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Madame de Bourboulon

Madame De Bourboulon

We must not omit from our chronicle of female travellers the name of Madame Catherine de Bourboulon. Of her biography we know no more than that, a Scotchwoman by birth, she married a French diplomatist, who, in 1860, was serving the State as French ambassador to the Court of Pekin.

In the month of August, 1860, she was temporarily residing at Shanghai. It would be interesting to know what the Chinese people thought of this handsome and self-possessed lady; unaccustomed as they were and are to visits from European women, and unfamiliar as they were and are with the idea that a person of the grand monde  in nowise compromises her dignity by travelling about as freely and walking as readily as servants and females of the lower classes. "To see ourselves as others see us" is always instructive and interesting; and a sketch of Madame de Bourboulon by the Chinese would not be less valuable than a sketch of the Chinese by Madame de Bourboulon.

Fortune had not been kind to Madame de Bourboulon in throwing her into Shanghai during the great Taïping conspiracy, and compelling her to be an eye-witness of the crimes which sullied it. Beneath her windows were carried every day the dead bodies of the poor creatures massacred by the Taïpings, and she followed with reluctant gaze these sad "waifs and strays" as the river conveyed them seawards.

Though her health was not good, she hastened, on the conclusion of peace, to follow her husband to Pekin. From Shanghai to the Gulf of Petchi-li, into which the Peiho empties its waters, the distance is two hundred leagues. Our traveller embarked on board the steam despatch-boat Fi-lung, which was escorted by a man-of-war brig. On crossing the river-bar, she saw before her the celebrated Taku forts, and higher up the river the town of Pehtang, with immense plains of sorghum, maize, and millet spreading as far as the eye could see.

On the 12th of November she arrived at Tien-tsin. The French legation was established in a rich yamoun, which, under the presiding genius of Madame de Bourboulon, soon become the highly recherché centre of European society. There, Chinese art displayed all its marvels of design and workmanship; the colours of the rainbow glittered everywhere; the walls were emblazoned with pleasant landscapes, azure seas, transparent lakes, shadowy forests, an imperial hunting party, with antelopes and roebucks flying before the loud-mouthed hounds; in a word, with all the delights of a Chinese earthly paradise. But Madame de Bourboulon did not confine herself to social pleasures; her heart and hand were ever ready for charitable labours, and the Chinese poor had ample occasion to acknowledge her beneficence. Among other works of mercy, she adopted a young orphan girl, of whom she says:—"My little companion eats well and sleeps well. She is full of mirth, and seems neither to remember nor to care for the terrible catastrophe which separated her from her parents, massacred at the capture of Pehtang. Her feet are not yet completely deformed; however, when we remove the bandages which compress them, she does not forget to replace them at night. It is not only in China that coquetry or fashion stimulates its victims to torture and disfigure God's handiwork: the unnaturally small feet of the Chinese women are at least not more injurious or unsightly than the unnaturally small waists of the ladies of Europe!"

What the Chinese think of their women may be inferred from a characteristic incident, of which Madame de Bourboulon is the narrator.

The cook of the embassy, Ky-tsin, was a man with more years than gallantry. One day he went to see his wives and children, who resided at some distance; on his return, Madame de Bourboulon put some questions to him respecting his family. "The wives," he replied, in his bad French, and with an air of sovereign contempt, "pas bon, pas bon, bambou, bambou!" The stick seems to be the only, or at least the favourite, argument of the Chinese in their dealings with the other sex; and in this contempt for women we shall probably find the cause of the moral rottenness of the Celestial Empire.


The winter of 1860-61 Madame de Bourboulon spent quietly at Tien-tsin, her health not permitting her, in such rigorous weather, to make the journey to Pekin; but on the 22nd of March the whole legation set out for the Chinese capital, Madame de Bourboulon travelling in a litter, attended by her physician. Fortunately, the change of air and scene, and the easy movement gradually restored her physical energies. From Tien-tsin to Pekin the distance is about thirty leagues. On the road lies Tchang-kia-wang, the scene of the treacherous outrage in 1858 on the French and English bearers of truce; and almost at the gates of Pekin, the great town of Tung-tcheou and the famous bridge of Palikao, where, on the 21st of September, 1860, the Anglo-French army defeated 25,000 Tartar horsemen. This bridge, a curious work of art, measures one hundred and fifty yards in length and thirty in breadth; the marble balustrades are skilfully carved, and surmounted by marble lions in the Chinese taste.

On arriving at Pekin the French embassy was installed in the Tartar quarter. Five months later the revolution broke out which placed Prince Kung in power. The prince was well-disposed towards Europeans, and under his rule Madame de Bourboulon was able to traverse Pekin without fear. We subjoin some extracts from her journals:—

"I set out on horseback this morning," she says, "accompanied by Sir Frederick Bruce and my husband, to make a tour of the Chinese town; our escort consisted only of four European horsemen and two Ting-tchaï. We arrived at a populous carrefour, which derived a peculiar character from the large numbers of country people who flock there to dispose of all kinds of provisions, but particularly, game and vegetables; heaps of cabbages and onions rise almost to the height of the doors of the houses.

