Journey to China

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic

A short story about the military escort of a camel train travelling from Russia to China and its return journey set in the 19th century. Based in part on letters written by Borodin a Russian composer who served in the Russian army in his youth. The escort has to face the harsh challenges of climate terrain and raids by local tribsmen. There is also a reference to Borodin's love affair with a Chinese princess.

Journey to China Escorting the Camel Trains A short Story by James De Burghe

The beginning

My name is Nickoli Borortin, and this is my record of how, as a young man, I was part of the military escort of a large camel train travelling from Moscow to Ulan Bator. It was the greatest adventure of my life and I wish to share these long forgotten moments with you. My family, who lived in St Petersburg, were moderately wealthy, I was given a good education and when I was ready to go to university my father purchased a commission in the Russian Army for me, that way it was easier to get entrance to the best Universities in Russia. I studied Chemistry and Mathematics and achieved a first class honours degree. I spent a further year working as a researcher and achieved a masters degree as a result of that. I was 24 years old and realised that I now had to settle down and find a well paying career. Well, that was the plan. In the late winter of 1887 I received a note telling me to report to the central army command in Moscow. I reported as directed and was told that I was to be part of a group of scientists, geologists, and map makers that were to travel with the military escort of a large camel train of traders heading to China. The job of the scientific group was to examine the ground we travelled for the signs of minerals that could be mined by Russia and to enlarge and codify Russia’s eastern borders. The map makers would ensure that the information would be accurately marked into new and accurate maps of the region. I was promoted to the rank of senior lieutenant in the engineer corps and would be paid a salary for the duration of the trip and return journey. I was issued with a full set of both winter and summer uniforms as well as a sword and pistol. I was excited by the prospect of travelling to China and not having to face the question of settling down as yet. I wrote a long letter to my parents to inform them what had happened and telling them not to worry if they did not hear from me for some time as I doubted that there would be any mail services running from the east back to Russia. My Father replied and sent me some solid gold roubles as he though normal Russian money would not be very useful in China. I travelled the 25 kilometres to the traders camp by sleigh as the snow was still thick on the ground and it was bitterly cold. I am not sure how I imagined the camp would look but at any rate I was totally surprised to find it was huge. Like a town in its own right it had shops and bars and it thronged with people. I eventually found the Russian Army HQ and reported to the senior officer there. I was billeted in a wooden hut along with the other scientific officers and a soldier was detailed to be my servant. My excitement was somewhat dampened as I listened to the tales told to me by my fellow scientists. The route was subject to appalling weather conditions, lack of water and frequent raids by bandit tribesmen. Casualties were common and sometimes severe. Hearing this I wondered if settling down to a steady life in St Petersburg was such a bad idea after all.

After three days we were all told to move to the assembly area another 5 kilometres distant. We were shown to our mounts, stocky ponies of around 12 hands height. They looked unkempt and a far cry from the 16 hand thoroughbred I rode in St Petersburg. I was told that they were hardy and capable of enduring the harsh weather conditions we were likely to encounter on our route. We moved to the assembly area and found a scene that looked to the untrained eye as total chaos. Camels, horses, wagons and people all milling about seemingly to no common purpose. Yet within the hour the chaos transformed into an orderly mass. In the centre were four columns of camels occupying an area about 400m wide by 1Km long. On the far flank were the wagons belonging to the Russian army, they included food, medical supplies, and transport for a full company of infantry two doctors and 6 medical attendants. To the rear were the wagons of the Russian traders and on the near flank was a full battalion of Don Cossack cavalry. We were slotted in between the Cossacks and the camels with our wagons and servants we amounted to 30 men. The entire caravan consisted of 2000 camels 90 wagons and over 4000 men, half of whom were Chinese.

