high altar. This gave way to my pushing, and opened on to a narrow staircase up which I stumbled, eventually finding my way out on to the top of the open flat roof of the first story of the temple. Here at least I could see where I was. Moreover, I was in the open air, and I could solace myself with the truly lovely view of the surrounding temples and the thickly wooded country side.

Not a soul was to be seen. The wretch evidently meant me to stay there until I thought better of my sins. For an hour or two I wandered about my prison, spending part of the time in speculating as to whether my gymnastic ability would enable me, with the help of friendly branches, to scale forty feet or so of rough wall and thus to escape. I decided, however, that to risk a broken limb was not worth while, and that to spend a night in a temple after all would not kill me. There would probably be other visitors turning up next day.

By this time the afternoon was drawing in, and the wonderful colouring around me was rendered even more beautiful by the golden haze from the setting sun, when I observed three figures walking among the trees in the garden below. They were evidently in angry altercation. These were my mafu, the burly ruffian (who was gesticulating wildly), and a well-dressed and dignified Chinese gentleman. Without losing a moment, I scrambled hastily down the dark staircase again, and arrived in the temple just as a flood of light was admitted by the door being flung open.

To my astonishment, my unknown friend in need addressed me in pidgin English, “Mississee mafu talkee my one bad man shutee up Mississee. Chlist! (I am afraid that he believed this to be quite a polite expression of amazement) Chlist! What bad man!” The “bad man” was grinning nervously while all this was going on, and in order to show him unmistakably what my opinion was of his behaviour, I gave him a resounding smack on the head as he released me. Even then he had the impudence to ask me for a “cumshaw” (tip), and in order that he might not lose face among the little crowd which had collected at the outer gateway, he only laughed as he rubbed his head and listened to a tremendous dressing-down delivered by the three of us. I decided as I rode back to Nank’ou in the twilight that I would report the matter to my Legation in Peking, but later on I thought better of it. They might have said, “I told you so! ”

Starting early next morning, I continued my journey to Kalgan, the line – the only one in China constructed, financed, and managed by the Chinese – following the course of the Nank’ou Pass, tunnelling below the Great Wall a few miles farther on. Travelling second class, from the viewpoint of mixing with the people rather than from economical motives, the difference in the price of tickets being a mere couple of dollars, I had for my sole European companion an old Swedish missionary who told me that our fellow-travellers were consumed with curiosity about me. They assumed, to begin with, that my husband must be luxuriating in the first-class portion of the train, and that among the English it was the custom to treat the wives as inferiors. Then, seeing the missionary and myself in conversation, they jumped to the conclusion that I was wife of the latter, and that I very properly only spoke to him when he addressed me. Finally, on this being denied, they settled down to the idea, on seeing me take a large volume from my bag and read it (J. O. P. Bland’s absorbingly interesting “Events in China” by the way) that I was a great scholar, and that as such, I of course preferred the simple life. That an ordinary Englishwoman should travel second class needed an explanation in their eyes.

A wealthy young man, he who had asked most of the questions, entertained me greatly during the journey. His clothes were very beautiful, a long silk-damask lavender coat, fur-lined, surmounted by a handsome riding coat in plum-coloured broché. His great treasure seemed, however, to be a large silver watch, which he kept pulling out in the hope that I might be looking at him. Its going capacity must have been precarious for he always listened to it, and after looking carefully all round it, he generally smelt it as well. It was here that I really learned to appreciate the practical use of the two-inch thumb-nail which one frequently sees adorning the hands of the upper-class Chinese. My friend of the lavender coat had purchased a roast duck from an itinerant vendor at a wayside station, and commanded my admiration by the dexterity with which he cut up and ate it, his thumb-nail alone serving him as a carver. He was hungry, and he finished that bird at a sitting.

The scenery on the way up was unexciting until a tempestuous sunset lighted up the rugged mountains, making their snow-covered peaks appear like flaming watch-towers until the sun went down, and with a snap it all suddenly changed. Even in this cold weather we met hundreds of coolies travelling down in open trucks, many of them equipped with motor goggles, which the dust storms of this part of the world render an absolute necessity.

We were two hours late at Kalgan, having taken nine hours on the way (one can hardly expect a sudden transformation as regards punctuality to result from a change of government in China), and I spent a somewhat weary time in the dimly lighted carriage wondering what on earth I should do if the missionaries failed to meet me at the station. Knowing that he would be of no use should I manage to get away to Mongolia, I had taken no “boy” with me, and I doubted very seriously that my few words of Chinese would carry me far in this frontier town, which, I had heard, would be a babel of tongues, and where among 75,000 inhabitants the European population, Russian and German traders all told, did not number more than about forty or fifty.

However, no sooner had I landed on the platform at Kalgan than a cheery voice, unmistakably American, hailed me in a friendly manner.

After giving the required information concerning myself and my business to the courteous Chinese policeman, who, notebook in hand, awaited the train for such purpose, the pleasant young missionary, guessing that I was both tired and hungry, and not in the least put out on account of waiting over two hours on the platform for my train to come in, bundled me and my belongings into a Peking cart. The latter taking up most of the room inside, I sat cross-legged on the shaft, the Chinese driver sitting hard against my back on the opposite side; my host walked alongside of us.

There had been the one rain of the season on the previous day and what under normal conditions had been a foot or so of dust, was now morass, and we passed through slush that reached to the axles of our wheels. “Tuck up your feet,” sang out the missionary as he took an unanticipated plunge into deep water from the pseudo-sidewalk; but I was prepared. This, strange to say, was my first experience of riding in a Peking cart, society in the capital having long ago voted them out-of-date and even in cold weather preferring the ‘ricsha. True, I found their appearance of comfort somewhat of a delusion but their picturesque trimness I had always greatly admired. These strong, springless carts of light wood have solid axles, the ends being inlaid with a device in metal, and upon these the wheels revolve directly. The pale blue linen covers, with little windows made of black gauze on either side, all outlined with black velvet, present an attractive and cleanly appearance, as does also the heavy white leather harness with bright brass or silver buckles and ornaments, which embellishes the handsome black mule, who, at first sight, looks almost too powerful for his job.

Our road lay across the river Yang through the heart of the city now, at nearly 10 o’clock, dark and silent as the grave – silent that is, save for the creaks and excruciating grindings of the wheels as the great boulders sent the cart high up on one side only to slither down into the slush on the other, the mule coming to a standstill from time to time in order to let things right themselves. The main street of Kalgan is scarcely a credit to the community. After half an hour or so of strenuous effort to keep my seat, we turned abruptly out of a narrow alley into the compound of the mission at which I was to board, and were welcomed by my hostess, a pretty girl in her early twenties, at the door of one of the two bungalows.



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