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CHAPTER IV
 

INTO THE FOREST

 

ON returning to Harbin I found a despatch from the General Staff containing the announcement that I had been honoured with the Cross of St. Stanislaus and offering me the post of Chemical Expert to the General Staff. But in addition to this pleasing news the letter also communicated to me orders, in the execution of which I nearly lost my life. The Staff directed me to organize on a big scale the manufacture of charcoal for use in the military workshops, inasmuch as there was no coke factory anywhere in the Manchurian territory. A special timber concession was set aside for my purposes.

Almost parallel to the course of the Sungari the forest-covered range of Chang-Kuan-Tsai Lan, which is one of the southern spurs of the Little Khingans, runs in a northeasterly direction. In the vast forests on the southern slope of this range, near the small station of Udzimi on the Chinese Eastern Railway, lay the concession which had been put at my disposal.

On the day of receiving my orders I went immediately to visit the territory of my future activities and to plan out roughly their course. Udzimi consisted only of a very small station building for the telegraph office and the administration staff and of a long brick barracks, which afforded housing for the railway hands and some Cossacks. Immediately behind these station buildings the forest stretched away in unbroken lines. I took two Cossacks and plunged into it. We found it was composed of a mixed stand of deciduous and evergreen trees, chiefly pines and firs, and that it was a real jungle with thick, almost impenetrable undergrowth everywhere. It was not a good stand for manufacturing lumber but for burning charcoal it was exactly what we wanted. As we entered the woods, we followed a broad path, on a low, wet section of which I saw from the tracks of horses and men that the route was considerably travelled. It finally led us to a swirling, splashing little stream that came tumbling boisterously down from the mountain. On its bank was the little village of Ho Lin with restricted fields of kaoliang and beans around it, and, farther back, the edge of the dark green forest that carpeted the mountain slope.

As I needed many labourers for felling and cutting up the trees, I decided to begin the search for them in this little village. However, these peasants, who belonged to the Daour tribe of Manchus, refused my offers for work but agreed to lodge our labourers in their houses. Yet even this much was of very definite advantage, for it enabled us to have a supply of food right at the edge of the forest, when our work should begin.

On the following day I returned to Harbin and busied myself with the immediate organization of the enterprise. This took me at the outset to the Chinese town, Fu Chia Tien, where the native element in this new and pulsating great Russian railroad centre in the heart of northern Manchuria swarmed in tremendous crowds, lived in the hastily built houses and inns of the growing settlement and overflowed in the poorer quarters into the most miserable and unkempt of hovels and holes. It was a matter of common knowledge, during these war days especially, that it was far from safe for a well-dressed individual to frequent certain sections of the town, where hunghutze bands, operating in the neighbourhood of Harbin, often had their headquarters or, at least, lodged spies and scouts. At this period of the Russo-Japanese War the place gave the appearance of just a huge village with only the flags above the Yamen to accord to it the more formidable status of an important seat of the local government. However squalid in appearance, it was in reality a centre of great commercial activity and of considerable political importance. When I returned to it sixteen years later, in the summer of 1921 after my escape from Mongolia, I could hardly recognize the former town. Fourstoried buildings, streets of well-built shops, theatres, the imposing residence of the local Taotai, temples, great warehouses and all the other attributes of a great town were there even to droskies, automobiles and rickshaws.

I had been given the address of a Chinese merchant, Tung Ho Shan, who provided the Railway Administration with the labourers it required. Finding him in his shop, I quickly arranged with him for the despatch to Udzimi on the very next morning of three hundred wood-cutters. When, in response to his caution to me never to engage labourers except through him, I smiled a bit ironically, he gravely warned me:

"Don't think it is just a question of profit for me! Far from that. When I supply you with labourers, I send you only such men as are personally known to us or to other reliable firms and for whose character we can vouch. If you engage men at random, you may easily be employing hunghutzes and may have endless trouble with them."

Having arranged with Tung Ho Shan that I should be in Udzimi two days after the men had already been installed there, I went at once to the task of finding the necessary technical assistants and succeeded in locating two among the staff of the Chinese Eastern Railway. One was named Kazik and the other Samsonoff, both of them from the mining district of the Urals and acquainted almost from childhood with the work of charcoal burning. They were both young men but of quite opposite characteristics. Kazik was almost a giant. I do not recall ever having seen anyone with such enormous shoulders and breast, with the exception of my companion in Mongolia, the agronome whom I described in the account of my journeyings through that land. In spite of his size, Kazik was spare and his body seemed but a bundle of pliant leather thongs. His movements were graceful and quick; his blue eyes snapped with vivacity and courage; while his face was nearly always cheery and frank. In contrast, Samsonoff was short, with light, curly hair, a gentle, melancholy expression and big, dreamy brown eyes. Both of them at once attracted me, so that I immediately requested the Railway Administration to put them at my disposal.