Journey to Omsk

As this long column of men, horses, camels and wagons started to wind out of the base camp I began to wonder why all this effort was made, what was the value of the goods our soldiers were protecting. One of the Sergeants in the infantry company, a veteran of three such escort missions, told me that the goods and cash carried on this caravan were worth tens of millions of roubles. The Naval officer in charge of the mapping squad added that we were establishing and enlarging the borders of Russia in this part of the empire. I was decidedly ignorant of all of this and tried to concentrate on my own tasks. My own comrades told me to relax as the territory between here and Omsk was already well known and surveyed. We were heading in a south-easterly direction and as the days passed the weather grew steadily warmer. After a week of steady progress the discomfort of spending hours a day in the saddle disappeared. At camp each night we novices were given lectures and warnings about what lay ahead of us. It was emphasised that we should never leave the main column unless we had a cavalry escort. Apparently the brigand tribesmen always had spies watching the caravan and anyone on their own riding out of sight of the column would be quickly intercepted and killed. In the event that the caravan was attacked by a large force then defending infantry would move to keep the attackers out of range of the caravan itself whilst the cavalry would attempt to attack the enemy flanks and drive them back. At this point I should describe our soldiers. The infantry company was made up of 180 men of a regular imperial infantry regiment. They wore the standard green and red uniform of the regular infantry and all were veterans of the wars against the Ottomans. They were a steady and cheerful bunch of men who much preferred these escort duties to the harsher warfare that was ongoing in the south west. They had recently been rearmed with new rifles using the Martini-Henry breach loading mechanism, this enabled them to maintain a steady rate of fire of eight round per minute. The Cavalry was made up of four squadrons of Don Cossacks. With their own language and customs they tended not to mix with the rest of us very much. They dressed in sombre black colours and carried a long sabre as well as a carbine and lance. They had a reputation of being fearless and formidable soldiers and their presence was reassuring to us all. This was the first time they had been used as an escort on this route, though they had earned much praise protecting trade caravans coming into Russia from Persia. The countryside we passed through is worthy of description, beautiful woodland interspersed with meadows of wild flowers. Deer herds would scatter as we approached and on our flanks we often saw bears and bear cubs foraging for food. At night we could hear the calls of wolves in the distant woodlands. We crossed several small rivers and streams along the way. Some years ago much of this land had been farmed, but the abolition of serfdom had meant that the landowners could no longer afford to farm it and it had been abandoned back to nature. Occasionally we would see large columns of smoke in the distance, I was told that these fires were villages being burnt down after an outbreak of smallpox in this region. It was one of the reasons our caravan stayed well away from the towns and villages alongside our route. Two months passed and I began to become bored with the daily routine and slow progress we seemed to make, all governed by the plodding rhythm of the camels. We were still around three weeks from Omsk and during the early afternoon of what had been a boring day I was snapped out of my lethargy by the sound of a bugle sounding the alert. Along with my colleagues I dashed to our action station and anxiously scanned the horizon with my field glasses. I could see nothing. After a few minutes I spotted a column of dust dead ahead of us. Five minutes later and the base of the dust column resolved into a column of cavalry moving at the fast trot. Flags were waving above them and we breathed a sigh of relief as it turned out it was around one hundred men from another of the elite Cossack regiments. Our military commander and the head men of the traders rode out to meet them. After an hour or so passed all officers were called to a meeting along with the senior Chinese and Russian traders. We were told that we could no longer enter Omsk as plague had broken out there but instead would rendezvous with a regiment of Cossacks camped to the north of the city. They would replenish our food and fodder stores. We greeted the news with downcast hearts, there was not a man of us that had not been looking forwards to a little relaxation in Omsk. However we had to make the best of it.

Six days later we reached the Cossack camp north of Omsk. It was pleasantly situated close to a clear stream and with clumps of woodland offering protection from the wind, The grass meadows offered good grazing for the horses, as well as providing a colourful display of wild flowers. We rested there for two day and loaded up with the provisions and fodder the Cossacks had stored for us. This camp was large and had several blockhouses around its perimeter to provide protection against attack. A full regiment of Cossacks were stationed here, some 1400 men including officers and medical staff. I was surprised to learn that Prince Karpov, no less, was their leader. We all have great respect for this man, not just due to his rank of Prince and Major General but for his endless work marking and mapping the eastern borders of our country and fighting off the Turkic tribes who support the Ottomans. His father was one of the great heroes of the battle of Borodino, he had led 2000 Cossacks to the rear of Napoleons army and inflicted grievous losses on the Polish and Italian Cavalry that were fighting for the French. All of us in the scientific party were overjoyed to hear that he intended to travel with the caravan to Ulan Bator along with two of his Cossack battalions. This more than doubled the strength of the escort and as events transpired it was our good fortune that he had decided to travel with us.