"The peasants, seated on the ground, smoke their pipes in peace, while the aged mules and bare-skinned asses, which have conveyed their wares, wander about the market-place, gleaning here and there some vegetable refuse. At every step the townsfolk, with indifferent bearing, and armed with a fan to protect their wan and powdered complexion, jostle against the robust copper-coloured country people, whose feet are thrust into sandals, and their heads covered with large straw hats. Not knowing how to guide our horses through the midst of this confused mob, we gained the precincts of the police pavilion in the hope of enjoying a little more tranquillity.

"We had been there a few moments only, when my horse showed a determined unwillingness to remain. Evidently something had frightened him. I raised my head mechanically, and thought I should have fainted before the horrible spectacle which struck my eyes. Behind us, close at hand, was a row of posts to which were fixed cross-beams of wood, and in each cage were death's heads, which stared at me with fixed, wide-open eyes, their jaws dislocated with frightful grimaces, their teeth set convulsively by the agony of the last moment, and the blood rolling drop by drop from their freshly severed necks!

"In a second we had spurred our horses to the gallop to get out of sight of this hideous charnel-house, of which I long continued to think in my sleepless nights.

"Turning to the left, we entered a street which I will call, in allusion to the trade of its inhabitants, the Toymen's.... But what means this noisy music, this charivari of flutes and trumpets, drums, and stringed instruments? It is a funeral ceremony, and yonder is the door of the defunct, and in front of it the Society of Funerals (there is such an one at Pekin) has raised a triumphal arch, consisting of a wooden framework, covered with old mats and pieces of stuffs. The family has stationed a band at the door to proclaim its grief by rending the ears of the passers-by.

"We quicken our steps in order to avoid being delayed in the middle of the interminable procession. The gala-day in a Chinaman's life is the day of his death. He economizes, he deprives himself of all the comforts of life, he labours without rest or intermission, that he may have a fine funeral!

"We do not get out of this accursed street! Here another large crowd bars our passage; some proclamations and notices have just been placarded on the door of the chief of the district police; people are reading them aloud; some declaim them in a tone of bombast; while a thousand commentaries, more satirical than the text, are uttered amidst loud bursts of laughter.

"This liberty of mockery, pasquinade, and caricature at the expense of the mandarins is one of the most original sides of Chinese manners.

"A band of blind beggars, in a costume more than light, pass along, hand in hand; then an itinerant smith, a barber al fresco, and a cheap restaurateur, simultaneously ply their different trades surrounded by their customers.

"We dismounted from our horses, and by a covered passage or arcade proceeded on foot to the legation. This passage, much favoured by vendors of bric-à-brac, is simply a dark lane, 550 to 600 feet long, where two people can hardly walk abreast. There are no proper shops here, but collections of old planks, united anyhow, and supported by piles of merchandise of all kinds, vases, porcelain, bronzes, arms, old clothes, pipes; from the whole proceeds a fœtid and insupportable odour, tempered by the thick pungent smoke of lamps fed with rice-oil.

"The reader may judge with what pleasure we regained the pure air, the blue sky, and all the comfortable appliances of our quarters at Tsing-kong-fou."

Having made the journey from China to Europe five times by sea, Madame de Bourboulon and her husband resolved that their sixth should be by land, being desirous of rendering some direct service to science by penetrating into regions of which little was known. This overland route, as they foresaw, would involve them in many difficulties, fatigues, and hardships. It would impose on them a journey of six thousand miles, in the midst of half-savage populations, and over steppes and deserts virtually pathless; they would have to climb steep mountain-sides, to ford broad rivers; and, finally, to sleep under no better roof than that of a tent, and to live on milk, butter, and sea-biscuit for several months. Madame de Baluseck, wife of the Russian minister at Pekin, had already accomplished this journey. Madame de Bourboulon felt capable of an equal amount of courage, and though accustomed to live amid all the luxuries and comforts of European civilization, desired to encounter these privations, and to brave these perils.

Prince Kung, regent of the Chinese Empire, promised the travellers full security as far as the borders. He did more; for he attached to their train some mandarins of high rank to ensure the execution of his orders. A fortnight before the day fixed for departure, a caravan of camels was despatched to Kiakhta, on the Russian frontier, with wine, rice, and all kinds of provisions, intended to replace the supplies which would necessarily be exhausted during the transit of Mongolia.

A captain of engineers, M. Bouvier, superintended the construction of some vehicles of transport, light enough to be drawn by the nomad horsemen, and yet solid enough to bear the accidents of travel in the desert. Bread, rice, biscuit, coffee, tea, wine, liqueurs, all kinds of clothing, preserved meats and vegetables, were carefully packed up and stowed away in these carts, which were sent forward, three days in advance, to Kalgan, a frontier town of Mongolia. And all these preparations being completed, and every precaution taken, the 17th of May was appointed as the day of departure.

