The desert children of Mongolia

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Usually when we camped we could see, almost immediately, the silhouettes of approaching Mongols black against the evening sky. Where they came from we could never guess.

For miles there might not have been the trace of a human being, but suddenly they would appear as though from out the earth itself.

Perhaps they had been riding along some distant ridge far beyond the range of white men's eyes, or the roar of a motor had carried to their ears across the miles of plain; or perhaps it was that unknown sense, which seems to have been developed in these children of the desert, which directs them unerringly to water, to a lost horse, or to others of their kind. Be it what it may, almost every night the Mongols came loping into camp on their hardy, little ponies.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The Ocean - Lord Byron


ROLL on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean, roll!

  Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

  Man marks the earth with ruin; his control

  Stops with the shore; upon the watery plain

  The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain   

  A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,

  When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,

  He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.


  His steps are not upon thy paths; thy fields       

  Are not a spoil for him; thou dost arise

  And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields

  For earth’s destruction thou dost all despise,

  Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies,

  And send’st him, shivering in thy playful spray,       

  And howling, to his gods, where haply lies

  His petty hope in some near port or bay,

And dashest him again to earth: there let him lay.


  The armaments which thunderstrike the walls

  Of rock-built cities, bidding nations quake,        

  And monarchs tremble in their capitals,

  The oak leviathans, whose huge ribs make

  Their clay creator the vain title take

  Of lord of thee, and arbiter of war,—

  These are thy toys, and, as the snowy flake,        

  They melt into thy yeast of waves, which mar

Alike the Armada’s pride or spoils of Trafalgar.


  Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee:

  Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?

  Thy waters washed them power while they were free,        

  And many a tyrant since; their shores obey

  The stranger, slave, or savage; their decay

  Has dried up realms to deserts: not so thou,

  Unchangeable save to thy wild waves’ play;

  Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow;        

Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now.


  Thou glorious mirror, where the Almighty’s form

  Glasses itself in tempests; in all time,

  Calm or convulsed; in breeze or gale or storm,

  Icing the pole, or in the torrid clime        

  Dark-heaving, boundless, endless, and sublime,—

  The image of Eternity, the throne

  Of the Invisible; even from out thy slime

  The monsters of the deep are made; each zone

Obeys thee; thou goest forth, dread, fathomless, alone.        


  And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy

  Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be

  Borne, like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy

  I wantoned with thy breakers; they to me

  Were a delight; and if the freshening sea        

  Made them a terror, ’t was a pleasing fear,

  For I was as it were a child of thee,

  And trusted to thy billows far and near,

And laid my hand upon thy mane, as I do here.

A life lived unmorally

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


In the careless freedom of his magnificent horseman-ship a Mongol seems as much an untamed creature of the plains as does the eagle itself which soars above his yurt. Independence breathes in every movement; even in his rough good humour and in the barbaric splendour of the native dress.

But the little matter of cleanliness is of no importance in his scheme of life. When a meal has been eaten, the wooden bowl is licked clean with the tongue; it is seldom washed. Every man and woman usually carries through life the bodily dirt which has accumulated in childhood, unless it is removed by some accident or by the wear of years. One can be morally certain that it will never be washed off by design or water. Perhaps the native is not altogether to blame, for, except in the north, water is not abundant. It can be found on the plains and in the Gobi Desert only at wells and an occasional pond, and on the march it is too precious to be wasted in the useless process of bathing. Moreover, from September until May the bitter winds which sweep down from the Siberian steppes furnish an unpleasant temperature in which to take a bath.

The Mongol's food consists almost entirely of mutton, cheese, and tea. Like all northern people, he needs an abundance of fat, and sheep supply his wants. There is always more or less grease distributed about his clothes and person, and when Mongols are en masse the odor of mutton and unwashed humanity is well-nigh over-powering.

I must admit that in morality the Mongol is but little better off than in personal cleanliness. A man may have only one lawful wife, but may keep as many concubines as his means allow, all of whom live with the members of the family in the single room of the yurt. Adultery is openly practiced, apparently without prejudice to either party, and polyandry is not unusual in the more remote parts of the country.