Onwards to Irkutsk

We were now heading south-eastward in the general direction of Abaza. As the days passed so the scenery began to change to a harsher rocky landscape. It grew hotter each day and our water was rationed to ensure their would be an adequate supply until we reach the next river in around 14 days time. We dismounted and walked our horses for 20 minutes in each hour to keep them fresh. It was during one of these walking periods that I and my science group colleagues got our baptism of being under fire. Something pinged and threw up a spurt of dust some 2 metres ahead of me, a split second later I heard the sound of a rifle shot. Then the bugler sounded the alert, we all moved to our action station positions and the camels and wagons moved into a tight knit formation surrounded by soldiers. A squadron of Cossacks galloped away in the general direction of the gunshot. Through my field glasses I could just about make out the Cossacks through the cloud of dust thrown up by their galloping horses. I could hear the crackle of gunfire and as the dust settled I could see one of the Cossack horses lying on the ground and its rider walking back in our direction. Some minutes passed by with no further sounds of gunfire and no sign of the Cossacks. Some 30 minutes later the cossacks returned. They brought with them some additional ponies with bodies tied over the saddles like sacks of grain. Later in the day we were called to a briefing and told that the bodies were those of a Turkic group probably sent to spy on us and report our progress. From now on we must be doubly alert as it was unusual to find Turkic tribesmen this far east and that indicated they may be teaming up with Taliksmen or others to make a big raid on us. In my baggage was a hunting rifle my father had given me on my last birthday. Naively I had brought it with me thinking I might get a chance to hunt deer or wolves on the journey. It was a German made Anschutz with the new bolt action breach and five shot magazine. I only had 50 rounds of ammunition for it but I thought it might well be useful if we were subjected to a large scale raid. It was the work of a few minutes to retrieve it from my baggage and persuade one of the farriers to make a rifle boot I could attach to the saddle of my horse and a bandolier to carry the ammunition. The following two days were quiet with no sign of a raiding party. On the third day we had just passed through a narrow ravine between two massive rock outcrops when we heard gunfire across the plain to our right. Our scouts came galloping back and reported a very large formation of mounted tribesmen just one kilometre away from us and heading towards us at the trot. The bugle sounded the alarm and we rushed to our action stations as the entire caravan took up a defensive formation. The infantry formed a thin line about 100 metres from us whilst the cavalry split into two large groups and rode out to take the raiders on both flanks. My heart was pounding and I felt a strange mixture of fear and aggression at the same time. I took my rifle out of its saddle holster and checked that the magazine was full then I loaded a round into the breach and told myself to stay calm.

We were placed on the right flank of the caravan around the centre of the defensive line. We dismounted and hitched our horses to the military wagons behind us. Facing us at a distance of around 800 metres was a huge column of dust, as the distance closed I could see it was a wedge shaped formation of horsemen. Suddenly from out of the dust cloud came a veritable storm of arrows travelling in a high arc destined to hit our infantry line. Fortunately this first volley fell short but it was soon followed by a second volley that fell amongst the infantry and caused some casualties. At 400 metres range the horsemen broke into a gallop and it was obvious they wanted to storm through our defensive line and get into the main caravan. I knelt and took careful aim at the horse of the leading rider, I knew my rifle had a longer range than the infantry rifles and at as the horde closed on us at around 300 metres I fired my first shot, then in quick succession I fired until the magazine was empty and paused to reload. As I looked up I was pleased to see that I had created some confusion amongst the attackers, the horses I had hit had fallen and those following closely behind them had in turn tripped over their fallen comrades. The domino effect continued for a while as more and more of the raiders fell or swerved out of the path of the struggling mass of men and horses in the centre. Now our infantry opened fire and added to the confusion of the attackers. The frontal attack faltered some 100 metres from our lines and as the raiders turned away to their right and left they were met head-on by our cossacks who had ridden out to outflank them. The cossacks fired a single volley into the mass of raiders and then slung their rifles onto their backs drew their sabres and charged headlong into the raiders. The pounding of the horses hooves, combined with the battle cries of the cossacks and much shouting and screaming was all we could discern for the entire scene was enveloped in a huge cloud of dusts. After what seemed an age but in reality could not have been more than ten minutes the sounds of the fight began moving away from us and as the dust settled we could see that the ground on our right flank was littered with the bodies of men and horses. Anther 20 minutes passed and then the cossacks returned to report that the raiders had retreated. Our medical team rode out with their wagons and a cavalry escort to collect the wounded. That evening we were told that we had suffered 6 dead and 29 wounded but the raiders had lost more than 200 men and horses. A council of the senior officers and traders advised by Prince Karpov had decided that the raiders would try to avenge their losses and therefore we should abandon the route to Irkutsk and make straight for Ulan Bator. The raiders being aware of our normal routes would be unable to find us so easily by this ruse. A group of three gallopers were sent ahead to warn Irkutsk of our change in plans so that they would not send out patrols to find us when we failed to arrive there. They would also be asked to send word back to Moscow of the attack.

