Harrison moves closer to Russia

Marguerite made the dubious assertion that her reason for traveling to Urga was to investigate Bolshevik claims that they were not interfering in Mongolia, despite its strategic importance in the region.

She journeyed to the Chinese city of Kalgan, where she found few foreigners aside from the British and American consuls and representatives of the Standard Oil Company. But, as she had hoped, she found an English fur trader willing to drive her north to Urga.

It took three rickshaws to carry Marguerite and her luggage to the Kalgan gate of the city’s wall, where she was met by the Englishman, his Russian chauffer, and another passenger– a Methodist missionary.

Traveling through the vast Gobi Desert, the group stopped at an inn one guest room. The Englishman slept in the car; the chauffer, the missionary, and Marguerite were assigned to the one room in the inn. As Marguerite slipped off her shoes and into a dark silk kimono, the missionary looked aghast. He grabbed his bedroll and started to leave. “I think I’ll go outside,” he said. “I’ve never slept before with a lady.”

 Marguerite persuaded him to come back, arguing that he would freeze outside and that sleeping in the same room with a woman was “not such a terrible experience.”

Two days later, the group reached Urga, a city which both fascinated and repelled her. Marguerite, who was so fastidious about hygiene that she carried a rubber bath tub with her, was shocked at the dirtiness. She said the Mongolians never bathed, and they were covered with parasites, which they refused to kill because of the Buddhist belief that all life was sacred. They changed their undergarments only once a year and never their outer clothes until they fell to pieces. The long sleeves of their rich Chinese brocades were caked in grease and dirt. When they needed to relieve themselves, they stopped where they were. “Walking through the streets you are constantly obliged to circumnavigate a Mongol lady or gentleman squatting peacefully with the wide folds of his or her garment tucked up under their crooked elbows,” she recalled.

The people fascinated her, but Marguerite’s objective was to understand the political and economic currents moving through the country. Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, and Europeans mixed in Urga, but the Russians vastly outnumbered the other foreigners. She learned that most Mongolians were not even aware of the Bolshevik Revolution, but they generally had high regard for the Russians. And the Soviets had many reasons to cultivate relations with the Mongols. The country not only offered untold natural resources, especially gold and oil, but also provided an important strategic position in the event of conflict with China

Her American hosts in Urga urged her to reconsider her plan to go to Chita. The political situation in the Far Eastern Republic was in a state of flux, and travel was not safe. Moreover, the rivers that she would need to cross had not yet frozen.

But Marguerite would not be dissuaded. Soviet officials in Urga gave her a visa to Chita, and the Russian consul who lived near the Far Eastern Republic border town Kyakhta invited her to be his guest. With such assurances, Marguerite believed she would have no trouble aside from the hardships of traveling in a wild territory with winter approaching.

Map of Harrison's Asian travels
Marguerite Harrison’s Asian travels, 1922.

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