By Sledge to the Middle Ages
BY ELEANOR LATTIMORE
NOVA SIBERSK, SIBERIA
February 1, 1927
DEAREST FAMILY, — You know I always did maintain, against the popular assumption and your grave doubts, that a woman could travel alone more easily than a man. A man is expected to look alter himself and do things for himself, and besides he is often darkly suspected of being a spy or some sort of subterranean agent, and is in consequence cross-questioned and harried, examined and watched, until he begins to wonder himself if he has any right to be there. Whereas a woman alone, whether she wants it so or not, seems always to be an object of public concern and beneficence. In fact it seems probable that she could travel to any iniquitous city or barbarous country in the world and be convinced that it was full of kindly people. For everywhere there are some who take pleasure in good deeds and she is their involuntary target. To officials she can completely explain her ‘profession’ by the innocuous term of ' housewife,’ and the ‘purpose of her journey,’ ‘to join her husband.’ These anyone can understand and warm to. Her existence is explained, her journey justified.
And now I feel as if this journey of mine were going to prove or disprove my theory forever, for I am sure that nothing could be much more difficult for a woman to do alone than to set out across the snow wastes of Siberia in the dead of winter toward a vague spot in Central Asia with the ridiculous name of Chuguchak.
Do you remember how, less than three years ago, when Dorothy and I crossed Siberia on a comfortable modern express train, it seemed an adventuresome and daring journey fraught with unknown dangers? How ridiculously simple that seems now compared with what I am about to do! We would walk up and down the platform at stations like the one where I am now and feel delicious thrills at being in Siberia, and yet we felt so protected, knowing that we should jump back on to the train again and should n’t have to leave it until we were safe in China. I should no more have thought of stopping in a town like this than I should of letting go Mother’s hand and venturing across the nursery before I had learned to walk. Yet this morning I watched the Trans-Siberian express disappear into the snowy distance with a feeling of exaltation that now I was really in Siberia with a journey ahead of me into a region few foreigners have traveled.
I have been in Siberia, as a matter of fact, for four days now, but always under the protection of the friendly express train. So far my journey has been beautifully simple and proved my theory to perfection, for it might easily have been difficult if the world were n’t so full of those people who like to be nice to women traveling alone.
In fact I feel as if I had been handed along from place to place on a series of silver platters. In Peking, in the short week I had after Owen’s wireless came from Urumchi, everyone set to work helping me, and with shoppings and packings and farewells I left there in a whirl. Then at Mukden a young Englishman, friend of a friend in Peking, tended to all the irksome business of transferring luggage for me, securing my reservation and seeing me safe on to my next train.
The train this time was on the Japanese line which runs from Mukden to Changchun, and had Pullman cars so exactly like those in America that it made me homesick, since I felt already out of China and yet not in America, for the porters were small and Japanese instead of big and black, and there were neatly folded kimonos and leather slippers supplied to destroy the illusion of the curtained berths.
From Changchun to Harbin I felt farther still from China, for the train and porters were Russian. The porters in the Harbin station were Russian, too, and wore big white aprons.
At Harbin I was looked after again by friends of friends, who helped me to secure my visa for Chinese Turkestan and changed my money, partly into yen for my railway ticket, partly into Harbin dollars for last odds and ends of shopping, and partly into rubles to use in Siberia; who entertained me delightfully and gave me introductions to people in Manchouli and here; and who saw me off at the station with fudge and fruit cake and mince pies.
I wish I could tell you about Harbin, as I am sure it is like no place else on earth. It is a Russian city in China, ugly and crass like other frontier towns, full of riffraff, and famed for the extravagance of its night life and its cabarets crowded with the débris of the Russian imperialist refugees and Chinese a little carried away by the feeling of race superiority given by their ability to domineer over the ragtag and bobtail of white Russians who form a large part of the city’s population. The Chinese flaunt their Russian women in an attempt to live up to the youngsters of the American and European business communities, who flaunt their Russian women in an attempt to live up to the East.
In Manchouli on the Russian border I had to wait a day to arrange with the customs for permission to carry four cameras and a lot of films and photographic supplies through Siberia. I was met at the station by the Chinese postmaster and by Manchouli’s only English-speaking inhabitant, the latter a most surprising person to find in that scraggly frontier town — a delightful hermit who raises goldfish and Angora cats and who entertained me charmingly in his little study lined with books and Persian rugs. All my meals in Manchouli I had with him and wished there might be more.