Onwards to Ulan Bator

Of the remainder of this journey there is not much to be said. It grew hotter and drier. Water sources were few and far between. Out water and food supplies were strictly rationed. To help preserve the health of our horses we walked rather than rode for most of the remainder of the journey. Even with all these precautions our horses started to falter and a good many died. The rocky terrain gave way to sandy desert. After some 30 days we reached the settlement of Darhan and there we were able to replenish our water supplies and let the camels and horses drink their fill. As I looked at my comrades I was struck by the change in our appearance. We left Moscow resplendent in out uniforms and equipment. Now we looked like a band of ruffians, dirty, bearded, hair long and matted with dust and unkempt, our bodies wiry and tanned but somewhat emaciated by the heat and lack of good food. Certainly the people of this small settlement kept well away from us. We were now in the land of the Mongols and as they were know to be ferocious raiders we we told to be very much on our guard. After a day of rest we moved on and were told that in seven days we would reach Ulan Bator. This lifted our morale and put a spring back into our step. The days passed uneventfully, except for our scouts reporting that we were being shadowed by mounted Mongols. On the eighth day we sighted Ulan Bator. As we descended the sand ridges towards the city our camels and horses began to trot faster as they got the smell of water. As we reached the final ridge before the city we could look down and see it clearly before us. The lake, the Chinese garrison buildings and next to them the Russian barracks and beyond that the city itself. The whole area enclosed by a huge defensive wall with guard towers every 50 metres along its perimeter. It was a very welcome sight and twenty minutes later we were entering the city through a huge gate in the wall that had doors fully one metre thick.

Ulan Bator

After the trials and hardship of the long journey Ulan Bator seemed like paradise to us. Our accommodation was comfortable and we were able to bathe, and get our filthy clothes washed and repaired. Our stay here would be at least one month as we waited to escort the next westbound caravan. The Chinese traders whose camels we had escorted gave every man of us from the highest rank to the lowest a wad of Chinese money and coins so that we might buy mementos of the journey in the towns market. My own father has sent me 15 gold roubles before I left as he guessed that Russian money would be no good here. True enough the traders exchanged the gold for what seemed a huge amount of Chinese money and I was able to buy some fine silks and furs as presents for my family. On our third day in the city all of us officers were invited to a reception and banquet held by the Chinese governor of the city. It was a splendid affair, there appeared to be very friendly relationships between our senior officers and the leading Chinese officers. We were feted and toasted and treated as heroes. When the banquet had finished we were led into a huge and beautiful ante-chamber and mingled amongst our Chinese hosts. I caught sight of a group of young Chinese women sat on ornate chairs towards the far side of the room, and being curious as to who they were I moved slowly towards them. In the centre of the group was the most beautiful young woman I had ever seen in my life. It is perhaps hard to put it into words as the beauty came from within her not just her very pretty exterior. I knew I had to talk to her but as I knew only the most rudimentary Chinese greeting I felt at a loss as how I could make an introduction. I felt her eyes upon me and as I looked directly at her she made a small movement with the fingers of her right hand as if to beckon me towards her. After a few awkward moments of silence she asked me if I could speak English as she spoke no Russian. I was delighted by this as I could speak passable English as it had been my second major at university. I discovered that her name was Luo Xinran, she was 22 years old and the eldest daughter of the City Governor. Her father was a Prince of the Imperial family and thus she was a Princess. I will not bore you with our love story, for that is what it became, we did fall in love and I wanted to marry her but the rules of the Chinese court and culture forbade marriage to a foreigner. I carry a love for her that lives on to this day. Thus for me the time we spent in Ulan Bator was like a fairy tale of beauty and happiness.

