I did not stay long at St. Petersburg, but returned to Irkútsk the same winter. My brother was going to join me there in a few months: he was accepted as an officer of the Irkútsk Cossacks.
Traveling across Siberia in the winter is supposed to be a terrible experience; but, all things considered, it is on the whole more comfortable than at any other season of the year. The snow-covered roads are excellent, and although the cold is intense, one can stand it well enough. Lying full length in the sledge, as every one does in Siberia, wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside, one does not suffer much from the cold, even when the temperature is forty or sixty degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Traveling in courier fashion, that is, rapidly changing horses at each station and stopping only once a day for one hour to take a meal, - I reached Irkútsk nineteen days after leaving St. Petersburg. Two hundred miles a day is the normal speed in such cases, and I remember having covered the last 660 miles of my journey in seventy hours. The frost was not severe then, the roads were in an excellent condition, the drivers were kept in good spirits by a free allowance of silver coins, and the team of three small and light horses seemed to enjoy running swiftly over hill and vale, across rivers frozen as hard as steel, and through forests glistening in their silver attire under the rays of the sun.
I was now appointed attaché to the Governor-General of East Siberia for Cossack affairs, and had to reside at Irkútsk; but there was nothing in particular to do. To let everything go on according to the established routine, with no more reference to changes, - such was the watch word that came now from St. Petersburg. I therefore gladly accepted the proposal to undertake geographical exploration in Manchuria.
If one casts a glance on a map of Asia, one sees that the Russian frontier which runs in Siberia, broadly speaking, along the fiftieth degree of latitude, suddenly bends in Transbaikália to the north. It follows for three hundred miles the Argúñ River; then, on reaching the Amúr, it turns southeastward, the town of Blagovéschensk, which was the capital of the Amúr land, being situated again in about the same latitude of fifty degrees. Between the southeastern corner of Transbaikália (New Tsurukháitu) and Blagovéschensk on the Amúr, the distance west to east is only five hundred miles; but along the Argúñ and the Amúr it is over a thousand miles, and moreover communication along the Argúñ, which is not navigable, is extremely difficult. In its lower parts there is nothing but a mountain track of the wildest description.
Transbaikália is very rich in cattle, and the Cossacks who occupy its southeastern corner and are wealthy cattle-breeders wanted to establish a direct communication with the middle Amúr, which would be a good market for their cattle. They used to trade with the Mongols, and they had heard from them that it would not be difficult to reach the Amúr, traveling eastward across the Great Khingán. Going straight towards the east, they were told, one would fall in with an old Chinese route which crosses the Khingán and leads to the Manchurian town of Merghén (on the Nónni River, a tributary to the Sungarí), whence there is an excellent road to the middle Amúr.
I was offered the leadership of a trading caravan which the Cossacks intended to organize in order to find that route, and I accepted it with enthusiasm. No European had ever visited that region; and a Russian topographer who went that way a few years before was killed. Only two Jesuits, in the times of the Emperor Kan-si, had penetrated from the south as far as Merghén, and had determined its latitude. All the immense region to the north of it, five hundred miles wide, and seven hundred miles deep, was totally, absolutely unknown. I consulted all the available sources about this region. Nobody, not even the Chinese geographers, knew anything about it. Besides, the very fact of connecting the middle Amúr with Transbaikália had its importance, and Tsurukháitu is now going to be the head of the Trans-Manchuria Railway. We were thus the pioneers of that great enterprise.
There was, however, one difficulty. The treaty with China granted to the Russians free trade with the "Empire of China, and Mongolia." Manchuria was not mentioned in it, and could as well be excluded as included in the treaty. The Chinese frontier authorities interpreted it one way, and the Russians the other way. Moreover, only trade being mentioned, an officer would not be allowed to enter Manchuria. I had thus to go as a trader; so I bought at Irkútsk various goods and went disguised as a merchant. The governor-general delivered me a passport 'To the Irkútsk second guild merchant, Petr Alexeiev, and his companions;' and he warned me that if the Chinese authorities arrested me and took me to Pekin, and thence across the Gobi to the Russian frontier, - in a cage, on a camel's back, was their way of conveying prisoners across Mongolia, - I must not betray him by naming myself. I accepted, of course, all the conditions, the temptation to visit a country which no European had ever seen being too great for an explorer to resist.
It would not have been easy to conceal my identity while I was in Transbaikália. The Cossacks are an extremely inquisitive people, - real Mongols, - and as soon as a stranger comes to their villages, while treating him with the greatest hospitality, the master of the house where he stays subjects him to a formal interrogatory."A tedious journey, I suppose," he begins; "a long way from Chitá, is it not? And then, perhaps, longer still for one who comes from some place beyond Chitá. Maybe from Irkútsk? Trading there, I believe. Many tradesmen come this way. You are going also to Nerchínsk, are you not? Yes, people are often married at your age: and you, too, must have left a family, I suppose. Many children? Not all boys, I should say?" And so on for quite half an hour.
