Members of the expedition encamped in the valley of the Shirikte River, on the eastern slope of the Great Khingan Mountains. Left to right: Mantusan,the author and Gelminto.


by Anatole S. Loukashkin

IN 1935 Anatole S. Loukashkin, then Curator of Harbin Museum of Natural History at the Manchuria Research Institute, directed a collecting expedition to the Great Khingan Mountains, with Orochon tribesmen as guides and hunters. His story of this expedition gives many glimpses into the lives of these people. Since 1947 Mr. Loukashkin has been a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences, and many of his Manchurian bird and mammal specimens are now in the Academy collections.

LATE in the autumn of 1935, the Manchuria Research Institute of Harbin requested me to make a trip to the Great Khingan Mountains in order to fill a gap in its mammalian collection. Especially desired was a specimen of the Ussurian moose, which is almost as rare in the museums as the okapi of the Congo. This moose is a cousin of our American giant and is known zoologically as Alces americanus bedfordiae. It is much smaller than the American moose, but perhaps the most remarkable difference lies in the antlers which are without the well known palms of the American species, but resemble the wapiti antlers in shape. There are only two localities in Asia where this particular moose is found: Sikhote Alin in the USSR's Ussuriland, and the larch taiga of the Great Khingan Mountains in Northern Manchuria.

Besides this primary commission, I was instructed to collect any animals or birds in any way associated with this moose in its habitat.

It took a week or so to collect and pack the necessary supplies and equipment, including firearms, a photographic outfit, and a set of steel traps. Michael Volkov, taxidermist and my field assistant, joined me on this trip. On a sunny afternoon in the second half of October we boarded the Trans-Siberian Express, and late in the morning of the next day arrived at Hailar.

The next morning we were en route to the upper regions of the Imengol or Imen River on the western slope of the southern section of the Khingan Mountains. The officials of the Haimenkunssu Lumber Company kindly provided transportation in one of its trucks which had recently arrived at the Hailar Hospital with a sick employee from the forest branch office. After two days of rough travel we were at the company's forest office on the Yador River.

Upon learning the purpose of my visit, the manager, Mr. Stephen M. Chapalov, suggested that we hire one or more of the Orochons as guides and hunters for the expedition, and he recommended one by the name of Gelminto (accent on the last syllable ), who was well known to the company as loyal and dependable. I agreed to this idea, and he sent a messenger for Gelminto and some of his kinsmen. In the meantime, Mr. Chapalov invited me to join him on an inspection tour the next morning. I readily accepted this invitation, as I wanted to get accustomed to riding horseback on a Cossack saddle and to familiarize myself with the local flora and fauna.

Upon my return to the head office after a three-day, 100-mile tour of the camps, I met Gelminto, the Orochon. Like most of his tribe, he was rather short, had bowlegs, and his hands were small.

The three Orochon tribesmen-Gelminto, Mantusan, and Hovan-who accompanied the author, and whose excellent marksmanship accounted for many specimens.

His face was flat and grayish, with prominent cheekbones and narrow, dark-brown eyes. A long, straight, almost Caucasian nose was in sharp contrast to the rest of his Mongoloid features. He was dressed in a home-made chamois jacket and breeches with moccasin-like short boots and a Mongolian felt hat. His wife, who accompanied him, was dressed like her husband. They were on horseback, mounted on hard, narrow saddles of the Mongolian type, with all their belongings packed in rawhide bags. An old, single-shot Berdana rifle with a forked prop resting on Gelminto's shoulder completed the picture.

Gelminto spoke Chinese fairly well and knew a little Russian. With the use of these two languages we managed to understand each other without much difficulty, and our agreement as to the purpose of employment and wages was made in a few minutes. Some of his kinsmen were engaged to join our expedition later. We packed our supplies and after a two-day march reached

On the way to the Yeimanachi River by two-wheeled cart.

our base camp, about thirty miles north of the Yador office on the Yeimanachi River, which at this point was hardly a river but rather a creek, five to seven yards wide, with crystal-clear water about one foot deep. Behind the cabins was a large barn which afforded a substantial windbreak against the north winds which blow in the winter, and also served as a stable for our horses. Large piles of dried birch firewood and two stacks of well-preserved hay stood within 100 yards of the cabins.