The Mongol is unmoral rather than immoral. He lives like an untaught child of nature and the sense of modesty or decency, as we conceive it, does not enter into his scheme of life.


Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

“Roughing it”

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.



As every traveler knows, the natives of a country usually have developed the best possible clothes and dwellings for the peculiar conditions under which they live. Just as the Mongol felt-covered yurt and tent are all that can be desired, so do they know that fur and leather are the only clothing to keep them warm during the bitter winter months.

In the carts we had an ample supply of flour, bacon, coffee, tea, sugar, and dried fruit. For meat, we depended upon our guns, of course, and always had as much as could be used. Although we did not travel deluxe, nevertheless we were entirely comfortable. When a man boasts of the way in which he discards even necessaries in the field, you can be morally certain that he has not done much real traveling. "Roughing it" does not harmonize well with hard work. One must accept enough discomforts under the best conditions without the addition of any which can be avoided.

Good health is the prime requisite in the field. Without it you are lost. The only way in which to keep fit and ready to give every ounce of physical and mental energy to the problems of the day is to sleep comfortably, eat wholesome food, and be properly clothed. It is not often, then, that you will need a doctor. We have not as yet had a physician on any of our expeditions, even though we have often been very many miles from the nearest white men.

It never ceases to amuse me that the insurance companies always cancel my accident policies as soon as I leave for the field. The excuse is that I am not a "good risk," although they are ready enough to renew them when I return to New York. And yet the average person has a hundred times more chance of being killed or injured right on Fifth Avenue than do we who live in the open, breathing God's fresh air and sleeping under the stars. My friend Stefansson, the Arctic explorer, often says that "adventures are a mark of incompetence," and he is doubtless right. If a man goes into the field with a knowledge of the country he is to visit and with a proper equipment, he probably will have very few "adventures." If he has not the knowledge and equipment he had much better remain at home, for he will inevitably come to grief.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The street signs of the desert

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.



I think there is nothing which makes me feel more helpless than to be alone on the plains without a horse. For miles and miles there is only the rolling grassland or the wide sweep of desert, with never a house or tree to break the low horizon. It seems so futile to walk, your own legs carry you so slowly and such a pitifully short distance, in these vast spaces.

To be left alone in a small boat on the open sea is exactly similar. You feel so very, very small and you realize then what an insignificant part of nature you really are. I have felt it, too, amid vast mountains when I have been toiling up a peak which stretched thousands of feet above me with others rearing their majestic forms on every side. Then, nature seems almost alive and full of menace; something to be fought and conquered by brain and will.

Early in our work upon the plains we learned how easy it is to lose one's way. The vast sea of land seems absolutely flat, but in reality it is a gently rolling surface full of slopes and hollows, every one of which looks exactly like the others. But after a time we developed a land sense.

The Mongols all have it to an extraordinary degree. We could drop an antelope on the plain and leave it for an hour or more. With a quick glance about our lama would fix the place in his mind, and dash off on a chase which might carry us back and forth toward every point of the compass. When it was time to return, he would head his pony unerringly for that single spot on the plain and take us back as straight as the flight of an arrow.

At first it gave him unceasing enjoyment when we became completely lost, but in a very short time we learned to note the position of the sun, the character of the ground, and the direction of the wind. Then we began to have more confidence in ourselves. But only by years of training can one hope even to approximate the Mongols. They have been born and reared upon the plains, and have the inheritance of unknown generations whose very life depended upon their ability to come and go at will. To them, the hills, the sun, the grass, the sand – all have become the street signs of the desert.


Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

What creates a man-eating tiger

From Jim Corbett's 'Maneaters of Kumaon' published in 1944.


Photo by  Frida Bredesen  on  Unsplash


A man-eating tiger is a tiger that has been compelled, through stress of circumstances beyond its control, to adopt a diet alien to it. 