At Manchouli, too, I had my first experience of a Russian hotel, cold and ugly enough, where I managed to ask for tea and hot water, and where a price list on the door, which I laboriously spelled out with the help of my pocket dictionary, informed me how much I must pay for each, as well as for the towel and sheets and pillowcase which I had also ordered in my best phrase-book Russian, and how much I should have had to pay had I had a samovar or a bath.
While I was being entertained by the friendly postmaster or the charming Englishman, by some mysterious means permission was obtained for all my luggage to go through uninspected and my ticket was bought, and I had only to wait in the station master’s inner office while other passengers’ suitcases were being emptied and their most private belongings exhibited to the public gaze. Then post-office coolies carried my luggage on to the train, where I discovered to my delight that I had a pleasant compartment entirely to myself.
On Russian trains one travels ‘hard’ or ‘ soft ’ or ‘ wagon-lits ’—a ‘ hard’ ticket entitling one to an unupholstered berth in a car much like a third-class sleeping car on the Continent, a ‘soft’ ticket to a berth in a well-fitted secondclass compartment, and ‘wagon-lits’ to a place on one of the old international sleeping cars taken over by the Trans-Siberian and run only on the semiweekly express trains. I traveled ‘soft’ and found it clean and comfortable, probably more comfortable with my compartment all to myself than if I’d traveled grandly ‘wagonlits,’ though I was amused to discover that I was looked down on socially by the other foreigners on the train, who spoke of it condescendingly as traveling ‘Russian’ in contrast to traveling ‘international.’
Out of the window of my compartment was snow — crisp, sunny snow everywhere as far as I could see. Lake Baikal was buried deep, with little sleighs darting across it like black flies, and I wondered if they were anything like the sleigh that I should travel in after I left the railway.
It was a great lark to hop out at little stations in the tingling cold and eat a bowl of hot cabbage soup with sour cream in it at the station buffet, or buy a circle of hot fresh bread, new butter, and a little roasted chicken for my supper from a peasant woman at a wooden stall.
After four sunny, snowy days of Siberia I reached here this morning and wished again that I were n’t trying to carry quite so much luggage to the middle of Asia. Watching it on and off trains had become a dizzier process at every stop. Here it was speedily loaded on a sledge, and when I told the white-aproned porter I was waiting for the train to Semipalatinsk he trundled it half a block to a sort of left-luggage office and deposited it in a heap on the floor.
I had rather expected I should have to spend this eighteen hours’ wait between trams sitting on it in the station, but I find that it would not have been allowed in the station at all, which is far too crowded with people to leave room for their luggage, so I am free of it till 3.45 in the morning, which is the ungodly time my train departs for Semipalatinsk.
The ticket office is closed till train time, and with my six phrases of the Russian language, the jam of passengers, and my jam of luggage I felt quite hopeless about ever getting it and me on to the train without assistance. I had a letter to somebody somewhere here, but when I looked out of the station door the city seemed a long way off and the day felt very cold. However, I took a deep breath and set out.
There was a row of droshkies across from the station. I chose the kindest-looking of the drivers and showed him the address on my letter. He answered with a torrent of language which I finally assorted into meaning that it would cost me five rubles to get there in a droshky, but I could go in an automobile for thirty kopecks.
‘Where is the automobile?’ I asked.
‘I’ll show you,’ volunteered a small boy at my heels, and led me to the top of the hill, where a motor bus was rapidly filling with passengers.
After a ride of twenty minutes all the passengers helpfully put me off at a street corner, and one of them, who was also dismounting, led me to a building the address of which corresponded to the one on my letter. A great many people lived in the building, none of whom seemed ever to have heard of the man I was looking for until one told me he had moved away, he did n’t know where. Well, Nova Sibersk is a rather large city, and I was on a wide street of shops and public buildings; but, now that it seemed to be difficult, I wanted more than ever to find my friend of the letter. So I kept on showing people the name on the envelope and rather enjoyed the sensation of feeling like a waif. And after a while I was somehow shoved along to a large new office building and into a room filled with clerks and typists and up to a very busy and important-looking man at a desk in one corner. He was friendly and to the point.