Thenceforth, and throughout the journey, Madame de Bourboulon adopted a masculine costume—that is, a vest of grey cloth, with velvet trimmings, loose pantaloons of blue stuff, spurred boots, and at need a Mongolian cloak with a double hood of furs. She mounted her favourite horse, which she had taken with her to Pekin, and it had been her companion in all her excursions in the city and the surrounding country.

At six o'clock in the morning everybody was assembled in the court of the yamoun of the French legation. Sir Frederick Bruce, the English minister; Mr. Wade, the secretary to the English legation; M. Trèves, a French naval lieutenant, and some young French interpreters were present.

Two Chinese mandarins—one with the red button; the other, his inferior in rank, with the white—gravely awaited the moment of departure to escort the travellers as far as Kalgan, and to take care that, upon requisition being made, they were provided with everything necessary to their comfort. Numerous Tching-taï, the official messengers of the legations, and other indigenous domestics, crowded the court, gravely mounted upon foundered broken-down hacks, their knees raised up to their elbows, and their hands clutching at the mane of their Rosinante, like apes astride of dogs in the arena of the circus. A couple of litters, carried by mules, were also prepared; one was intended for Madame de Bourboulon, in case of need, the other for the conveyance of five charming little Chinese dogs which she hoped to transport to Europe. At length the mandarin of the red button came to take the ambassador's orders, and gave the signal of departure.

At this moment the air resounded with noisy detonations: fusees, serpents, and petards exploded in all directions—at the gate, in the gardens, even upon the walls of the legation. Great confusion followed, as no one was prepared for this point-blank politeness, so mysteriously organized by the Chinese servants. In China nothing takes place without a display of fireworks. About an hour was spent in reorganizing the caravan. Meanwhile, Madame de Bourboulon, whose frightened horse had carried her through the town, waited in a great open space some distance off. It was the first time, she says, that she had been alone in the midst of that great town. She had succeeded in pulling up her horse near a pagoda, which she did not know, because she had never visited that quarter of Pekin; her masculine garb attracted curiosity, and she was speedily surrounded by an immense crowd. Though its demeanour towards her was peaceable and respectful, she found the time very long, and it was with intense satisfaction she rejoined the cavalcade, the members of which had begun to feel alarmed at her absence.

The whole company being once more reunited, they passed the walled enclosure of the great city, garrisoned by a body of the so-called "Imperial Tigers," and entered the northern suburb.

The great road of Mongolia is lined on both sides with pagodas, houses, and a host of small wayside public inns, painted with stripes of red, green, and blue, and surmounted by the most attractive signs. There is a constant succession of caravans of camels, directed by Mongols, Turcomans, Tibetans; of troops of mules, with clinking bells, bringing salt from Setchouan or tea from Hou-pai; and of immense herds of horned cattle, horses, and sheep, in charge of the dexterous horsemen of the Tchakar, who keep them together by the utterance of loud guttural cries, and by dealing them smart cuts with their long whips.

About one hour after noon, the caravan arrived at Sha-ho, a village situated between the two arms of a river of the same name (which means "the river of sand"). Madame de Bourboulon thus describes the hospitable reception given to the travellers:—

"We knocked at the door of a tolerably spacious house, situated near the entrance to the village: it was an elementary school; we could hear the nasal drone of the children repeating their lessons. The schoolmaster, a crabbed Chinaman, scared by my presence, placed himself on the threshold, and looked as if he would not allow me to enter. But at the explanations made in good Chinese by Mr. Wade, the surly old fellow, undergoing a sudden metamorphosis, bent his lean spine in two, and ushered me, with many forced obeisances, into his wives' room. There, before I had time to recollect myself, these ladies carried me off by force of arms, and installed me upon a kang or couch, where I had scarcely stretched my limbs before I was offered the inevitable tea. I was gradually passing into a delightful dizziness, when a disquieting thought suddenly restored all my energy: I was lying on a heap of rags and tatters of all colours, and certainly the kang possessed other inhabitants than myself. I immediately arose, in spite of the protestations of my Chinese hostesses, and took a seat in the courtyard under the galleries. When I was a little rested, I seated myself in my litter, and about half-past six in the evening we arrived at the town of Tchaing-ping-tchan."

On the following day our travellers turned aside to visit the famous sepulchre of the Mings—a vast collection of monuments, which the Chinese regard as one of the finest specimens of the art of the seventeenth century—that is, the seventeenth century of their  chronology. And, first, there are gigantic monoliths crowned with twelve stones placed perpendicularly, and surmounted by five roofs in varnished and gilded tiles; next, a monumental triumphal arch in white marble, with three immense gateways; through the central one may be seen a double row of gigantic monsters in enamelled stone, painted in dazzling colours; finally, you pass into an enclosure with a gigantic tortoise in front of it, bearing on its back a marble obelisk covered with inscriptions. At the time of Madame de Bourboulon's visit the entrance was closed, and while the Ting-tchaï went in search of the guardians, she and her companions dismounted, seated themselves on the greensward, in the shadow of some colossal larches, and enjoyed a pleasant repast, the sepulchral stones serving as tables.

