Friday, 27 June 2014

Across Europe and Asia, by John Milne, Esq.

In 1875, the geologist and mining engineer John Milne had to travel to Japan to take up an appointment as an academic foreign adviser at the at the Imperial College of Engineering, Tokyo. Instead of taking the obvious option of going by ship, he decided to travel overland.

The Australian newspaper article The father of seismology (Rafael Epstein, The Age, March 18, 2011) mentioned the travels of John Milne:
When Milne told his contemporaries that he planned to travel through the frozen wastelands of Siberia to reach Japan, the prospect was received with "astonishment and a supplement of ridicule . . . [they feared] gangs of exiles and packs of wolves".

The reality was even more daunting; Milne travelled by train, steamboat, convict barge, sleigh, horse and on foot. Eventually he took a camel through frozen mountain passes, with the temperature 30 degrees below zero, through Mongolia and on, finally, to Shanghai.

With his notebooks full of meteorological observations, drawings of animals and flora, and even the times when rivers froze over, he produced a brief booklet — Observations for persons intending to make the overland journey — and was made a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society for his efforts.
John Milne
Wikimedia Commons
Searching for this booklet, I found something even better: Milne's whole account of his journey, which is published in Volume 5 of Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan (the link is below).

Milne started by crossing from Hull to Gottenburg by coal steamer "amid clouds of coal dust" and then proceeded "To S. Petersburgh, across Russia and Siberia to Kiachta. Across Mongolia to Pekin. From Pekin to Tien-tain and overland to Shanghai". The trip was conducted in frequently unconfortable conditions, and hampered by Milne (then 25) knowing nothing of the main languages he'd encounter en route ("in consequence of which I suffered physically, mentally, and pecuniarily for my ignorance"). He describes the food, the accommodation, the company, the best way to conduct oneself, and much more, in an account running to some 70 pages (it was too long to read at the Asiatic Society meeting). He also managed to fit in geeky observations of temperature and pressure, compile a detailed itinerary with distances, and make geological notes published elsewhere. Notes for Persons Intending to Make the Overland Journey occupy a few pages at the end. A few snippets:
Travelling continuously day and night for three, four, five or even ten days, the whole time being jolted in a manner which it would be difficult to describe, every two hours having to look after the changing of horses and the signing of papers, is extremely trying. If two men are travelling together, these duties may be divided, each one taking alternate nights in endeavouring to sleep. For the first night, although you have managed to stretch yourself out horizontally upon your bed of straw, you will find sleep impossible, but afterwards you sink into a drowsy nodding state, which, the moment the carriage stops for the changing of horses, immediately becomes sleep. Should a gentlemen travel with a lady, the duty of turning out to wake up sleepy post masters, and of generally fighting the battles of the road, must, according to the usages of European society, devolve upon the former. For 24 hours to this wait upon a lady, is an act of gallantry which is pleasing; but after that, when both passengers have aching bones, and wish to sleep, but can find no rest; when only moans and growls are to be heard at every rut you cross; when at a post station you get out to find fresh horses and are unmercifully grumbled at for creating a disturbance in the internal arrangements of the carriage, bodily and mental aggravations will have arrived at such a pitch that I think most natures would succumb, and a gentleman when travelling with a lady, would see that there were more troubles than had been anticipated.
As the hotel accommodation in Ekaterinburg is typical of that which the traveller may expect to find throughout the better portions of Siberia, I will describe it briefly. First there is the room which may or may not be papered, generally not, a little whitewash upon the rounded logs which form the walls being usually considered sufficient in the way of decorations. The floor is carpetless. Two chairs, a table and a bedstead complete the furniture, which often seems to have withstood in a greater or a less degree the wear of many ages. Projecting from the wall or reared in a corner of the apartment there is a huge brick stove, which is supplied by fuel through a door in the outside passage. Five minutes after this has been lighted you realize its capabilities, and I can easily imagine that in the depth of winter it would be possible to dispense with bed clothes. This may perhaps be in part an explanation of the fact that at all these hotels you find your bedstead destitute of such accessories. I may also mention that towels, soap, wash-hand basins, and other small necessaries, which are found in most hotels, axe without representatives in Siberia. 
When we reached Ejasnojarsk, where there are some real hills, we were all so tired that it was unanimously agreed we should stop for a wash and a sleep. On the evening of our arrival we were very kindly invited by the military governor of the town to dine with him. He was evidently delighted to have guests visiting the oasis of civilization over which he ruled. Every thing that he could think of he did to amuse us, — he talked unceasingly, told stories, brought in his pets for us to see, amongst which, so far as I remember, there were a fox and a pony, all of which were marched round the drawing room; but it was no use, our inclinations for sleep were too great to be overcome by these exhibitions. For some time I listlessly regarded my enthusiastic host, until at last completely overcome I fell asleep.
Fishermen and Beggars were also numerous. These latter collected alms from the passing boats in an extremely novel manner. They had several long bamboos lashed together forming a pole of great length. At the end of this a small deep bag was attached. In order to lift the immense rod thus made, and present the bag to the passengers on the various levels of the passing junks, the whole was supported on the top of a post driven in the shore, and turned about upon it like a swivel. The master of this begging machine stood on the shore, and whilst beating a small drum to attract attention, worked the rod, raising lowering and swinging his bag into any position where he thought a return might be expected.
It's an epic piece of travel - not in a wildly dangerous way, but one with a lot of draggy discomfort combined with the pecularities of the era (your luggage was increased by the need to take a dress coat in aid of politeness when meeting middle-class Russians). Do read it.
  • Across Europe and Asia, by John Milne, Esq, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Volume VII, 1879, pp1-72 (Internet Archive transactionsasi23japagoog).
For more about Milne (who I first checked out because of his connections to Newport, Isle of Wight), see the previous post, Milne-Shaw.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment