100 Years Ago: May 1921
This is the seventy-sixth entry in my series of reviews of National Geographic Magazines that were printed a hundred years ago.
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Western Siberia and the Altai Mountains”. It has the subtitle, both on the cover and inside, “With Some Speculation on the Future of Siberia”. The article was written by Viscount James Bryce, author of several articles in National Geographic including “Impressions of Palestine”, “The Nation’s Capital”, and “Two Possible Solutions for the Eastern Problem”. The article contains thirty-nine black-and-white photographs, of which seven are full-page in size.
Since July 1914, no American, Englishman, or Frenchmen, except military officers on missions, had traveled along the great Transcontinental Railroad. The author journeyed over that highway in 1913, on his return to England from Japan. From Calais, on the English Channel, to Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, was more than 7,000 miles distance. From New York to San Francisco was only about 3,000 miles. The first 1,500 miles after leaving the Atlantic was thickly peopled, on either rail line. They both cross mountain ranges midcontinent and cross vast tracts of wild, thinly inhabited country, sometimes deserts, sometimes forests. Each crossed great rivers, each skirted large inland seas, and each found its end at a famous harbor. While only one language was spoken from the Hudson to the Golden Gate, many tongues were spoken between Calais and Vladivostok. The best way to enjoy the Asiatic Transcontinental journey was to begin at the west end and travel east. It was more interesting that way, going from civilization to the wild. Likewise, the American Transcontinental was best ridden from east to west for the same reason. While, the author travelled from east to west through Eurasia, he conducted the reader on a journey in the more enjoyable opposite direction.
The 1,600 miles from Calais to Moscow were relatively monotonous geographically. The surface was almost unbroken level, with only one group of low mountains in Westphalia rising out of the sandy plains of Germany. From Moscow onward the land, though generally flat, had its undulations. The country traversed was nearly all cultivated or forest-clad. The first striking view was reached at the town of Samara, where the broad Volga, greatest of European rivers, was crossed by a long, lofty bridge, about 500 miles north of the Caspian Sea. Here there was a change in the air, the dryness of the Asiatic steppes. Thirty-seven years prior, when the author sailed down the Volga, the railway ended at that point. A hundred miles beyond the Volga, blue heights appeared on the eastern horizon, and the train entered the foothills of the Ural range. Their rounded slopes descended into charming valleys, pasture alternating with open wood. As the line pierced deeper into the mountains, the glens were narrower and were filled with dense forests. Bare summits rose to heights of three to four thousand feet. It was a lonely land, with few and small villages. The land was rich in resources – gold, silver, copper, coal, and platinum. The train took seven hours to traverse that picturesque region, stopping here and there at busy mining towns. The train passed an obelisk at the summit level marking the frontier of Europe and Asia. The Asiatic slope was shorter and steeper. Thereafter, the line emerged on the boundless plains of Siberia. Bare and almost waterless, there were no rocks or hollows to diversify the surface, and no distant peaks to break the level line of the horizon. It was the dullest part of the journey from ocean to ocean.
Next the line reaches the thriving town of Omsk, and the first of four great Siberian rivers, the Irtysh. It had risen far to the south in the hills of western Mongolia and flowed north to join the Obi on its way to the Arctic Sea. Then, about eight hours later, the line came to the Obi itself, an even fuller stream. There was a flotilla of steamers moored to its banks. A voyage up the Obi would take one to the Altai. From this point onward, the country was rougher and thinly inhabited. Much of the land was a forest swamp, which the people called Taiga. To avoid forest fires, the woods had been cut back fifty to one hundred yards on each side of the track. That open, wide grassy belt was, in the summer, covered with tall flowers on each side. Behind stood tall pines, beautiful as those of the Scottish Highlands. After many hours’ journey through that delightful garden path, the traveler saw beneath him in a valley, three hundred feet deep, the grandest of all the Siberian rivers, the Yenisei, with the city of Krasnoyarsk lying on the slope between the station and the stream. The author felt the view of the river was the finest he had ever seen. To cross this river, the track stooped down more than a hundred feet to cross the valley by a lofty bridge, and rose again on the eastern slope, making a wide semicircle. Thirty hours more brought the train to the fourth river at Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. It was the Angara, bearing down a tremendous torrent of water from Lake Baikal, which the train soon reached. Lake Baikal was one of the great inland seas of the world, nearly as long as Lake Superior but not as wide. The line ran for many miles along the southern shore on a shelf cut out of the steep mountain side, high above the waves, with frequent tunnels through projecting cliffs. The line ran high along the curving shores for forty of fifty miles, affording a succession of splendid views. Beneath were woods, mostly birch and aspen. Where they had been cleared, the space had been filled by a profuse growth of tall willow herb, whose deep pink blossoms made a waving sea of color, stretching for miles into the blue of the distance. The author felt that only Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia, surpassed Baikal in grandeur.
Leaving the lake, the railway turned south up the valley of Selenga River, and then climbed the slopes, and threaded for many miles the ravines of the rugged highlands, the Yablonoi Mountains. Beyond them came wide plains, and beyond those plains another mountain range. When the line reached Harbin, it divided, one branch turning south to Peking, the other southeast to Vladivostok. From Harbin on, there were no more Russians to be seen, nor Buddhist or other tribes over which the Russians ruled. This was Manchuria where the population was mainly Chinese. From overcrowded China, the industrious inhabitants swarmed out in all directions. If Russia hadn’t established control over the lands south of Lake Baikal and down the Amur to the sea, those lands would have been populated by Chinese emigrants. The last part of the journey, from Harbin to the Sea of Japan, was, perhaps, the most beautiful. The soil was fertile, the pastures excellent, the landscapes charming, and the wealth of flowers surpassed that of western Siberia. Even after seven or eight days of unbroken travel from Moscow, the summer tourists came reluctantly to the end of such a journey. All that stopped in 1914. When would any tourists find the journey possible once more? As soon as peace and order were restored, under whatever government might rule, that government would begin to repair and equip the railroad. To do that from end to end, in a country impoverished by years of war, would be no short or easy task. So much for the Transcontinental Railway, the one great factor in the social and economic life of Siberia, which those who wish to understand the country needed to always keep in mind.