"'Oh,' she exclaims, 'ye old emperors of the ancient dynasties, if any of your seers could but have told you that one day the barbarians of the remote West, whose despised name had scarcely reached your ears, would come to disturb the peace of your manes with the clinking of their glasses and the report of their champagne corks!'... But at length the keys are turned in the rusty locks, the guardian of the first enclosure offers us tea, and we distribute some money among the attendants.... In China, perhaps more even than in Europe, this is an inevitable formula: the famous principle of nothing for nothing  must have been invented in the Celestial Empire. Out of respect, or for some other reason, the guardians left us free to go and come at will, dispensing with the labour of following us. At first we traversed a spacious square court, paved with white marble, planted with yews and cypresses, cut into shapes as at Versailles, and peopled with an infinite number of statues; then we climbed a superb marble staircase of thirty steps, which led to another square court, planted in the same style, and shut in on the right and left by a thick forest of huge cedars, which conceals eight temples with circular cupolas, crowned and ornamented by the grimacing gods of the Chinese Trinity, with their six arms and six heads. Now another staircase, leading to a circular platform in white marble, in the middle of which rises the grand mausoleum. It is of marble; a great bronze door admits to the interior. We pass under a vault, the niches of which enclose the bones of the Ming emperors; a spiral staircase, with sculptured balustrades, very handsome in style, conducts to a second platform, elevated some seventy feet above the ground. The view from it is magnificent, overlooking a world of mausoleums, pagodas, temples, and kiosks, which the great trees had concealed from us.

"The mausoleum is continued into an immense cupola, and terminates in a pointed pyramid, covered with plates and mythological bas-reliefs. Finally, the pyramid is crowned by a great gilded ball."

The travellers here quitted their English horses, and mounted the frightful Chinese steeds which carry on the postal service. After a couple of wearisome days, occupied in clearing narrow defiles, torrents, and plains of blinding dust, they reached the Lazarist Mission.

On entering the town, they were surrounded by an immense multitude, all silent and polite, but not the lessfatiguing—gênant, as Madame de Bourboulon puts it. "Their eager curiosity did not fail to become very inconvenient, and we could well have dispensed with the 20,000 quidnuncs who accompanied us everywhere. We halted at last before the great gateway above which figures, though only for a few days, the cross, that noble symbol of the Latin civilization. It is the standard of humanity, of generous ideas and universal emancipation, placed throughout the extreme East under the protection of France. The English occupy themselves wholly with commerce: for them, faith and the sublime teachings of religion take but the second place."

Very few French travellers seem able to avoid an occasional outbreak of splenetic patriotism. The greatness and the generosity of France are the hobby-horse on which they ride with such a fanfare of trumpets as to provoke the ridicule of the passer-by. Madame de Bourboulon, as a woman, may be excused her little bit of sarcasm, though she must have known and ought to have remembered what has been done and endured by English missionaries in the name and for the sake of the cross of Christ.

The Lazarist priests gave our travellers a hearty welcome; and after a good night's rest, the caravan quitted Suan-hou-pu, a large town, remarkable for the number of Chinese Mussulmans who inhabit it. They reached Kalgan on the 23rd of May, and were greeted by Madame de Baluseck, who was to return to Europe in company with Madame de Bourboulon. Thus, as Sir Frederick Bruce was still with them, the representatives of the three greatest Powers in the world met together in this remote town, which, previously, was almost unknown to Europeans.

Kalgan, the frontier town of Mongolia, is not so well built as the imperial cities; it is a commercial centre, where bazaars abound, and open stalls; the foot passengers touch the walls of the houses as they file by, one after the other, and the roadway, narrow, squalid, and muddy, is thronged with chariots, camels, mules, and horses. "I have been much struck," writes Madame de Bourboulon, "with the extreme variety of costumes and types resulting from the presence of numerous foreign merchants. Here, as in all Chinese towns, the traders at every door tout for custom. Here, porters trudge by loaded with bales of tea; there, under an awning of felt, are encamped itinerant restaurateurs with their cooking-stoves; yonder, the mendicant bonzes beat the tam-tam, and second-hand dealers display their wares.

"Ragged Tartars, with their legs bare, drive onward herds of cattle, without thought of passers-by; while Tibetans display their sumptuous garb, their blue caps with red top-knots, and their loose-lowing hair. Farther off, the camel-drivers of Turkistan, turbaned, with aquiline nose and long black beard, lead along, with strange airs, their camels loaded with salt; finally, the Mongolian Lamas, in red and yellow garments, and shaven crowns, gallop past on their untrained steeds, in striking contrast to the calm bearing of a Siberian merchant, who stalks along in his thick fur-lined pelisse, great boots, and large felt hat.

