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- Letters of Anton Chekhov - 30/64 -

And so my horse-journey is over. It has lasted two months (I set out on the 21st of April). If we exclude the time spent on the railway and the steamer, the three days spent in Ekaterinburg, the week in Tomsk, the day in Krasnoyarsk, the week in Irkutsk, the two days on the shores of Lake Baikal, and the days wasted in waiting for boats to cross the floods, you can judge of the rate at which I have driven. My journey has been most successful, I wish nothing better for anyone. I have not once been ill, and of the mass of things I had with me I have lost nothing but a penknife, the strap off my trunk, and a little jar of carbolic ointment. My money is safe. It is not often that anyone succeeds in travelling a thousand versts so well.

I have grown so used to driving that now I don't feel like myself, and cannot believe that I am not in a chaise and that I don't hear the rattling and the jingling of the bells. It seems strange that when I go to bed I can stretch out my legs full length, and that my face is not covered with dust. But what is stranger still is that the bottle of brandy Kuvshinnikov gave me has not been broken, and that the brandy is still in it, every drop of it. I have vowed not to uncork it except on the shore of the Pacific.

I am sailing down the Shilka, which runs into the Amur at the Pokrovskaya Stanitsa. The river is not broader than the Psyol, it is even narrower. The shores are stony: there are crags and forests. It is absolutely wild.... We tack about to avoid foundering on a sandbank, or running our helm into the banks: steamers and barges often do so in the rapids. It's stifling. We have just stopped at Ust-Kara, where we have landed five or six convicts. There are mines here and a convict prison.

Yesterday we were at Nertchinsk. The little town is nothing to boast of, but one could live there.

And how are you, messieurs and mesdames? I know positively nothing about you. You might subscribe twopence each and send me a full telegram.

The steamer will stay the night at Gorbitsa. The nights here are foggy, sailing is dangerous, I shall send off this letter at Gorbitsa.

... I am going first class because my companions are in the second. I have got away from them. We have driven together (three in one chaise), we have slept together and are sick of each other, especially I of them.

* * * * *

My handwriting is very bad, shaky. That is because the steamer rocks. It's difficult to write.

I broke off here. I went to my lieutenants and had tea. They have both had a long sleep and were in a very cordial mood. One of them, Lieutenant N. (the surname jars upon my ear), is in the infantry; he is a tall, well-fed, loud-voiced Courlander, a great braggart and Hlestakov, who sings songs from every opera, but has no more ear than a smoked herring, an unlucky fellow who has squandered all the money for his travelling expenses, knows all Mickiewicz by heart, is ill-bred, far too unreserved, and babbles till it makes you sick. Like me, he is fond of talking about his uncles and aunts. The other lieutenant, M., a geographer, is a quiet, modest, thoroughly well-educated fellow. If it were not for N., I could travel with the other for a million versts without being bored. But with N., who intrudes into every conversation, the other bores me too.... I believe we are reaching Gorbitsa.

To-morrow I will make up the form of a telegram which you must send me to Sahalin. I will try to put all I want to know in thirty words, and you must try and keep strictly to the pattern.

The gad-flies bite.


GORBITSA, June 20, 1890.

Greetings, dear Nikolay Alexandrovitch!

I wrote you this as I approached Gorbitsa, one of the Cossack settlements on the banks of the Shilka, a tributary of the Amur. This is where I have got to. I am sailing down the Amur.

I sent you a letter from Irkutsk. Did you get it? Since then more than a week has passed, in the course of which I have crossed Lake Baikal and driven through Transbaikalia. Lake Baikal is wonderful, and the Siberians may well call it a sea instead of a lake. The water is extraordinarily transparent, so that one can see through it as through air; the colour is a soft turquoise very agreeable to the eye. The banks are mountainous, and covered with forests; it is all impenetrable wildness without a break anywhere.

There are great numbers of bears, wild goats, and wild creatures of all sorts, who spend their time living in the Taiga and eating one another. I spent two days and nights on the shore of Lake Baikal.

It was still and hot when I was sailing.

Transbaikalia is splendid. It is a mixture of Switzerland, the Don, and Finland.