‘What do you want?’ he asked.
‘I want someone to buy my ticket and help me on to the train for Semipalatinsk to-night,’ I answered.
‘Very well,’ he said, and spoke to a clerk.
In a minute a villainous-looking chap in a huge fur hat swaggered in. He looked like a very tough driver of a very big brewery wagon.
‘This man.’ said my friend, ‘will do all you want. He will come to the station at ten to-night. Pay him three rubles for his services. Is there anything else?’
‘No, thank you,’ I answered gratefully. and came back to the station.
I am ensconced here in the first-class buffet, a small room with a fancy counter covered with fruit in piles and pastries in rows, and two long tables covered with once white cloths and laden with rubber plants and Christmas trees in pots and silver candelabra and three-tiered cake plates, and surrounded by a varied collection of jaded travelers, all of the men in high boots and huge coats of every known kind of fur and fur hats, some of them quite as big as dishpans. And all of them have beards. Siberia should have been called ‘Sibcardia’!
In the waiting room outside, too, there is a wonderful collection of humans — Buriats and Tatars and Mongols and others of the strange races who occupy corners of Siberia, many of them, in fur hats and tiglitwaisted coats and high boots, looking exactly like various versions of Santa Claus.
My guide may look like a ruffian, but he seems to have a, good heart. He has just, come in, though it is only three instead of ten, and has gallantly brought me some tea and cakes and settled down to be friendly. With the aid of my pocket dictionary we have been holding spirited conversation. He has no feeling for the alphabet at all, but is indefatigable in thumbing through pages of the dictionary until he finds the word he wants. He has told me how many Communists there are in England, in France, in Germany, and the total for the world, and has asked me numberless questions about both China and America. I am writing this while he looks up words in order to tell me something new and remarkable about Soviet Russia. ‘Did you know John Reed?’ he has just asked me. ‘I worship him. He was Russia’s wonderful friend.’
He has also been pointing out to me various individuals here in the waiting room and whispering to me darkly that they are ‘white’ and ‘no true friends of Russia.’ Then, pointing to a young woman across the table with whom I had been trying to talk before he came in, he scrambled through the dictionary to point out to me that she was an ‘entertainer of suspected persons.’
This city used to be called Novo Nikolayevsk until the people who no longer honor tsars changed it to ‘New Siberia,’ and it has been growing fast since the building of the branch railway to Semipalatinsk has brought Central Asian commerce here instead of by river to Omsk. And it is a New Siberia. I wish I could tell you what a feeling I have had of the difference between the people here and on the train and the Russians of the old Russia whom I have known in New York and Peking. The latter live so tragically in the past, whereas these people live so hopefully for the future.
But my ardent guide has brought me some soup, so I must change my pencil for a spoon. I’ll write more on the train.
I am on the last train I’ll see this year, and not only is it a very strange train, but I am very surprised to be here.
At ten last night my guide was still entertaining me when a woman with a shawl over her head came up and muttered in his ear. ‘That’s my wife,’ he grinned. ‘She wants me to come home. I’ll be back before one to tend to your luggage.’
As my train did n’t leave till 3.45 I had n’t worried when at one he had n’t returned. But a few minutes after one the ‘entertainer of suspected persons’ came rushing up to me, talking very excitedly, and others joined her, all trying to explain something to me in very rapid Russian, which I finally gathered to be that there was a rule that no baggage would be weighed and checked after one o’clock, also that the left-luggage room closed at one. Well, I knew that a rule was a rule in Russia. I’d been running into them all day. No luggage allowed in the waiting room. No sleeping allowed in the station. It was almost as bad as America. I began to see visions of waiting another twenty-four hours in the station without sleeping, and knew it could n’t be done.
By this time a crowd had collected, all trying to tell me what to do. But the young woman took me by the arm and marched me to the baggage room, where the man was just locking up. He was surly at first, but weakened at her tale of my sad plight and promised to wait till I could bring my stuff to be weighed. Then we rushed to the leftluggage office half a block away and found it locked. She banged on the door and a very cross man appeared, but she finally melted him too and he promised to keep open till we could find a porter.