"Behold me now in the street of the clothes-merchants; there are more second-hand dealers than tailors in China; one has no repugnance for another's cast-off raiment, and frequently one does not deign even to clean it. I enter a fashionable shop: the master is a natty little old man, his nose armed with formidable spectacles which do but partly conceal his dull, malignant eyes. Three young people in turn exhibit to the passer-by his different wares, extolling their quality, and making known their prices. This is the custom; and to me it seems more ingenious and better adapted to attract purchasers, than the artistically arranged shop-windows which one sees in Europe. I allowed myself to be tempted, and purchased a blue silk pelisse, lined with white wool; this wool, as soft and fine as silk, comes from the celebrated race of the Ong-ti sheep. I paid for it double its value, but the master of the establishment was so persuasive, so irresistible, that I could not refuse, and I then left immediately, for he was quite capable of making me buy up the whole of his shop. The Chinese are certainly the cleverest traders in the world, and I predict that they will prove formidable competitors to the dealers of London and Paris, if it should ever occur to them to set up their establishments in Europe.

"After dinner, M. de Baluseck took leave of his wife, and set out on his return to Pekin; Sir F. Bruce goes with us as far as Bourgaltaï, the first station in Mongolia. From our halting-place I can perceive the ramifications of the Great Wall, stretching northward of the town towards the crest of the mountains. Kaigan, which has a population of 200,000 souls, is the northernmost town of China proper."

On the 24th of May, the travellers, accompanied by Madame de Baluseck, departed from Kaigan and crossed the Great Wall. This colossal defensive work consists of double crenelated ramparts, locked together, at intervals of about 100 yards, by towers and other fortifications. The ramparts are built of brickwork and ash-tar cemented with lime; measure twenty feet in height, and twenty-five to thirty feet in thickness; but do not at all points preserve this solidity. In the province of Kansou, there is but one line of rampart. The total length of this great barrier, called Wan-ti-chang (or "myriad-mile wall") by the Chinese, is 1,250 miles. It was built about 220 b.c., as a protection against the Tartar marauders, and extends from 3° 30' E. to 15° W. of Pekin, surmounting the highest hills, descending into the deepest valleys, and bridging the most formidable rivers.

Our travelers entered Bourgaltaï in the evening, simultaneously with the caravan of camels, which had started a fortnight before, and were lodged in a squalid and filthy inn. Nothing, however, could disturb the cheerful temperament of Madame de Bourboulon, who rose superior to every inconvenience or vexation, and this bonhommie  is the chief charm of her book. Thus, speaking of the first evening in this dirty Mongolian inn, she says:—"There was nothing to be done but to be content with some cold provisions, and our camping-out beds. It was the birthday of Queen Victoria, and as our landlord was able to put his hand upon two bottles of champagne, we drank, along with Sir Frederick Bruce and Mr. Wade, her Majesty's health. Afterwards we played a rubber at whist (for we had found some cards). Surely, never before was whist played in the Mongolian deserts!"

Before accompanying our travellers into these deserts, it may be convenient that we should note the personnel  of their following, and the organization of their expedition. In addition to Monsieur and Madame de Bourboulon, the French caravan consisted of six persons:—Captain Bouvier, of the Engineers; a sergeant and a private of the same branch of the service; an artillerist; a steward (intendant ); and a young Christian, a native of Pekin, whom M. de Bourboulon was taking with him to France. Madame de Baluseck's suite consisted of a Russian physician; a French waiting maid; a Lama interpreter, named Gomboï; and a Cossack (as escort). A small carriage, well hung on two wheels, was provided for the two ladies. The other travellers journeyed on horseback or in Chinese carts. These small carts, with hoods of blue cloth, carry only one passenger; they are not hung upon springs, but are solidly constructed.


At Zayau-Tologoï, the Chinese drivers were replaced by Mongolian postillions, and the Chinese mandarins gave up the responsibility of escort to Mongolian officials.

The Mongolian mode of harnessing is very strange: a long wooden transversal bar is fastened to the end of the shafts, and on each side a horseman glides under his saddle; then they set off at full gallop. When they halt the horsemen disappear, the shafts fall abruptly to the ground; and the travellers, if they have not a good strong hold, are projected from the vehicle.

The officers of the escort go in advance to prepare tents or wigwams formed of hurdles, upon which is stretched a great awning of felt; the whole has very much the appearance of an enormous umbrella, with a hole at the top, to let out the heated air, and at need the smoke.

As the travellers carried with them a large stock of provisions, and fresh meat could generally be obtained from the nomad shepherds, their table was well served; but owing to the absolute dearth of any other kind of fuel, they were compelled to kindle their fires with argols, or dried cow-dung.