The Yeimanachi valley is surrounded by a chain of hills covered with Dahurian larch forests. Black and white birches fringed the taiga and sometimes formed pure stands as isolated groves on the meadow floor of the valley.

Along the banks of the river itself, narrow strips of tall poplars intermixed with willows, Siberian wild apple, Dahurian roses and some other shrubs presented another woody plant association. The larch taiga is passable in any direction, since the trees grow quite far apart. Sparse undergrowth, consisting of Dahurian rhododendrons four or five feet high, and small windfalls scattered here and there are not enough to make travel difficult.. We seldom had to dismount while traversing the forest; it was only necessary in the narrow canyons or in burned-over woodlands.

Next morning the population of our base doubled with the arrival of Gelminto's kinsmen, consisting of Mantusan, his wife and little boy, Sinutzan, Hovan, and Durbo. All these people belonged to the Kukureh Clan, of which Durbo was the Shaman, a sickly looking, feeble, and crippled old man.

As I had promised, I handed over to Gelminto two modern rifles with ammunition, and the ammunition for their Berdana rifles for using during the expedition. The Orochons were happy indeed, and broad smiles appeared on their faces as they handled the new guns. They were to hunt big game, especially moose, of which the skins and skulls would go to me and the meat would be their reward. For all fur-bearing animals collected by the Orochons I was to pay prices in cash equal to those paid by the purchasing agent of the Haimenkunssu. In addition, I provided gunpowder, lead, caps, flour, salt, oil, tea, millet, tobacco, tobacco, and more tobacco, and matches for the entire group.

Early in the morning of the day after the arrival of Mantusan and his group, Gelminto left camp with two men to reconnoiter the upper Salbar River. He was back at two o'clock in the afternoon with a large chunk of meat tied to his saddle, while two large stomachs, turned inside out and filled with blood, and several bundles of intestines, were carried by the ponies of Sinutzan and Mantusan. The inhabitants of the Orochons' cabin turned out to greet the hunters and help them unload. Gelminto reported that he and his party had discovered a large cow moose with a yearling calf foraging in a thicket of low mountain willow scrub. The stalk was made with no great difficulty, and the cow killed instantly. The calf was seriously wounded by Mantusan and started away, but was quickly dropped by Gelminto with a shot through the heart. That evening we were all very happy because the moose was the primary object of our collecting trip, and specimens had been so quickly secured. The Orochon women immediately began the preparation of blood and millet stuffed sausages. Prior to stuffing, the intestines were thoroughly washed in both cold and hot water. No salt was added in making the sausages. The warm blood was poured into the cleaned intestines and wisps of steam rose in the cool evening air. Part of the sausages and cleaned stomachs were left hanging outside the cabin under the eaves. Gelminto brought in about half of the meat from the calf for our supper, the other half having been roasted and eaten by the men while the women were preparing the sausages.

The Orochon men continued eating until late at night, and with stomachs filled to utmost capacity fell asleep right where they had been seated around their stove. The women ate their meal after the men had finished and then regaled themselves by smoking pipes.

The next morning, right after breakfast, I rode to the scene of the killing, taking with me Volkov and three Orochons. Gelminto led us in single file a short cut across the round-topped hills. The larch forest had been partially cleared during the last year's cutting, and we did not encounter any serious obstacles. Here and there we flushed flocks of hazel-hens and occasionally squirrels, and I succeeded in bagging several hens and a pair of squirrels. As we approached the head of the valley where the carcasses had been left, large snowflakes began falling-the first of the season. It was the first day of November, the beginning of the Khingan snowy and windy winter.