Now the author turned his discussion to western Siberia, and his excursion into the Altai Mountains. In 1913, Siberia was just as open to travelers as was European Russia, but everywhere in the Tsar’s domain, if a person wished to diverge from the regular railway and steamboat routes, found that they needed facilities granted by the government. Before starting for the mountains, Viscount Bryce needed to obtain letters of recommendation to local authorities and the official permission to call for horses at post stations. To get those indispensable papers, he went to Tomsk, the administrative capital of western Siberia. There he presented his credentials to the Provincial Governor. Tomsk was fifty miles north of the Transcontinental Railroad, and connected by a branch line. The author did not understand why the great railway didn’t pass through the city, considering its importance. There were no engineering difficulties to prevent it doing so. He was told that the Tomsk people did not pay a sufficiently high “gratification” to those officials with whom it rested to prescribe the course of the railway. The author’s party arrived at Tomsk at 1 a. m. and on stepping out of the cars were received by a bey of uniformed officials, headed by the chief of police. They were driven three miles though woods to the city – in Siberia, as in India, station were apt to be far from towns. They lodged in a passable hotel. It was August, but all the windows were closed and couldn’t be opened, and baths were unattainable. Everyone spoke Russian, which proved difficult for the author, having forgot the little he had learned thirty-seven years before. The police chief remained with them, although it was now 2 a. m. At last, they found words the equivalents to “Many thanks” and “Farewell”, and a civil servant departed, returning the next morning with a Danish gentleman who spoke English. He proved very helpful, finding for them an interpreter to accompany them on their journey. They were surprised to find that, in a city of sixty thousand people, nobody, except one or two university professors, seemed able to speak either French or German.
When they awoke the next morning all the bells were clanging. It was the “Name Day” of the Tsarevitch, the delicate child destined one day to rule over two hundred million people, or so it was assumed in 1913. All the functionaries of the city – military, civil, and educational, each decked out with his orders and medals – flocked to the cathedral to attend the solemn service in honor of the day. The service was long, as those of the Orthodox Church always were. They knew that all over the Russian dominions, from the Baltic to the pacific, every official and every priest and bishop was imploring the blessing of God upon the boy whose life was so precious. Within five years, that innocent boy was murdered along with his entire family. Tomsk was a large, irregularly built town. It straggled down from a hill to the river Tom. Upon the hill was a cathedral with three domes, and a huge university for law and medicine. Tom was a small, but navigable, stream and carried considerable trade. Viewed from the other side of the stream, the author felt the town looked quite picturesque. The inhabitants were all Russian; the native tribes were scattered to the far north. It was hard to find historical information of those tribes. No western European visited the region and record what he saw from the days of Homer to Marco Polo. Out of that region, from time to time, came fierce horsemen breaking like storms upon the civilized peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and of Europe. Cimmerians and Scythians descended upon Syria long before the Christian era, and Attila led his Huns across Europe in the fifth century, followed by the Avars, Bulgars, and Magyars. In the thirteenth century came the invasion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan.
When the author and his party decided to diverge from their homeward journey, they were warned of discomforts and hardships, but they were seasoned travelers and could not be deterred from the mountains. They did not have tents or climbing equipment, so they wouldn’t reach the glaciers or climb the peaks. Instead, they intended to get as close as they could and enjoy the view. Their starting point was the town of Novo Nikolaevsk, just three years old at the time. It had mushroomed since the opening of the Transcontinental line, being the crossroads of two great lines of trade, the railway and the Obi River. Minerals, grains, and butter were brought from the south on the river in steamers. These products were then shipped on the great railroad eastward to Irkutsk and on to the Pacific, and westward to Russia and German. Had peace continued, the author thought that Novo Nikolaevsk would have become the most populous place in Siberia. He wondered if it had gone to pieces instead. The great Siberian rivers impressed the authors imagination. Their sources were in unexplored snowy solitudes, their middle courses were in habitable lands, and they descend into a frozen wilderness to find their endings in an ice-bound sea. They had just come from a long voyage up and down another great river, the Yangtse. Were the Yangtse was choked with steamships, sailboats, and other small craft, on the Obi, not a sail was to be seen, and hardly a rowboat. Steamers called rarely, and then to discharge or take in freight, for passengers were few. The Obi had scooped out a wide depression about seventy feet below the steppe. It swung here and there across that flat with its course alternately brushing the high banks on either side. The banks were alluvial soil, and mainly bare, but the low shores and the islands were covered with willows and poplars. The few villages on the banks were usually where a small side stream came down. They were clusters of wooden huts with the blue cupola of a church rising in their midst. The peasants, all Russian, crowded down to the landing place when the boat pulled in. The men wore colored flannel shirts, and the women wore blue, red, or yellow skirts with white handkerchiefs tied around their heads.
