The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter lvi.

Sundry Particulars of the Plain Beyond Caracoron.

And when you leave Caracoron and the Altay, in which they bury the bodies of the Tartar Sovereigns, as I told you, you go north for forty days till you reach a country called the PLAIN OF BARGU.1 The people there are called MESCRIPT; they are a very wild race, and live by their cattle, the most of which are stags, and these stags, I assure you, they used to ride upon. Their customs are like those of the Tartars, and they are subject to the Great Kaan. They have neither corn nor wine.[They get birds for food, for the country is full of lakes and pools and marshes, which are much frequented by the birds when they are moulting, and when they have quite cast their feathers and can’t fly, those people catch them. They also live partly on fish.2]

And when you have travelled forty days over this great plain you come to the ocean, at the place where the mountains are in which the Peregrine falcons have their nests. And in those mountains it is so cold that you find neither man or woman, nor beast nor bird, except one kind of bird called Barguerlac, on which the falcons feed. They are as big as partridges, and have feet like those of parrots and a tail like a swallow’s, and are very strong in flight. And when the Grand Kaan wants Peregrines from the nest, he sends thither to procure them.3 It is also on islands in that sea that the Gerfalcons are bred. You must know that the place is so far to the north that you leave the North Star somewhat behind you towards the south! The gerfalcons are so abundant there that the Emperor can have as many as he likes to send for. And you must not suppose that those gerfalcons which the Christians carry into the Tartar dominions go to the Great Kaan; they are carried only to the Prince of the Levant.4

Now I have told you all about the provinces northward as far as the Ocean Sea, beyond which there is no more land at all; so I shall proceed to tell you of the other provinces on the way to the Great Kaan. Let us, then, return to that province of which I spoke before, called Campichu.

NOTE 1. — The readings differ as to the length of the journey. In Pauthier’s text we seem to have first a journey of forty days from near Karakorúm to the Plain of Bargu, and then a journey of forty days more across the plain to the Northern Ocean. The G. T. seems to present only one journey of forty days (Ramusio, of sixty days), but leaves the interval from Karakorúm undefined. I have followed the former, though with some doubt.

NOTE 2. — This paragraph from Ramusio replaces the following in Pauthier’s text: “In the summer they got abundance of game, both beasts and birds, but in winter, there is none to be had because of the great cold.”

Marco is here dealing, I apprehend, with hearsay geography, and, as is common in like cases, there is great compression of circumstances and characteristics, analogous to the like compression of little-known regions in mediaeval maps.

The name Bargu appears to be the same with that often mentioned in Mongol history as BARGUCHIN TUGRUM or BARGUTI, and which Rashiduddin calls the northern limit of the inhabited earth. This commenced about Lake Baikal, where the name still survives in that of a river (Barguzin) falling into the Lake on the east side, and of a town on its banks (Barguzinsk). Indeed, according to Rashid himself, BARGU was the name of one of the tribes occupying the plain; and a quotation from Father Hyacinth would seem to show that the country is still called Barakhu.

[The Archimandrite Palladius (Elucidations, 16–17) writes:—“In the Mongol text of Chingis Khan’s biography, this country is called Barhu and Barhuchin; it is to be supposed, according to Colonel Yule’s identification of this name with the modern Barguzin, that this country was near Lake Baikal. The fact that Merkits were in Bargu is confirmed by the following statement in Chingis Khan’s biography: ‘When Chingis Khan defeated his enemies, the Merkits, they fled to Barhuchin tokum.’ Tokum signifies ‘a hollow, a low place,’ according to the Chinese translation of the above-mentioned biography, made in 1381; thus Barhuchin tokum undoubtedly corresponds to M. Polo’s Plain of Bargu. As to M. Polo’s statement that the inhabitants of Bargu were Merkits, it cannot be accepted unconditionally. The Merkits were not indigenous to the country near Baikal, but belonged originally — according to a division set forth in the Mongol text of the Yuan ch’ao pi shi — to the category of tribes living in yurts, i.e. nomad tribes, or tribes of the desert. Meanwhile we find in the same biography of Chingis Khan, mention of a people called Barhun, which belonged to the category of tribes living in the forests; and we have therefore reason to suppose that the Barhuns were the aborigines of Barhu. After the time of Chingis Khan, this ethnographic name disappears from Chinese history; it appears again in the middle of the 16th century. The author of the Yyu (1543–1544), in enumerating the tribes inhabiting Mongolia and the adjacent countries, mentions the Barhu, as a strong tribe, able to supply up to several tens of thousands (?) of warriors, armed with steel swords; but the country inhabited by them is not indicated. The Mongols, it is added, call them Black Ta-tze (Khara Mongols, i.e. ‘Lower Mongols’).

