The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xx.

Concerning King Conchi who Rules the Far North.

You must know that in the far north there is a King called CONCHI. He is a Tartar, and all his people are Tartars, and they keep up the regular Tartar religion. A very brutish one it is, but they keep it up just the same as Chinghis Kaan and the proper Tartars did, so I will tell you something of it.

You must know then that they make them a god of felt, and call him NATIGAI; and they also make him a wife; and then they say that these two divinities are the gods of the Earth who protect their cattle and their corn and all their earthly goods. They pray to these figures, and when they are eating a good dinner they rub the mouths of their gods with the meat, and do many other stupid things.

The King is subject to no one, although he is of the Imperial lineage of Chinghis Kaan, and a near kinsman of the Great Kaan.1 This King has neither city nor castle; he and his people live always either in the wide plains or among great mountains and valleys. They subsist on the milk and flesh of their cattle, and have no corn. The King has a vast number of people, but he carries on no war with anybody, and his people live in great tranquillity. They have enormous numbers of cattle, camels, horses, oxen, sheep, and so forth.

You find in their country immense bears entirely white, and more than 20 palms in length. There are also large black foxes, wild asses, and abundance of sables; those creatures I mean from the skins of which they make those precious robes that cost 1000 bezants each. There are also vairs in abundance; and vast multitudes of the Pharaoh’s rat, on which the people live all the summer time. Indeed they have plenty of all sorts of wild creatures, for the country they inhabit is very wild and trackless. 2

And you must know that this King possesses one tract of country which is quite impassable for horses, for it abounds greatly in lakes and springs, and hence there is so much ice as well as mud and mire, that horses cannot travel over it. This difficult country is 13 days in extent, and at the end of every day’s journey there is a post for the lodgement of the couriers who have to cross this tract. At each of these post-houses they keep some 40 dogs of great size, in fact not much smaller than donkeys, and these dogs draw the couriers over the day’s journey from post-house to post-house, and I will tell you how. You see the ice and mire are so prevalent, that over this tract, which lies for those 13 days’ journey in a great valley between two mountains, no horses (as I told you) can travel, nor can any wheeled carriage either. Wherefore they make sledges, which are carriages without wheels, and made so that they can run over the ice, and also over mire and mud without sinking too deep in it. Of these sledges indeed there are many in our own country, for ’tis just such that are used in winter for carrying hay and straw when there have been heavy rains and the country is deep in mire. On such a sledge then they lay a bear-skin on which the courier sits, and the sledge is drawn by six of those big dogs that I spoke of. The dogs have no driver, but go straight for the next post-house, drawing the sledge famously over ice and mire. The keeper of the post-house however also gets on a sledge drawn by dogs, and guides the party by the best and shortest way. And when they arrive at the next station they find a new relay of dogs and sledges ready to take them on, whilst the old relay turns back; and thus they accomplish the whole journey across that region, always drawn by dogs.3

The people who dwell in the valleys and mountains adjoining that tract of 13 days’ journey are great huntsmen, and catch great numbers of precious little beasts which are sources of great profit to them. Such are the Sable, the Ermine, the Vair, the Erculin, the Black Fox, and many other creatures from the skins of which the most costly furs are prepared. They use traps to take them, from which they can’t escape.4 But in that region the cold is so great that all the dwellings of the people are underground, and underground they always live.5

There is no more to say on this subject, so I shall proceed to tell you of a region in that quarter, in which there is perpetual darkness.

NOTE 1. — There are two KUWINJIS, or KAUNCHIS, as the name, from Polo’s representation of it, probably ought to be written, mentioned in connection with the Northern Steppes, if indeed there has not been confusion about them; both are descendants of Juji, the eldest son of Chinghiz. One was the twelfth son of Shaibani, the 5th son of Juji. Shaibani’s Yurt was in Siberia, and his family seem to have become predominant in that quarter. Arghún, on his defeat by Ahmad (supra p. 470), was besought to seek shelter with Kaunchi. The other Kaunchi was the son of Sirtaktai, the son of Orda, the eldest son of Juji, and was, as well as his father and grandfather, chief of the White Horde, whose territory lay north-east of the Caspian. An embassy from this Kaunchi is mentioned as having come to the court of Kaikhatu at Siah–Kuh (north of Tabriz) with congratulations, in the summer of 1293. Polo may very possibly have seen the members of this embassy, and got some of his information from them. (See Gold. Horde, 149, 249; Ilkhans, I. 354, 403; II. 193, where Hammer writes the name of Kandschi.)

It is perhaps a trace of the lineage of the old rulers of Siberia that the old town of Tyuman in Western Siberia is still known to the Tartars as Chinghiz Tora, or the Fort of Chinghiz. (Erman, I. 310.)

NOTE 2. — We see that Polo’s information in this chapter extends over the whole latitude of Siberia; for the great White Bears and the Black Foxes belong to the shores of the Frozen Ocean; the Wild Asses only to the southern parts of Siberia. As to the Pharaoh’s Rat, see vol. i. p. 254.

Illustration: The Siberian Dog-sledge.