The stress of circumstances is, in nine cases out of ten, wounds, and in the tenth case old age. The wound that has caused a particular tiger to take to man-eating might be the result of a carelessly fired shot and failure to follow up and recover the wounded animal, or be the result of the tiger having lost his temper when killing a porcupine. Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers, and it is only when tigers have been incapacitated through wounds or old age that, in order to five, they are compelled to take to a diet of human flesh.

A tiger when killing its natural prey, which it does either by stalking or lying in wait for it, depends for the success of its attack on its speed and, to a lesser extent, on the condition of its teeth and claws. When, therefore, a tiger is suffering from one or more painful wounds, or when its teeth are missing or defective and its claw worn down, and it is unable to catch the animals it has been accustomed to eating, it is driven by necessity to killing human beings. The change over from animal to human flesh is, I believe, in most cases accidental. 

As an illustration of what I mean by accidental I quote the case of the Muktesar man-eating tigress. This tigress, a comparatively young animal, in an encounter with a porcupine lost an eye and got some fifty quills, varying in length from one to nine inches, embedded in the arm and under the pad of her right foreleg. Several of these quills after striking a bone had doubled back in the form of a U, the point, and the broken-off end, being quite close together. Suppurating sores formed where she endeavoured to extract the quills with her teeth, and while she was lying up in a thick patch of grass, starving and licking Her wounds, a woman selected this particular patch of grass to cut as fodder for her cattle. At first the tigress took no notice, but when the woman had cut the grass right up to where she was lying the tigress struck once, the blow crushing in the woman's skull. Death was instantaneous, for, when found the following day, she was grasping her sickle with one hand and holding a tuft of grass, which she was about to cut when struck, with the other. Leaving the woman lying where she had fallen, the tigress limped off for a distance of over a mile and took refuge in a little hollow under a fallen tree. 

Two days later a man came to chip firewood off this fallen tree, and the tigress who was lying on the far side killed him. The man fell across the tree, and as he had removed his coat and shirt and the tigress had clawed his back when killing him, it is possible that the smell of the blood trickling down his body as he hung across the bole of the tree first gave her the idea that he was something that she could satisfy her hunger with. However that may be, before leaving him she ate a small portion from his back. A clay after she killed her third victim deliberately, and without having received any provocation. Thereafter she became an established man-eater and had killed twenty-four people before she was finally accounted for.



The 'Mongol's Coffin'

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

Although the natives take such care for the repose of the spirit in after life, they have a strong distaste for the body from which the spirit has fled and they consider it a most undesirable thing to have about the house. The stigma is imposed even upon the dying. In Urga a family of Mongols had erected their yurt in the courtyard of one of our friends. During the summer the young wife became very ill, and when her husband was convinced that she was about to die he moved the poor creature bodily out of the yurt. She could die if she wished, but it must not be inside his house.

The corpse itself is considered unclean and the abode of evil spirits, and as such must be disposed of as quickly as possible. Sometimes the whole family will pack up their yurt and decamp at once, leaving the body where it lies. More usually the corpse is loaded upon a cart which is driven at high speed over a bit of rough ground. The body drops off at some time during the journey, but the driver does not dare look back until he is sure that the unwelcome burden is no longer with him; otherwise he might anger the spirit following the corpse and thereby cause himself and his family unending trouble.

Unlike the Chinese, who treat their dead with the greatest respect and go to enormous expense in the burial, every Mongol knows that his coffin will be the stomachs of dogs, wolves, or birds. Indeed, the Chinese name for the raven is the "Mongol's coffin."



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The chase with the wolf across the plain

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Unfortunately I did not reload the camera with a fresh roll of film and thereby missed one of the most unusual and interesting pictures which ever could be obtained upon the plains.

The tents were already in sight when a wolf suddenly appeared on the crest of a grassy knoll. He looked at us for a moment and then set off at an easy lope. The temptation was too great to be resisted even though there was a strong possibility that we might be stalled in the desert with no gas.

The ground was smooth and hard, and our speedometer showed forty miles an hour. We soon began to gain, but for three miles he gave us a splendid race. Suddenly, as we came over a low hill, we saw an enormous herd of antelope directly in front of us. They were not more than two hundred yards away, and the wolf made straight for them. Panic-stricken at the sight of their hereditary enemy followed by the roaring car, they scattered wildly and then swung about to cross our path.