“At the close of the 17th century, the Barhus are found inhabiting the western slopes of the interior Hing’an, as well as between Lake Kulon and River Khalkha, and dependent on a prince of eastern Khalkhas, Doro beile. (Manchu title.)

“At the time of Galdan Khan’s invasion, a part of them fled to Siberia with the eastern Khalkhas, but afterwards they returned. [Mung ku yew mu ki and Lung sha ki lio.] After their rebellion in 1696, quelled by a Manchu General, they were included with other petty tribes (regarding which few researches have been made) in the category butkha, or hunters, and received a military organisation. They are divided into Old and New Barhu, according to the time when they were brought under Manchu rule. The Barhus belong to the Mongolian, not to the Tungusian race; they are sometimes considered even to have been in relationship with the Khalkhas. (He lung kiang wai ki and Lung sha ki lio.)

“This is all the substantial information we possess on the Barhu. Is there an affinity to be found between the modern Barhus and the Barhuns of Chingis Khan’s biography? — and is it to be supposed, that in the course of time, they spread from Lake Baikal to the Hing’an range? Or is it more correct to consider them a branch of the Mongol race indigenous to the Hing’an Mountains, and which received the general archaic name of Bargu, which might have pointed out the physical character of the country they inhabited [Kin Shi], just as we find in history the Urianhai of Altai and the Urianhai of Western Manchuria? It is difficult to solve this question for want of historical data.”— H. C.]

Mescript, or Mecri, as in G. T. The Merkit, a great tribe to the south-east of the Baikal, were also called Mekrit and sometimes Megrin. The Mekrit are spoken of also by Carpini and Rubruquis. D’Avezac thinks that the Kerait, and not the Merkit, are intended by all three travellers. As regards Polo, I see no reason for this view. The name he uses is Mekrit, and the position which he assigns to them agrees fairly with that assigned on good authority to the Merkit or Mekrit. Only, as in other cases, where he is rehearsing hearsay information, it does not follow that the identification of the name involves the correctness of all the circumstances that he connects with that name. We saw in ch. xxx. that under Pashai he seemed to lump circumstances belonging to various parts of the region from Badakhshan to the Indus; so here under Mekrit he embraces characteristics belonging to tribes extending far beyond the Mekrit, and which in fact are appropriate to the Tunguses. Rashiduddin seems to describe the latter under the name of Uriangkut of the Woods, a people dwelling beyond the frontier of Barguchin, and in connection with whom he speaks of their Reindeer obscurely, as well as of their tents of birch bark, and their hunting on snow-shoes.

The mention of the Reindeer by Polo in this passage is one of the interesting points which Pauthier’s text omits. Marsden objects to the statement that the stags are ridden upon, and from this motive mis-renders “li qual’ anche cavalcano,” as, “which they make use of for the purpose of travelling.” Yet he might have found in Witsen that the Reindeer are ridden by various Siberian Tribes, but especially by the Tunguses. Erman is very full on the reindeer-riding of the latter people, having himself travelled far in that way in going to Okhotsk, and gives a very detailed description of the saddle, etc., employed. The reindeer of the Tunguses are stated by the same traveller to be much larger and finer animals than those of Lapland. They are also used for pack-carriage and draught. Old Richard Eden says that the “olde wryters” relate that “certayne Scythians doe ryde on Hartes.” I have not traced to what he refers, but if the statement be in any ancient author it is very remarkable. Some old editions of Olaus Magnus have curious cuts of Laplanders and others riding on reindeer, but I find nothing in the text appropriate. We hear from travellers of the Lapland deer being occasionally mounted, but only it would seem in sport, not as a practice. (Erdmann, 189, 191; D’Ohsson, I. 103; D’Avezac, 534 seqq.; J. As. sér. II. tom. xi.; sér. IV. tom. xvii. 107; N. et E. XIII. i. 274–276; Witsen, II. 670, 671, 680; Erman, II. 321, 374, 429, 449 seqq., and original German, II. 347 seqq.; Notes on Russia, Hac. Soc. II. 224; J. A. S. B. XXIX. 379.)

The numerous lakes and marshes swarming with water-fowl are very characteristic of the country between Yakutsk and the Kolyma. It is evident that Marco had his information from an eye-witness, though the whole picture is compressed. Wrangell, speaking of Nijni Kolyma, says: “It is at the moulting season that the great bird-hunts take place. The sportsmen surround the nests, and slip their dogs, which drive the birds to the water, on which they are easily knocked over with a gun or arrow, or even with a stick. . . . This chase is divided into several periods. They begin with the ducks, which moult first; then come the geese; then the swans. . . . In each case the people take care to choose the time when the birds have lost their feathers.” The whole calendar with the Yakuts and Russian settlers on the Kolyma is a succession of fishing and hunting seasons which the same author details. (I. 149, 150; 119–121.)