It was in the town of Barnaul, a commercial center where minerals were brought, that the author occasionally saw an aboriginal nomad from the steppes to the south. There, the hills, outliers of the Altai, began to show themselves. A day and a night from Barnaul brought the party late in the evening to Biisk, a place of some importance. Butter was brought there from the vast pastures that lied all around it. And timber from the vast mountain forests was brought down the river Biya to Biisk. The Biya was joined a few miles lower down by the river Katun, issuing from the Altai, to form the Obi. Biisk was a brisk, thriving place, with a good many people of middle class, traders and government officials. With the help of one of those officials, the author was able to engage a tarantass, a low, four-person cart pulled by two horses, with a third horse running outside as a spare. The party included an interpreter and a police sergeant, not for protection, but to ensure that they got fresh horses at the post stations on the way into Mongolia. They set off on August 18, crossing the broad Biya in a large ferry-boat. Each post station had one or two rooms reserved for the use of officials and was passably furnished. There were usually two beds, but the party never used them, instead sleeping on the floor on the light mattresses which they had brought. The people were civil, and gave the party what food they had, black bread, butter, and sometimes eggs. There were no vegetables to be had, and meat was scarce. The author had brought a tin of biscuits, tea, preserved meat, and desiccated soup. They ate the soup whenever hot water was available. They started ever morning as soon as horse were to be gotten, and never reached the next resting place until after dark. They rarely cover more that twenty-five miles a day. At best, the tarantass could go three or four miles an hour, and with swapping horses factored in, twenty-five miles was its limit. The author felt he could easily walk that far in a day, if he wouldn’t have had to carry a knapsack.
The first day’s journey was over rolling grass steppes; the second took the party into soft valleys, filled with flowers, between the low hills. There the snow did not melt away till May. On the third day they reached a charming hollow surrounded by cliffs. Not far off a Russian landscape artist made a studio for himself in a hut. He was away, but the door was open so they examined and critiqued his works. They were the only things they saw during their journey to indicate that anyone from the plains ever came here except for mining and the trading of Mongolian wool. The party faced many difficulties in their wanderings – rocky tracts, crumbling edges of deep ravines, plunging through swamps, and worst, the mire of tract where it led through a village where, between houses, was a bottomless sea of black farmland filth. All those were outweighed by the views the author got from the heights. One particular panorama stuck with him, the view from the summit of a mountain above the Semenski Pass. From it they saw an immense stretch of rugged ridges and bare peaks rising one behind another. The two Belukha peaks (14,900 feet) were hidden by nearer heights. They were the highest points in the Altai, as tall as the Matterhorn. They were the center of a mass of glaciers, with crags and gorges around them. The landscapes which the author got to see were gentler, always picturesque, and sometimes charming. The Altaian scenery reminded the author of the Canadian Rockies, not the Alps. It gave a sense of untouched primeval wilderness. Civilization seemed infinitely far away.
From a station on the route into Mongolia they were forced to turn back. The track ahead was far worse than the one upon which they had travelled. Taking a more westerly track on the return journey, they passed between bare mountains and over several high table-lands, in some of which they met nomad Kirghiz, with their herds; in others Kalmuks, dwelling in conic huts of bark, not unlike the Indian wigwams. The former was of Muslim Turkish stock, the latter Buddhist Mongols. In both there remained the old Shamanist spirit worship which prevailed over all northern and central Asia. The people were wild and unkempt, but they were peaceable. Many wore sheepskins or bearskins. Both races lived off of their sheep, cattle, and horses, drinking the milk of all three. They loved koumiss, fermented mare’s milk. Sometimes they cultivated a little patch of ground. A Kalmuk or a Kirghiz never walked, he jumped on his wiry little horse to go a hundred yards. On those high plains the saw swarms of little burrowing creatures called tarbaghans, resembling marmots. They scurried into their hole as the party’s vehicle approached. At one spot, the ground was covered with the Alpine edelweiss for fully a square mile. Crossing over the pasture, they saw a long line of camels. The author was amused by the juxtaposition of the plant that grew beside European glaciers together with the denizen of the Arabian desert. Once, they came upon a huge eagle sitting on a low rock surrounded by a parliament of crows. He rose very slowly at their approach and sailed away while the parliament dispersed. There were plenty of hawks and falcons, as there were of wolves, bears, and lynxes. Tigers, however, did not come farther north than the marshes of Lake Balkash, some hundreds of miles to the southwest.
A few days more through picturesque rocky alleys brought them down to the foothills, and thence over the steppes to the town of Biisk, whence they had started. They embarked on a steamer smaller than the one that brought then up river. Having the current, even with a long halt at Barnaul, they made it to Novo Nickolaevsk in three days, where they were entertained by the representatives of an American firm which supplied agricultural machinery. Rejoining the railway, they boarded the train which carried them to Omsk, and through the Urals to Moscow, Petersburg, Konigsburg, as so on to Berlin. There they were told by high officials of the Foreign Office, that diplomatic relations between Germany and England had been steadily improving. That was ten months before the war. Whether the Altai would ever become the mountain playground of Asia as the Alps were the playground of Europe, the author doubted. But they and the lofty ridges that continued to the Amur River were the only Asiatic ranges in which mountaineering could be enjoyed, like in the Alps and the Rockies. The author felt that the Himalayas were grander, but their scale was too vast for average human power. The author speculated about American, Canadian, and even British, mountain climbers enjoying the peaks of the Altai. He also predicted hunters going there to find deer, elk, wolves, bears, lynxes, and, on the Mongolian side, the rare mountain sheep with their great curved horns. The author hoped that that rare animal did not go extinct. Though disappointed that they were unable to make an effective reconnaissance of the approaches to the great peaks, they returned to civilization, half famished but healthy, with the satisfaction of seeing new and interesting terrain, and having caught a glimpse of the life of ancient nomads.