More than a thousand antelope were running diagonally across our course. It was a sight to stir the gods a thing to give one's life to see.

The wolf dashed into their midst and the herd divided as though cut by a knife. Some turned short about, but the others kept on toward us until I thought we would actually run them down. When not more than fifty yards from the motor they wheeled sharply and raced along beside the wolf.

To add to the excitement a fat, yellow marmot, which seemed suddenly to have lost his mind, galloped over the plain as fast as his short legs could carry him until he remembered that safety lay underground; then he popped into his burrow like a billiard ball into a pocket. With this strange assortment fleeing in front of the car we felt as though we had invaded a zoological garden.

The wolf paid not the slightest attention to the antelope for he had troubles of his own. We were almost on him, and I could see his red tongue between the foam-flecked jaws. Suddenly he dodged at right angles, and it was only by a clever bit of driving that Charles avoided crashing into him with the left front wheel.

All this had happened with an unloaded camera in the automobile. I had tried desperately to adjust a new roll of film, but had given up in despair for it was difficult enough even to sit in the bounding car. Were I to spend the remainder of my life in Mongolia there might never be such a chance again.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

Hunting the musk deer

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Running to the spot where the head had been I found a beautiful brown-gray animal lying behind a bush. It was no larger than a half-grown fawn, but on either side of its mouth two dagger like tusks projected, slender, sharp and ivory white. It was a musk deer – the first living, wild one I had ever seen. Even before I touched the body I inhaled a heavy, not unpleasant, odor of musk and discovered the gland upon the abdomen. It was three inches long and two inches wide, but all the hair on the rump and belly was strongly impregnated with the odor.

These little deer are eagerly sought by the natives throughout the Orient, as musk is valuable for perfume. In Urga the Mongols could sell a "pod" for five dollars (silver) and in other parts of China it is worth considerably more. When we were in Yun-nan we frequently heard of a musk buyer whom the Paris perfumer, Pinaud, maintained in the remote mountain village of Atunzi, on the Tibetan frontier.

Because of their commercial value the little animals are relentlessly persecuted in every country which they inhabit and in some places they have been completely exterminated. Those in Mongolia are particularly difficult to kill, since they live only on the mountain summits in the thickest forests. Indeed, were it not for their insatiable curiosity it would be almost impossible ever to shoot them. They might be snared, of course, but I never saw any traps or devices for catching animals which the Mongols used; they seem to depend entirely upon their guns. This is quite unlike the Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Malays, and other Orientals with whom I have hunted, for they all have developed ingenious snares, pitfalls and traps.

The musk sac is present only in the male deer and is, of course, for the purpose of attracting the does. Unfortunately, it is not possible to distinguish the sexes except upon close examination, for both are hornless, and as a result the natives sometimes kill females which they would prefer to leave unmolested.

The musk deer use their tusks for fighting and also to dig up the food upon which they live. I frequently found new pine cones which they had torn apart to get at the soft centers. During the winter they develop an exceedingly long, thick coat of hair which, however, is so brittle that it breaks almost like dry pine needles; consequently, the skins have but little commercial value.



The Mongol's marvelous eyes

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Half an hour later we sat down for a look around. I studied every ridge and gully with my glasses without seeing a sign of life. The four sheep had disappeared as completely as though one of the yawning ravines had swallowed them up; the great valley bathed in golden sunlight was deserted and as silent as the tomb.

I was just tearing the wrapper from a piece of chocolate when the hunter touched me on the arm and said quietly, “Pan-yang li la” (A sheep has come). He pointed far down a ridge running out at a right angle to the one on which we were sitting, but I could see nothing. Then I scanned every square inch of rock, but still saw no sign of life.

The hunter laughingly whispered, "I can see better than you can even with your foreign eyes. He is standing in that trail — he may come right up to us."