The unskinned carcasses of the animals were still warm. In open cuts near the ventral of each moose, three sticks had been placed for ventilation and for cooling the flesh. The Orochons had hung various pieces of garments on branches nearby and put empty cartridges on the carcasses to scare away wolves and other carnivorous animals.

The cow was 2.2 meters long, and 360 to 380 pounds in weight, and the weight of the calf was about 280 pounds. After I had taken all necessary measurements, the Orochons proceeded to skin the carcasses and cut them up into portions convenient for transportation. The ground around the dead animals was wet with blood, and part of the intestines remained uneaten by the dogs. I set two wolf traps before we left. our ponies, heavily laden with meat, skins, and skulls, were each carrying more than 120 pounds. Sinutzan walked at the head of our train, the horses being without riders, and about sunset we reached our base camp. By that time the mountains surrounding the valley were covered with snow, and the snowfall was rapidly becoming heavier.

The snowfall continued all night, but stopped just before daybreak, leaving the ground covered with a white carpet six inches deep. The temperature was about 10 degrees below zero Centigrade. Gelminto, who did not like to miss an opportunity to hunt right after the first snow, suggested a trip to the upper reaches of the Shirikte River on the eastern slope of the ridge where he expected to find more game. I agreed, and about 10 o'clock we left camp. Gelminto and Mantusan led the way, while Sinutzan and I followed with an extra pack horse loaded with my tent and camping equipment. Gelminto's dog, "Ulare" (Red), accompanied us, but the other dogs did not care for hunting and stayed at the camp. Their bellies were still swollen after the feast of the day before.

Two hours of gradual ascent brought us to the summit of the Khingan. Below us lay a beautiful, deep, canyon-like valley, through which wound, like a silver thread, the sparkling Shirikte River. There was no snow in this valley, nor on the mountains surrounding it. The descent was abrupt, and we had to dismount and move slowly and the horses at times slid downward, skidding on their haunches.

Shortly before reaching the summit we had come across the fresh track of two elk, a cow and a bull, and Gelminto had left us to track this game. The descent into the valley took a little over an hour and about three o'clock we arrived at the spot which had been selected by Gelminto for our camp and where he had arrived a few minutes before us. He had abandoned the elk tracks since they had turned in a direction leading away from our camp.

The horses were tied to nearby trees and we all started clearing the ground at the foot of a small hill close to the river. Sinutzan collected fire wood and chopped enough to last the entire night, while I was busy setting up my tent and preparing my sleeping outfit. Gelminto and Mantusan cut a quantity of tall dead grass which made a soft bed right on the frozen ground. It was almost dark when we finished pitching camp, and the bright flame of the campfire illuminated the bivouac and the tall larches nearby. The horses, now thoroughly cooled off, were unsaddled and given their freedom, and Gelminto, after washing his hands in the river, proceeded with his duties as cook. In the meantime, Sinutzan was sharpening the knives and axes and Mantusan was melting lead in the campfire to make the spherical bullets for Sinutzan's Berdana rifle.

Gelminto sprinkled a handful of flour over the bare dirty surface of the raw skin of a young wild pig which he had been using as a lining under his hard wooden saddle. He rubbed in flour to absorb the dirt and horse sweat, and then shook it several times. Another handful of flour was sprinkled on the surface and the preparation of Gelminto's bakery was accomplished. He mixed the flour with water and a little salt and, with the wooden handle of his lash, rolled the dough into large, flat pancakes. He then poured a little soybean oil into an iron kettle which had already been heated, and hung it over the fire. In a few minutes three pancakes were baked. Tea was ready by this time, and my companions began to eat their supper. Before taking the first bite, however, each of them murmured a prayer and threw away a small piece of the pancake as an offering to the "Burkhan", the spirit of the valley in which we were camped. They repeated a similar offering before drinking tea, dipping the thumb of the right hand into the cup and shaking off a drop of tea with a flick of the middle finger. After adding three large logs to the campfire, the Orochons, none of whom possessed a blanket or sleeping bag, lay down to sleep under the stars on their improvised bedding. They took off their chamois overcoats and used them as blankets, their backs being turned toward the campfire. I retired to my small cone-shaped tent and soon fell asleep.