It became evident that something unusual was happening. The next westward caravan seemed to be delayed but convoys of carts and supplies appeared to arrive daily along with large contingents of Chinese cavalry and support troops. Ten weeks passed before all us Russian Officers were called into a briefing and found out what was happening. The Chinese had received information that the Mongol and Turkic raiders had joined forces and intended to make a strong attack on the next westbound caravan. The Chinese believed that the raiders could muster around 3000 men for this attack and that its aims were not only to loot the caravan but kill as many Russians as possible in revenge for the Turkic losses in our last battle. To counter this threat the Chinese were sending up a very large force of cavalry supported by mobile artillery. They aimed to end the raiding for once and for all by annihilating as many raiders as possible. Sure enough over the next week a large camp appeared to the east of the city and we had our first glimpse of these Chinese cavalry men. They were very heavily armed, carrying a sword, musket, lance, bow and a very large quiver of arrows. Their uniforms were rudimentary except for their helmets that had a curious cloth peak at the front. We learned that these peaks could be pulled down to protect their eyes from the sun and enable them to attack into the direction of the sun without having to squint. We were puzzled by the apparent lack of artillery. There appeared what looked like boxes on wheels with rows of holes in the front, towed behind them was what looked like a standard artillery limber for carrying ammunition. And the whole thing was pulled by three horses abreast with riders on the two outermost horses. As it all seemed to be made of wood we could not fathom its use. Over one hundred of these boxes appeared over a period of a few days.

Finally the westbound caravan began to assemble and we made ready to leave the city. On our last night the Governor once again held a banquet in our honour and we all received small gifts of jade beads to bring us luck. As we left the banquet a serving girl quietly slipped a small but heavy cloth wrapped bundle into my hands. We had been nearly four months in the city and I confess that my heart was heavy at the thought of leaving it and perhaps never seeing my beautiful Princess again. As we neared the barracks I hung back a little from my comrades and began to unwrap the parcel that had been handed to me. As the outer wrapping opened I could see a note and another layer of wrapping. The note said ‘To my love, please do not open until you have safely reached your home’. Faithful to her wish I overcame my curiosity and back at the barracks placed the parcel in the bottom of my clothing trunk.

Return to Moscow

At 5am the following morning we left Ulan Bator. As we crossed the summit of the large sand ridge to the west of the city I looked back and had my last glimpse of a place that had given me the happiest days of my life. Our organisation was a little different to our usual setup. At the head of the column there was now a guard of around one hundred Chinese cavalry. Our own Cossacks rode along each flank of the column and ourselves and the infantry rode in the centre along with the supply wagons and medical detail. As we camped that night we were called to a meeting with the column commander of Russian forces and the leaders of the civilian traders. The strategy of the march was explained to us and went as follows. The Chinese cavalry would leave us in the morning giving the impression they were returning to Ulan Bator. The mongol scouts would report this and the raiders would assume that they only had to deal with the normal escort. In fact the Chinese cavalry and its artillery had already left Ulan Bator and by morning they would have taken up positions 2Km to the rear in two groups one to our right the other to our left. A final group would be directly behind us ready to give close support. All told there were 5,500 Chinese soldiers in support of us. They would shadow us at our own pace. To cover their dust we would generate extra dust ourselves by dragging bundles of brushwood behind the column. The following day passed without incident, though our scouts reported plenty of signs that we were being spied upon from riders moving way to the front of our caravan. The second night we posted extra guards and all of us slept fully clothed with weapons close at hand in case of a surprise attack. The third day started bright and hot as we moved out of the sandhills and onto a rocky plateau. Just before midday our scouts came racing back and we were warned that there was a very large body of raiders positioning themselves on our front and flanks. The scouts estimated their strength as between 3000 and 4000 horsemen. They estimated that the raiders would attack within the hour as they closed the distance between us and would become visible to us. We proceeded as if nothing was happening but everyone was forewarned and our commander gave us an encouraging smile, telling us he doubted we would even need to fire a single shot. Time seemed to stand still and then out of the heat haze we could see large bands of raiders on each side of us. Our commander strode to his wagon threw back the covers and bent over a large box stowed in his wagon. He jumped down quickly and there was a whizzing noise as a succession of firework rocket flew up from his wagon and exploded with very loud bangs about 200 metres above us. The caravan came to a halt and all of us soldiers deployed to our action stations. The raiders did not seem to be in a hurry and moved towards us at a walking pace. The distance closed to about one kilometre and then suddenly all hell seemed to break loose there was a very loud whining whizzing noise and the sky above the raiders become dark as if a rain cloud had appeared from nowhere. Then the rain cloud fell to earth amongst them with loud explosions. This happened on both our flanks and the raiders were thrown into confusion. Two more volleys of these explosive arrows followed and then the Chinese cavalry were in amongst them. The Chinese close support group streamed past us and headed for the raiders directly in front of us. The cossacks then followed in support. The battle raged on for the next hour or so, but our commander was correct, we never had to fire a single shot. We suffered no casualties and we were told that the Chinese casualties were very low. The Chinese cavalry on our flanks had got behind the raiders and cut of their line of retreat and by late afternoon not a single raider was left alive. The Chinese took no prisoners and the raiders suffered a huge loss. The body count amounted to 3,725 raiders, and 12 Chinese cavalry men. Our two doctors tended to the wounded Chinese soldiers as they had no medical unit if their own.

