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   Chapter 4 TO THE SAYANS AND SAFETY

Beasts, Men and Gods By Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski Characters: 12599

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Dense virgin wood surrounded us. In the high, already yellow grass the trail wound hardly noticeable in among bushes and trees just beginning to drop their many colored leaves. It is the old, already forgotten Amyl pass road. Twenty-five years ago it carried the provisions, machinery and workers for the numerous, now abandoned, gold mines of the Amyl valley. The road now wound along the wide and rapid Amyl, then penetrated into the deep forest, guiding us round the swampy ground filled with those dangerous Siberian quagmires, through the dense bushes, across mountains and wide meadows. Our guide probably did not surmise our real intention and sometimes, apprehensively looking down at the ground, would say:

"Three riders on horses with shoes on have passed here. Perhaps they were soldiers."

His anxiety was terminated when he discovered that the tracks led off to one side and then returned to the trail.

"They did not proceed farther," he remarked, slyly smiling.

"That's too bad," we answered. "It would have been more lively to travel in company."

But the peasant only stroked his beard and laughed. Evidently he was not taken in by our statement.

We passed on the way a gold mine that had been formerly planned and equipped on splendid lines but was now abandoned and the buildings all destroyed. The Bolsheviki had taken away the machinery, supplies and also some parts of the buildings. Nearby stood a dark and gloomy church with windows broken, the crucifix torn off and the tower burned, a pitifully typical emblem of the Russia of today. The starving family of the watchman lived at the mine in continuing danger and privation. They told us that in this forest region were wandering about a band of Reds who were robbing anything that remained on the property of the gold mine, were working the pay dirt in the richest part of the mine and, with a little gold washed, were going to drink and gamble it away in some distant villages where the peasants were making the forbidden vodka out of berries and potatoes and selling it for its weight in gold. A meeting with this band meant death. After three days we crossed the northern ridge of the Sayan chain, passed the border river Algiak and, after this day, were abroad in the territory of Urianhai.

This wonderful land, rich in most diverse forms of natural wealth, is inhabited by a branch of the Mongols, which is now only sixty thousand and which is gradually dying off, speaking a language quite different from any of the other dialects of this folk and holding as their life ideal the tenet of "Eternal Peace." Urianhai long ago became the scene of administrative attempts by Russians, Mongols and Chinese, all of whom claimed sovereignty over the region whose unfortunate inhabitants, the Soyots, had to pay tribute to all three of these overlords. It was due to this that the land was not an entirely safe refuge for us. We had heard already from our militiaman about the expedition preparing to go into Urianhai and from the peasants we learned that the villages along the Little Yenisei and farther south had formed Red detachments, who were robbing and killing everyone who fell into their hands. Recently they had killed sixty-two officers attempting to pass Urianhai into Mongolia; robbed and killed a caravan of Chinese merchants; and killed some German war prisoners who escaped from the Soviet paradise. On the fourth day we reached a swampy valley where, among open forests, stood a single Russian house. Here we took leave of our guide, who hastened away to get back before the snows should block his road over the Sayans. The master of the establishment agreed to guide us to the Seybi River for ten thousand roubles in Soviet notes. Our horses were tired and we were forced to give them a rest, so we decided to spend twenty-four hours here.

We were drinking tea when the daughter of our host cried:

"The Soyots are coming!" Into the room with their rifles and pointed hats came suddenly four of them.

"Mende," they grunted to us and then, without ceremony, began examining us critically. Not a button or a seam in our entire outfit escaped their penetrating gaze. Afterwards one of them, who appeared to be the local "Merin" or governor, began to investigate our political views. Listening to our criticisms of the Bolsheviki, he was evidently pleased and began talking freely.

"You are good people. You do not like Bolsheviki. We will help you."

I thanked him and presented him with the thick silk cord which I was wearing as a girdle. Before night they left us saying that they would return in the morning. It grew dark. We went to the meadow to look after our exhausted horses grazing there and came back to the house. We were gaily chatting with the hospitable host when suddenly we heard horses' hoofs in the court and raucous voices, followed by the immediate entry of five Red soldiers armed with rifles and swords. Something unpleasant and cold rolled up into my throat and my heart hammered. We knew the Reds as our enemies. These men had the red stars on their Astrakhan caps and red triangles on their sleeves. They were members of the detachment that was out to look for Cossack officers. Scowling at us they took off their overcoats and sat down. We first opened the conversation, explaining the purpose of our journey in exploring for bridges, roads and gold mines. From them we then learned that their commander would arrive in a little while with seven more men and that they would take our host at once as a guide to the Seybi River, where they thought the Cossack officers must be hidden. Immediately I remarked that our affairs were moving fortunately and that we must travel along together. One of the soldiers replied that that would depend upon the "Comrade-officer."

During our conversation the Soyot Governor entered. Very attentively he studied again the new arrivals and then asked: "Why did you take from the Soyots the good horses and leave bad ones?"

The soldiers laughed at him.

"Remember that you are in a foreign country!" answered the Soyot, with a threat in his voice.

"God and the Devil!" cried one of the soldiers.