On the very next day we all went together in my service car to Udzimi. On the way I learned that Kazik was an enthusiastic hunter; and, as I had already peered into the thick Manchurian taiga, I promised myself many hunting pleasures. In such a wild country a good companion is not only a very agreeable, but a quite indispensable, adjunct. From my chats with them I gathered that Kazik and Samsonoff had been acquainted for a long time and had lived in close and amicable relations. After my assistants had become a little less formal toward me, Samsonoff took me aside one day and confided to me:

"Sir, I have been married for a year and it will be very difficult for me to be separated from my wife. I shall ask your permission to bring her to Udzimi as soon as the work is in full swing and living quarters can be provided."

Seeing the supplicatory look in the eyes of the beautiful youth, emphasized by his trembling lips, I immediately gave my consent; but at the same time I made another distinct observation. Samsonoff was talking with me in a low voice, almost a whisper. Swinging round unexpectedly, I discovered Kazik with his face turned away from us but with his head held tense in the effort to catch our conversation at the other end of the car. As is so frequently the case in my relations with my fellow-beings, I seemed to sense some deep, personal trouble between these two young men to whom Fate had united me.

Chatting on with Samsonoff, I soon learned that he had made the acquaintance of his wife in Harbin, where she worked as a typist in the administration office of the railway, and that it was through Kazik, his friend from childhood, that he had first met her.

"And is Kazik also married?" I asked.

"No!" exclaimed Samsonoff. "Kazik will not marry young, as I have."

"Why not?"

"Because," whispered the boy, as he glanced cautiously toward his friend, "Kazik is a proud being, full of ambition and demands much of life."

"I don't understand. Please explain," I said, much interested by the suggestions of Samsonoff.

"Kazik is the son of a simple labourer, but he declares he will attain to a high station in life. He studies energetically, works all the time and pushes ahead everywhere it is possible. I really don't know when he sleeps. He has sworn to himself that he will eventually be rich, learnèd and equal to the best around him. He considers a wife would be a hindrance in his plans and, therefore, he will not marry." As he spoke these last words, Samsonoff lowered his head and sighed. Here our conversation stopped.

A few hours later we arrived at the station of Udzimi and my car was detached from the train and run into a siding. Immediately a little, thin, Cossack sergeant, named Shum, presented himself to me and announced that he had received telegraphic orders from Harbin to provide me with a military escort in the territory we were to work, and added that Sergeant Lisvienko with eight Cossacks had already been despatched to Ho Lin to await my orders. I learned also from Sergeant Shum that my Chinese labourers had already arrived. Part of them were lodged with the villagers, while for the other they had already begun the erection of two sheds with heated k'angs. Soon we reached Ho Lin and took up quarters in the house of the headman of the village, who also arranged for the storage of our equipment near by.

At the village I was met by the elderly, red-haired Cossack, Lisvienko, wearing the Cross of St. George which he had received during the Boxer trouble in 1900, when a Russian detachment from the Amur army under the command of General Linievitch did such valiant service at Tientsin and joined in the march to Peking. The sergeant's eight Cossacks ranged themselves in front of my temporary quarters and presented arms.

That same evening I selected the sites for the charcoal ovens and parcelled out the work between Kazik and Samsonoff. The first was to prepare the place for the stoves and to construct them, while the second was to superintend the felling of the trees and their transport to the ovens.

At the very outset I realized that we should have to construct a narrow-gauge railway into the forest just as soon as we had cut off the trees within easy hauling distance. With these thoughts of the ultimate extent of our task, I was able, when writing my report to Harbin on the very first evening after my arrival on the property, to hear the ring of the axes, the shouts of the workers and the crashings of the falling trees as certain assurance that we had at least made a rapid start toward our distant goal.

When the answer to my report arrived from Harbin, directing me to come there to discuss the question of the railroad, several ovens were already in operation on the place. These were the regular Ural ovens, in the prototypes of which the forests of the manufacturing districts in the Urals had been almost entirely consumed. For me, in my capacity of chemist and economist, this wanton method of exploitation of the forest wealth was criminally barbarous; and I consequently decided to try to construct a brick oven that would permit continuous firing and would conserve the by-products of pitch for the use of the army. I learned that there was a Chinese brick-kiln at the next station along the line from Udzimi, so that the necessary brick could be easily obtained.

While the Ural ovens had been under construction, barracks for the labourers and houses for my assistants and the Cossacks were also prepared. These were the usual Chinese fang-tzu minus the k'ang and fitted with ordinary stoves and European kitchens.