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James Gilmour: In the Steppes and Deserts of Mongolia

by John C. Lambert

James GilmourAbout the middle of the year 1870 there arrived in Peking a young Scotchman, James Gilmour by name, who had been sent out to China by the London Missionary Society to begin work in the capital. Within a few weeks of his arrival, there took place at Tientsin, the port of Peking, that fanatical outbreak known as the Tientsin massacre, in which a Roman Catholic convent was destroyed and thirteen French people murdered. A widespread panic at once took hold of the capital. The European community felt that they were living on the edge of a volcano, for no one knew but that this massacre might be the prelude to a general outburst of anti-foreign hatred such as was witnessed later in connexion with the Boxer movement. All around Gilmour his acquaintances were packing up their most precious belongings, and holding themselves in readiness for a hurried flight to the south. It was at this moment that the new-comer resolved on a bold and original move. Instead of fleeing to the south in search of safety, he would turn his face northwards and see if no opening could be found for Christian work among the Mongols of the great Mongolian plains. He was utterly unacquainted both with the country and the language, but he had long felt a deep and romantic interest in that vast, lonely plateau which lies between China proper and Siberia, and forms by far the largest dependency of the Chinese Empire.


The suspension of work in Peking seemed to offer the very opportunity he wanted for pushing his way into Mongolia. And so as soon as the necessary preparations could be made, for Gilmour was never the man to let the grass grow beneath his feet, he left the capital behind with all its rumours and alarms. Before long the Great Wall was passed, which ever since the third century B.C. has defended China from Mongolia. And then, with two camels and a camel-cart, our intrepid traveller set his face towards the Desert of Gobi, which lies in the very heart of the Mongolian plain.

Mongolia, the home of the Mongols, has been described as a rough parallelogram, 1800 miles from east to west, and 1000 miles from north to south. It is a huge plateau lifted high above the sea, in part desert, in part a treeless expanse of grassy steppe, and in part covered by mountain ranges whose peaks rim up to the line of perpetual snow. The climate, hot and dry in summer and bitterly cold in winter, makes agriculture impossible except in some favoured spots, and so by the force of his circumstances the Mongol is a nomad, dwelling in a tent, and pasturing his flocks and herds upon the grass of the steppe.

For long centuries the people were a constant terror to the Chinese. Even the Great Wall proved an ineffectual barrier against them, and time and again they poured like a mighty flood over the rich lands of their peace-loving neighbours to the south. But about 500 years ago they were converted from their earlier Pagan faith to Buddhism in its corrupted form of Lamaism, and this change of faith has had a decidedly softening effect upon the national character. Much of this, no doubt, must be attributed to the custom which prevails among them of devoting one or more sons in every family to the priesthood. One result of this custom is, that the Mongol priests, or lamas as they are called, actually form the majority of the male population, and as the lamas are celibates in virtue of their office, another result has been a great reduction in the population, as compared with early days. It is calculated that at the present time there are not more than two millions of Mongols occupying this vast territory of 1,800,000 square miles. Mongolia is no longer entitled now to the name it once received of ilicina gentium, "the manufactory of nations." It does not now possess those surplus swarms of bold and warlike horsemen which it once sent out to overrun and conquer other lands. But, like all nomads, its people are still an active and hardy race. As horsemen, too, they still excel. From their very infancy both men and women are accustomed to the saddle, and even yet some of them could rival the feats of the horsemen of Ghengis Khan, the greatest of all the Mongol conquerors of long ago. It was to this country and this interesting, but little known, people that James Gilmour devoted his life.

Across the Plains

His first journey across the great plateau began at Kalgan, which lies to the north-west of Peking, just within the Great Wall, and terminated at Kiachta on the southern frontier of Siberia. He made this journey over plain and desert, which occupied only a month, in the company of a Russian official who knew no English, while he himself knew neither Russian nor Mongolian. He was glad, therefore, on reaching Kiachta to meet a fellow-countryman, one of the world's ubiquitous Scots, in the person of a trader named Grant. Grant was exceedingly kind to him, and took him into his own comfortable house. But finding that this contact with civilization was hindering him in his strenuous efforts to master the Mongolian language without delay, Gilmour formed a characteristic resolution. This was nothing else than to go out upon the plain and try to persuade some Mongolian to receive him as an inmate of his tent.

It was at night that this idea occurred to him, and the next morning he left Kiachta, taking nothing with him but his "Penang lawyer." This, it should be explained, is a heavy walking-stick, so-called because in Penang it is supposed to be useful in settling disputes. Gilmour had already discovered that in Mongolia it was not only useful, but altogether indispensable, as a protection against the ferocious assaults of the wolfish-looking dogs which invariably rush at a traveller if he draws near to any encampment. One of the first incidents of the caravan journey from Kalgan had been the narrow escape of a Russian soldier from being torn down by a pack of Mongolian dogs. With a stout "limb of the law" in his fist, however, Gilmour feared nothing, but strode cheerfully over the plain, making for the first tent he saw on the horizon.