The rest of the journey to Irkutsk passed without incident. And as we approached the town the Chinese cavalry peeled away from us to return to Ulan Bator. We camped to the north of the town where there was plenty of good grazing for the horses and camels. A few of us rode into the town and taking an example from the Chinese we purchased soft caps with peaks that would shield our eyes from the afternoon sun as we travelled west. The town itself was a typical garrison town and offered little of interest to us, after the beauty of Ulan Bator it seemed rather ordinary, though the market was colourful and we were able to buy some vegetables and spices there to relieve the monotony of our diet. After a 24 hour rest we travelled onwards to Omsk.

The journey to Omsk was again without incident and I was able to carry out some of my prime mission tasks. I identified two large outcrops of iron ore bearing rocks and took some samples to be analysed in Moscow. Three days before we reached Omsk I saw an unusual strata of rock in a ravine cut by one of the local rivers, Quartz stringers ran through the rock which was unusual in this part of the world, Again I took samples to be analysed in Moscow. On each occasion the mapping team obliged me by providing an accurate map reference of the locations. The journey to Omsk had been hot and dusty but we were now hardened to these conditions and had learnt to tie scarves over our mouths as we travelled to avoid getting a mouthful of dust. It had been decided that we would not enter Omsk but would head straight to the Cossack camp we had used on our outward journey. The grazing there was good and we were not yet sure that Omsk was free of the plague.

Much to our surprise the Cossack camp at Omsk was nearly deserted only 20 men remained there. We learnt that the rest of the regiment had been sent to join a large force sent from Moscow to make a punitive raid on the Turkic tribesmen who had attacked our caravan on the outward Journey. You will remember that 2 battalions of that Regiment had joined us to supplement our escort on the outward journey. They now took leave of us along with Prince Karpov and rode out to rejoin their regiment. There were adequate supplies at the Cossack camp to replenish our food stores. As we were told that Omsk was plague-free our commander and most of us officers rode into the town to pay our respects to the Russian Governor. The town was larger and certainly better planned than Irkutsk. Some attempt had been made to create an elegant town centre and the major building were built from stone not wooden planking. The population had reached 100,000 a year ago but more than a quarter had died of the plague and several areas of poor housing had been burnt down in the effort to control the pestilence. The Governor asked us to take some personal effects of his and return them to his family in Moscow, and deliver two very long reports he had written to the military high command. As the city offered us nothing we needed and to avoid any residual risk of infection we left the town at the end of our meeting with the Governor.

The final Leg of our journey to Moscow.

As we prepared to leave the Cossack camp it became apparent that the delays in leaving Ulan Bator meant that this last leg of the journey would encounter the Russian autumn and early winter. That meant freezing rain and snow. We scrounged all the spare blankets and clothing we could find. As we had adequate supplies of food, water and forage for the animals we were told that the pace would be faster as the weather was a greater threat than any band of raiders. For the first week it was certainly getting cooler but nothing that bad, but then the rains came, it poured down on us and the track became a muddy quagmire that required all our energy to force our way through it. The waggons would bog down axle deep in the mud and it would take the work of several teams of horses and dozens of men to get them free again. Thankfully this lasted only a week and then the temperature dropped and the ground froze hard. After another week passed the temperature had dropped to minus 20C and we trudged on swathed in blankets, furs and any scrap of clothing that would keep out the biting wind. After 10 more days of this the snow came and our journey became agonisingly slow as we forced our way through metre deep drifts. First the younger smaller camels began to die, then the horses and then some of the men. The journey became a grim fight for survival. For me it became a sort of dream as I stumbled onwards leading my horse and talking nonsense to myself. I lost track of time and probably became a little delirious. Then suddenly, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm I could see yellow blotches of light ahead of me. I plodded on wards and then someone took my arm and a voice said “come this way” and I was led by the arm into a pool of light. My hand was removed from my horse’s halter and I was led into a building that was warm. Of what happened next I have absolutely no recollection. I returned to consciousness tucked up in a warm bed with fresh bed linen and ravening hunger. I was aware of a nagging pain in my left hand and upon examining it I saw it was heavily bandaged. I struggled to sit up and cried out for help. An orderly came to me at once and explained that I had been unconscious for two day and the doctors had had to amputate the little finger of my left hand because of frostbite. We had arrived at the traders camp. We had made it. The journey was over.