But we could n’t find a porter. She told my tale to every porter in the station, but they were all busy. Finally we went to the first baggageman with a second tale of woe. He was grumpy, but produced a porter, and the porter got my eleven pieces of baggage over in several trips, my efficient friend waiting at one baggage room and I at the other; it was weighed, I paid the excess, and we sat on it till train time, having kept both baggage offices open an hour after their closing time. All this to prove that it is lucky for women traveling alone that there are so many Boy-Scout-intentioned people in the world.
Miss Entertainer of Suspected Persons was very friendly and saw me on to the train, which was a good thing, too, as the porter put me on the wrong car and there was a most awful fuss and I should n’t have known what it was all about.
Just before the train started, who should appear but the faithless guide, with a pathetic tale of how he had gone to sleep, and demanding his three rubles for what he had n’t done; and since I could n’t explain to a car of interested spectators about how he had n’t earned it, it seemed easier to pay.
This train is all ‘hard,’ but I slept well on my broad berth, across from a frowzy woman in a red kerchief who ate raw fish in the middle of the night. We are jogging slowly across more fields of snow, stopping longer than we go and yet running quite according to schedule. This leisurely rate gives me long walks at the tiny stations, where I buy piroshkies, delicious hot meat pastries, and eat them as I walk and feel farther and farther away from anything I’ve ever known before. To-morrow I reach Semipalatinsk, the jumping-off place where I start my long trip by sleigh to Chinese Turkestan.
SEMIPALATINSK, February 3
Life becomes more and more surprising. You’d be aghast at where I am living, but it’s wonderful — a tenement room with a family of four and a dog and a cat and two boarders. And none of them can speak anything that I can speak, but just the same we have a merry time.
This journey is being so difficult that I feel more exhilarated and on top of the world each time I accomplish a stage of it. Whereas certainly the fact that I am here at all is no credit to me, but only because Russia is so full of nice people.
I must confess that when I reached here I felt somewhat as if I had come to a blank wall across my way, and that a rendezvous with one’s husband at a place called Chuguchak in Chinese Turkestan seemed almost as impossible as everyone in Peking had told us it was. It must be possible. Chuguchak is on the map, and other people go there. But it is four hundred miles away, across desolate wastes of snow. The road, they tell me, is well-nigh impossible and the cold terrific. To get there I must hire a sleigh and, if possible, I must find a traveling companion, as the sleigh drivers are unreliable and there are Kirghiz bandits on the road. And I’m sure I don’t know how to accomplish all this. The people here seem horrified at the idea of my attempting it. Of course, lack of language is my chief difficulty, as my Russian is quite inadequate for anything so complicated.
My only move when I came to Semipalatinsk was to find a woman about whom I knew nothing at all except that her name was Kosloff and that her husband worked in the post, office. I had met her brother when we were marooned in Kweihwa last summer and he had given me a letter to her.
When I arrived, after thirty-three hours ‘hard,’ and climbed out of the dim car into a glittering world of snow, I was assaulted by a mob of drivers all inviting me with howls to ride in their sleighs. They were mostly grinning red-skinned Orientals, Sarts or Tatars, and they had comic little sleighs about the size and shape of baby carriages attached to horses that looked huge and rawboned compared with China ponies. Beyond the sleighs was a white plain across which rose roofs and towers and church domes of the city.
The frowzy woman watched my luggage in the car while the porter made trips back and forth, and then she slid merrily off with her man in a tiny raft of a sleigh lined with straw. I picked the merriest driver; he piled his baby carriage with my luggage, and me perched on top, till I was certain we’d topple over. And sure enough we did, right in the middle of the plain. The sleigh turned quite over, the driver and I and the luggage flew in all directions, and the horse ran away.
Everything retrieved, we drove into the city, across a great market place full of Russians and strange Orientals and stalls and carts of produce, past a wild-looking chap galloping in with a string of huge horses, the halter of each tied to the tail of the one in front, and to the post office, where I found Kosloff. He was cordial and sent me on home to his wife.
We drove up to a two-story unpainted log house and I banged on the front door to no effect. I went around to the back and a woman in a shawl pointed me up some steep stairs and through a door into a kitchen littered with dirty dishes, remnants of food, dogs, cats, and babies, where several women with rough red hands and faces were working. A merry roly-poly girl owned to being Mrs. Kosloff and took me into her little room, a typical tenement-house room where she and her husband, two small children, the dog and the cat, all lived together in grubby squalor.