NOTE 3. — What little is said of the Barguerlac points to some bird of the genus Pterocles, or Sand Grouse (to which belong the so-called Rock Pigeons of India), or to the allied Tetrao paradoxus of Pallas, now known as Syrrhaptes Pallasii. Indeed, we find in Zenker’s Dictionary that Boghurtlák (or Baghírtlák, as it is in Pavet de Courteille’s) in Oriental Turkish is the Kata, i.e. I presume, the Pterocles alchata of Linnaeus, or Large Pin-tailed Sand Grouse. Mr. Gould, to whom I referred the point, is clear that the Syrrhaptes is Marco’s bird, and I believe there can be no question of it.

[Passing through Ch’ang-k’ou, Mr. Rockhill found the people praying for rain. “The people told me,” he says, in his Journey (p. 9), “that they knew long ago the year would be disastrous, for the sand grouse had been more numerous of late than for years, and the saying goes Sha-ch’i kuo, mai lao-po, ‘when the sand grouse fly by, wives will be for sale.’"— H. C.]

The chief difficulty in identification with the Syrrhaptes or any known bird, would be “the feet like a parrot’s.” The feet of the Syrrhaptes are not indeed like a parrot’s, though its awkward, slow, and waddling gait on the ground, may have suggested the comparison; and though it has very odd and anomalous feet, a circumstance which the Chinese indicate in another way by calling the bird (according to Hue) Lung Kio, or “Dragon-foot.” [Mr. Rockhill (Journey) writes in a note (p. 9): “I, for my part, never heard any other name than sha-ch’i, ‘sand-fowl,’ given them. This name is used, however, for a variety of birds, among others the partridge.”— H. C.] The hind-toe is absent, the toes are unseparated, recognisable only by the broad flat nails, and fitted below with a callous couch, whilst the whole foot is covered with short dense feathers like hair, and is more like a quadruped’s paw than a bird’s foot.

The home of the Syrrhaptes is in the Altai, the Kirghiz Steppes, and the country round Lake Baikal, though it also visits the North of China in great flights. “On plains of grass and sandy deserts,” says Gould (Birds of Great Britain, Part IV.), “at one season covered with snow, and at another sun-burnt and parched by drought, it finds a congenial home; in these inhospitable and little-known regions it breeds, and when necessity compels it to do so, wings its way . . . over incredible distances to obtain water or food.” Hue says, speaking of the bird on the northern frontier of China: “They generally arrive in great flights from the north, especially when much snow has fallen, flying with astonishing rapidity, so that the movement of their wings produces a noise like hail.” It is said to be very delicate eating. The bird owes its place in Gould’s Birds of Great Britain to the fact — strongly illustrative of its being moult volant, as Polo says it is — that it appeared in England in 1859, and since then, at least up to 1863, continued to arrive annually in pairs or companies in nearly all parts of our island, from Penzance to Caithness. And Gould states that it was breeding in the Danish islands. A full account by Mr. A. Newton of this remarkable immigration is contained in the Ibis for April, 1864, and many details in Stevenson’s Birds of Norfolk, I. 376 seqq. There are plates of Syrrhaptes in Radde’s Reisen im Süden von Ost–Sibirien, Bd. II.; in vol. v. of Temminck, Planches Coloriées, Pl. 95; in Gould, as above; in Gray, Genera of Birds, vol. iii. p. 517 (life size); and in the Ibis for April, 1860. From the last our cut is taken.

[See A. David et Oustalet, Oiseaux de la Chine, 389, on Syrrhaptes Pallasii or Syrrhaptes Paradoxus. — H. C.]

Illustration: Syrrhaptes Pallasii.

NOTE 4. — Gerfalcons (Shonkár) were objects of high estimation in the Middle Ages, and were frequent presents to and from royal personages. Thus among the presents sent with an embassy from King James II. of Aragon to the Sultan of Egypt, in 1314, we find three white gerfalcons. They were sent in homage to Chinghiz and to Kúblái, by the Kirghiz, but I cannot identify the mountains where they or the Peregrines were found. The Peregrine falcon was in Europe sometimes termed Faucon Tartare. (See Ménage s. v. Sahin.) The Peregrine of Northern Japan, and probably therefore that of Siberia, is identical with that of Europe. Witsen speaks of an island in the Sea of Tartary, from which falcons were got, apparently referring to a Chinese map as his authority; but I know nothing more of it. (Capmany, IV. 64–65; Ibis, 1862, p. 314; Witsen, II. 656.)

[On the Falco peregrinus, Lin., and other Falcons, see Ed. Blanc’s paper mentioned on p. 162. The Falco Saker is to be found all over Central Asia; it is called by the Pekingese Hwang-yng (yellow falcon), (David et Oustalet, Oiseaux de la Chine, 31–32.)— H. C.]

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