The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xlii.

Of the Province of Chingintalas.

Chingintalas is also a province at the verge of the Desert, and lying between north-west and north. It has an extent of sixteen days’ journey, and belongs to the Great Kaan, and contains numerous towns and villages. There are three different races of people in it — Idolaters, Saracens, and some Nestorian Christians.1 At the northern extremity of this province there is a mountain in which are excellent veins of steel and ondanique.2 And you must know that in the same mountain there is a vein of the substance from which Salamander is made.3 For the real truth is that the Salamander is no beast, as they allege in our part of the world, but is a substance found in the earth; and I will tell you about it.

Everybody must be aware that it can be no animal’s nature to live in fire, seeing that every animal is composed of all the four elements.4 Now I, Marco Polo, had a Turkish acquaintance of the name of Zurficar, and he was a very clever fellow. And this Turk related to Messer Marco Polo how he had lived three years in that region on behalf of the Great Kaan, in order to procure those Salamanders for him.5 He said that the way they got them was by digging in that mountain till they found a certain vein. The substance of this vein was then taken and crushed, and when so treated it divides as it were into fibres of wool, which they set forth to dry. When dry, these fibres were pounded in a great copper mortar, and then washed, so as to remove all the earth and to leave only the fibres like fibres of wool. These were then spun, and made into napkins. When first made these napkins are not very white, but by putting them into the fire for a while they come out as white as snow. And so again whenever they become dirty they are bleached by being put in the fire.

Now this, and nought else, is the truth about the Salamander, and the people of the country all say the same. Any other account of the matter is fabulous nonsense. And I may add that they have at Rome a napkin of this stuff, which the Grand Kaan sent to the Pope to make a wrapper for the Holy Sudarium of Jesus Christ.6

We will now quit this subject, and I will proceed with my account of the countries lying in the direction between north-east and east.

NOTE 1. — The identification of this province is a difficulty, because the geographical definition is vague, and the name assigned to it has not been traced in other authors. It is said to lie between north-west and north, whilst Kamul was said to lie towards the north-west. The account of both provinces forms a digression, as is clear from the last words of the present chapter, where the traveller returns to take up his regular route “in the direction between north-east and east.” The point from which he digresses, and to which he reverts, is Shachau, and ’tis presumably from Shachau that he assigns bearings to the two provinces forming the subject of the digression. Hence, as Kamul lies vers maistre, i.e. north-west, and Chingintalas entre maistre et tramontaine, i.e. nor’-nor’-west, Chingintalas can scarcely lie due west of Kamul, as M. Pauthier would place it, in identifying it with an obscure place called Saiyintala, in the territory of Urumtsi. Moreover, the province is said to belong to the Great Kaan. Now, Urumtsi or Bishbalik seems to have belonged, not to the Great Kaan, but to the empire of Chagatai, or possibly at this time to Kaidu. Rashiduddin, speaking of the frontier between the Kaan and Kaidu, says:—“From point to point are posted bodies of troops under the orders of princes of the blood or other generals, and they often come to blows with the troops of Kaidu. Five of these are cantoned on the verge of the Desert; a sixth in Tangut, near Chagan–Nor (White Lake); a seventh in the vicinity of Karakhoja, a city of the Uighúrs, which lies between the two States, and maintains neutrality.”

Karakhoja, this neutral town, is near Turfan, to the south-east of Urumtsi, which thus would lie without the Kaan’s boundary; Kamul and the country north-east of it would lie within it. This country, to the north and north-east of Kamul, has remained till quite recently unexplored by any modern traveller, unless we put faith in Mr. Atkinson’s somewhat hazy narrative. But it is here that I would seek for Chingintalas.

Several possible explanations of this name have suggested themselves or been suggested to me. I will mention two.

1. Klaproth states that the Mongols applied to Tibet the name of Baron-tala, signifying the “Right Side,” i.e. the south-west or south quarter, whilst Mongolia was called Dzöhn (or Dzegun) Tala, i.e. the “Left,” or north-east side. It is possible that Chigin-talas might represent Dzegun Tala in some like application. The etymology of Dzungaria, a name which in modern times covers the territory of which we are speaking, is similar.

2. Professor Vámbéry thinks that it is probably Chingin Tala, “The Vast Plain.” But nothing can be absolutely satisfactory in such a case except historical evidence of the application of the name.

I have left the identity of this name undecided, though pointing to the general position of the region so-called by Marco, as indicated by the vicinity of the Tangnu–Ola Mountains (p. 215). A passage in the Journey of the Taouist Doctor, Changchun, as translated by Dr. Bretschneider (Chinese Recorder and Miss. Journ., Shanghai, Sept.-Oct., 1874, p. 258), suggests to me the strong probability that it may be the Kem-kém-jút of Rashiduddin, called by the Chinese teacher Kien-kien-chau.