The author switches topics now to the economic future of Siberia. The country contained the one hitherto imperfectly developed region in the temperate zones. It had the greatest possibilities of development for food production. Not counting the small districts in eastern Siberia, or the fertile regions along the Amur River, there were between the Ural Mountains and the Yenisei River thousands of square miles available for pasture and for cultivation. Before the war and revolution, a steady stream of 100,000 peasants per year had move there and were given farms by the government. The cultivated area was being steadily increased. Alone the Obi and the Irkutsk, rich pasturelands were supporting an increasing number of cattle. An immense trade in butter had sprung up. Thus, in 1913, the country was thriving with the prospect of rapid growth in wealth and population. There were few manufacturing industries, but the wealth of minerals hidden long in the mountains was believed to be of great value. The fact that those resources had not been developed was attributed to the incompetence and the corruption of the imperial administration. The greatest want of Siberia was cheaper transportation for its heavy products to European markets, especially Germany, France, and England. The value of the great rivers was mostly reduced by the fact that they empty into the Arctic Ocean. Their mouths were difficult to approach, even in summer. Even if ships reached the Gulf of Ob, they might not have been able to return with their loads of cargo. Wireless telegraphy was expected to reduce the risk by informing ship of which parts of the sea were opened. But the shipping season would be limited to July and August. The economic progress the author saw in 1913 was arrested by war the following year. In 1917, there was fighting in Siberia itself between the Bolsheviks, who had seized power in European Russia, and their opponents, led by Admiral Kolchak. [See: “Glimpses of Siberia, Russia’s Wild East”, National Geographic, December 1920.] The Bolsheviks prevailed, not because the peasants adopted communist doctrines, but because the men around Kolchak had become so hated that, after early successes, they melted away before the Bolshevik advance. What was happening in Siberia in 1921, few people in western Europe knew. The author had nothing but questions. In the long run, economic factors were sure to prevail. Revolutionary disorders never last very long. It was in the interest of the majority to see a stable administration established. Once a strong man, or group, establishes rule, it is in their self-interest to promote the well-being of their subjects by extending facilities for trade and industry.
The history of Siberia was almost a blank slate up to 1917. The men of Great Novgorod had occasionally sent trading and raiding bands across the Urals in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the first invasion was under a robber chief named Yermak, who led his followers into the country in 1580. But thereafter, the process of conquest and colonization went on unnoticed by Europe. There was no serious resistance from the aboriginal inhabitants, who were weak and loosely scattered savage tribes. Thus, there were no real events for historians to record; the process went on gradually and unobserved. Racially the Siberian Russians differed little from their European counterparts. Any infusion of aboriginal blood scarcely affected them. Serfdom never existed in Siberia. The immigrants were mostly more enterprising than their brethren who stayed at home. The exiles banished for political offenses, real or imagined, often came from the intellectual elite of Russia. Taken as a whole, the Siberians were quite capable of local self-government as are the peasantry of European Russia, and just as unlikely to become Communists. So far as the author could learn, the only class in which political discontent existed had been the students at the university who occasionally demonstrated. Whether Siberia would remain part of Russia, was impossible for the author to predict. An English observer, who had traveled there forty years prior, told the author that he thought Siberia would break away, peacefully or otherwise. Nothing the author had learned in the country confirmed that forecast. The transcontinental Railroad had become a bond of union. The Ural Mountains, though a good natural boundary if the people on each side differed in race, speech, and religion, did not, the facts being what they were, constitute a barrier worth regarding.
The author wished there was such a dividing line. The Russian Empire before 1914 was too large and unwielded for any one set of men to govern. Yet, in 1913 the Russian Government moved to extend its territory by trying to establish political control over Mongolia as far as the frontier of China. Russian expansion and population growth were dangers to Europe, but would have been much worse if they had had a more capable government. Stupidity and corruption reduced those dangers greatly. For their own sake, and for the sake of the world, the author hoped that Siberia, as well as Transcaucasia would be disjoined from Russia. He envisioned a working federal government, consisting of five or six federated states between the Urals and the Pacific. He felt that would be better than one huge, unitary empire or republic. Neither Russia nor Siberia was likely to enjoy free popular constitutional government for the foreseeable future. But the author believed that it was unlikely that the ruinous despotism which ruled both countries would endure for long. There might be a time of strife, and there was no legally constituted authority for the citizen to obey. But anarchy never lasts long. The author hoped that the natural action of economic forces would, perhaps in a few years, install some sort of settled government, able to enforce order and to permit men to resume their daily work in a normal way. As soon as Siberia obtains such a government, she will some day become one of the great food-producing countries of the world, like the western U. S. became fifty years prior, and Argentina became just thirty years prior.
The second article in this month’s issue is entitled “The Mongols, People of the Wilderness” on the cover and was written by Adam Warwick. The internal title reads simply “The People of the Wilderness” and has the subtitle “The Mongols, Once the Terror of All Christendom, Now a Primitive, Harmless Nomad Race”. The article contains fifty-nine black-and-white photographs, of which twelve are full-page in size, including a frontispiece for the article on page 506.
The annexation of Mongolia by China in 1919 had led to trouble in Urga, their capital. That had drawn attention to the “People of the Wilderness”, as the Chinese contemptuously called anyone from beyond their border, including their neighbors, the Mongols. Mongolia had a glorious past. Seven hundred years prior, Genghis Khan set out from its barren steppes to conquer the world. He swept all before him from the Yellow Sea to the Adriatic. His hundred thousand horsemen march from the Carpathians to Budapest in three days, and made minor excursions deep into Bohemia, Germany, and Serbia. A special prayer, “Save us from the fury of the Tatars”, was introduced into Christian litany. But for the death of his successor, which imposed three years of mourning and inactivity, the Mongols would have easily reached the Atlantic. Forty years after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his grandson, Kublai Khan became monarch of the whole of China – China, Indochina, Burma, Korea, Borneo, and Sumatra. The life of ease and luxury sapped the vigor from his followers in a single century. One more great leader emerged from the steppes, Timur the Lame (Tamerlane). He subdued Iran and Turan, defeated the Turks, and burned Moscow. His last descendant, the knight-errant and poet, Sultan Babar founded the Empire of the Great Mogul. But the fall of the Mongols was just as rapid as their rise. In China, they were able to hold sway only eighty-eight years. Elsewhere, their empire crumbled quickly, leaving only isolated remnants under their dominion.