The Kosloffs insisted on my staying with them, which seemed impossible, as, except for sharing a kitchen with the other occupants of the tenement, they had only the one room, which was nearly half filled with my luggage. But I saw they were going to be really offended if I would not accept their hospitality, so here I am. Mr. Kosloff has given me his bed, two boards on horses, Chinese style, and he sleeps on the floor.
Mr. Kosloff came home at four and we had dinner — a piroque, which was a sort of fish pie, soup, and little birds. We sat on packing boxes around an oilcloth-covered table. There were n’t enough dishes and everything was dirty, but it tasted wonderful, as it was my first real meal since leaving Manchouli a week ago. Mrs. Kosloff feeds two men who live in the next room, as well as her own family.
It is easy to see that the Kosloffs have not always lived as they do now, and I liked their manner of being apologetic about and at the same time unashamed of their poverty. We have had great fun laughing over our pocket-dictionary conversations, and they have told me a little about themselves. At the time of the Revolution many of their friends and relatives fled from Russia and some took an active part in General Anenkoff’s attacks against the Bolsheviki from across the Turkestan border. They themselves were undecided whether to attempt to flee to America or remain in Russia, but could not bear the idea of living in any other country and so stayed on, hoping for the gradual return of prosperity under Communist rule. The Communists, however, were suspicious of them because of their many connections with imperialists. For a while Mr. Kosloff was imprisoned and later had much difficulty obtaining work, and, while he has become a thoroughly loyal Communist, it is only very recently that he has been really trusted by his party.
They seem very confident that better times are coming soon, and suffer their poverty cheerfully for what they consider a great cause. The two handsome youths who board with them, now actors in a local company, also talked of Communism ardently and with the idealism of youth, and the little girl proudly showed me pictures of Lenin in her schoolbook.
I slept well on my board bed, and helped wash last night’s greasy dishes in a saucer of water with no soap and dried them with a dirty rag. Then we had breakfast of the cold remains of the fish pie, tea, and bread and butter. The room was cold, shivery cold, and the baby spread his tea over most of the table and hit us all with his spoon. They feed him all the sugar he yells for. Neither the dog, the cat, nor the baby is house-broken.
After breakfast we made a gesture of cleaning up and Mrs. Kosloff took me to the Soviet House to register. It was bitter cold, but sunny. It all looked exactly as a Siberian town should look — houses of plaster or log lining wide snowy streets that lead to a greendomed church. On the way home we stopped in the market to buy fresh butter and honey and black bread. Everywhere I have been in Siberia food seems plentiful and very cheap, though other prices are high. It was there in the market place, with its frontier mixture of races and costumes and its camels and horses and ponies, that I realized that I was really at the gateway of Central Asia.
Mrs. Kosloff enterprisingly accosted every group of Orientals we met while we were out to ask if they had come from Chuguchak and how they came and what the road was like. They all reported that the road is bad and cold and that it takes from ten to twenty days to make the trip. We’ve followed several clues as to possible drivers, all in vain, and now I feel balked and discouraged and at a loss what to do next. I was told at the Soviet House that I must leave Semipalatinsk in a couple of days in order to cross the border before my visa expires.
But what really worries me is that I can’t get in touch with Owen and so have no way of knowing if he has been able to get to Chuguchak himself. I expected to find letters or a telegram here, but none have come. There is a telegraph line from here to the Turkestan border, from which messages can be sent by courier to the Russian consul in Chuguchak to be delivered if advisable. I sent two messages, but no answer has come. He had wanted to come here to meet me if he could get a Russian visa, but there has not been time for him to do that since he wirelessed me from Urumchi, and as my visa is expiring fast I can’t wait on the chance that he will come. But it would be tragic to pass him on the way. It is all very confusing.
Suddenly I seem to be on my way.
Instead of living in the Kosloffs’ merry, grubby tenement I am sitting on the felt-covered floor of a mudwalled low-ceilinged Kazak hut, with scarcely enough light to write by at nine o’clock in the morning, for the hut is buried in snow.
But first I must tell you how I got here. Yesterday morning, still no telegram, and only one day left. My Russian friends had failed to find a sleigh for me, so I determined to look for one myself. I went first to the Chinese consulate, thinking that they must have made arrangements there for Chinese travelers passing through and might be able to help me. The consul was cordial, and I was so stirred to find someone with whom I could talk that my Chinese has never been so fluent.