About midnight I was awakened by drops of water falling on my face and, looking out of the tent, I faced a heavy snowfall which was fast extinguishing the fire. The Orochons, Iying close to each other, were sleeping peacefully. I renewed the fire and retreated to my tent. About three a.m. the snowfall turned into a stormy blizzard which continued for 12 hours, covering the ground with a foot of fresh snow. By nine o'clock hunger drew me out of the tent, and I found the storm had moderated, but the falling snow was still so thick that I could not see the larches within 15 yards of the camp. The fire was out, and in the place where the Orochons had slept I saw only a large pile of white snow. I could see no movement and began to feel uneasy, thinking that my poor companions had been frozen to death. Just as I got the fire started, however, the snow piles came to life and my friends made their appearance, shaking the snow from their bodies, yawning and lazily stretching themselves. A cloud of steam hung around them; it had been warm under the snow blanket. We soon had the campfire going and breakfast ready, and a new stock of firewood brought in and piled up near my tent. The Orochons collected from their saddlebags everything that could be stretched to a foot or more, cut some wood bark, and improvised a sort of three-sided hut. I lent them my extra blanket to make a top for this structure. We spent the day until three p.m. in our shelters, smoking our pipes and now and then taking short naps. The day had ended when the snowfall suddenly stopped. Everything around us was pure white with fresh, clean snow, and we enjoyed a grand view of the country under its white mantle. It was so still as to be almost unbearable. The silence was broken only by the cracking of frozen trees and the fall of lumps of snow from the crowns of the larches. I picked up my shotgun and started for the nearest birch grove in the hope of finding some feathered game, and in a short time located a flock of black-cocks, four of which I bagged for our supper.

We spent three more days in the valley of the Shirikte ( "Thread" in the Orochon dialect ) and had considerable success. My companions shot an old cow moose and her six-months-old calf, a partial albino male, while I bagged a wild boar of about 240 pounds weight, an excellent specimen, being an adult male, but minus his tail, which he had lost, probably in fights. Both his ears were torn in half and partially chewed off, another proof of his fighting experience in the past. A good series of small rodents and resident birds, together with a dozen squirrels, were added to our collection of specimens. All the big animals were skinned and the skulls cleaned. The carcasses of the moose were left where they lay buried in the snow, while the boar was cut up and large pieces of meat brought into camp. We decided to leave all the boar meat in the Shirikte Valley, but took with us a hind leg of the moose calf, and also, of course, all intestines, stomachs, lungs, hearts, livers, and blood. We planned to return for the rest of the meat two days later and bring it back to the base camp in two round trips.

Near camp there was a larch tree leaning at an angle of 45 degrees, with its top about 20 feet above the ground. The Orochons made a platform on the top of this tree, on which they placed all the boar meat, covering it with dead grass and twigs. To protect the meat from predators I set a steel wolf trap on the trunk of the tree, about halfway up, and chained it to a stout branch in such a way that a trapped animal would hang without touching the ground. These preparations over and skins and skulls loaded, we set out on the trip back to the base camp.

Instead of the two-day rest we had planned at the base camp, we were forced to remain there an entire week, during which time we had several snowfalls and the temperature dropped to between 20 and 25 degrees Centigrade below zero. Despite our care, our horses, who had suffered from lack of pasturage during the hunting trip, gained strength very slowly. The snow covering of more than 12 inches made hunting on foot difficult in the vicinity. When our ponies had sufficiently recovered, we set out for the Shirikte Valley in two parties of three men each. Gelminto and Sinutsan went with me, and the other party was led by Mantusan. As we traveled through the woods we observed many tracks in the snow made by elk either singly or in herds, moose, roe-deer, and other denizens of the Khingan taiga. We jumped a small herd, evidently a family of elk, and also saw a pack of timber wolves. As we descended the steep canyon wall of the Shirikte Valley, we flushed a pair of capercaillies, the largest representative of the chicken-like birds of the Northern Hemisphere. They are known only in the most secluded parts of the Khingan area, which appears to be the southernmost boundary of this bird's distribution in eastern Asia.

