I was lucky this weekend to get a chance to read a book which has been lying on my desk for a few months now (next to
the ever-growing pile of the latest research in my field…): Man And Mystery in Asia by Ferdinand Ossendowski, the Polish noble/ chemist/ biologist/ geologist/ explorer/ fugitive from the Cheka and the Bolsheviks/ bestseller author/ hunter/ storyteller extraordinaire. I’m sure I’m leaving a number of defining qualifications out of this description, but the fact that he saw the inside of a prison both under the Tsar and under the Bolsheviks on account of ideological crimes tells you something about the man. That he was a fundamentally decent and courageous person. Or incredibly stupid and unfortunate to fall foul of two such formidable enemies, but read his books and you’ll know that stupid (or unfortunate) he was not.
Man And Mystery in Asia is not an autobiographical road novel like Beasts, Men, and Gods was. It is altogether a more modest account of a number of expeditions the young Ossendowski went on to Siberia and Manchuria. It is similar to Ossendowski’s bestseller though in its high-quality writing, its incredible thrills, the larger-than-life characters (the Black Monk of Sakhalin, for instance, the mute Chinese ginseng hunter, or what to think of the red ginseng devil?) and Ossendowski’s penchant for meeting people who then dramatically die sometime after. This may be a sign of the times: life then in Siberia and Manchuria was harsh, violent and probably short. But perhaps this is where Ossendowski appropriated stories he had heard and turned them into a personal narrative. Or maybe the messenger from the other side just liked him and followed in his wake.
The book also has a fair amount about Koreans in it. Much more than official sources for this period (late 19th-early 20th centuries), the anecdotal information Ossendowski recorded gives the reader a good notion of how fluid the borders were and how Koreans were (and had been) a large part of life in Manchuria and Siberia. This is what Ossendowski says for example about the past of the region (Ussuri, the “Pearl of the East”) he is passing through:
The country between the Ussuri railway and the Sikhota-Alin range is interesting from the historic and ethnographic standpoint. A high culture once existed here, probably Korean. The people from the Hermit Kingdom were once courageous and powerful; but, having more warlike and enterprising neighbors, the Japanese and Chinese, they were conquered , lost their culture and liberty and now, even their country. I came across in the forest, ruins of walls and ditches, stone foundations of great buildings already crumbled to pieces, perhaps of temples, palaces, or fortresses. Remnants of the ancient sculptural art of those times occurred in places in the form of immense granite tortoises six or eight feet high, some of them having on their backs engravings representing birds, flowers, and other ornaments.
Life for Koreans was difficult. Ossendowski is told about Cossacks (who live in the region and who figure in the book as helpers, adversaries, heroes of improbable stories et cetera) who hunt White Swans in the forest: “These are ambushes for the White Swans. Our Cossacks built them some time ago, but they use them now, though much more rarely.” A hunter himself, Ossendowski fails to understand why any hunter worth his salt (and Cossacks were keen hunters) would hunt for swans in a forest instead of near a lake. He soon finds out that life in Manchuria is indeed violent, harsh and unfair.
One day when I went shooting with some officers near the Korean frontier, we had as our guides Cossacks from Nikolsk-Ussurski and from the Cossack guard villages along the frontier. We were hunting roe deer [….] I remarked some white rags and some remains of rotten, yellow cotton wool. Noticing my look the Cossacks began to laugh: ”A White Swan passed here, and I overtook him,” chuckled an old Cossack as he deftly skinned the bear. “It was two years ago. With my cousin, a Cossack from Iman, I came here to look for White Swans as I knew that lots of them wander this way.”
“What do you mean by White Swans?” I asked.
“Koreans, Sir, Koreans,” he replied gaily. “They come from the Amur gold mines, the Sungacha, the Mai Ho, and Imperator Bay, and carry on their backs a lot of precious things: gold dust, panti, ginseng, amber, mushrooms, river pearls, sables, ermine, and marten skins. And how could we allow them to take all this when it would be of good use to us Christians?”