He told me that a courier from the consulate was starting out that very afternoon, traveling down with some cargo, and that I could go with him if I wished. I shied a little when I heard ‘cargo,’ knowing how slowly freight usually travels, but he assured me that we should n’t be more than ten days on the road. He spoke of it as a wonderful opportunity, and yet when it came I was almost afraid to take it because I had n’t heard from Owen. I explained my fears to him and he reassured me again, saying that even if he had started from Chuguchak I could n’t miss him, as there was only one road and everyone traveling it stopped at the same inns at night. So he called the courier, a merry Chinese youth, and it was all arranged on the spot that a sleigh would call for me at three that afternoon.
It was then twelve. Mrs. Kosloff dumped the baby with a neighbor and went out to help me buy food for the trip and big felt boots. Everyone in Siberia wears felt boots to the knees, huge and shapeless and awkward to walk in, but the only things to keep feet warm in this bitter climate. I tried on a dozen pairs in as many little stalls in the market before I found some that were in the least comfortable.
The sleigh was waiting when we got home, and Mr. Kosloff with a bottle of vodka, which he said I must drink when I got cold but must not give to the drivers. I packed and got into my furlined leather suit in a great rush and swallowed some dinner and kissed all the Kosloffs. They had been so generous and hospitable that I wished I could have done more for them than leave some clothes behind that I said I had n’t room for.
We drove to the inn from which we were to start and found fourteen sledges in the yard all loaded with crates of matches. It seemed that the courier and I were supposed to perch on top of the matches. The consul had told me that the courier was taking two sleighs and that I should have one all to myself, but the courier assured me that fourteen sledges were better than two because of bandits, and he had the drivers arrange one of them more comfortably for me.
The sledges are crude triangular little rafts made of a rough network of small logs and dragged along on very low runners. The usual passenger sleighs have covers over them, something like a Peking cart, and are pulled by two horses, but these were quite uncovered, and as they were heavily loaded and had only one horse apiece my heart sank to think how slowly they would travel.
The Russian drivers, who look like pirates but seem to be good-hearted enough, fixed a little nest for me, put straw on the logs and my bed roll on top of that, and matches and my luggage all around the edge. There is n’t room to stretch out my legs, so I get cramped, but it is better than being exposed to the weather.
They were hours getting ready to start, with a great bustle of roping boxes and feeding horses and mending harness. The sun had set and I thought they were really ready at last when everyone yelled ‘Chai pit!’ (‘Drink tea!’) and we all piled into the low, dark little inn. It was full of men sitting around long rough tables, and fitted exactly my picture of what a den of bandits ought to look like. The men were swarthy and unshaven and were dressed in rough, dirty sheepskin clothes with gay sashes around their waists.
A red-bearded chap at the head of one table, evidently the innkeeper, was settling accounts with a crowd of men, which consisted in much shouting and pounding of the table till I thought there’d be a riot. At another table there was a huge samovar and men were drinking tea out of wooden bowls and munching hunks of black bread. They called to me to sit down with them and gave me a bowl of tea and sugar for it. They all seem to know the Chinese courier, and call him ‘Kitaiski, ’ which means ‘Chinese.’
We were off at last, about seven. The drivers tucked me into my sleeping bag as far as I could get with my big boots and fur suit and big fur coat on top of that, and covered me over with fur and canvas til! I thought I could never get cold, though the town thermometer registered forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit when we left.
I could n’t see out of my nest at all, and we went crunching along on the snow with bells jingling for what seemed like days and nights before we stopped. And when we did I was so numb that I could scarcely struggle out from under cover. When I got my head out the world seemed very weird indeed — nothing but wide stretches of snow in every direction. Misty flurries of snow were falling and there was no light but the light from the snow. The air felt biting cold on my face. In the dim white light I could see that the drivers were unhitching the horses, which seemed mysterious, as there was no sign of any shelter.
Then I saw that they were leading them into a black hole in a snowdrift. Kitaiski went in, too, and I tumbled out of my sledge and followed him. He lit matches so I could see a little. We were in a great low square cave full of horses, on the far side of which was a mud wall and a little door in the wall about three feet high. It all seemed like the weirdest kind of an Arabian Night — out of a completely white and empty world into that black cave of horses, the flare of a match lighting it a little way; the brown side of a great horse, heads of others; then darkness and stumbling till the next flare.