I tried again, following the thin, white line as it wound from us along the side of the knifelike ridge. Just where it vanished into space I saw the sheep, a splendid ram, standing like a statue of gray-brown granite and gazing squarely at us. He was fully half a mile away, but the hunter had seen him the instant he appeared. Without my glasses the animal was merely a blur to me, but the marvelous eyes of the Mongol could detect its every movement.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

"Since you appear so anxious to persist in your own shame, let it be granted as you desire.”

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


When strangers arrive in Kamul, and desire to have lodging and accommodation at their houses, it affords them the highest gratification. They give positive orders to their wives, daughters, sisters, and other female relations, to indulge their guests in every wish, whilst they themselves leave their homes, and retire into the city, and the stranger lives in the house with the females as if they were his own wives, and they send whatever necessaries may be wanted; but for which, it is to be understood, they expect payment: nor do they return to their houses so long as the strangers remain in them.

This abandonment of the females of their family to accidental guests, who assume the same privileges and meet with the same indulgences as if they were their own wives, is regarded by these people as doing them honour and adding to their reputation; considering the hospitable reception of strangers, who after the perils and fatigues of a long journey, stand in need of relaxation, as an action agreeable to their deities, calculated to draw down the blessing of increase upon their families and to procure them safety from all dangers.

The women are in truth very handsome, very sensual, and fully disposed to conform in this respect to the injunction of their husbands.

It happened at the time when Mangu Kaan held his court in this province, that the above scandalous custom coming to his knowledge, he issued an edict strictly commanding the people of Kamul to relinquish a practice so disgraceful to them, and forbidding individuals to furnish lodging to strangers, but to provide hostelries for travelers.

In grief and sadness the inhabitants obeyed for about three years the command of their master; but finding at length that the earth ceased to yield the accustomed fruits, and that many unfortunate events occurred in their families, they resolved to despatch a deputation to the Mangu Kaan, in their names, to beseech him that he should be pleased to suffer them to resume the observance of a custom that had been solemnly handed down to them by their fathers, from their ancestors in the remotest times.

The Kaan, having listened to this application, replied: "Since you appear so anxious to persist in your own shame, let it be granted as you desire. Go, live according to your base customs and manners, and let your wives continue to receive the beggarly wages of their prostitution." With this answer the deputies returned home, to the great delight of all the people, who, to the present day, observe their ancient practice.



The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo

The garden of deliciousness

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


Having spoken of this country, mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain. The district in which his residence lay obtained the name of Mulehet. The following account of this chief, Marco Polo testifies to having heard from sundry persons.

He was named Aloadin, and his religion was that of Mahomet. In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and some of pure water, were seen to flow in every direction.

The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never suffered to appear. The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind, was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of its being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and the compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favor.

In order that none without his license might find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpugnable castle to be erected at the opening of it, through which the entry was by a secret passage.

At his court, likewise, this chief entertained a number of youths, from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage. To them he was in the daily practice of discoursing on the subject of the paradise announced by the prophet, and of his own power of granting admission. And at certain times he caused opium to be administered to ten or a dozen of the youths; and when half dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden.

Upon awakening from the state of stupor, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described, and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights.

When four or five days had thus been passed, they were thrown once more into a drugged state, and carried out of the garden. Upon their being introduced to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was, "In Paradise, through the favor of your highness": and then before the whole court, who listened to them with eager curiosity and astonishment, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses.

The chief thereupon addressing them, said: "We have the assurances of our prophet that he who defends his lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourselves devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you." Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service.

The consequence of this system was, that when any of the neighbouring princes, or others, gave offence to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins; none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master's will.

On this account his tyranny became the subject of dread in all the surrounding countries. Thus there was no person, however powerful, who, having become exposed to the enmity of the Old Man of the Mountain, could escape assassination.



The Assassins
By Bernard Lewis

Starvation in a tower of Gold

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


Baghdad is a large city, heretofore the residence of the Calif of all the Saracens, as the Pope is of all Christians. A great river flows through the midst of it, by means of which the merchants transport their goods to and from the Sea of India; the distance being computed at seventeen days' navigation, in consequence of the windings of its course.