But the Soyot very calmly took a seat at the table and accepted the cup of tea the hostess was preparing for

him. The conversation ceased. The Soyot finished the tea, smoked his long pipe and, standing up, said:

"If tomorrow morning the horses are not back at the owner's, we shall come and take them." And with these words he turned and went out.

I noticed an expression of apprehension on the faces of the soldiers. Shortly one was sent out as a messenger while the others sat silent with bowed heads. Late in the night the officer arrived with his other seven men. As he received the report about the Soyot, he knitted his brows and said:

"It's a bad mess. We must travel through the swamp where a Soyot will be behind every mound watching us."

He seemed really very anxious and his trouble fortunately prevented him from paying much attention to us. I began to calm him and promised on the morrow to arrange this matter with the Soyots. The officer was a coarse brute and a silly man, desiring strongly to be promoted for the capture of the Cossack officers, and feared that the Soyot could prevent him from reaching the Seybi.

At daybreak we started together with the Red detachment. When we had made about fifteen kilometers, we discovered behind the bushes two riders. They were Soyots. On their backs were their flint rifles.

"Wait for me!" I said to the officer. "I shall go for a parley with them."

I went forward with all the speed of my horse. One of the horsemen was the Soyot Governor, who said to me:

"Remain behind the detachment and help us."

"All right," I answered, "but let us talk a little, in order that they may think we are parleying."

After a moment I shook the hand of the Soyot and returned to the soldiers.

"All right," I exclaimed, "we can continue our journey. No hindrance will come from the Soyots."

We moved forward and, when we were crossing a large meadow, we espied at a long distance two Soyots riding at full gallop right up the side of a mountain. Step by step I accomplished the necessary manoeuvre to bring me and my fellow traveler somewhat behind the detachment. Behind our backs remained only one soldier, very brutish in appearance and apparently very hostile to us. I had time to whisper to my companion only one word: "Mauser," and saw that he very carefully unbuttoned the saddle bag and drew out a little the handle of his pistol.

Soon I understood why these soldiers, excellent woodsmen as they were, would not attempt to go to the Seybi without a guide. All the country between the Algiak and the Seybi is formed by high and narrow mountain ridges separated by deep swampy valleys. It is a cursed and dangerous place. At first our horses mired to the knees, lunging about and catching their feet in the roots of bushes in the quagmires, then falling and pinning us under their sides, breaking parts of their saddles and bridles. Then we would go in up to the riders' knees. My horse went down once with his whole breast and head under the red fluid mud and we just saved it and no more. Afterwards the officer's horse fell with him so that he bruised his head on a stone. My companion injured one knee against a tree. Some of the men also fell and were injured. The horses breathed heavily. Somewhere dimly and gloomily a crow cawed. Later the road became worse still. The trail followed through the same miry swamp but everywhere the road was blocked with fallen tree trunks. The horses, jumping over the trunks, would land in an unexpectedly deep hole and flounder. We and all the soldiers were covered with blood and mud and were in great fear of exhausting our mounts. For a long distance we had to get down and lead them. At last we entered a broad meadow covered with bushes and bordered with rocks. Not only horses but riders also began to sink to their middle in a quagmire with apparently no bottom. The whole surface of the meadow was but a thin layer of turf, covering a lake with black putrefying water. When we finally learned to open our column and proceed at big intervals, we found we could keep on this surface that undulated like rubber ice and swayed the bushes up and down. In places the earth buckled up and broke.

Suddenly, three shots sounded. They were hardly more than the report of a Flobert rifle; but they were genuine shots, because the officer and two soldiers fell to the ground. The other soldiers grabbed their rifles and, with fear, looked about for the enemy. Four more were soon unseated and suddenly I noticed our rearguard brute raise his rifle and aim right at me. However, my Mauser outstrode his rifle and I was allowed to continue my story.

"Begin!" I cried to my friend and we took part in the shooting. Soon the meadow began to swarm with Soyots, stripping the fallen, dividing the spoils and recapturing their horses. In some forms of warfare it is never safe to leave any of the enemy to renew hostilities later with overwhelming forces.

After an hour of very difficult road we began to ascend the mountain and soon arrived on a high plateau covered with trees.

"After all, Soyots are not a too peaceful people," I remarked, approaching the Governor.

He looked at me very sharply and replied:

"It was not Soyots who did the killing."

He was right. It was the Abakan Tartars in Soyot clothes who killed the Bolsheviki. These Tartars were running their herds of cattle and horses down out of Russia through Urianhai to Mongolia. They had as their guide and negotiator a Kalmuck Lamaite. The following morning we were approaching a small settlement of Russian colonists and noticed some horsemen looking out from the woods. One of our young and brave Tartars galloped off at full speed toward these men in the wood but soon wheeled and returned with a reassuring smile.

"All right," he exclaimed, laughing, "keep right on."

We continued our travel on a good broad road along a high wooden fence surrounding a meadow filled with a fine herd of wapiti or izubr, which the Russian colonists breed for the horns that are so valuable in the velvet for sale to Tibetan and Chinese medicine dealers. These horns, when boiled and dried, are called panti and are sold to the Chinese at very high prices.

We were received with great fear by the settlers.

"Thank God!" exclaimed the hostess, "we thought . . ." and she broke off, looking at her husband.

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