Read THE LAND OF DEMONS: CHAPTER XXIII of Beasts‚ Men and Gods , free online book, by Ferdinand Ossendowski, on ReadCentral.com.

ON A VOLCANO

The following evening we arrived at Khathyl, a small Russian settlement of ten scattered houses in the valley of the Egingol or Yaga, which here takes its waters from the Kosogol half a mile above the village. The Kosogol is a huge Alpine lake, deep and cold, eighty-five miles in length and from ten to thirty in width. On the western shore live the Darkhat Soyots, who call it Hubsugul, the Mongols, Kosogol. Both the Soyots and Mongols consider this a terrible and sacred lake. It is very easy to understand this prejudice because the lake lies in a region of present volcanic activity, where in the summer on perfectly calm sunny days it sometimes lashes itself into great waves that are dangerous not only to the native fishing boats but also to the large Russian passenger steamers that ply on the lake. In winter also it sometimes entirely breaks up its covering of ice and gives off great clouds of steam. Evidently the bottom of the lake is sporadically pierced by discharging hot springs or, perhaps, by streams of lava. Evidence of some great underground convulsion like this is afforded by the mass of killed fish which at times dams the outlet river in its shallow places. The lake is exceedingly rich in fish, chiefly varieties of trout and salmon, and is famous for its wonderful “white fish,” which was previously sent all over Siberia and even down into Manchuria so far as Moukden. It is fat and remarkably tender and produces fine caviar. Another variety in the lake is the white khayrus or trout, which in the migration season, contrary to the customs of most fish, goes down stream into the Yaga, where it sometimes fills the river from bank to bank with swarms of backs breaking the surface of the water. However, this fish is not caught, because it is infested with worms and is unfit for food. Even cats and dogs will not touch it. This is a very interesting phemonenon and was being investigated and studied by Professor Dorogostaisky of the University at Irkutsk when the coming of the Bolsheviki interrupted his work.

In Khathyl we found a panic. The Russian detachment of Colonel Kazagrandi, after having twice defeated the Bolsheviki and well on its march against Irkutsk, was suddenly rendered impotent and scattered through internal strife among the officers. The Bolsheviki took advantage of this situation, increased their forces to one thousand men and began a forward movement to recover what they had lost, while the remnants of Colonel Kazagrandi’s detachment were retreating on Khathyl, where he determined to make his last stand against the Reds. The inhabitants were loading their movable property with their families into carts and scurrying away from the town, leaving all their cattle and horses to whomsoever should have the power to seize and hold them. One party intended to hide in the dense larch forest and the mountain ravines not far away, while another party made southward for Muren Kure and Uliassutai. The morning following our arrival the Mongol official received word that the Red troops had outflanked Colonel Kazagrandi’s men and were approaching Khathyl. The Mongol loaded his documents and his servants on eleven camels and left his yamen. Our Mongol guides, without ever saying a word to us, secretly slipped off with him and left us without camels. Our situation thus became desperate. We hastened to the colonists who had not yet got away to bargain with them for camels, but they had previously, in anticipation of trouble, sent their herds to distant Mongols and so could do nothing to help us. Then we betook ourselves to Dr. V. G. Gay, a veterinarian living in the town, famous throughout Mongolia for his battle against rinderpest. He lived here with his family and after being forced to give up his government work became a cattle dealer. He was a most interesting person, clever and energetic, and the one who had been appointed under the Czarist regime to purchase all the meat supplies from Mongolia for the Russian Army on the German Front. He organized a huge enterprise in Mongolia but when the Bolsheviki seized power in 1917 he transferred his allegiance and began to work with them. Then in May, 1918, when the Kolchak forces drove the Bolsheviki out of Siberia, he was arrested and taken for trial. However, he was released because he was looked upon as the single individual to organize this big Mongolian enterprise and he handed to Admiral Kolchak all the supplies of meat and the silver formerly received from the Soviet commissars. At this time Gay had been serving as the chief organizer and supplier of the forces of Kazagrandi.

When we went to him, he at once suggested that we take the only thing left, some poor, broken-down horses which would be able to carry us the sixty miles to Muren Kure, where we could secure camels to return to Uliassutai. However, even these were being kept some distance from the town so that we should have to spend the night there, the night in which the Red troops were expected to arrive. Also we were much astonished to see that Gay was remaining there with his family right up to the time of the expected arrival of the Reds. The only others in the town were a few Cossacks, who had been ordered to stay behind to watch the movements of the Red troops. The night came. My friend and I were prepared either to fight or, in the last event, to commit suicide. We stayed in a small house near the Yaga, where some workmen were living who could not, and did not feel it necessary to, leave. They went up on a hill from which they could scan the whole country up to the range from behind which the Red detachment must appear. From this vantage point in the forest one of the workmen came running in and cried out:

“Woe, woe to us! The Reds have arrived. A horseman is galloping fast through the forest road. I called to him but he did not answer me. It was dark but I knew the horse was a strange one.”

“Do not babble so,” said another of the workmen. “Some Mongol rode by and you jumped to the conclusion that he was a Red.”

“No, it was not a Mongol,” he replied. “The horse was shod. I heard the sound of iron shoes on the road. Woe to us!”

“Well,” said my friend, “it seems that this is our finish. It is a silly way for it all to end.”