When events shattered their dreams of world power, the Mongols retired once more within the confines of Mongolia proper, where they have lived for centuries in peaceful isolation. The population, thinned by war, was 2,6000,000 souls spread over a vast area of 1,367,000 square miles. The Manchus, who succeeded the rule of the Mongols in China, exercised only nominal control over them. The local Mongols were allowed to govern themselves, preserving their original tribal organizations, headed by native princes. When the Manchus disappeared, the Mongols, who never recognized China’s right to rule over them, declared their autonomy. They lived contently under the self-appointed rule of the “Hutukhtu”, or Bogda Khan (the third Living God in the Lamaist hierarchy). His temple palace was at Urga, where he ruled until that fatal day when the Chinese Republic cancelled their right of self-determination. Those events went unnoticed by the world powers due to Mongolia’s isolation and lack of communications. There was not a single railroad in Mongolia, one was planned from Kalgan to Kyakhta, and only recently a motor-car service was started across the steppes to Urga (550 miles). Little was known of Mongolia’s resources. Gold mines existed, one of which, the “Mongolor” was developed by American capital. There were also silver, copper and coal mines. The rivers abounded with fish and the forests in valuable timber and fur-bearing animals. The great tablelands had the farming potential equal to that of Texas and Nebraska.
The primitive Mongols cared not about wealth; they were like lilies of the field, “they toil not, neither do they spin”. By reducing their needs, they reduced their anxiety. They led a migratory, care-free existence. They needed neither roads nor electricity, and it costs them nothing except the care required to guard their herds from wolves. Those herds provided them with clothing, food, transportation, and even fuel. Their life was unchanged form the time of the Great Genghis. Their lumbering ox-carts were designed in his day. Their sheep, horses, and even camels were the original native breeds. Mongolian camels were superb beasts, different from the one-hump Arabian variety. They were glorious in their winter coats, but repulsive in summer when the long hair fell out in patches. They were mean – they kicked and they bit. Their bite, followed by a twist of their lower teeth, generally induced blood poisoning. The largest camel would bear only a comparatively small load, but he was the only freight-carrier that could cross the desert. The camel may have been useful, but the horse was much more popular among the Mongols. The native breed was seldom over thirteen hand high and rarely beautiful, but it possessed endurance, cleverness, and originality. Even in winter, the animal fended for himself. An extra layer of hair and thickness of hoof protected him against the bitter cold. He would scrape away snow with his forefeet to find the grass beneath. Mares were kept at home for breeding, but great numbers of Mongolian ponies were exported to China. They roamed the plains freely until wanted, and then they were captured, on horseback, using a pole with a noose at the end.
Expert horsemen at childhood, both men and women were equally at home in the saddle. The Mongol never walked if he could help it. The plains stretched for miles and miles. It would have been an ideal riding spot if not for the field-mice and marmots. They would excavate galleries a few inches below the surface, and ponies passing over would go through them. Falls were sometimes fatal. As was only natural among such confirmed horse lovers, races were a popular amusement in Mongolia. Each competing pony was tied to a rope picketed on the grass plain. The rope was shortened every day, reducing the area the animal could graze. This method of gradual starvation appeared to have increased rather than diminished its endurance. The jockeys were children, as young as nine or ten. No saddles were allowed, but each rider was given a heavy whip and a handkerchief. The latter was to wipe dust from the eyes and nostrils of the jockey’s mount. The straight course was so long that often there was a good deal of difference in time between the arrival of the ponies. Tales told of races fifty, and even a hundred, miles long, but those were doubtless exaggerations; but fifteen- and twenty-mile races at full gallop were well authenticated. After the race, the crowd usually adjourned to some neighboring monastery, where a festival in honor of the day was held.
In Mongolia, monasteries were the great centers of amusement, interest, culture, and wickedness. The priests exercised complete sway over the people by their religion of terror, the Tibetan form of one of the sects of Buddhism know as Tantric – a revival of the morbid Indian cult of Siva. That creed, with its demonology, was well suited for the primitive Mongols, living in awe and fear of natural forces. They felt powerless against thunder and lightning, and the monks took advantage of those fears. The monasteries grew wealthy. They were the finest buildings in Mongolia. The most famous, and best kept monasteries were the abodes of the Living Buddhas. It was believed that these men were gods incarnate, and that when they died, or “changed the vehicle”, were reborn with the memories of the past, thus proving their identity. Those new candidates were coached by the chief Lamas to give the proper answers. The people, and most of the monks believed the hoax most implicitly. The crowd that made its way to the monastery after the race gave abundant proof of the part religion plays in Mongol every-day life. Many prayed as the rode. Once at the temple, they would visit every shrine and pray. They would prostrate themselves, some even throwing themselves flat on their faces. Even little children were seen turning prayer-wheels. One of the greatest festivals of the Lama church was the Devil Dance, which took place each spring. It represented the chasing out of the Spirit of Evil. But more interesting to the author was the Midsummer Festival. It attracted crowds of pilgrims. Caravans began arriving many days in advance. The temple surroundings became a busy scene, with Chinese traders crying their wares and itinerant restaurants preparing food. The rich arrived in camel-carts, while some families came in bullock-wagons. But by far, the greatest number appeared on horseback, alone and in groups, men and women, respectable and notorious, Lamas and laymen, and dressed well and poorly, but always gaudily in yellow, blue, red, white, or green.