In due time they entered upon the great desert of Gobi, where the grassy plain is covered by a countless multitude of mole-hills, which render locomotion very difficult. This apparently boundless desert, notwithstanding its lack of trees and shrubs and flowers, and its monotonous uniformity, is not without a certain charm, as many travellers have acknowledged. Madame de Bourboulon, writing of it, says:—

"I grew accustomed to the desert; it is only for a few days that I have had experience of tent-life, and yet it seems to me as if I had always lived so. The desert is like the ocean: the human eye plunges into the infinite, and everything speaks of God. The Mongolian nomad loves his horse as the sailor loves his ship. It is useless to ask him to be bound by the sedentary habits of the Chinese, to build fixed habitations, and cultivate the soil. This free child of Nature will let you treat him as a rude barbarian, but in himself he despises civilized man, who creeps and crawls like a worm about the small corner of land which he calls his property. The immense plain belongs to him, and his herds, which follow his erratic courses, supply him with food and clothing. What wants he more, so long as the earth does not fail him?"

There is another light in which this vast desert may be looked at. Unquestionably, its influence on the destinies of the human race has been injurious; it has checked the progress of the Semitic civilization. The primitive peoples of India and Tibet were civilized at an early period of the world's history; but the immense wilderness put an impassable barrier between them and the barbarous tribes of Northern Asia. More than the Himalaya, more than the snow-capped peaks of Sirinagur and Gorkha, these boundless wastes, alternately withered by a tropical summer, and blighted by a rigorous winter, have prevented for ages all intercommunication, all fusion between the inhabitants of Northern and those of Southern Asia; and it is thus that India and Tibet have remained the only regions of this part of the world which have enjoyed the benefits of civilization, of the refinement of manners, and of the genius of the arts.

The barbarians who, in the last agonies of the Roman Empire, invaded and devastated Europe, issued from the steppes and table-lands of Mongolia. As Humboldt says—"If intellectual culture has directed its course from the East to the West, like the vivifying light of the sun, barbarism at a later period followed the same route, when it threatened to plunge Europe again into darkness. A tawny race of shepherds of Thon-Klüu—that is to say, of Turkish origin, the Hioungum—inhabited, living under sheepskin tents, the elevated table-land of Gobi. Long formidable to the Chinese power, a portion of the Hioungum were driven south into Central Asia. The impulse thus given, uninterruptedly propagated itself to the primitive country of the Fins, on the banks of the Ural, whence irrupted a torrent of Huns, Avars, Chasars, and divers mixtures of Asiatic races. The armies of the Huns first appeared on the banks of the Volga, then in Pannonia, finally on the borders of the Marne and the Po, ravaging the beautiful plains where, from the time of Antwor, the genius of man had accumulated monuments upon monuments. Thus blew from the Mongolian desert a pestilential wind which, even as far as the Cisalpine plains, blighted the delicate flower of art, the object of cares so constant and so tender."[18]

The temperature is extremely variable in these steppes, so that Madame de Bourboulon records having experienced in the morning a frost of one degree below zero, and some hours afterwards a heat of thirty degrees above zero (Centigrade). These changes are most numerous and most violent in the spring.

The difficulty of travel is increased by the peculiar rapid trot of the Mongol horses and the formidable unevenness of the ground. The jolting is almost intolerable. However carefully the traveller's wares may have been packed, they are infallibly damaged; and Madame de Bourboulon says that they strewed the desert with the wreck of their wardrobe and their linen. Her husband laughingly averred that the very money in the iron-bound chests was broken by the violent friction, and his veracity, at first impugned, was confirmed by the exhibition of a handful of silver filings; a pile of piastres was found pared and ground down as if by a file, and had the journey been much prolonged, "all would have been reduced to dust."

As the travellers advanced, they observed the increasing scarcity of vegetation; here and there might be seen a few tufts of saxifrage lifting up amidst the stones their rose-tinted posies—a rank, thorny, and creeping herbage—some attenuated heaths, and in the crevices and hollows of the rocks, a little couch grass. They had taken leave of the irises, white, purple, and yellow, and the scarlet anemones, which at first had brightened the way, and filled the plains with their delicious balmy odour.

Madame de Bourboulon affords us a glimpse, and an interesting one, of the manners of the nomad tribes:—"Throughout the day a tropical heat had prevailed, and in the evening, on arriving at Haliptchi, where they were to pass the night, the postillions eagerly moved down upon the vessels of water and camel's milk which the women and children had made ready for them. A violent altercation ensued, because one of the Hagars of the desert had allowed a stranger to drink before her husband had been supplied. The latter emptied out the contents of the vessel and threw some at the head of his immodest wife, amidst the shouts and laughter of the shepherds." This scene reminded Madame de Bourboulon of the Bible and the age of the patriarchs.