Then the little door pulled open and we climbed into another wide low room, smoke-filled, and lit with candlelight and firelight. Near the door a scrawny woman in a loose dirty white cotton garment and a once white kerchief was stuffing great branches of twigs into a crackling fire in a low mud fireplace. Behind her, in the centre of the room, was a round table about a foot high with a samovar beside it and pirate drivers sitting around it. drinking tea. In dark corners sleepy heads were appearing from under bed covers and brown arms and legs struggling into white clothes.
Kitaiski led me into an inner room, where the floor was covered with felts and a dozen figures were sleeping. I looked at my watch and it was two o’clock. Kitaiski helped me bring in my bed roll and I was soon asleep on the floor.
I was half conscious of a good deal of talking and shouting and opening and closing of doors all night, but the first time I really wakened daylight was beginning to creep in through the one tiny window, where a shaft was dug from the surface of the snow. An old woman crawled out from under covers on a wooden bed against the wall. I watched her dress and wash in a basin of water and go over to the little window, kneel, and bow her head to the ground, muttering prayers all the while, all this in the half dawn. Then children began to cry and other women appeared and dressed them. They brought out a low round table and a samovar and invited Kitaiski and me to have tea with the family.
I fished a loaf of bread out of the sack in my sledge to eat with my tea, and it was frozen as hard as a lump of ice. The old woman put it on the top of the samovar to thaw.
Kitaiski tells me these people are Kazaks, a tribe of Kirghiz. The Russians call them all Kirghiz, but the true Kirghiz live mostly in the Pamirs. They are Mohammedans, though not very strict about it. He can talk their queer guttural language. The women wear white kerchiefs with a square of red embroidery under the chin and loose calico clothes, full long gowns and tight short-skirted jackets, and silver rings, bracelets, and earrings.
The only pieces of furniture in the room are two wooden beds, curved up at the ends like a Chinese sacrifice table, but lower and wider. They are painted in gay colors and piled high with different-colored felts and quilts that were used by the members of the family, who slept on the floor.
The outer room, where the drivers slept and had their tea, is also occupied by cats and puppies and chickens and tiny lambs in pens. There are saddles and harnesses and queer crude implements hanging on the walls, and a fire of twigs is crackling in a little mud stove.
It is very cold outside and the wind is blowing bitterly. I have always thought of Siberia as a land of exiles, chain gangs, desert wastes, cold, strange people, and strange languages, and this really feels like that Siberia.
Life is gorgeous and wonderful. We’re having weather. Weather always stirs me, and now I am not watching it through a windowpane. I have been right in it all day, with no roof over my head. All day there has been a snowstorm, a real blizzard, biting wind and whirls of snow, but the horses struggle through it, the drivers shouting and whistling to them and beating them out of holes in the road. The road is scarcely a road at all, but only a long trail which goes up and down like a roller coaster over endless stretches of snow. We bump and bounce along, half the time along the side of hummocks at almost right angles with the earth. Most of the sledges have completely capsized during the day and I expected mine to at any minute with all my luggage on top of me, but I finally learned, as one does in a sailboat, that just at the minute one is sure it will capsize it usually rights itself.
I had to stay under cover most of the time because of the icy wind, so I just jounced along and trusted in the gods.
There was always something the matter with one or another of the sledges, so that we stood still more than we went, and at five, when we reached another Kazak hut, we had traveled only twenty versts. Kitaiski says there are huts or little mud villages all along the road where we shall stop to rest. They are the only shelter on the way and are from twenty to thirty versts apart, thus dividing the road into what the drivers call stanka or stages. To-day we have done only one stanka, whereas, if we arc to reach Chuguchak in ten days, we need to cover two or three a day.
Our lodging to-night is much like last night’s except that it is smaller and dirtier. When I went out this morning I saw that we were in a tiny village of huts all buried in the snow, and tonight we are in its exact duplicate. All that is visible is doors in the snowdrifts and chimneys sticking out the top. There are sledges at them all, and it seems quite hopeless to think of finding Owen on the road if he has started.
(To be continued)