Life of a Nomad

As he drew near he heard the sound of a monotonous voice engaged in some kind of chant, and when he entered found a lama at his prayers. The lama, hearing footsteps, looked round and pronounced the one word, "Sit! " and then continued his devotions. For another quarter of an hour he went on, taking no further notice of his visitor meanwhile. But suddenly his droning chant ceased, and he came forward and gave Gilmour a hospitable welcome. Gilmour opened his mind to him without delay, telling him that it was his desire to spend the winter in his tent and learn Mongolian from his instruction. The lama was surprised, but perfectly willing, and agreed to receive his visitor as a paying guest for an indefinite period at the modest rate of about a shilling a day. And so within a few months of his departure from London we find Gilmour living the life of a nomad in the tent of a lama on the Mongolian plain.

A Mongol Menu

Once the first novelty had worn off, he found the life somewhat monotonous. Dinner was the great event of the day, the more so as it is the only meal in which a Mongol indulges. The preparations for this repast were unvarying, as also was the subsequent menu. Towards sunset the lama's servant, who was himself a lama, melted a block of ice in a huge pot, over a fire which filled the tent with smoke. Taking a hatchet, he next hewed a solid lump of mutton from a frozen carcass and put it into the water. As soon as it was boiled, he fished it out with the fire-tongs and laid it on a board before his master and Gilmour, who then attacked it with fingers and knives. Forks were things unknown. When a Mongol eats he takes a piece of meat in his left hand, seizes it with his teeth, and then cuts off his mouthful close to his lips by a quick upward movement of his knife. The operation looks dangerous, but the flatness of the native nose makes it safe enough, though it would be very risky in the case of one who was otherwise endowed. The Mongols always thought Gilmour's nose tremendous, and they excused him for cutting off his mouthfuls first and appropriating them afterwards.

Meanwhile, as this first course was in progress, the servant had thrown some millet into the water used for boiling the meat, and when the diners had partaken sufficiently of the solid fare, this thin gruel was served up as a kind of soup. The mutton, Gilmour says, was tough; but he declares that seldom in his life did he taste any preparation of civilized cookery so delicious as this milletsoup. He admits that he has no doubt that it was chiefly desert-hunger that made it seem so good.

Though he ate only once a day, the lama, like all Mongols, consumed vast quantities of tea. At dawn, and again at noon, the servant prepared a pailful of the cheering beverage, giving it always ten or fifteen minutes' hard boiling, and seasoning it with fat and a little meal instead of milk. Gilmour accommodated himself to the ways of the tent. As a concession to his Scotch tastes, however, he was provided every morning with a cupful of meal made into something like porridge by the addition of boiling water. This the lama and his servant called "Scotland," and they were careful to set it aside regularly for the use of "Our Gilmour," to whom, Buddhist priests though they were, they soon became quite attached.

Before leaving the subject of meals, we may mention that on the last day of the year Mongols make up for their abstemiousness during the other 364 by taking no fewer than seven dinners. When New Year's Eve arrived, the lama insisted that his visitor should do his duty like a Mongolian, and a yellow-coated old lama, who was present as a guest on the occasion, was told to keep count of his progress. Gilmour managed to put down three dinners, and was just wondering what to do next when he discovered that his guardian lama had got drunk and lost count. In this case, although himself a strict teetotaler, he did not feel disposed to take too severe a view of the old gentleman's failing.

Learning to Ride

When the time. came at last to recross the plains, Gilmour decided to make the homeward journey on horseback instead of by camel-cart. The one drawback was that he had never yet learned to ride. But as he had found that the best way to learn Mongolian was by being compelled to speak it, he considered that a ride of a good many hundred miles might be the best way of learning to sit on a horse. The plan proved a decided success. In Mongolia a man who cannot ride is looked upon as a curiosity, and when Gilmour first mounted everybody turned out to enjoy the sight of his awkwardness. But though he had one or two nasty falls through his horse stumbling into holes on treacherous bits of ground, such as are very frequent on the plains, where the rats have excavated galleries underground, he soon learned to be quite at home on the back of his steed.

When he rode at last once more through a gateway of the Great Wall, passing thus out of Mongolia into China again, he felt that after the training he had received on his way across the steppes and the desert, he would be ready henceforth to take to the saddle in any circumstances. Indeed, so sure of his seat had he become that we find him on a subsequent occasion, when he formed one of a company mounted for a journey on Chinese mules, which will not travel except in single file, riding with his face to the tail of his beast, so as to be better able to engage in conversation with the cavalier who came behind him.