Quitting the desert of the Gobi, our travellers entered the country of the Khalkhas, a region of great forests, pasturages, and crystal rivers; but even this earthly paradise of bloom, verdure, and freshness was not without its dangers. We take an extract, in illustration of them, from Madame de Bourboulon's journal:—

"I rode on horseback this morning," she says, "enticed by the aspect of the beautiful green prairies of Taïrene. My horse bounded over their surface, and giving him the reins I allowed myself to traverse the plain in a furious gallop, lulled by the dull sound of his hoofs, which a thick carpet of grasses deadened, paying no heed to anything around me, and lost in a profound reverie. Suddenly I heard inarticulate cries behind me, and as I turned to ascertain their cause, I felt myself pulled by the sleeve of my vest; it was a Mongolian of the escort, who had been sent in pursuit of me. He lowered first one hand and then another, imitating with his fingers the gallop of a runaway horse; at length, perceiving that I did not understand, he pointed fixedly to the soil. My presence of mind returned; I had an intuition of the danger which I had escaped, and I discovered that the animation of our horses was not due to the charm of green pasture, but to fear, the fear of being swallowed up alive. The ground disappeared under their feet, and if they remained still they would sink into the treacherous bogs which do not restore their victims. I tremble still when I think of the peril I have escaped; my horse, better served by its instinct than I by my intelligence, had dashed onwards, while I perceived nothing: a few paces more and I was lost!

"White vapours, rising from the earth, gave our postillions a fantastic appearance; one might have mistaken them for black shadows of gigantic proportions, mounted upon transparent and microscopic horses. Madame de Baluseck and I were amusing ourselves with this grotesque mirage, when our attention was attracted by a still more curious phenomenon: the sun, as it rose, dissipating the morning mists, revealed to us Captain Bouvier, who, hitherto hidden in the obscurity, was galloping about a hundred yards in advance of us; he had become trebled—that is, on each side of him a double had taken its place, imitating faithfully his movements and gestures. I do not remember ever before to have seen such a phenomenon, and I leave it to those who are more learned than I am to decide what law of optics disclosed it to our astonished gaze."

We must pass more rapidly than did our travellers through the land of the Khalkhas, a race who nominally acknowledge the authority of the son of Herica, the great Mandchoo, the descendant of Genghiz-khan, who governs the empire of the Centre, but pay him neither tax nor tribute, and are, in reality, governed and administered by the Guison-Tamba, one of the divine incarnations of Buddha in the body of an eternal child who comes from the holy court of Tibet.

At Guibanoff, on the frontiers of the two empires, Russia and China, our travellers found provided for them, by the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, new means of transport. He had sent them also an escort, and his own aide-de-camp, M. d'Ozeroff, who was to conduct them to Irkutsk. The carriages supplied were tarantas, or large post-chaises, drawn by six horses, and telagas, or four-wheeled waggons. They speedily made their way to Kiakhta, where they met with a most hospitable reception, and were splendidly fêted. Dinner, concert, ball were given in their honour; "nothing was wanting, not even the polka." The large number of political exiles always residing here has introduced into the midst of the Siberian deserts the urbanity of the best society; nearly all the ladies speak French.

According to Madame de Bourboulon, Siberia is more civilized than old Russia; so true is it that it is easier to overlay a new country with civilization than to rejuvenate an old one.

On reaching the bank of Lake Baikal, our travellers were greatly disappointed to find that the steamers which navigate the lake had sustained severe injuries, and were undergoing repair. After some hesitation, they decided upon embarking in the sailing-vessels, heavy, lumbering, and broad-beamed boats, intended only for the conveyance of merchandise, and terribly unclean. The tarantas were hauled up on their decks, and after a night of peril, when a sudden hurricane put to the test their solidity and staying qualities, they effected the transit of the lake in safety. The "Holy Sea," as the natives call it, is the third largest lake in Asia—about 400 miles in length, and varying in breadth from nineteen miles to seventy. Though fed by numerous streams it has only one outlet, the Angara, a tributary of the Yenisei. Lying deep among the Baikal mountains, an offshoot of the Altai, it presents some vividly coloured and very striking scenery. Its fisheries are valuable. In the great chain of communication between Russia and China it holds an important place, and of late years its navigation has been conducted by steamboats. An interesting account of it will be found in Mr. T. W. Atkinson's "Oriental and Western Siberia."

Irkutsk was very pleasant to our travellers after their long experience of the desert. Once more they found themselves within the generous influences of civilization. Though possessing not more than 23,000 inhabitants, it is a busy and a lively town; and here, as at Kiakhta, the number of exiles gives a certain tone and elevation to the social circle. Here Madame de Baluseck parted company. M. and Madame de Bourboulon, resuming their journey, pressed forward with such alacrity that, in the space of ten hours, they sometimes accomplished 127 versts, though this rate of speed must necessarily have told heavily on the strength of Madame de Bourboulon. The fatigue she endured brought on the sleep of exhaustion, which almost resembles catalepsy. "We arrived," she writes, "at eight in the morning on the banks of the Tenisci; immediately the horses were taken out and forced into the ferry-boat, in spite of their desperate resistance—I did not stir. My carriage was lifted up and hauled on board by dint of sheer physical strength, fifty men being required for the work, and singing their loudest to inspirit their efforts—I heard nothing. On the boat the ropes rattled through the pulleys and the iron chains of the capstans, while the master directed the movements of his crew by sharp blasts on his whistle—I continued to sleep; in fine, by an ordinary effect of the profoundest sleep, I awakened only when silence succeeded to this uproar."