I have driven with horses more than four thousand versts. My journey was entirely successful. I was in good health all the time, and lost nothing of my luggage but a penknife. I can wish no one a better journey. The journey is absolutely free from danger, and all the tales of escaped convicts, of night attacks, and so on are nothing but legends, traditions of the remote past. A revolver is an entirely superfluous article. Now I am sitting in a first-class cabin, and feel as though I were in Europe. I feel in the mood one is in after passing an examination. A whistle!--that's Gorbitsa.

* * * * *

The banks of the Shilka are picturesque like stage scenes but, alas! there is something oppressive in this complete absence of human beings. It is like a cage without a bird.


June 21, 1890.

6 o'clock in the evening, not far from the Stanitsa Pokrovskaya.

We ran upon a rock, stove a hole in the steamer, and are now undergoing repairs. We are aground on a sandbank and pumping out water. On the left is the Russian bank, on the right the Chinese. If I were back at home now I should have the right to boast: "Though I have not been in China I have seen China only twenty feet off." We are to stay the night in Pokrovskaya. We shall make up a party to see the place.

If I were a millionaire I should certainly have a steamer of my own on the Amur. It is a fine, interesting country. I advise Yegor Mihailovitch not to go to Tuapse but here; there are here by the way neither tarantulas nor phalangas. On the Chinese side there is a sentry post--a small hut; sacks of flour are piled up on the bank, ragged Chinamen are dragging the sacks on barrows to the hut. And beyond is the dense, endless forest.

Some schoolgirls are travelling with us from Irkutsk--Russian faces, but not good-looking.


I have told you already we are aground on a sandbank. At Ust-Stryelka, where the Shilka joins the Argun (see map), the steamer went aground in two and a half feet of water, struck a rock, and stove in several holes in its side and, the hold filling with water, the steamer sank to the bottom. They began pumping out water and putting on patches; a naked sailor crawled into the hold, stood up to his neck in water, and tried the holes with his heels. Each hole was covered on the inside with cloth smeared with grease: they lay a board on the top, and stuck a support upon the latter which pressed against the ceiling like a column. Such is the repairing. They were pumping from five o'clock in the evening till night, but still the water did not abate: they had to put off the work till morning. In the morning they discovered some more holes, and began patching and pumping again. The sailors pump while we, the general public, pace up and down the decks, criticize, eat, drink, and sleep; the captain and his mate do the same as the general public, and seem in no hurry. On the right is the Chinese bank, on the left is the stanitsa, Pokrovskaya, with the Cossacks of the Amur; if one likes one can stay in Russia, if one likes one can go into China, there is nothing to hinder one. It is insufferably hot in the daytime, so that one has to put on a silk shirt. They give us dinner at twelve o'clock, supper at seven.

Unluckily the steamer _Vyestnik_ coming the other way with a crowd of passengers is approaching the stanitsa. The _Vyestnik_ cannot go on either, and both steamers stay stock-still. There is a military band on the _Vyestnik_, consequently there has been a regular festival. All yesterday the band was playing on deck to the entertainment of the captain and sailors, and consequently to the delay of the repairing. The feminine half of the public were highly delighted; a band, officers, naval men ... oh! The schoolgirls were particularly pleased. Yesterday evening we walked about the Cossack settlement, where the same band, hired by the Cossacks, was playing. Today we are continuing the repairs.

The captain promises that we shall start after dinner, but he promises it listlessly, gazing away into space--obviously he does not mean it. We are in no haste. When I asked a passenger, "Whenever are we going on?" he asked, "Why, aren't you all right here!"

And that's true. Why not stay, as long as we are not bored?

The captain, his mate, and his agent are the acme of politeness. The Chinese in the third class are good-natured and funny. Yesterday a Chinaman sat on the deck and sang something very mournful in a falsetto voice; as he did so his profile was funnier than any caricature. Everybody looked at him and laughed, while he took not the slightest notice. He sang falsetto and then began singing tenor. My God, what a voice! It was like the bleat of a sheep or a calf. The Chinese remind me of good-natured tame animals, their pigtails are long and black like Natalya Mihailovna's. Apropos of tame animals, there's a tame fox cub living in the toilet-room. It sits and looks on as one washes. If it sees no one for a long time it begins to whine.

Letters of Anton Chekhov - 30/64

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