Many rivers in Asia are made by the junction of two equally important streams, so that it is difficult for the geographer to say which of the two is the main one, and which is a tributary. The Ingodá and the Onón join to make the Shílka; the Shílka and the Argúñ join to make the Amúr; and the Amúr joins the Sungarí to form that mighty stream which flows northeastward and enters the Pacific in the inhospitable latitudes of the Tartar strait.
Up to the year 1864, the great river of Manchuria remained very little known. All information about it dated from the times of the Jesuits, and that was scanty. Now that a revival in the exploration of Mongolia and Manchuria was going to take place, and the fear of China which had hitherto been entertained in Russia appeared to be exaggerated, all of us younger people pressed upon the governor-general the necessity of exploring the Sungarí. To have next door to the Amúr an immense region, almost little known as an African desert, seemed to us provoking. Suddenly General Korsákoff decided to send a steamer up the Sungarí, under the pretext of carrying some message of friendship to the governor-general of the Ghirín province. A Russian consul from Urgá had to carry the message. A doctor, an astronomer, and myself, all under the command of a Colonel Chernyáeff, were sent upon the expedition in a tiny steamer, Usurí, which took in tow a barge with coal. Twenty-five soldiers, whose rifles were carefully concealed in the coal, went with us, on the barge.
All was organized very hurriedly, and there was no accommodation on the small steamer to receive such a numerous company; but we were all full of enthusiasm, and huddled as best we could in the tiny cabins. One of us had to sleep on a table, and when we started we found that there were not even knives and forks for all of us, -- not to speak of other necessaries. One of us resorted to his pen-knife at dinner time, and my Chinese knife with two sticks, serving as a fork, was a welcome addition to our equipment.
It was not an easy task to go up the Sungarí. The great river in its lower parts, where it flows through the same low lands as the Amúr, is very shallow, and although our steamer drew only three feet, we often could not find a channel deep enough for us. There were days when we advanced but some forty miles, and scraped as many times the sandy bottom of the river with our keel; over and over again a rowboat was sent out to find the necessary depth. But only young captain had made up his mind that he would reach Ghirín that autumn, and we progressed every day. As we ascended higher and higher, we found the river more and more beautiful, and more and more easy of navigation; and when we had passed the sandy deserts at its junction with its sister river, the Nónni, progress became easy and pleasant. In a few weeks we thus reached the capital of that province of Manchuria. An excellent map of the river was made by the topographers. There was no time to spare, unfortunately, and so we very seldom landed in any village or town. The villages along the banks of the river are few and far between, and on its lower parts we found only low lands, which are inundated every year; higher up we sailed for a hundred miles amidst sand dunes; and it was only when we reached the upper Sungarí and began to approach Ghirín that we found a dense population.
If our aim had been to establish friendly relations with Manchuria, and not simply to learn what the Sungarí is, our expedition might well have been considered a dead failure. The Manchurian authorities had it fresh in their memories how, eight years before, the "visit" of Muravióff ended in the annexation of the Amúr and the Usurí, and they could not but look with suspicion on this new and uncalled-for visitation. The twenty-five rifles concealed in the coal, which had been duly reported to the Chinese authorities before we left, still more provoked their suspicions; and when our steamer cast her anchor in front of the populous city of Ghirín, we found all its merchants armed with rusty swords from some old arsenal. We were not prevented, however, from walking in the streets, but all shops were closed as soon as we landed, and the merchants were not allowed to sell anything. Some provisions were sent to us on board the steamer as a gift, but no money was taken in return.
The autumn was rapidly coming to its end, the frosts had begun already, and we had to hurry back, as we could not winter on the Sungarí. In short, we saw Ghirín, but spoke to no one but the two interpreters who came every morning on board our steamer. Our aim, however, was fulfilled: we had ascertained that the river is navigable, and an excellent map of it was made, from its mouth to Ghirín, with the aid of which we were able to steam on our return journey at full speed without any accident. At one time our steamer ran upon a sandbank. But the Ghirín officials, desirous above all things that we should not be compelled to winter on the river, sent two hundred Chinese, who aided us in getting off. When I jumped into the water, and, taking a stick, began to sing our river-song, "Dubínushka," which helps all present to give a sudden push at the same moment, the Chinese enjoyed immensely the fun of it, and after several such pushes the steamer was soon afloat. The most cordial relations were established between ourselves and the Chinese by this little adventure. I mean, of course, the people, who seemed to dislike very much their arrogant Manchurian officials.
We called at several Chinese villages, peopled with exiles from the Celestial Empire, and were received in the most cordial way. One evening especially impressed itself on my memory. We came to a picturesque little village as night was already falling. Some of us landed, and I went alone through the village. A thick crowd of about a hundred Chinese soon surrounded me, and although I knew not a word of their tongue, and they knew as little of mine, we chatted in the most amicable way by mimicry, and we understood one another. To pat one on the shoulders in sign of friendship is decidedly international language. To offer one another tobacco and to be offered a light is again an international expression of friendship. One thing interested them, -- why had I, though young, a beard? They wear none before they are sixty. And when I told them by signs that in case I should have nothing to eat I might eat it, the joke was transmitted from one to the other through the whole crowd. They roared with laughter, and began to pat me even more caressingly on the shoulders; they took me about, showing me their houses; every one offered me his pipe, and the whole crowd accompanied me as a friend to the steamer. I must say that there was not one single boshkó (policeman) in that village. In other villages our soldiers and myself always made friends with the Chinese, but as soon as a boshkó appeared, all was spoiled. In return, one should have seen what "faces" they used to make at the boshkó behind his back! They evidently hated this representative of authority. This expedition has since been forgotten. The astronomer Th Usóltzeff and I published reports about it in the Memoirs of the Siberian Geographical Society; but a few years later a terrible conflagration at Irkútsk destroyed all the copies left of the Memoirs, as well as the original map of the Sungarí and it was only last year, when work upon the Trans-Manchurian Railway was beginning, the Russian geographers unearthed our reports, and found that the great river had been explored five-and-thirty years ago by our expedition.
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