Return to Peking

This crossing and recrossing of the Mongolian plain, and especially the winter he had spent in the lama's tent, had already given Gilmour a knowledge of the Mongolian language, and a familiarity with the habits and thoughts of the Mongols themselves, such as hardly any other Western could pretend to. Peking, when he returned to it, had settled down to something like its normal quiet, but he felt that the ordinary routine of work in the city was not the work to which he was specially called. The desert air was in his blood now, and Mongolia was calling. Henceforth it was for the Mongols that he lived.

Year by year Gilmour fared forth into the Great Plain in prosecution of his chosen task. And although it was his custom to return to Peking for the winter, he still continued while there to devote himself to his Mongol flock. Between China and Mongolia a considerable trade is carried on, the Mongols bringing in hides, cheese, butter, and the other products of a pastoral territory, and carrying away in return vast quantities of cheap tea in the form of compressed bricks, these bricks being used in Gilmour's time not only for the preparation of the favourite beverage, but as a means of exchange in lieu of money.

Gilmour As Pedlar

During the winter months large numbers of traders arrive in Peking from all parts of Mongolia, and many of them camp out in their tents in open spaces, just as they do when living on the plains. Gilmour frequented these encampments, and took every opportunity he could make or find of conversing about religious matters, and especially of seeking to commend "the Jesus-doctrine," as the Buddhists called it. One plan that he followed was to go about like a Chinese pedlar, with two bags of books in the Mongolian language hanging from his shoulders. All were invited to buy, and in many cases this literature was taken up quite eagerly. Often a would-be purchaser demanded to have a book read aloud to him before he made up his mind about it, and this gave the pedlar a welcome chance of reading from the Gospels to the crowd which gathered, and then of introducing a conversation, which sometimes passed into a discussion, about the merits of Jesus and Buddha. Sometimes those who were anxious to buy had no money, but were prepared to pay in kind. And so, not infrequently, Gilmour was to be seen at night making his way back to his lodgings in the city "with a miscellaneous collection of cheese, sour-curd, butter, millet-cake, and sheep's fat, representing the produce of part of the day's sales."

Gilmour As Tramp

Among the most remarkable of Gilmour's many journeys through Mongolia was one which he made in 1884, and made entirely on foot. He was a tremendous walker at times, more perhaps by reason of his unusual will power than because of exceptional physical strength, and is known to have covered 300 miles in seven and a half days—an average of forty miles a day. On the occasion of his long tramp over the plains and back, he had special reasons for adopting that method of locomotion.

One was that grass was so scarce during that year that it would hardly have been possible to get pasture for a camel or a horse. Another was that the love of simplicity and unconventionality, which was so marked a feature of his character, grew stronger and stronger, and also the desire to get as near as possible to the poorest and humblest of the people. At a later period we find him adopting in its entirety "not only the native dress, but practically the native food, and so far as a Christian man could, native habits of life." An idea of the length to which he carried the rule of plain living may be gathered from the fact that for some time his rate of expenditure was only three pence a day. His biographer, Mr. Lovett, gives us a graphic picture of him taking his bowl of porridge, native fashion, in the street, sitting down upon a low stool beside the boiler of the itinerant vendor from whom he had just purchased it. And the plainness of his garb at times may be judged of when we mention that in one village on the borders of China he was turned out of the two respectable inns which the place could boast, on the ground that he was a foot-traveller without cart or animal, who must be content to betake himself to the tavern for tramps.

It was in keeping with his tastes, therefore, as well as from necessity, that he once tramped through Mongolia with all his belongings on his back. His equipment when he set out consisted of a postman's brown bag on one side, containing his kit and provisions; on the other an angler's waterproof bag with books, etc.; together with a Chinaman's sheepskin coat slung over his shoulder by means of a rough stick of the "Penang lawyer" type. In the course of this tramp, his formidable stick notwithstanding, he had sometimes to be rescued from the teeth of the dogs which flew, not unnaturally, at a character so suspicious-looking. But he met with much hospitality from the people, both lamas and laymen, wherever he went; and returned to Kalgan without any serious mishap.

Wolves and Bandits

From two dangers of the country he altogether escaped. One was the risk of being attacked by wolves, which are a perfect terror to the Chinese traveller over the plains, though the inhabitants themselves make light of them, and never hesitate when they catch sight of one to become the attacking party. The result of this is that a wolf is said to distinguish from afar between a Mongol and a Chinaman, slinking off as hastily as possible if it sees a wayfarer approaching in long skin robes, but anticipating a good dinner at the sight of another in blue jacket and trousers. Gilmour himself was of opinion that Mongolian wolves are not so dangerous as Siberian ones. The reason he gives is that, unlike the Russians, the Mongols keep such poor sheep-folds that a wolf can help itself to a sheep whenever it likes, and so is seldom driven by hunger to attack a man. The other danger was from bandits. For there are parts of the Desert of Gobi, crossed as it is by the great trade routes between Siberia and China, which are quite as unpleasant to traverse as the ancient road between Jerusalem and Jericho. But Gilmour was probably never more secure against highway robbery than when he walked through Mongolia as a missionary tramp.