In Baghdad there is a manufacture of silks wrought with gold, and also of damasks, as well as of velvets ornamented with the figures of birds and beasts. Almost all the pearls brought to Europe from India have undergone the process of boring, at this place. The Mahometan law is here regularly studied, as are also magic, physics, astronomy, geomancy, and physiognomy. It is the noblest and most extensive city to be found in this part of the world.

The Calif, who is understood to have amassed greater treasures than had ever been possessed by any other sovereign, perished miserably under the following circumstances. At the period when the Tartar princes began to extend their dominion, there were amongst them four brothers, having subdued the country of Cathay, and other districts in that quarter, they were not satisfied, but coveting further territory, they conceived the idea of Universal Empire, and proposed that they should divide the world amongst them.

With this object in view, it was agreed that one of them should proceed to the east, that another should make conquests in the south, and that the other two should direct their operations against the remaining quarters.

The Southern portion fell to the lot of Alau, who assembled a vast army, and proceeded in the year 1255 to the attack of this city of Baghdad. Being aware, however, of its great strength and the prodigious number of its inhabitants, he trusted rather to stratagem than to force for its reduction, and in order to deceive the enemy with regard to the number of his troops, which consisted of a hundred thousand horse, besides foot soldiers, he posted one division of his army on the one side, another division on the other side of the approach to the city, in such a manner as to be concealed by a wood. Then placing himself at the head of a third, advanced boldly to within a short distance of the gate.

The Calif made light of a force apparently so inconsiderable, and confidently thought of nothing less than its entire destruction, and for that purpose marched out of the city with his guards. But as soon as Alau perceived his approach, he feigned retreat before him, until by this means he had drawn him beyond the wood where the other divisions were posted. By the closing of these from both sides, the army of the Calif was surrounded and broken, and he was made prisoner, and the city surrendered to the conqueror.

Upon entering it, Alau discovered, to his great astonishment, a tower filled with gold. He called the Calif before him, and after reproaching him with his greediness, that prevented him from employing his treasures in the formation of an army for the defense of his capital against the powerful invasion with which it had long been threatened, gave orders for his being shut up in this same tower, without sustenance; and there, in the midst of his wealth, he soon finished a miserable existence.



The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo

Life and death in a Manchu prison cell

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


Not far beyond the Custom House is what I believe to be one of the most horrible prisons in the world. Inside a double palisade of unpeeled timbers is a space about ten feet square upon which open the doors of small rooms, almost dark. In these dungeons are piled wooden boxes, four feet long by two and one-half feet high. These coffins are the prisoners' cells.

Some of the poor wretches have heavy chains about their necks and both hands manacled together. They can neither sit erect nor lie at full length. Their food, when the jailer remembers to give them any, is pushed through a six-inch hole in the coffin's side. Some are imprisoned here for only a few days or weeks; others for life, or for many years. Sometimes they lose the use of their limbs, which shrink and shrivel away. The agony of their cramped position is beyond the power of words to describe. Even in winter, when the temperature drops, as it sometimes does, to sixty degrees below zero, they are given only a single sheepskin for covering. How it is possible to live in indescribable filth, half-fed, well-nigh frozen in winter, and suffering the tortures of the damned, is beyond my ken – only a Mongol could live at all.

The prison is not a Mongol invention. It was built by the Manchus and is an eloquent tribute to a knowledge of the fine arts of cruelty that has never been surpassed.

I have given this description of the prison not to feed morbid curiosity, but to show that Urga, even if it has a Custom House, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, motor cars, and telephones, is still at heart a city of the Middle Ages.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

Choosing Kublai Khan's concubines

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


When his majesty Kublai Khan is desirous of the company of one of his empresses, he either sends for her, or goes himself to her palace. Besides these, he has many concubines provided for his use, from a province of Tartary named Ungut, the inhabitants of which are distinguished for beauty of features and fairness of complexion. Every second year, or oftener, as it may happen to be his pleasure, the Great Khan sends thither his officers, who collect for him, one hundred or more, of the handsomest of the young women, according to the estimation of beauty communicated to them in their instructions.

