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

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

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

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 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

Hunting with Tigers

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926


Photo by  Frida Bredesen  on  Unsplash

The Great Khan has many leopards and lynxes kept for the purpose of chasing deer, and also many tigers which are larger than the Babylonian lions, have good skins and of a handsome colour — being streaked on the sides, with white, black, and red stripes. They are active in seizing boars, wild oxen and asses, bears, stags, roebucks, and other beasts that are the objects of sport.

It is an admirable sight, when the tiger is let loose in pursuit of the animal, to observe the savage eagerness and speed with which he overtakes it. His Majesty has them conveyed for this purpose, in cages placed upon cars, and along with them is confined a little dog, with which they become familiarized.

The reason for thus shutting them up is, that they would otherwise be so keen and furious at the sight of the game that it would be impossible to keep them under the necessary constraint. It is proper that they should be led in a direction opposite to the wind, in order that they may not be scented by the game, which would immediately run off, and offer no chance of sport.

His Majesty has eagles also, which are trained to catch wolves, and such is their size and strength that none, however large, can escape from their talons.



The Travels of Marco Polo
By Marco Polo

When we saw our first Mongol

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

Photo by  Jez Timms  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash


When we saw our first northern Mongol I was delighted. Everyone is a study for an artist. He dresses in a long, loose robe of plum color, one corner of which is usually tucked into a gorgeous sash. On his head is perched an extraordinary hat which looks like a saucer, with upturned edges of black velvet and a narrow cone- shaped crown of brilliant yellow. Two streamers of red ribbon are usually fastened to the rim at the back, or a plume of peacock feathers if he be of higher rank.

On his feet he wears a pair of enormous leather boots with pointed toes. These are always many sizes too large, for as the weather grows colder he pads them out with heavy socks of wool or fur. It is nearly impossible for him to walk in this ungainly footgear, and he waddles along exactly like a duck. He is manifestly uncomfortable and ill at ease, but put him on a horse and you have a different picture. The high-peaked saddle and the horse itself become a part of his anatomy and he will stay there happily fifteen hours of the day.

The Mongols ride with short stirrups and, standing nearly upright, lean far over the horse's neck like our western cowboys. As they tear along at full gallop in their brilliant robes they seem to embody the very spirit of the plains. They are such genial, accommodating fellows, always ready with a pleasant smile, and willing to take a sporting chance on anything under the sun, that they won my heart at once.

Above all things they love a race, and often one of them would range up beside the car and, with a radiant smile, make signs that he wished to test our speed. Then off he would go like mad, flogging his horse and yelling with delight. We would let him gain at first, and the expression of joy and triumph on his face was worth going far to see. Sometimes, if the road was heavy, it would need every ounce of gas the car could take to forge ahead, for the ponies are splendid animals. The Mongols ride only the best and ride them hard, since horses are cheap in Mongolia, and when one is a little worn another is always ready.

Not only does the Mongol inspire you with admiration for his full-blooded, virile manhood, but also you like him because he likes you. He doesn't try to disguise the fact. There is a frank openness about his attitude which is wonderfully appealing, and I believe that the average white man can get on terms of easy familiarity, and even intimacy, with Mongols more rapidly than with any other Orientals.




The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan
By Professor Urgunge Onon, Urgunge Onon

The Lighthouse in the Fog

The Lighthouse in the Fog.

A short story by Kasimir Zierl. Written 2014




And then you see…..



A lighthouse in the fog, you’re on a small inflatable raft driving towards the lighthouse island. You have a box in your possession that you were told to bring to the lighthouse, but no other instructions.


You round the rocks, the waves splashing you wet, the motor purrs and your torch searches the rocky bank of the island for a dock, but there is none.


The ocean is rough here, it is intimidating.


“why couldn’t they send a courier here? why did I get assigned? why couldn’t they send me in summer at day time not now at night in the fog? why does the lighthouse need this box? what is this box?”


A stream of light shines over you from the tower high above.


“The lighthouse works fine without this box, I should just go home.”


But home is far away, and the danger is as acute upon leaving this place as it is upon arriving here.


You spy some stairs leading into the depths, the waves play rough games on these stairs but they are the only way you can find to go up onto the island.


“I just want to go home” - you say


-to go home turn to page 70

-to climb the stairs turn to page 3





Page 3- There’s no rope


to moor your vessel, and nothing to tie it to either.

The boat, even though it is filled with air, is too heavy to heave up onto land.


That leaves only one option of course, take the box and leave the boat, you’ll work it out from here.


It is tug of war you play with the waves as you attempt to climb onto the stairs without being swept to sea. Each wave fills your inflatable boat with water and threatens to take you into the sharp rocks and further, to the depths.


You grip the box tightly in your arms, it is not heavy, it weighs as much as half a brick.

But it couldn’t be half a brick, because…. well, surely they’d want a whole brick instead, or more bricks than just a half brick.


The stairs are wet, drenched in salt water, the boat rocks and turns, the waves crash and recede. Now is your chance!


You leap high onto the stairs…


… and land with a small worrisome slip on the high steps.

Quickly you scamper up as the next wave tumbles over.

You made it and you are barely even wet.


There’s a path to your right that leads you to a wooden, green painted door with a rusted handle, a pair of boots stand at the threshold, they are drenched.


You turn to see your boat, orange, inflatable, with a light for attracting attention, and a whistle.

it turns away from you and descends deep into the fog.





“does that mean…


the box is a first aid kit? full of bandages and ointments?

the lighthouse keeper is injured and needs medical assistance?”