On reaching our former campsite we found the steel trap, which I had placed on the leaning tree, hanging down with its victim between its closed jaws-a raven! The platform in the treetop was in the utmost disorder, and all the precious boar meat was gone to the last bit. Sinutsan, cursing and spitting with disgust, shouted that a wolverine had been the cause of the havoc. Both Gelminto and Sinutsan said that, as they had learned from sad experience in the past, the ravens must have spied out our camp during our stay and, after our departure, detecting the meat hidden on the platform, had by their croaking high in the air notified the other predators of the valley to gather for a free and abundant feast. One raven had undoubtedly been caught in the trap while trying to get at the meat which had been covered with twigs and grass, and the other ravens, perched on nearby trees, continued their croaking, which could be heard clearly for two or three miles in the clear, cold air. The wolverine, responding to the call, easily uncovered the meat and removed it, piece by piece, to his own hiding place. Even the trapped raven had been stripped of meat by the robber. The moose carcasses were also detected, but only a little damage was done to one of the legs which stuck out of the snow.

We hunted and trapped in this area for several more days and then in the middle of November Gelminto, Hovan, Sinutsan, and I set out for the upper reaches of the Salbar River on a special mission-to secure wolverines by means of meat baits poisoned with strychnine. Wolverine tracks had been seen a few days previously at the place where the first two moose were shot, and two of my steel traps were found sprung and the baits stolen. Furthermore, the Manchurian Research Institute did not have a single specimen of the wolverine in its collections. So, if we succeeded in outsmarting this devil of the taiga we would also be proud of having added a rare specimen in our collection. I placed several chunks of poisoned frozen meat on every game trail leading down to the canyon, besides three baits left on the spot where my traps had been previously set. We then rode three miles down the valley and pitched camp in a poplar and willow grove on the banks of the Salbar, where we spent two days without getting anything of great value or interest.

On the third day we started trekking up the valley. At its head we made a detour to pick up the poisoned baits, and Sinutsan dismounted and walked into the thicket. Very soon he returned carrying two medium-sized animals on his back, and holding a bag with the bait in his right hand. Throwing his load on the snow, he said: "Damned keltuki gone. Thank you, Captain." We had secured two adult wolverines, a male and a female, their glossy, long-haired coats in good condition. This was a prize beyond our expectations.

The goals of the expedition fulfilled, I paid off the Orochons and rewarded Gelminto with my Mauser rifle, and left for the Company's main camp in a horse-drawn sleigh which Mr. Chapalov provided at my request. Volkov remained to pack up our collections and equipment and then join me at the Company's offices in a couple of days.

After packing our baggage I was ready to leave the Haimenkunssu Yador office. The baggage was left at the Company's store for delivery to Hailar by a transport unit leaving two days later. Mr. H. Ishmakov, a lumber contractor, offered us his comfortable sleigh, with a pair of good horses, for the trip. With Volkov, his "Daisy", an Irish setter, and a few pieces of small baggage, guns, and camera, we departed from the hospitable outpost. Mr. Ishmakov had been traveling alone and desired company on this long and lonesome trip, and we accepted his courteous offer with appreciation, since motor traffic had been halted by the deep snow. The only other way to reach Hailar then available was by the slow-moving "Teliega" (a four-wheel cart) used for transporting supplies. So, early in the morning of December 5th, I bade farewell to friendly Stephen Michaelovich and his assistants, and we departed for home.

First published in "Pacific Discovery", Volume XX Number 4, July August 1967, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco - Additional photos, originally in the publication, will be scanned at a later date.

Some Orochon Items in the Loukashkin Collection

Decorative Orochon bags
Bag 1 - 58KB
Bag 2 - 31KB
Bag 3 - 29KB
Bag 4 - 28KB

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