The mode of their appreciation is as follows. Upon the arrival of these commissioners, they give orders for assembling all the young women of the province, and appoint qualified persons to examine them, who, upon careful inspection of each of them separately, that is to say, of the hair, the countenance, the eyebrows, the mouth, the lips, and other features, as well as the symmetry of these with each other, estimate their value at sixteen, seventeen, eighten, or twenty, or more carats, according to the greater or less degree of beauty.

The number required by the Great Khan, at the rates, perhaps, of twenty or twenty-one carats, to which their commission was limited, is then selected from the rest, and they are conveyed to his court.

Upon their arrival in his presence, he causes a new examination to be made by a different set of inspectors, and from amongst them a further selection takes place, when thirty or forty are retained for his own chamber at a higher valuation. These are committed separately to the care of certain elderly ladies of the palace, whose duty it is to observe them attentively during the course of the night, in order to ascertain that they have not any concealed imperfections, that they sleep tranquilly, do not snore, have sweet breath, and are free from unpleasant scent in any part of the body. Having undergone this rigorous scrutiny, they are divided into parties of five, each taking turn for three days and three nights, in his majesty's interior apartment, where they are to perform every service that is required of them, and he does with them as he likes.

The remainder of them, whose value had been estimated at an inferior rate, are assigned to the different lords of the household; under whom they are instructed in cookery, in dressmaking, and other suitable works; and upon any person belonging to the court expressing an inclination to take a wife, the Great Khan bestows upon him one of these damsels. In this manner he provides for them all amongst his nobility.

It may be asked whether the people of the province do not feel themselves aggrieved in having their daughters thus forcibly taken from them by the sovereign? Certainly not; but, on the contrary, they regard it as a favor and an honour done to them; and those who are the fathers of handsome children feel highly gratified by his condescending to make choice of their daughters. "If," say they, "my daughter is born under an auspicious planet and to good fortune, his majesty can best fulfill her destinies, by matching her nobly; which it would not be in my power to do." If, on the other hand, the daughter misconducts herself, or any mischance befalls her, by which she becomes disqualified, the father attributes the disappointment to the evil influence of her stars.


The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo

The man eating dogs of Mongolia

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.


The dogs of Mongolia are savage almost beyond belief. They are huge black fellows like the Tibetan mastiff, and their diet of dead human flesh seems to have given them a contempt for living men. Every Mongol family has one or more, and it is exceedingly dangerous for a man to approach a yurt or caravan unless he is on horseback or has a pistol ready. In Urga itself you will probably be attacked if you walk unarmed through the meat market at night.

Although the dogs live to a large extent upon human remains, they are also fed by the lamas. Everyday about four o'clock in the afternoon you can see a cart being driven through the main street, followed by scores of yelping dogs. On it are two or more dirty lamas with a great barrel from which they ladle out refuse for the dogs, for according to their religious beliefs they accumulate great merit for themselves if they prolong the life of anything, be it bird, beast, or insect.

In the river valley, just below the Lama City, numbers of dogs can always be found, for the dead priests usually are thrown there to be devoured. Dozens of white skulls lie about in the grass, but it is a serious matter even to touch one. I very nearly got into trouble one day by targeting my rifle upon a skull which lay two or three hundred yards away from our tent.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The Camel Train had arrived

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.

Photo by  james ballard  on  Unsplash

Photo by james ballard on Unsplash


Our way led close along the Tola River, and just before tiffin we saw a line of camels coming diagonally toward us from behind a distant hill. I wish you could have seen that caravan in all its barbaric splendor as it wound across the vivid green plains. Three lamas, dressed in gorgeous yellow robes, and two, in flaming red, rode ahead on ponies. Then neck and neck, mounted on enormous camels, came four men in gowns of rich maroon and a woman flashing with jewels and silver. Behind them, nose to tail, was the long, brown line of laden beasts. It was like a painting of the Middle Ages — like a picture of the days of Kublai Khan, when the Mongol court was the most splendid the world has ever seen. My wife and I were fascinated, for this was the Mongolia of our dreams.