“but I’m no doctor, I can’t help him if he has a broken collar bone or a split skull. only if he has family issues and problems in his daily life that need solving.”


“And finally, lighthouses are all run by computer these days, there is no lighthouse keeper here.”


But that’s not true, is it?


because there are two boots standing, drenched, at the threshold to the lighthouse.


You come closer to the door and knock three times with your hand.

It is too quiet, the waves mask your thumping.


Instead you press the buzzer,

but the sound is a muzzled grizzly crackle, the hardware must have short circuited in the storm.


There’s only one other way to see if someone’s home….





You open the door


and peer inside.


Your eyes adjust slowly to see a round room, an empty chamber, an old couch, the place where a refrigerator was, but was removed probably once the lighthouse man was replaced by a machine.


The stairs wind upwards, lit dimly by an upstairs light.


You place the box at the doorstep, inside so it doesn’t get wet in the storm.


“I’m no courier, I don’t need to get the parcel signed, there are no neighbours to leave it with, ‘when he gets back please give this to…’ wait… “


The box is wrapped in brown paper, it is probably wooden inside, heavy, but it doesn’t rattle when shaken, and most importantly

it doesn’t have a name of the recipient written on it, only the words: Uncle Brown’s paper.


“Maybe the box is filled with paper, like the printer is out of paper, the printer in the lighthouse computer. I have this problem at home.”


That’s it you think, you found the solution, you had to deliver paper to a printer.


You put the parcel down and step for the door happy with your successful mission.

But you were wrong, it isn’t paper,

why would a lighthouse need to print anything?

all it does is shine a light around at night.


That stops you,

well, what is it then?

What’s inside?





There’s only one


way to find out,

you’ve got to see what’s inside.


You grab the parcel in your hands and look it over.


“I can’t leave until I know what it is”


You scratch at the sticky tape with your fingernails and peel off a corner of the brown paper.


A cough from upstairs stops you.


There’s a man here, a gruff one, with a cold.


This box is for him.




Your voice comes out like a squeak, you’re petrified of the man upstairs, who is he? why is he here? a squatter in the lighthouse perhaps? a sailor searching for a warm, dry place to sleep?


You put the sticky tape back on the parcel and make steps slowly for the stairs.


Riling up your courage you say aloud

“Hi, I… um… have your box here… I’ll just leave it at the door.”


You wait for an answer.






The response booms down


“Bring it up”





You climb the stairs


one at a time.

They are steeper than regular stairs, and narrower so you feel odd climbing them.


“Who is this man? did he know I was coming? is he waiting for the parcel, or maybe he kidnapped the man that this box is meant for, it could be precious, this parcel, valuable, like marriage papers or jewellery, like heirlooms of grandparents, or antique artefacts.”


“does that mean I can’t trust this man?”


The stairs creak under your steps and it is not long until you reach the top floor.

You peer into the room up here, it is brightly lit, a large machine hums and whirrs, the lights are on and actually, it looks complicated, you’d better not touch anything.


But where’s the man?

Your eyes flick around the room.


He isn’t here…


“Maybe he’s hiding, ready to ambush me, preparing an assault. I’m unarmed, defenceless, standing on the edge of a long staircase”


You put your back to a wall and reach for a weapon in defense, 

the only thing that is there is a pencil.


“I can stab him if he comes at me.”


But he hasn’t showed himself yet, he’s still hiding somewhere.


“Up here” - bellows his voice.


A ladder leads up from the machine room to another storey, higher up.

The man’s voice came from there.


Gripping the pencil in one hand and the parcel in another.


“I’m just down here” - you yell up.


“Then come up, I’ve got my hands full” - comes the reply.


You grit your teeth and take tentative steps towards the ladder.


“I have the box” - you say.


“Good, I need it” - comes the response.





It is clumsy


climbing the ladder with both hands full, the pencil weapon is a nuisance.


And as you prepare to poke your head up you feel as if the dagger of Damocles will finally drop, the guillotine will fall onto your head and the firing line will fire.



The room is

bathed in light

for a second,

and then it goes away.


It is the small room with a light that gives the lighthouse it’s name. A burning oversized lightbulb is shrined in the centre of the room and a rotating mirror beams the light in different directions.


Quickly you clamber up and stand in attention, at the far end of this small room hunches the man, he is bent over and is scraping something.




It’s the only sound to escape your lips.


The man turns, he grips in his right hand the wooden handle of

a brush.


His face is obscured by a heavy beard and unruly hair.


The light beam shines on his face and reveals that he has a slight smile.


He grabs the pencil from your hand with a gruff grunt and 

signs his name on the brown paper of the box.


You stand there spellbound, unable to move.


“um, is this yours?” - is all you manage to say.


“Yeah thanks”


The man unwraps the paper from the package and reveals a wooden box is inside.


He sits down on the floor next to where he was working and pulls a sandwich out from inside and chomps on it pleasantly.


“I forgot this at home, thanks for bringing it” - is all he says.


You turn to see that he has been cleaning the bird poo out of the places where it has gathered.


You smile with relief.


“Your shoes are wet from the rain” - you tell him.


He wipes his lips - “they were muddy, I didn’t want to bring them inside. Here…”


He hands you an apple.


“You look hungry.”





You help the man


cleaning a bit, and when the sun rises that morning he gives you a lift back to the mainland on his boat.


You can’t quite tell him what relief it was, because it is hard to tell him how scared you were. 


All you can muster is a smile which you hold proudly, 

but mostly to yourself.



For my beautiful Mum.