Rashiduddin couples the territory of the Kirghiz with Kemkemjút, but defines the country embracing both with some exactness: “On one side (south-east?), it bordered on the Mongol country; on a second (north-east?), it was bounded by the Selenga; on a third (north), by the ‘great river called Angara, which flows on the confines of Ibir–Sibir’ (i.e. of Siberia); on a fourth side by the territory of the Naimans. This great country contained many towns and villages, as well as many nomad inhabitants.” Dr. Bretschneider’s Chinese Traveller speaks of it as a country where good iron was found, where (grey) squirrels abounded, and wheat was cultivated. Other notices quoted by him show that it lay to the south-east of the Kirghiz country, and had its name from the Kien or Ken R. (i.e. the Upper Yenisei).

The name (Kienkien), the general direction, the existence of good iron (“steel and ondanique”), the many towns and villages in a position where we should little look for such an indication, all point to the identity of this region with the Chingintalas of our text. The only alteration called for in the Itinerary Map (No. IV.) would be to spell the name Hinkin, or Ghinghin (as it is in the Geographic Text), and to shift it a very little further to the north.

(See Chingin in Kovalevski’s Mongol Dict., No. 2134; and for Baron-tala, etc., see Della Penna, Breve Notizia del Regno del Thibet, with Klaproth’s notes, p. 6; D’Avezac, p. 568; Relation prefixed to D’Anville’s Atlas, p. 11; Alphabetum Tibetanum, 454; and Kircher, China Illustrata, p. 65.)

Since the first edition was published, Mr. Ney Elias has traversed the region in question from east to west; and I learn from him that at Kobdo he found the most usual name for that town among Mongols, Kalmaks, and Russians to be SANKIN-hoto. He had not then thought of connecting this name with Chinghin-talas, and has therefore no information as to its origin or the extent of its application. But he remarks that Polo’s bearing of between north and north-west, if understood to be from Kamul, would point exactly to Kobdo. He also calls attention to the Lake Sankin-dalai, to the north-east of Uliasut’ai, of which Atkinson gives a sketch. The recurrence of this name over so wide a tract may have something to do with the Chinghin-talas of Polo. But we must still wait for further light.1

[“Supposing that M. Polo mentions this place on his way from Sha-chow to Su-chow, it is natural to think that it is Chi-kin-talas, i.e. ‘Chi-kin plain’ or valley; Chi-kin was the name of a lake, called so even now, and of a defile, which received its name from the lake. The latter is on the way from Kia-yü kwan to Ansi chow.” (Palladius, l.c. p. 7.) “Chikin, or more correctly Chigin, is a Mongol word meaning ‘ear.’” (Ibid.) Palladius (p. 8) adds: “The Chinese accounts of Chi-kin are not in contradiction to the statements given by M. Polo regarding the same subject; but when the distances are taken into consideration, a serious difficulty arises; Chi-kin is two hundred and fifty or sixty li distant from Su-chow, whilst, according to M. Polo’s statement, ten days are necessary to cross this distance. One of the three following explanations of this discrepancy must be admitted: either Chingintalas is not Chi-kin, or the traveller’s memory failed, or, lastly, an error crept into the number of days’ journey. The two last suppositions I consider the most probable; the more so that similar difficulties occur several times in Marco Polo’s narrative.” (L.c. p. 8.)— H. C.]

NOTE 2. —[Ondanique. — We have already referred to this word, Kermán, p. 90. Cobinan, p. 124. La Curne de Sainte–Palaye (Dict.), F. Godefroy (Dict.), Du Cange (Gloss.), all give to andain the meaning of enjambée, from the Latin andare. Godefroy, s.v. andaine, calls it sorte d’acier ou de fer, and quotes besides Marco Polo:

“I. espiel, ou ot fer d’andaine,

Dont la lamele n’iert pas trouble.”

(Huon de Mery, Le Tornoiement de l’Antechrist, p. 3, Tarbé.)

There is a forest in the department of Orne, arrondissement of Domfront, which belonged to the Crown before 1669, and is now State property, called Forêt d’Andaine; it is situated near some bed of iron. Is this the origin of the name? — H. C.]

NOTE 3. — The Altai, or one of its ramifications, is probably the mountain of the text, but so little is known of this part of the Chinese territory that we can learn scarcely anything of its mineral products. Still Martini does mention that asbestos is found “in the Tartar country of Tangu,” which probably is the Tangnu Oola branch of the Altai to the south of the Upper Yenisei, and in the very region we have indicated as Chingintalas. Mr. Elias tells me he inquired for asbestos by its Chinese name at Uliasut’ai, but without success.

NOTE 4. —

“Degli elementi quattro principali,

Che son la Terra, e l’Acqua, e l’Aria, e’l Foco,

Composti sono gli universi Animali,

Pigliando di ciascuno assai o poco.”

        (Dati, La Sfera, p. 9.)

