Heart of Asia
by Nicholas Roerich
If it was important to become acquainted with the Oirots and Old Believers, then it was still more important to see the Mongols on whom at present, with justification, the world turns its eye.
It is the same Mongolia, whose very name impelled the inhabitants of the ancient Turkestan towns to flee their houses in terror, leaving behind an inscription: “God save us from the Mongols.” And because of them, even fishermen in far-away Denmark feared to venture into the open sea. Thus was the world awed by the name of the terrible conquerors.
When hearing the stories about the Mongols, one is astonished by their irreconcilable contradictions. On one hand you hear, that the Mongolian army chiefs even now, on capturing an enemy, cut out his heart and eat it. And one commander even stated that if you cut out the heart of a Chinese, he only grits his teeth, but the Russians scream terribly. There are also tales of Shaman conjurers, and of how, in the darkness of the yurts of the Shamans, you can hear the trampling of whole droves of horses, the sound of coveys of eagles in flight and the hissing of innumerable snakes. At the will of the Shaman, snow falls inside the yurt. Such manifestations of will power indeed exist. Incidentally, is it not possible that the word “Shaman” is a depraved form of the Sanskrit “Shraman”, just as “Bokhara” is nothing but the altered Buddhist word “Vihara”?
In Urga they related to us the following episode, showing the will power of certain lamas: a certain man received word from a revered lama that after two years of prosperity, great danger would befall him, if he would remain in Urga after a given date. Two years passed in full prosperity, and as is often the case, the successful man entirely forgot the warning. Unexpectedly, the revolution broke out and the opportunity to leave Urga safely was missed. Terrified, the man hurried to the lama again. The latter, reproving him, promised to save him once again and ordered him to depart the next morning with his whole family. “But”, he added, “should you meet soldiers, do not try to run away, but remain absolutely motionless.” The man did as the lama told him. On the way a detachment of soldiers approached. The family stopped and remained silent and motionless. As the soldiers passed near them, they heard one of them say to another:
“Look, what’s that? People?”
But the other man replied: “What’s the matter? Are you blind? Can’t you see they are stones!”
When you visit the Mongolian printing press in Urga and speak to the Minister of Education, Batukhan, and to the well-known Buriato-Mongolian scholar, honorary secretary of the Scientific Committee, Djemsarano: when you become acquainted with lamas, who translate Algebra and Geometry text books into Mongolian, you see, that the seeming contradictions combine in the potentialities of the people, which justly turn toward its glorious past.
To the casual passer-by, Mongolia reveals its outer self, which astonishes one by its wealth of color, its costumes, in which age-old traditions are blended with brilliantly-staged ceremonials. But on closer acquaintance, you will find among the Mongols serious scientific work, a careful investigation of their own country and a desire to send their youth abroad to absorb the methods of contemporary science and technical knowledge. The Mongols go to Germany. They would also like to visit America, but the cost of the journey and of living here, and chiefly, also, their ignorance of the language, are serious obstacles. I must say that during our stay in Mongolia we saw much good in the Mongols. Among many other things, I was pleasantly touched by their serious attitude towards the remains of Mongol antiquity, by their efforts to retain these monuments and by their strictly scientific study of them.
The remarkable discovery by Kozlov’s expedition on Mongol territory opened a new page in, the history of Siberian antiquity. The same animal designs, which we knew only on metal objects, were discovered on textiles and other material. On the Mongolian territory there are large numbers of kurgans, kereksurs, so-called “deer-stones” and “stone-babas”. All these await further study.
In Urga we had to decide the further movements of the expedition. One possibility was to go through China, for, in addition to our passport from the Peking Government, Yang-Tutu had also issued for us a second passport, exactly my height in length! But another circumstance intervened: In Urga we met the representative of the Government of the Dalai Lama, Lobzang Cholden, who proposed to us that we go through Tibet. Not wishing to intrude, we asked him to confirm his invitation by the written consent of the Lhasa Government. He sent two letters to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa through Tibetan caravans and also asked the Tibetan representative in Peking to communicate with Lhasa. Three months passed, and Lobzang Cholden, who also was acting consul, informed us that he had received a positive reply via Peking and that he could issue the official passports to us and give us a letter to the Dalai Lama. As we learned afterwards, these passports are indeed entirely valid. Under the circumstances, we naturally preferred to go through the Gobi and Tibet, instead of risking chance attacks by the Hunhuses in China.
A curious incident should be mentioned. When we were preparing to depart, my son George, drilling our Mongols to use their rifles, took them to the outskirts of the town. As they crept up a slope it appeared that on the other side, a Mongolian infantry detachment was going through the same drill. The sight of both sides meeting each other unexpectedly on the ridge of the hill was most extraordinary. This drill proved to be not at all unnecessary—as our later encounters with the Panagis proved.
On the 13th of April, 1927, our expedition, with the assistance and goodwishes of the Mongolian authorities, set out in a southwestern direction towards the Mongolian frontier post, the Yum-Beise Monastery.