On the day of the ceremony, the temple was astir before dawn. The monks assembled, in purple gowns, red waistcoats, and scarlet or golden togas. The Living Buddha appeared in his fringed orange felt helmet, followed by abbots, lesser Lamas, and lay officials in their old Manchu hats. The whole company rode out of the monastery gates on ponies and crossed the steppes to the obo, or sacred mount. Such elevations, crowned with a flagstaff and fluttering prayer banners, were landmarks all over Mongolia. They represented the ancient totems to the nature spirits, adopted from Shamanism, which the author called the “Black Faith”. Every Mongol stopped to worship at them, always leaving something, a bit of rag or fur from his clothing, or a handful of hair from his horse’s mane. After climbing the hill, the priests gathered around the cairn. At tent was set up for the Living Buddha, the high Lamas, and the civil officials. Lesser dignitaries squatted upon the ground in a circle. Then the service began, accompanied by huge bronze trumpets six feet long, flutes made from seashells, and libation cups from human skulls. The ceremony must be completed before sunrise, when the participants returned to the monastery for the popular festival, some racing, some riding cautiously. The crowd was a feast of color in a radiant landscape. By that time, a group of white tents had been erected in the meadow for the feast. The largest served as a reception hall. Inside, a large bench had been prepared for the guests of honor. Two choirs of singers, in bright robes, knelt on either side of the entrance and chanted a welcome. Soon the feast began. Cups made of “zabia” wood were used for liquors made from fermented milk. The principal meat dish was mutton. A kneeling attendant passed each dish to a guest. A second serving Lama acted as butler for the occasion, cutting up the meat. The rumps and tails were given to those whom the monks wanted to honor.
To Mr. Warwick, a Mongol feast was a doubtful pleasure. He disliked the idea that the sheep was slaughtered in a barbarous native way (said to preserve the flavor). Its belly was ripped open, and the butcher would reach in and snap the aorta. It was also difficult for him to eat comfortably, having to attack, with only a knife, a great expanse of mutton spread on a brass dish nearly two feet in diameter. Practice had made the Mongols experts, and in an incredibly short time each native had gobbled his share. They cut the meat so close to their lips, that the author was amazed that they didn’t cut of their noses. After all feasters had gorged themselves and grown cheery with copious drafts of airak, the hosts and guests mingle with the crowd at the fair in the meadow. There were storytellers reciting tales from the rich Mongolian folklore. Most fairgoers hastened to see the wrestlers. Dressed like Roman soldiers, two champions faced each other in the center of an open space. One was a large horseman, and the other a gigantic Lama. Three rounds constituted the fight. They could not grip each other, except by the belt, with which they attempted to throw their opponent to the ground. The Lama won the first bout, while the horseman won rounds two and three. The champion went to the grandstand tent, where he knelt before the high Lama, who awarded him a roll of silk, a silver cup, an honorary scarf, or a few bricks of tea. After that, another pair of athletes appeared. Apart from the amusements, there was also much visiting done at those fairs. Neighbors lived miles apart, the fairs afforded them the opportunity to become acquainted. This applies especially for the womenfolk, whose lives were dull and lonely. The festivals also gave them the opportunity to show off their finery.
The dress of both sexes was much alike, as far as shape was concerned. The main difference was that men wore belts, while women allowed their long garments to hang loose from shoulder to heel. The common word for woman in Mongol was “beltless”. The outer robe of both sexes was a wide, roomy coat, which reached the ground. The sleeves were so ample that arms could be withdrawn and reintroduced freely. In that gown, men and women were, for all practical purposes, enclosed in a tent, from which only the head projected. It allowed the wearer to dress and undress beneath it in perfect privacy, whether on horseback or in a crowded tent. On ordinary occasions the Mongols wore plain material, but on high days and holidays, the woman donned beautiful embroidered gowns, often with quaint padded epaulettes. The most remarkable features of the Mongol costumes were the hair ornaments and headdresses of the women. Even a poor girl, once she was married, wore a profusion of silver ornaments on her head. The precise nature and shape of those varied with the tribes. They ranged from a most ludicrous coiffure to curtains of red corals or turquoise or strings of pearls, often reaching the waist. When the wearers stood together on the veranda of some temple, the author felt the effect was most striking.
At the close of the festival, which lasted two or three days, the crowds departed to their homes, sometimes hundreds of miles distant. A few needed to cross the Gobi Desert, that dreary stretch of sand and stone. [See: “A Trip Across the Gobi Desert by Motor Car”, Ethan C. de Munyon, National Geographic, May 1913.] Alas for him who lost his way in a dust-storm there and wandered helplessly among the boulders. The more fortunate festivalgoer traveled back across the steppes, where the noon mirages mocked and beckoned, where lakes glimmered and clouds on the far horizon gave the illusion of mountain ranges, rendering unreal a world of beauty and of dread. The rule of the plain was that any traveler who demanded hospitality at a tent must be lodged and fed, unless the tent was under quarantine because of sickness. The lodging was nowhere luxurious, though the larger encampments had guest tents. The average Mongol yurt was of the simplest construction. Around a mud floor, a trellis-work of lathes about four feet high was built. From that, sticks radiated to a point at the top. Those were covered with a single or double layer of felt, tied down firmly in winter with leather straps, but raised in summer to admit the breeze. The interior furnishing was equally simple. In the center was an iron fireplace. Dried cattle dung was the only fuel available. The smoke found its way through a hole in the roof. Around the walls were a few chests and plain brass pots. A few sheepskins and pieces of felt represented bed, sofa, and chair. Sometimes the refinements of life were represented by a basket, a pan, or a bowl.