The local commander of the Cossacks, Captain Buxhövden, knew his people, and consequently we had taken our precautions. At Chitá and at Irkútsk we often had had amateur theatricals, playing by preference dramas of Ostróvsky, in which the scene of action is nearly always amongst the merchant classes. I played several times in such dramas, and found so great pleasure in acting that I even wrote on one occasion to my brother an enthusiastic letter confessing to him my passionate desire to abandon my military career and to go on the stage. I played mostly young merchants, and had acquired sufficiently well their ways of talking and gesticulating and tea-drinking from the saucer, - I learned those ways in my Nikólskoye experiences, - and now I had a good opportunity to act it all out in reality for useful purposes.
"Take your seat, Petr Alexeievich," Captain Buxhövden would say to me when the boiling tea urn, throwing out clouds of steam, was placed on the table.
"Thank you; we will stay here," I would reply, sitting on the edge of a chair at a distance, and beginning to drink my tea in true Moscow merchant fashion, Buxhövden meanwhile nearly exploding with laughter, as I blew upon my saucer with "staring eyes" and bit off in a special way microscopic particles from a small lump of sugar which was to serve for half a dozen cups.
We knew that the Cossacks would soon make out the truth about me, but the important thing was to win a few days, and to cross the frontier while my identity was still undiscovered. I must have played my part pretty well, for the Cossacks treated me like a petty merchant. In one village an old woman beckoned to me as I passed, and asked, "Are there more people coming behind you on the road my dear ?"
"None, grandmother, that we heard of."
"They said a prince, Rapótsky, was going to come. Is he coming?
"Oh, I see. You are right, grandmother. His highness intended to go, too, from Irkútsk. But how can 'they '? Such a journey! Not suitable for them. So they remained where they were."
"Of course, how can he !"
To be brief, we crossed the frontier unmolested. We were eleven Cossacks, one Tungus, and myself, all on horse-back. We had with us about forty horses for sale and two carts, one of which, two-wheeled, belonged to me, and contained the cloth, the velveteen, the gold braid, and so on, which I had taken in my capacity of merchant, I attended to my cart and my horses entirely myself, while we chose one of the Cossacks to be the "elder" of our caravan. He had to manage all the diplomatic talk with the Chinese authorities. All the Cossacks spoke Mongolian, and the Tungus understood Manchurian. The Cossacks of the caravan knew of course who I was, one of them knew me at Irkútsk, but they never betrayed that knowledge, understanding that the success of the expedition depended upon it. I wore a long blue cotton dress, like all the others, and the Chinese paid no attention to me, so that, unnoticed by them, I could make the compass survey of the route. On the first day, when all sorts of Chinese soldiers hung about us, in the hope of getting a glass of whiskey, I had often to cast only a furtive glance at my compass, and to jot down the bearings and the distances inside of my pocket, without taking my paper out. We had with us no arms whatever. Only our Tungus, who was going to be married, had taken his matchlock gun and used it to hunt fallow deer, bringing us meat for supper, and securing furs with which to pay for his future wife.
When there was no more whiskey to be obtained from us, the Chinese soldiers left us alone. So we went straight eastward, finding our way as best we could across hill and dale, and after a four or five days' march we actually fell in with the Chinese track which would take us across the Khingán to Merghén.
To our astonishment, we found that the crossing of the great ridge, which looked so black and terrible on the maps, was very easy. We overtook on the road an old Chinese functionary, miserably wretehed, traveling in a two-wheeled cart. For the last two days the road was up-hill, and the country bore testimony to its high altitude. The ground became marshy, and the road muddy; the grass was very poor, and the trees grew thin, undeveloped, often crippled, and covered with lichens. Mountains bare of forests rose to right and left, and we were thinking already of the difficulties we should experience in crossing the ridge, when we saw the old Chinese functionary alighting from his cart before an obó, - that is, a heap of stones and branches of trees to which bundles of horsehair and small rags had been attached. He drew several hairs out of the mane of his horse, and attached them to the branches. "What is that?" we asked. "The obó; the waters before us flow now to the Amúr." "Is that all of the Khingán?" "It's all! No more mountains to cross until we reach the Amúr, only hills!"