A part of the way from Urga, now called Ulan-Bator-Khoto, to Yum-Beise, we covered by motor. The heavily freighted automobiles looked like battle-tanks, and on the top, in yellow, blue and red attire, with coned caps, sat our fellow-travelers, the Buriat and Mongol lamas.
At first we intended to use motors beyond Yum-Beise also. The people told us that we could easily cross the Gobi on them. But this was untrue. The 600 miles more or less, up to Yum-Beise, we covered with difficulty in twelve days, and some days even we did no more than ten to fifteen miles, because of breakages, difficult crossings of rivers and stony ridges. Even here, there was no actual road. Here and there was a camel path, but most of the way was through virgin land, and we had to scout. Two conditions must be remembered. The first, that all existing maps are very indefinite. The second, that one cannot very well trust the local guides. Our guide, an old lama, took us, not to the present-day Yum-Beise, but to an ancient destroyed city, fifty miles to the west. The old man had been confused!
It was evident that we had to abandon our motors in Yum-Beise. We engaged a caravan from the local monastery which undertook to take us in less than twenty-one days to Shih-pao-ch’eng, between Ansijau and Nanshan. The road from Yum-Beise to Anhsi was interesting, because no traveler before us had used it. It was instructive to investigate how fit it was for travel, in the matters of water supply, fodder and safety. Only the old lama from Yum-Beise knew this road, he assured us, that this direction was far better than the other two, one of which is round about, from the western side, and the other, along the present Chinese road to the east. Recommending this way, he insisted that the one danger of this road—namely the Powerful Brigand Jalama—had been killed by the Mongols two years ago. And, indeed, in Urga we had seen Jalama’s head in alcohol and had heard many tales about this remarkable man. The Mongolian deserts will guard the legends about Jalama, but no one will ever ascertain what inner motives impelled his strange actions. Jalama was a law graduate from a Russian university, showing unusual abilities. He then went to Mongolia, where he distinguished himself for his activities against the Chinese. He then spent several years in Tibet, studied Lamaism, and also the control of will-power, for which he was naturally equipped. Returning to Mongolia, Jalama received the title, Gun, a title of the Khoshun prince. But he got into difficulties with a Cossack officer and soon found himself in a Russian jail. In the revolution of 1917, he was released. Then followed invasions and activities within Mongolia, after which he gathered round himself a large body of helpers, fortified himself in the Central Gobi and built a city [see Ja Lama’s Fortress], using as laborers the prisoners of numerous caravans which he had captured. In 1923, a Mongolian officer approached Jalama, as though offering him a friendly gift of a khatik. But under the white silk scarf was a Browning, and the ruler of the desert fell dead, pierced by several bullets. The Head of Jalama was carried on a spear around the Mongolian bazaars. After a while his men scattered. With some excitement, our caravan approached the place where the city of Jalama stood. On the stony slope from far away one can see the white Chorten, made of pieces of quartz—thus Jalama made his prisoners work. The lama advised us to dress in Mongolian kaftans, in order not to attract the attention of any undesirable people we might meet. Tempei-Jaltsen, the city, must be quite near. In the dark night we encamped. In the morning, before sunrise, we heard an unusual commotion. They shouted: “Here, we are right in front of the city!”
We all rushed from our tents and behind the next sandy hill we clearly saw the towers and walls. Neither the Buriats nor the Mongols consented to go and investigate what was in the city. So George and Porten, with carbines, went themselves. The rest awaited, fully ready for battle, watching with field-glasses. Shortly afterwards the two were seen on a tower. This was the sign that the city was deserted. During the day the entire expedition visited the city, in several groups. We all were amazed at Jalama’s fantasy in laying out a completely fortified city in the midst of the desert! Certainly he was not a mere brigand! Many songs are being sung about him. And his men have assuredly not disappeared.
The next day some suspicious-looking riders approached our caravan, inquiring about the amount of our arms. But apparently the reply did not encourage them and they dispersed behind the hills.
The region of Mongolia and the Central Gobi awaits explorers and archeologists. Of course, the discoveries of the Andrews Expedition, and the last expedition of Sven Hedin, judging by news accounts, gave excellent results. But the place is so vast, that not one, not two, but only numerous expeditions could completely cover it.
On the way, we encountered many beautiful pieces of so-called “Deer-Stone”, high menhir-like granite or sandstone blocks, sometimes ornamented. We also saw numbers of unexcavated kurgans, large and carefully constructed. The base of the kurgans was symmetrically surrounded by rows of stones, and on the top, also were stones. Near the kurgan, as if forming a second row, were small stone elevations. Especially interesting were the stone “babas”, of exactly the same character as those of the southern Russian steppes.
In one case there was a long row of oblong stones, extending almost a whole mile up to a stone “baba”, facing the East. We noticed that the carvings even now are smeared with grease and we heard a legend that one of the images was a powerful brigand, who, after his death, was transformed into a protector of this place. Our Tibetan, Konchog, who was attached to us as an attendant by the Tibetan representative in Urga, addressed long prayers to the protector of the region, demanding a happy journey for us. In conclusion, he threw a handful of grain at the image.