If the traveler was not proud, and was willing to lie down beside the lambs and calves of the household, even the poorest Mongol gave cordial welcome and the best he had to offer. The rule was: “Only observe etiquette, and every tent was yours”. Even among the People of the Wilderness there were a few essential rules of politeness. Always approach a tent riding up to it from the front. Stop a short distance away and shout “Nohoi” (dog). The Mongol dogs were very savage. Riders would stay on their ponies, and pedestrians would carry large sticks for protection. The dogs had many wolfish qualities, and the disgusting Mongol habit of leaving dead corpses on the plains instead of burying them increased their savage instincts. The author felt that no westerner could walk those plains and not be sickened by the sight of human skulls and bones strewn across the landscape, or by seeing the large wooden boxes containing condemned criminals doomed to starve or be eaten by wolves. Once a stranger entered a tent, however, the savage creatures will no longer attack him, so bringing a stick inside was considered rude. Having left his stick outside, the traveler would enter and say “Mendu” (greetings) to the occupants and then sit on the left side of the fireplace. Next was the interchange of snuff bottles. A Mongol visitor shared his first, and then the host and the people of the tent shared theirs. A foreigner did not carry snuff, so the host would offer his to the foreign visitor. Meanwhile, the women warmed tea. Around sunset, they had dinner. The hostess proceeded to a dog-proof cage outside the door and chopped off a piece of frozen meat with an axe. That was boiled with a kind of millet. Once done, the morsels were fished out with tongs and served in a basin or on a board. Most Mongols retired immediately after that meal. Next morning, on leaving, the traveler mounted his pony at the tent door with a bow and a smile. The Mongols had no equivalent to a handshake and goodbye.
Mongols could not endure settled life. All their belongings packed easily on the back of a camel; a few calfskin bags with provisions, the tent, the cooking pots, the grate, two water buckets, and a few odd pieces of felt were all they needed – except space to journey in. What the Mongols most feared was the attempt of the Chinese to colonize their country. They have seen with alarm how the tilled fields of those thrifty agriculturalists were already encroaching on the steppes.
The third and final article in this month’s issue is entitled “The New Map of Asia” and has no byline. It is an introduction to the “Special Map Supplement – The New Asia” advertised on the cover. The article contains only three pages of text and seventeen black-and-white photographs. While one of the photos is embedded in the text, the other sixteen are full-page in size and sequential, having the title/label “Glimpses of Asia” atop each odd-numbered page. The supplement map has the advertised size of 28 x 36 inches. It was also referenced in the first article in this issue.
Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
More than half the human race lived in Asia. It was nearly six times the area of the United States, about one-third of the earth’s entire land surface. It boasted the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest, 29,140 feet, and the ocean’s deepest pit, off the coast of Mindanao, in the Philippines, 32,088 feet. In 1921, it was thought that somewhere within its borders was the birthplace of man. From there, it was believed, the migration began which resulted in the peopling of all the continents and all the islands of the sea. It was a land of teeming millions, and of vast solitudes. There were twelve rivers on earth which exceeded 2,500 miles in length, and of those, six arose in and flowed through Asia. The continent extended from Cape Chelyuskin, within twelve degrees of the North Pole, to the Malay Peninsula, within one and a half degrees of the Equator; and from the Strait of Bab El Mandeb, separating Arabia from Africa, to the Bering Strait, separating Siberia from Alaska. That last span stretched 6,700 miles, or more than a fourth of the circumference of the globe. To the casual observer, the New Map of Asia, published by the National Geographic Society and issued as a supplement with this number of The Geographic, didn’t appear radically different from that of pre-war Asia. But the war in Europe had wrought great changes, resulting in the dismemberment of a great empire, which had come down from medieval times, the creation of five new nations, the provisional creation of four others, and the possible evolution into around ten semi-independent states from the wreckage of Tzarist “Russia in Asia”. [Note: Additional copies of the New Map of Asia were advertised for $1.50 each (cloth) and $1.00 each (paper) at National Geographic headquarters, Washington D. C.]
While, except for the Turks, none of the ancient peoples of Asia participated in the World War to the same extent as European and American peoples, there were fewer neutral governments in the orient than in Europe. Siberia was part of Russia; India and Burma were parts of the British Empire; Indochina was a French colony; Persia was a battleground for contending armies; and Arabia, China, Japan, and Siam were all involved in the struggle. Only Afghanistan and Mongolia were untouched politically by the war, and even they were affected indirectly, with Mongolia under Russian protection from 1913 to 1919 and Britain’s influence in the court of the Emir of Afghanistan. As an ally of the Germans, Turkey, by her defeat, had lost not only most of her territory in Europe, but also an extensive and populous portion of her Asiatic empire. Out of that region, the “independent states” of Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Hedjaz, Armenia and the autonomous province of Kurdistan had been established. France assumed guardianship of Syria, and Britain exercised similar authority over Palestine and Mesopotamia. Armenia was established by the Treaty of Sevres, and had not as yet had her borders defined. Greece will administer the prosperous district surrounding Smyrna, the most prosperous port of Asia Minor, for five years, after which a plebiscite would be held to choose to remain with Greece or revert back to Turkey. [See: The New Map of Europe”, National Geographic Magazine, February 1921]. The Kingdom of Hedjaz extended along the northeast shores of the Red Sea from Asir to Palestine. It was about the size of Colorado, with a population of some 750,000. It contained the holy places of Mecca and Medina, and its capital and chief seaport was Jidda, a town of 30,000 inhabitants.
The vast territory formerly known as Russia in Asia, which included Siberia, Transcaucasia, Turkistan, and the Steppes provinces, spanned more than 6,290,000 square miles, more than three time as large as Russia in Europe. It had a population of only twenty-seven million, barely four persons per square mile. Little was known about that region’s political future. Most information was vague and contradictory. Out of Transcaucasia, three republics evolved – Azerbaijan, Georgia, and, in part, Armenia. Their existence was short-lived. Whether, when the tide of Bolshevism receded, and they would be able to establish their independence, no one could see. The boundaries of those countries were approximations. The editor referred the reader to the first article in this issue for further information and speculation. German concessions in the Chinese province of Shantung Kiaochow and Tsingtao) were transferred to Japan. Kiaochow and the surrounding area and bay were seized by Germany in 1897. It remained a German protectorate until November 1914 when it was captured and occupied by Japanese forces. Despite China’s contention at the peace conference that the area should revert back to China, the “lease” was transferred to Japan on the grounds of conquest. It was for that reason that China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. That constituted in Asia a “sore spot” similar to the score or so which pock-marked the political map of Europe. Before the influx of the Japanese, the Kiaochow district had a population of about 200,000. Surrounding the district and the bay was a neutral zone of about 2,500 square miles, with 1,200,000 inhabitants.