And they laughed again.
“How do you do this?” I inquired, guessing the truth.
“It is a very simple thing. We arrange zasidki on the roads and just wait. The Korean travel singly as they distrust one another, and skulk along the smallest trails. When the Cossacks hear the noise of steps or an axe or see at night the glow of fires on the treetops, they creep up on the White Swan and take from him what he has in his pack. Sometimes the Korean tries to defend himself with his axe or knife, and then a bullet quiets him for ever. If he weeps and curses, the Cossack kills him anyway; for what is life to a feelingless Swan? In any case he must die sooner or later.”
The callous and racist (and undoubtedly widespread) notions of the Cossack are not reciprocated by Ossendowski, who writes the following:
Such is this hunter’s paradise, where among the hunter’s spoil one meets the White Swans, these unhappy Korean wanderers, who, having made what is for them a small fortune through ever dangerous work in the forest of the Ussuri or in the ravines of the Sikhota-Alin, return to their homeland, where the families long abandoned by fathers and husbands, lead lives of hardship and sadness. Often in vain they wait for their men’s return, in vain they hope for a future of wealth, as there near the Cossack ambushes on the forest trails, only some bloodstained rags and bones remain.
These thoughts weighed on my mind as I followed and crossed these Ussurian trails of the White Swans, who in springtime trekked north full of hope, and in autumn returned south only to enter the jaws of death at the hands of the European Russians bringing culture to the Far East.
While Beasts, Men, and Gods was a book about war, flight, bloodshed and heroic fights and feats, this book is much less so. It is darker in a way, because of the tragic stories, such as that of the White Swans, Ossendowski recorded. In a different chapter, he returns to it, noting that not all Russians were actually bad:
During the time while the brothers (Kudiakoff) were still simple hunters, the tragedies of the “White Swans” became more rare as the Koreans carrying their accumulated wealth put themselves under the protection of the Kudiakoffs and paid them well to be escorted to the Korean frontier. These experienced Ural hunters knew how to avoid Cossack ambushes on the forest roads and when meeting the banditi, through their courage and skill, always succeeded in defending their white-robed clients. Their name was known through the whole of Korea and in many parts of North China, and the wise brothers knew how to profit by this so that they could have the best ginseng and deer antlers and much of the gold found by the Orientals in the Ussurian forest.
Man And Mystery in Asia turned out to be a much more impressive read than I thought it would be. I had expected an exoticist, Orientalist book (just look at that title), but it wasn’t. Ossendowski speaks of the mysteries of Asia, to be sure, but his descriptions are anything but mysterious. He seeks to understand Asia and the different peoples in it as human beings. As a geologist he is all too aware of the very different regions he traverses. As a consequence, the notion to think of Asia as somehow one big continent doesn’t appear to him. On the contrary, he seems to have been very aware of the hybrid frontier cultures (and their differences and similarities) he encounters. The book is a gold mine of ethnographic description, but ethnography is applied to Koreans, Mongols, Ainus as well as to Russians and other Europeans with equal measure. It is well-written, full of incredible details (who knew for example that in 1905 the worst Russian criminals who had been sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour at the Sakhalin Islands were moved to Vladivostok and the Amur region to prevent Japanese from using them as a revenge battalion against the Russians; there, in the manner of the A-team, they promptly escaped and became feared bandits in this region) and astute observations. More than anything, it is a book that recognizes the humanity of all humans encountered (whether farmer, hunter, soldier or convict) and that makes it worth reading. Also, because “Stefan Klesnikoff, the bloody sectarian monk escaped from some monastery” makes a chilling and gruesome appearance. But that you’ll have to read for yourself. And if all this isn’t enough reason to read the book, the incredible Yankovsky family also makes an appearance. And in style, it is an uebercool appearance, anything else seems to have been impossible for them.