Aftermath

Three weeks later I had regained my good health. I was allowed to leave the hospital and make my way back to Moscow. There I reported to the Military High Command. To my surprise I was received warmly and told that the following day I was to meet the Commander in Chief of the Army. I was put up in one of the best hotels at the armies cost and treated so well that I suspected it might all be a case of mistaken identity. The following morning tailors arrived and quite literally made me a new dress uniform on the spot. By midday it was finished and a major from the high command arrived and presented me with a very expensive sword, scabbard, sword belt and a pair of spurred boots, hand made to my size. When I expressed my surprise at all this he told me that nothing was to good for the hero of the caravan. At 3pm I was collected by a carriage and taken to the war ministry building once there I was escorted up many flights of stairs to the office of the Commander in Chief. I could see he was seated at a huge desk in the centre of the room, I entered his office and marched smartly to his desk bowed, saluted and presented myself. He stood and returned my salute and then came around his desk and gave me a huge hug, kissing my cheeks as he did so. He announced that the caravan commanders report had been received and passed to him along with the analysis of the rock samples I had brought from the journey. He stated that I had acted very courageously during the first attack on the caravan and that my actions had prevented the raiders from piercing the defences. Then he said that I had provided rock samples that indicated particularly rich samples of iron ore and gold, both of which were critically needed by Russia. As a result of this I was promoted to the rank of captain and in addition the Czar was coming to Moscow from St Petersburg and would arrive tonight, and tomorrow he would personally honour me at an investiture for all the heroes of the caravan. Meanwhile my parents had been invited to Moscow and even now should be arriving at my hotel. With that he bade me farewell and said we would meet again tomorrow. I took the carriage back to my hotel and discovered that my parents were in the suite next to mine. We had a happy and tearful reunion. And I spent the next few hours telling them about my journey. They were delighted with the gifts of fur and silk I had brought back for them. Suddenly with a pang of guilt I remembered the present given to me as we left the Governors reception in Ulan Bator. I excused myself a ran to my room and threw open my clothing chest. I fished the little parcel out from the bottom of the chest and unwrapped it. It was an exquisite little gold box. Lifting the lid I found inside a miniature portrait of the princess and a letter from her. She told me that no matter what her future held her heart and love would always belong to me. I swallowed back my tears and my heart felt as if it would break in two. The following day was another outstanding piece of pomp and showmanship. Both I and the Caravan commander were created as Counts of the Russian empire, awarded the Grand Order of Merit and the Heroes Cross. As well as a cash award of 200,000 roubles to each of us. All of my comrades were also awarded the Heroes Cross. The Tsar himself asked us many questions about the journey and after a state banquet we bade each other goodbye and made our way back through the snow to our respective hotels.

After all this fuss and pomp I returned to my life as a scientist and over the years earned some praise for discoveries I made in the field of Chemistry. The friendships I made on the caravan have lasted to this day and to my delight one of my friends works with me on music composition which is my passion when I am not working.

Several times I attempted to return to China but the unrest in my my own country and in China always defeated me. The Chinese revolution that overthrew the Emperor makes me fear for the life of my beloved. Now forty years later I have never married, my love for Luo Xinran lives on in my heart and my head and it would be very false of me to take some other poor woman as a second best wife. It is not a perfect life but it will do for me, for there was one perfect moment.

The End


Submitted: June 08, 2021

© Copyright 2021 JDB401. All rights reserved.

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Comments

Criss Sole

So much adventure. I was born in Saint Petersburg Russia, so i was kinda drawn to this story.
I really wish things would have worked out for him and the Chinese princess. They could have had such a romantic life.
Great story.

Sat, June 19th, 2021 8:37am

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