In addition to her acquisition of Kiaochow, Japan’s spoils from the World War included the Marshall Archipelago, the Marianas Islands, the Pelew Group, and the Carolines, including the much-discussed island of Yap. Yap was important from an American standpoint as a connecting link for cables between San Francisco, Hawaii, Gaum, the Philippines, China, and the Dutch East Indies. The Carolines consisted of 500 coral islets, supporting some ten thousand inhabitants; the Pelews were about twenty-six in number, with 3,000 natives; and the fifteen Marianas had 2,600 inhabitants. The Marshalls consisted of two chains of some twenty-five lagoon islands, supporting a population of 15,000. When the American Pacific cable line was laid, at the beginning of the twentieth century, from San Francisco to the Philippines, by way of Hawaii, Midway, and Guam (7,846 miles), a branch line was laid from Guam to Yap. From the latter, lines now radiated to Japan, to Shanghai, and to the Dutch East Indies. Yap was interesting as well as commercially important. The westernmost of the Western Carolines, it was situated some 500 miles southwest of Guam and 800 miles east of Mindanao, of the Philippine group. The arrival of Australian troops in October 1914, prevented the Germans from erecting a wireless station there. That would have aided communications with the commercial raider Emden which was operating in the Pacific.
Although surrounded by an atoll, Yap was of volcanic origin. Its only good harbor was Tomil Bay. It was called “the Island of Stone Money” because native wealth was reckoned in pounds, or tons, of limestone discs. A single “coin”, four foot in diameter, was worth 10,000 coconuts. The coconut was the unit of value on Yap, for copra was the only export. The 7,000 natives of Yap were cataloged as Micronesians; akin to the peoples of Melanesian, Polynesian, and Malaysian stocks. They had coffee-colored skin, wavy black hair, dark eyes, and prominent check bones. They were smaller than the natives of Samoa, Fiji, or Tahiti; and they were a docile and kindly people. Two looming factors were at work in the Orient that could change the political boundaries “without notice”. The first was the upheaval in Asian Russia, including Siberia, Turkestan, and Transcaucasia, and even spilling into Persia. The second was Japan’s desire for territorial expansion. That has resulted in her reaching out into China and eastern Siberia, and into the islands of the Pacific north of the Equator. Asia was no longer the “Changeless East”; it was the Continent of Ceaseless Change.
The map supplement “New Map of Asia” was first promoted in an article in the February 1921 National Geographic as the sister map to that issue’s map supplement, the “New Map of Europe”. The article in the February issue, also called “New Map of Europe”, advertised that additional copies of that map were for sale, with or without an index. The European map was only the second map supplement to have an index booklet printed, although some earlier map supplements included indexes as part of the map itself. Since the map of Asia was considered a sister map, one would have though that an index booklet for the May map would have also been produced; but the map is advertised in this month’s issue as a standalone. The only reason I bring this up is the fact that there is an indication that an index was planned and that those plans were scrapped.
To index a map, one must include a set of keys in the map to mark out a grid, usually by longitude and latitude, using a letter/number cross reference. Maps that aren’t going to be indexed do not need these letters and number embedded in the map, or along its edges. The fact that the “New map of Asia” has these grid-marks tells me that an index was planned, but for some reason, or set of reasons, that plan was not acted upon. Perhaps the Index of Europe didn’t sell well and, due to that underperformance, the Index of Asia was scraped. Map Indices did not become popular until the ‘30s, ‘40s, and into the 50’s. Another possible factor may have been the time and cost involved; the society may not have had the resources to produce it. Maybe it was a mistake, like say the cartographers, having just finished the Map of Europe, assumed they should include the alphanumeric grid-marks. Or maybe they were included “just in case”.
I realize that all this speculation is just a flight of fancy, but the hard evidence is obvious to anyone viewing the map. It uses a longitudinal by latitudinal grid as shown in the closeup image above. The map’s projection has the longitudinal line converging on the North Pole at the center/top of the map. Between 10 degrees West longitude to 0 degrees longitude, the number “1” appears; between 0 degrees and 10 degrees East longitude, the number “2”; between 10 and 20 degrees East, “3”, and so on until you get to 170-180 degrees East with a “19” and 180-170 degrees West with “20”. This string of numbers appears as a semicircle around the pole. The latitudes are lettered around the border of the map. 80 to 70 degrees North latitude is labeled “A”. (Note: Between the Pole and 80 degrees latitude the is only a handful of location names, all of them in longitudinal sections “3” through “8”. Those could easily be folded into the “A” latitude groups for those longitudes. The latitudes continue to be lettered, “B” between 70 to 60 degrees North down to “H” for 10 to 0 degrees North. For some unknown reason, the latitudes from 0 to 10 degrees South are labeled “J” instead of “I”. While the image above shows the longitude numbers clearly, only one of the latitude letters is shown, the “A” for 80 to 70 degrees North latitude, which can be seen along the map border to the left of the North Pole.
At the bottom of the last page of this issue (Page 570) there is a notice regarding change of address. If a member wanted the magazine to be mailed somewhere else, the Society needed a month’s notice in advance, starting on the first of the month. If a member wanted the July issue redirected, the Society needed to know by June first.
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