The Man in the Iron Cage

It is impossible to enter into the details of the strange and romantic experiences which befell this adventurous spirit in the course of his many wanderings. Now we find him spending the night in a lama's tent, most probably discussing sacred things with his host till far on towards morning over a glowing fire of argol, or dried cow's dung, the customary fuel of the plains. At another time he is careering across the desert on horseback as swiftly as his Mongol companions, for he was a man who never liked to be beaten. Now he is at a marriage feast, looking on with observant and humorous eyes at the rough but harmless merry-makings. Again, he is in a court of justice, where punishment is meted out on the spot upon the culprit's back, in the presence of a highly appreciative crowd. At one time, with a heart full of pity for a superstitious and deluded people, he is watching a Buddhist turning his praying-wheel with his own hand or hanging it up in front of his tent to be turned for him by the wind. At another, as he passes a criminal in an iron cage who is condemned to be starved to death, and is set day by day in front of an eating-house in a large trading settlement for the aggravation of his tortures, he is reflecting on the defects of a religion that can permit its followers to enjoy this public exhibition of a fellow-creatures dying pains.

In his journeys he was constantly exposed to the bitter cold of a land where the thermometer falls in winter to thirty or forty degrees below zero, and all through the heat of summer huge lumps of ice remain unmelted in the wells. Often he had to endure long spells of hunger and thirst when on the march. Worst of all, he had to share the filth and vermin of a Mongol tent as well as its hospitality. But these things he looked upon as all "in the day's work"; and though he may sometimes chronicle them in his diary as facts, he never makes them matter of complaint.

Among the most interesting incidents which he records are some in connexion with his endeavours to bring relief to those whom he found in sickness and pain. Although not a doctor by profession, he had picked up some medical and surgical skill, and did not hesitate to use it on behalf of those for whom no better skill was available. In doing this he sometimes ran great risks, for with all their hospitality the Mongols are terribly suspicious, and ready to entertain the most extraordinary rumours about the designs of any stranger.

Once he persuaded a blind man to come with him to Peking, to have his eyes operated on for cataract in the hospital there. The operation was unsuccessful, and the story was spread over a large region that Gilmour enticed people to Peking in order to steal "the jewels of their eyes" that he might preserve them in a bottle and sell them for hundreds of taels. In consequence of this he lived for months under what almost amounted to sentence of death. Only by showing no consciousness of fear and by patiently living suspicion down, did he escape from being murdered.

The Wounded Soldier and the Living Skeleton

Once he had undertaken to treat a soldier for a bullet wound received in an encounter with brigands, thinking that it was only a flesh wound he had to deal with. It turned out to be a difficult bone complication. Now Gilmour knew hardly anything of anatomy, and he had absolutely no books to consult. "What could I do," he says, "but pray?" And a strange thing happened. There tottered up to him through the crowd a live skeleton—a man whose bones literally stood out as distinctly as if he were a specimen in an anatomical museum, with only a yellow skin drawn loosely over them. The man came to beg for cough medicine, but Gilmour was soon busy fingering a particular part of his skeleton, with so strange a smile on his face that he heard a bystander remark, "That smile means something." "So it did," Gilmour adds. "It meant among other things that I knew what to do with the wounded soldier's damaged bone; and in a short time his wound was in a fair way of healing."

Robinson Crusoe

James Gilmour's Among the Mongols is a book to be read, not only for the romance of its subject-matter, but because of the author's remarkable gift of realistic statement—his power of making his readers see things in bodily presence just as his own eyes had seen them. In more ways than one he reminds us of Borrow, but especially in what Borrow himself described as "the art of telling a plain story." On the first appearance of Among the Mongols a very competent reviewer in the Spectator traced a striking resemblance in Gilmour to a still greater writer of English than the author of Lavengro and The Bible in Spain. "Robinson Crusoe," he said, "has turned missionary, lived years in Mongolia, and written a book about it. That is this book." It was high praise, but it contained no small degree of truth. And to the advantage of Gilmour's book as compared with Defoe's, it must be remembered that everything that the former tells us is literally true.

Authorities—Among the Mongols by the Rev. James Gilmour, M.A., and James Gilmour of Mongolia by Richard Lovett, M.A. (Religious Tract Society); The Far East by Archibald Little (The Clarendon Press).

From The Romance of Missionary Heroism... by John C. Lambert. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1907.

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