Carlyle has a remark to the effect that from the way in which a man, of some wide thing that he has witnessed, will construct a narrative, what kind of picture and delineation he will give of it, is the best measure we can get of the man's intellect.[19] Certainly from a record of travel one can form a tolerably correct estimate of the character, disposition, and faculties of the traveller. On every page of her book, for example, Madame de Bourboulon reveals herself as a woman of some culture, of a cheerful temper, a lively apprehension, and refined mind. Her keen remarks indicate that she has been accustomed to good society. Speaking of the daughter of the Governor of Krasuvïarsk, she observes:—"She would be charming, if she did not wear a hat with feathers and white aigrettes, so empanaché as to have a very curious effect on her blonde and roguish (espiègle ) head." She adds, "Wherever I have travelled I have observed that the so-called Parisian modes, the most eccentric things and in the worst possible taste, were assumed by ladies of the most remote countries, where they arrive completely made up, though it is not possible for their makers to ascertain if they will be acceptable to the public. Hence the heterogeneous toilets of strangers who land in Paris, persuaded that they are dressed in the latest fashion."

At Atchinsk, which separates East from West Siberia, the travellers were received with graceful hospitality, but made no lengthened stay. Onward they sped, over the perpetual plains, intersected by forests of firs and countless water-courses. At Tomsk their reception was not less cordial than it had been at Irkutsk. Next they plunged into the immense marshes of Baraba; into a dreary succession of lakes, and pools, and swamps, blooming with a luxurious vegetation and a marvellous profusion of wild flowers, each more beautiful than the other, but swarming, unhappily, with a plague of insects eager to drink the blood of man or beast. Madame de Bourboulon had a cruel proof of their activity, though she had fortified her face with a mask of horsehair, and thrust her hands into the thickest gloves. "I was seated in a corner," she says, "wrapped up in my coverings; I lift the window-sash of one of the doors; the air is close and warm, the night dark; black clouds, charged with electricity, roll above me, and the wind brings to me the marsh-odours acrid and yet flat.... Gradually I fall asleep; I have kept on my mask, but the window-pane remains open.... A keen sensation of cold and of intolerable itchings in the hands and face awakens me; day has dawned, and the marshes lie before me in all their splendid colouring, but I have paid dearly for my imprudence; every part of my face which my mask touched in the position in which I fell asleep has been stung a thousand times through the meshes of hair by thousands of probosces and suckers athirst for myblood—forehead and chest and chin are grotesquely swollen. I do not know myself. My wrist, exposed between the glove and the edge of the sleeve, is ornamented with a regular swelling like a bracelet all round the arm; in a word, wherever the enemy has been able to penetrate, he has wrought indescribable ravage....

"At the next posting-house, I have the satisfaction of seeing that my travelling-companions have not escaped better than myself, and, thanks to the vinegar and water bandages we are forced to apply, we resemble, as we sit at the breakfast table, an ambulatory hospital!"

The Baraba marshes measure 250 miles in breadth, and in length extend over eight degrees of latitude (from the 52nd to the 60th); a road has been carried across them, consisting of trunks of fir trees fastened together and covered with clay, but it is not very substantial.

Abandoning the steppes and forests of Western Siberia, our travellers crossed the great Ural range of mountains, made their way to Perm, and thence to the Volga. Having disposed of all their vehicles, they transformed themselves into European tourists, with no other incumbrances than boxes and portmanteaus. They traversed Rayan, and in due time arrived at Nijni-Novgorod, just at the season of its famous fair, which in importance equals that of Leipzig, and in variety of interest surpasses it. To the observer it offers a wonderful collection of different types of humanity. There you may see assembled all the strange races of the East, elbowing Russians, and Jews, and Cossacks, and the traders of almost every European nation. Among the shows and spectacles, Madame de Bourboulon was most struck by a performance of Shakespeare's "Othello," in which the hero was played by a black actor from the West Indies (Ira Aldridge?), who spoke in English, while all the other characters delivered their speeches in Russian. The result was a curious cacophony. She thought the Othello good, nay, very good, for, she observes, "On returning from China one is not very hard to please."

From Nijni-Novgorod our travellers proceeded to Moscow by rail, and thence to St. Petersburg, returning to Paris through Prussia and Belgium.

In four months they had accomplished a journey of very great length, having traversed from Shanghai to Paris, some 8,000 miles, without accident. We regret to add that Madame de Bourboulon did not long survive her return home; she died at the château of Claireau, in Loiret, on the 11th of November, 1865, at the early age of 37.


[18]Humboldt: "Ansichten der Natur," i. 8.

[19]Thomas Carlyle: "Lectures on Heroes," Lect. iii.