Zurficar in the next sentence is a Mahomedan name, Zu’lfikár, the title of [the edge of] Ali’s sword.

NOTE 5. — Here the G. Text adds: “Et je meisme le vi,” intimating, I conceive, his having himself seen specimens of the asbestos — not to his having been at the place.

NOTE 6. — The story of the Salamander passing unhurt through fire is at least as old as Aristotle. But I cannot tell when the fable arose that asbestos was a substance derived from the animal. This belief, however, was general in the Middle Ages, both in Asia and Europe. “The fable of the Salamander,” says Sir Thomas Browne, “hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible napkins and textures which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of Salamander’s wool, which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part or integument of the Salamander. . . . Nor is this Salamander’s wool desumed from any animal, but a mineral substance, metaphorically so called for this received opinion.”

Those who knew that the Salamander was a lizard-like animal were indeed perplexed as to its woolly coat. Thus the Cardinal de Vitry is fain to say the creature “profert ex cute quasi quamdam lanam de quâ zonae contextae comburi non possunt igne.” A Bestiary, published by Cahier and Martin, says of it: “De lui naist une cose qui n’est ne soie ne lin ne laine.” Jerome Cardan looked in vain, he says, for hair on the Salamander! Albertus Magnus calls the incombustible fibre pluma Salamandri; and accordingly Bold Bauduin de Sebourc finds the Salamander in the Terrestrial Paradise a kind of bird covered with the whitest plumage; of this he takes some, which he gets woven into a cloth; this he presents to the Pope, and the Pontiff applies it to the purpose mentioned in the text, viz. to cover the holy napkin of St. Veronica.

Gervase of Tilbury writes: “I saw, when lately at Rome, a broad strap of Salamander skin, like a girdle for the loins, which had been brought thither by Cardinal Peter of Capua. When it had become somewhat soiled by use, I myself saw it cleaned perfectly, and without receiving harm, by being put in the fire.”

In Persian the creature is called Samandar, Samandal, etc., and some derive the word from Sam, “fire,” and Andar, “within.” Doubtless it is a corruption of the Greek [Greek: Salamándra], whatever be the origin of that. Bakui says the animal is found at Ghur, near Herat, and is like a mouse. Another author, quoted by D’Herbelot, says it is like a marten.

[Sir T. Douglas Forsyth, in his Introductory Remarks to Prjevalsky’s Travels to Lob-nor (p. 20), at Aksu says: “The asbestos mentioned by Marco Polo as a utilized product of this region is not even so known in this country.”— H. C.]

+ Interesting details regarding the fabrication of cloth and paper from amianth or asbestos are contained in a report presented to the French Institute by M. Sage (Mém. Ac. Sciences, 2e Sem., 1806, p. 102), of which large extracts are given in the Diction. général des Tissus, par M. Bezon, 2e éd. vol. ii. Lyon, 1859, p. 5. He mentions that a Sudarium of this material is still shown at the Vatican; we hope it is the cover which Kúblái sent.

[This hope is not to be realized. Mgr. Duchesne, of the Institut de France, writes to me from Rome, from information derived from the keepers of the Vatican Museum, that there is no sudarium from the Great Khan, that indeed part of a sudarium made of asbestos is shown (under glass) in this Museum, about 20 inches long, but it is ancient, and was found in a Pagan tomb of the Appian Way. — H. C.]

M. Sage exhibited incombustible paper made from this material, and had himself seen a small furnace of Chinese origin made from it. Madame Perpenté, an Italian lady, who experimented much with asbestos, found that from a crude mass of that substance threads could be elicited which were ten times the length of the mass itself, and were indeed sometimes several metres in length, the fibres seeming to be involved, like silk in a cocoon. Her process of preparation was much like that described by Marco. She succeeded in carding and reeling the material, made gloves and the like, as well as paper, from it, and sent to the Institute a work printed on such paper.

The Rev. A. Williamson mentions asbestos as found in Shantung. The natives use it for making stoves, crucibles, and so forth.

(Sir T. Browne, I. 293; Bongars, I. 1104; Cahier et Martin, III. 271; Cardan, de Rer. Varietate, VII. 33; Alb. Mag. Opera, 1551, II. 227, 233; Fr. Michel, Recherches, etc., II. 91; Gerv. of Tilbury, p. 13; N. et E. II. 493; D. des Tissus, II. 1–12; J. N. China Branch R. A. S., December, 1867, p. 70.) [Berger de Xivrey, Traditions tératologiques, 457–458, 460–463. — H. C.]

1 The late Mr. Atkinson has been twice alluded to in this note. I take the opportunity of saying that Mr. Ney Elias, a most competent judge, who has travelled across the region in question whilst admitting, as every one must, Atkinson’s vagueness and sometimes very careless statements, is not at all disposed to discredit the truth of his narrative.

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