He was right. Just then there was a knock at our door but it was that of the Mongol bringing us three horses for our escape. Immediately we saddled them, packed the third beast with our tent and food and rode off at once to take leave of Gay.

In his house we found the whole war council. Two or three colonists and several Cossacks had galloped from the mountains and announced that the Red detachment was approaching Khathyl but would remain for the night in the forest, where they were building campfires. In fact, through the house windows we could see the glare of the fires. It seemed very strange that the enemy should await the morning there in the forest when they were right on the village they wished to capture.

An armed Cossack entered the room and announced that two armed men from the detachment were approaching. All the men in the room pricked up their ears. Outside were heard the horses’ hoofs followed by men’s voices and a knock at the door.

“Come in,” said Gay.

Two young men entered, their moustaches and beards white and their cheeks blazing red from the cold. They were dressed in the common Siberian overcoat with the big Astrakhan caps, but they had no weapons. Questions began. It developed that it was a detachment of White peasants from the Irkutsk and Yakutsk districts who had been fighting with the Bolsheviki. They had been defeated somewhere in the vicinity of Irkutsk and were now trying to make a junction with Kazagrandi. The leader of this band was a socialist, Captain Vassilieff, who had suffered much under the Czar because of his tenets.

Our troubles had vanished but we decided to start immediately to Muren Kure, as we had gathered our information and were in a hurry to make our report. We started. On the road we overtook three Cossacks who were going out to bring back the colonists who were fleeing to the south. We joined them and, dismounting, we all led our horses over the ice. The Yaga was mad. The subterranean forces produced underneath the ice great heaving waves which with a swirling roar threw up and tore loose great sections of ice, breaking them into small blocks and sucking them under the unbroken downstream field. Cracks ran like snakes over the surface in different directions. One of the Cossacks fell into one of these but we had just time to save him. He was forced by his ducking in such extreme cold to turn back to Khathyl. Our horses slipped about and fell several times. Men and animals felt the presence of death which hovered over them and momentarily threatened them with destruction. At last we made the farther bank and continued southward down the valley, glad to have left the geological and figurative volcanoes behind us. Ten miles farther on we came up with the first party of refugees. They had spread a big tent and made a fire inside, filling it with warmth and smoke. Their camp was made beside the establishment of a large Chinese trading house, where the owners refused to let the colonists come into their amply spacious buildings, even though there were children, women and invalids among the refugees. We spent but half an hour here. The road as we continued was easy, save in places where the snow lay deep. We crossed the fairly high divide between the Egingol and Muren. Near the pass one very unexpected event occurred to us. We crossed the mouth of a fairly wide valley whose upper end was covered with a dense wood. Near this wood we noticed two horsemen, evidently watching us. Their manner of sitting in their saddles and the character of their horses told us that they were not Mongols. We began shouting and waving to them; but they did not answer. Out of the wood emerged a third and stopped to look at us. We decided to interview them and, whipping up our horses, galloped toward them. When we were about one thousand yards from them, they slipped from their saddles and opened on us with a running fire. Fortunately we rode a little apart and thus made a poor target for them. We jumped off our horses, dropped prone on the ground and prepared to fight. However, we did not fire because we thought it might be a mistake on their part, thinking that we were Reds. They shortly made off. Their shots from the European rifles had given us further proof that they were not Mongols. We waited until they had disappeared into the woods and then went forward to investigate their tracks, which we found were those of shod horses, clearly corroborating the earlier evidence that they were not Mongols. Who could they have been? We never found out; yet what a different relationship they might have borne to our lives, had their shots been true!

After we had passed over the divide, we met the Russian colonist D. A. Teternikoff from Muren Kure, who invited us to stay in his house and promised to secure camels for us from the Lamas. The cold was intense and heightened by a piercing wind. During the day we froze to the bone but at night thawed and warmed up nicely by our tent stove. After two days we entered the valley of Muren and from afar made out the square of the Kure with its Chinese roofs and large red temples. Nearby was a second square, the Chinese and Russian settlement. Two hours more brought us to the house of our hospitable companion and his attractive young wife who feasted us with a wonderful luncheon of tasty dishes. We spent five days at Muren waiting for the camels to be engaged. During this time many refugees arrived from Khathyl because Colonel Kazagrandi was gradually falling back upon the town. Among others there were two Colonels, Plavako and Maklakoff, who had caused the disruption of the Kazagrandi force. No sooner had the refugees appeared in Muren Kure than the Mongolian officials announced that the Chinese authorities had ordered them to drive out all Russian refugees.

“Where can we go now in winter with women and children and no homes of our own?” asked the distraught refugees.

“That is of no moment to us,” answered the Mongolian officials. “The Chinese authorities are angry and have ordered us to drive you away. We cannot help you at all.”

The refugees had to leave Muren Kure and so erected their tents in the open not far away. Plavako and Maklakoff bought horses and started out for Van Kure. Long afterwards I learned that both had been killed by the Chinese along the road.

We secured three camels and started out with a large group of Chinese merchants and Russian refugees to make Uliassutai, preserving the warmest recollections of our courteous hosts, T. V. and D. A. Teternikoff. For the trip we had to pay for our camels the very high price of 33 lan of the silver bullion which had been supplied us by an American firm in Uliassutai, the equivalent roughly of 2.7 pounds of the white metal.