“E sus ceste treies hi se mete sus un cuir d’ors, e puis hi monte sus un mesaje; e ceste treies moinent six chiens de celz grant qe je vos ai contés; et cesti chienz ne les moine nulz, mès il vont tout droit jusque à l’autre poste, et trainent la treies mout bien.”

NOTE 3. — No dog-sledges are now known, I believe, on this side of the course of the Obi, and there not south of about 61° 30’. But in the 11th century they were in general use between the Dwina and Petchora. And Ibn Batuta’s account seems to imply that in the 14th they were in use far to the south of the present limit: “It had been my wish to visit the Land of Darkness, which can only be done from Bolghar. There is a distance of 40 days’ journey between these two places. I had to give up the intention however on account of the great difficulty attending the journey and the little fruit that it promised. In that country they travel only with small vehicles drawn by great dogs. For the steppe is covered with ice, and the feet of men or the shoes of horses would slip, whereas the dogs having claws their paws don’t slip upon the ice. The only travellers across this wilderness are rich merchants, each of whom owns about 100 of these vehicles, which are loaded with meat, drink, and firewood. In fact, on this route there are neither trees nor stones, nor human dwellings. The guide of the travellers is a dog who has often made the journey before! The price of such a beast is sometimes as high as 1000 dinárs or thereabouts. He is yoked to the vehicle by the neck, and three other dogs are harnessed along with him. He is the chief, and all the other dogs with their carts follow his guidance and stop when he stops. The master of this animal never ill-uses him nor scolds him, and at feeding-time the dogs are always served before the men. If this be not attended to, the chief of the dogs will get sulky and run off, leaving the master to perdition” (II. 399–400).

[Mr. Parker writes (China Review, xiv. p. 359), that dog-sledges appear to have been known to the Chinese, for in a Chinese poem occurs the line: “Over the thick snow in a dog-cart.”— H.C.]

The bigness attributed to the dogs by Polo, Ibn Batuta, and Rubruquis, is an imagination founded on the work ascribed to them. Mr. Kennan says they are simply half-domesticated Arctic wolves. Erman calls them the height of European spaniels (qu. setters?), but much slenderer and leaner in the flanks. A good draught-dog, according to Wrangell, should be 2 feet high and 3 feet in length. The number of dogs attached to a sledge is usually greater than the old travellers represent — none of whom, however, had seen the thing.

Wrangell’s account curiously illustrates what Ibn Batuta says of the Old Dog who guides: “The best-trained and most intelligent dog is often yoked in front. . . . He often displays extraordinary sagacity and influence over the other dogs, e.g. in keeping them from breaking after game. In such a case he will sometimes turn and bark in the opposite direction; . . . and in crossing a naked and boundless tundra in darkness or snow-drift he will guess his way to a hut that he has never visited but once before” (I. 159). Kennan also says: “They are guided and controlled entirely by the voice and by a lead-dog, who is especially trained for the purpose.” The like is related of the Esquimaux dogs. (Kennarts Tent Life in Siberia, pp. 163–164; Wood’s Mammalia, p. 266.)

NOTE 4. — On the Erculin and Ercolin of the G.T., written Arculin in next chapter, Arcolino of Ramusio, Herculini of Pipino, no light is thrown by the Italian or other editors. One supposes of course some animal of the ermine or squirrel kinds affording valuable fur, but I can find no similar name of any such animal. It may be the Argali or Siberian Wild Sheep, which Rubruquis mentions: “I saw another kind of beast which is called Arcali; its body is just like a ram’s, and its horns spiral like a ram’s also, only they are so big that I could scarcely lift a pair of them with one hand. They make huge drinking-vessels out of these” (p. 230). [See I. p. 177.]

Vair, so often mentioned in mediaeval works, appears to have been a name appropriate to the fur as prepared rather than to the animal. This appears to have been the Siberian squirrel called in French petit-gris, the back of which is of a fine grey and the belly of a brilliant white. In the Vair (which is perhaps only varius or variegated) the backs and bellies were joined in a kind of checquer; whence the heraldic checquer called by the same name. There were two kinds, menu-vair corrupted into minever, and gros-vair, but I cannot learn clearly on what the distinction rested. (See Douet d’Arcq, p. xxxv.) Upwards of 2000 ventres de menuvair were sometimes consumed in one complete suit of robes (Ib. xxxii.).

The traps used by the Siberian tribes to take these valuable animals are described by Erman (I. 452), only in the English translation the description is totally incomprehensible; also in Wrangell, I. 151.

NOTE 5. — The country chiefly described in this chapter is probably that which the Russians, and also the Arabian Geographers, used to term Yugria, apparently the country of the Ostyaks on the Obi. The winter-dwellings of the people are not, strictly speaking, underground, but they are flanked with earth piled up against the walls. The same is the case with those of the Yakuts in Eastern Siberia, and these often have the floors also sunk 3 feet in the earth. Habitations really subterranean, of some previous race, have been found in the Samoyed country. (Klaproth’s Mag. Asiatique, II. 66.)

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