Quite a commotion spread in our caravan. "The rivers flow to the Amúr, the Amúr!" shouted the Cossacks to one another. All their lives they had heard the old Cossacks talking about the great river where the vine grows wild, where the prairies extend for hundreds of miles and could give wealth to millions of men; then, after the Amúr had been annexed to Russia, they heard of the long journey to it, the difficulties of the first settlers, and the prosperity of their relatives settled in the upper Amúr; and now we had found the short way to them! We had before us a steep slope, the road leading downwards in zigzags to a small river which pierced its way through a choppy sea of mountains, and led to the Amúr. No more obstacles lay between us and the great river. A traveler will imagine my delight at this unexpected geographical discovery. As to the Cossacks, they hastened to dismount and to attach in their turn bundles of hair taken from their horses to the branches thrown on the obó. The Siberians in general have a sort of awe of the gods of the heathens. They do not think much of them, but these gods, they say, are wicked creatures, bent on mischief, and it is never good to be on bad terms with them. It is far better to bribe them with small tokens of respect.
"Look, here is a strange tree; it must be an oak, they exclaimed, as we descended the steep slope. The oak does not grow in Siberia at all, and is not found until the eastern slope of the high plateau has been reached. "Look, nut trees!" they exclaimed next. "And what tree is that ?" they said, seeing a lime-tree, or some other trees which do not grow in Russia, and which I knew as part of the Manchurian flora. The northerners, who for many years had dreamed of warmer lands, and now saw them, were delighted. Lying upon the ground covered with rich grass, they caressed it with their eyes, - they would have kissed it. Now they burned with the desire to reach the Amúr as soon as possible. And when, a fortnight later, we stopped at our last camp-fire within twenty miles of the river, they grew impatient like children. They began to saddle their horses shortly after midnight, and made me start long before daybreak; and when at last from an eminence we caught a sight of the mighty stream, the eyes of these unimpressionable Siberians, generally devoid of poetical feeling, gleamed with a poet's ardor as they looked upon the blue waters of the majestic Amúr. It was evident that, sooner or later, with or without the support, or even against the wish, of the Russian government, both banks of this river, a desert now but rich with possibilities, as well as the immense unpopulated stretches of North Manchuria, would be invaded by Russian settlers, just as the shores ot the Mississippi were colonized by the Canadian voyageurs.
In the meantime, the old half-blind Chinese functionary with whom we had crossed the Khingán, having donned his blue coat and official hat with a glass button on its top, declared to us next morning that he would not let us go further. Our "elder" had received him and his clerk in our tent, and the old man, repeating what the clerk whispered to him, raised all sorts of objections to our further progress. He wanted us to camp on the spot while he should send our pass to Pekin to get orders, - which we absolutely refused to do. Then he sought to quarrel with our passport.
"What sort of a passport is that?" he said, looking with disdain at our pass, which was written in a few lines on a plain sheet of foolscap paper, in Russian and Mongolian, and had a simple sealing-wax seal. "You may have written it yourselves and sealed it with a copper, he remarked. "Look at my pass: this is worth something; and he unrolled before us a sheet of paper, two feet long, covered with Chinese characters.
I sat quietly aside during this conference packing something in my box, when a sheet of the "Moscow Gasette " fell under my hand. The "Gazette," being the property of the Moscow University, had an eagle printed on its title-heading. "Show him this," I said to our elder. He unfolded the immense sheet and pointed out the eagle. "That pass was to show to you," our elder said, "but this is what we have for ourselves." "Why, is it all written about you?" the old man asked, with terror. "All about us," our elder replied, without even a twinkle in his eyes. The old man a true functionary - looked quite dumfounded at seeing such a proficiency of writing. He examined every one of us, nodding with his head. But the clerk was still whispering something to his chief, who finally declared that he would not let us continue the journey.
"Enough of talking," I said to the elder; "give the order to saddle the horses." The Cossacks were of the same opinion, and in no time our caravan started, bidding good-by to the old functionary, and promising him to report that short of resorting to violence which he was not able to do - he had done all in his power to prevent us from entering Manchuria, and that it was our fault if we went nevertheless.
A few days later we were at Merghén, where we traded a little, and soon reached the Chinese town Argúñ on the right bank of the Amúr, and the Russian town of Blagovéschensk on the left bank. We had discovered the direct route and many interesting things besides: the border-ridge character of the Great Khingán, the ease with which it can be crossed, the tertiary volcanoes of the Uyún Kholdontsí region which had so long been a puzzle in geographical literature, and so on. I cannot say that I was a sharp tradesman, for at Merghén I persisted (in broken Chinese) in asking thirty-five rubles for a watch, when the Chinese buyer had already offered me forty-five; but the Cossacks traded all right. They sold all their horses very well, and when my horses, my goods, and the like were sold by the Cossacks, it appeared that the expedition had cost the government the modest sum of twenty-two rubles,-- eleven dollars.