Like the trained units of an army each camel came into position, kneeled upon the ground and remained quietly chewing its cud until the driver removed the load. Long before the last straggler had arrived the tents were up and a fire blazing, and far into the night the thirsty beasts grunted and roared as the trough was filled with water. For thirty-six days they had been on the road, and yet were only halfway across the desert. Every day had been exactly like the day before — an endless routine of eating and sleeping, camp-making and camp- breaking in sun, rain, or wind. The monotony of it all would be appalling to a westerner, but the Oriental mind seems peculiarly adapted to accept it with entire contentment.



Across Mongolian Plains
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The deathly heat of the land-wind

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


Photo by  paul itkin  on  Unsplash

Photo by paul itkin on Unsplash

During the summer season, the inhabitants of Ormus do not remain in the city, on account of the excessive heat, which renders the air unwholesome, but retire to their gardens along the shore or on the banks of the river. Here they reside during the period in which there blows, every day, from about the hour of nine until noon, a land-wind so intensely hot as to impede respiration, and to occasion death by suffocating the person exposed to it.

None can escape from its effects who are overtaken by it on the sandy plain. As soon as the approach of this wind is perceived by the inhabitants, they immerse themselves to the chin in water and continue in that situation until it ceases to blow.

In proof of the extraordinary degree of this heat, Marco Polo says that he happened to be in these parts when the following circumstance occurred.

The ruler of Ormus having neglected to pay his tribute to the king of Kierman, the latter took the resolution of enforcing it at the season when the principal inhabitants reside out of the city, upon the main land, and for this purpose despatched a body of troops, consisting of sixteen hundred horse and five thou- sand foot, through the country in order to seize them by surprise.

In consequence, however, of their being misled by the guides, they failed to arrive at the place intended before the approach of night, and halted to take repose in a grove not far distant from Ormus; but upon recommencing their march in the morning, they were assailed by this hot wind, and were all suffocated; not one escaping to carry the fatal intelligence to his master. When the people of Ormus became acquainted with the event, and proceeded to bury the carcases, in order that their stench might not infect the air, they found them so baked by the intenseness of the heat, that the limbs, upon being handled, separated from the trunks, and it became necessary to dig the graves close to the spot where the bodies lay.



The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo

The deep ocean of eternal sunshine

Beyond the highest excursions of the cirri, at an elevation of some ten miles, stretches the deep ocean of eternal sunshine, of equable and nearly constant temperature.

Into that zone of perpetual serenity no tumult of the nether atmosphere can penetrate; against the floor of the isothermal layer the cyclonic currents spread and dissipate.

The upper air has, of course, a considerable drift, like a majestic river or stream of the sea, but never turmoil or tempest disturbs its stately march.


From 'A Short Course on the Theory and Operation of the Free Balloon' by C. H. Roth published 1917

Photo by  Thomas Richter  on  Unsplash




The spirits who protect the desert of Lop

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


Photo by  Randy Tarampi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash


It is asserted as a well-known fact that this desert is the abode of many evil spirits, which amuse travelers to their destruction with most extraordinary illusions. If, during the day-time, any persons remain behind on the road, either when overtaken by sleep or detained by their natural occasions, until the caravan has passed a hill and is no longer in sight, they unexpectedly hear themselves called to by their names, and in a tone of voice to which they are accustomed.

Supposing the call to proceed from their companions, they are led away by it from the direct road, and not knowing in what direction to advance, are left to perish. In the night-time they are persuaded they hear the march of a large cavalcade of people on one side or the other of the road, and concluding the noise to be that of the footsteps of their party, they direct theirs to the quarter from whence it seems to proceed.

But upon the breaking of day, they find they have been misled and drawn into a situation of danger. Sometimes likewise during the day these spirits assume the appearance of their traveling companions, who address them by name and endeavour to conduct them out of the proper road. It is said also that some persons, in their journey across the desert, have seen what appeared to them to be a body of armed men advancing towards them, and apprehensive of being attacked and plundered have taken to flight. Losing by this means the right path, and ignorant of the direction they should take to regain it, they have perished miserably of hunger.


The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo