The Death of Soloviev

G.I. Gurdjieff

(This piece is an excerpt from Gurdjieff's Meetings With Remarkable Men.)

Soon after our sojourn at the chief monastery of the Sarmoung Brotherhood, Soloviev joined the group of persons I have already mentioned, the Seekers of Truth, the required guarantees being furnished by me. He became a full member of this group and from then on, thanks to his persistent and conscientious efforts, he not only worked for the attainment of his individual perfection but at the same time took a serious part in all our general activities and in the various expeditions for special purposes.

During one of these expeditions, in the year 1898, he died from the bite of a wild camel in the Gobi Desert. I will describe the occurrence in as much detail as possible, because not only was the death of Soloviev very strange, but our method of crossing the desert was unprecedented and in itself highly instructive.

I shall begin the description from the time when, having travelled with great difficulty from Tashkent up the course of the river Sharakshan and over several mountain passes, we arrived at F, a very small place on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

We decided before beginning our proposed crossing of the desert to rest at this village for several weeks. And while staying there we, sometimes as a group, sometimes individually, met various local inhabitants, who in answer to our questions told us all sorts of beliefs connected with the Gobi Desert.

What we chiefly heard in these conversations was that, under the sands of the present-day desert, villages and even entire cities lay buried, and that these sands also covered many treasures and other riches of the ancient peoples who had inhabited this once flourishing region. It was said that information about the location of these riches was known to certain men living in the neighbouring villages and was handed down from father to son under vows of secrecy. The violation of these vows, as many had already learned, entailed a punishment whose severity depended upon the importance of the secret betrayed.

Repeated mention was made of a certain region of the Gobi Desert where, it seemed, it was definitely known to many that a great city lay buried; and in this connection there were a number of suspicious indications, not contradictory to each other, which seriously interested many of us, particularly Professor Skridlov, the archaeologist, who was among the members of our expedition.

After long discussions among ourselves we decided to plan our crossing of the Gobi Desert so as to pass through that region where, according to the many indications just mentioned, the city buried beneath the sands should be. There we intended to carry out some exploratory excavations under the direction of old Professor Skridlov, who was a great specialist in this field. And in accordance with this plan we mapped out our route.

Although this region was not near any of the more or less known routes across the Gobi Desert, not only did we all, holding to our already long-established principle never to follow the beaten track, treat lightly all the difficulties before us, but there even arose in each of us a feeling somewhat like elation. When this feeling subsided, we set ourselves to work out the details of our plan, and then all the extreme difficulties of our project became apparent, and to such an extent that the question actually arose whether it were possible to carry it out at all.

The trouble was that this journey, by the route we had planned, would be very long and impossible to accomplish by ordinary means. The greatest difficulty lay in providing ourselves with sufficient water and provisions, as even by the most modest calculations the quantity would have to be so great that to carry such a burden ourselves was in no way feasible. At the same time, it was out of the question to use pack-animals for this purpose, as we could not count on a single blade of grass or drop of water on the way. We could not even be sure of passing a small oasis on our route.

In spite of all this we did not give up our plan, but, having pondered over the question, we decided by common agreement that we should not undertake anything for the time being but that for one month each of us should concentrate all his thought on finding some way out of this hopeless situation; and each was to be provided with the means of doing whatever he pleased and going wherever he wished.

Professor Skridlov, as our senior member and the most respected among us, was entrusted with the direction of this affair, and, among other things, he was in charge of our common treasury. When everyone had received from him a certain sum of money, some left the village, while others settled down there, each according to his plan.

The meeting place which had been fixed was a small village lying on the edge of the sands from which we intended to begin our crossing. A month later we assembled at this appointed place and under the direction of Professor Skridlov set up a camp; and then each made his report on what he had found out. The order of the reports was decided by lot.

The first three to report were, first, Karpenko, the mining engineer, then Dr. Sari-Ogli, and thirdly, Yelov, the philologist. These reports were of such an intense interest on account of their new and original thoughts, and even for the way in which they were expressed, that they deeply engraved themselves on my memory, and I can even now reproduce them almost word for word.

Karpenko began his report as follows:

'Although I well know that none of you like the ways of the European scientists, who, instead of coming straight to the point usually spin out a long rigmarole going back almost to Adam, nevertheless, in the present case, in view of the seriousness of the question, I consider it necessary before telling you my conclusions to put before you the reflections and deductions which led me to what I shall propose today.'

He continued:

'The Gobi is a desert whose sands, according to the assertions of science, are of very recent formation. Concerning their origin there exist two suppositions: either they are the sands of a former sea-bed, or they drifted down, blown by winds from the rocky heights in the Tian-Shan, Hindu Kush and Himalayan ranges, and from mountains which once lay to the north of this desert but which no longer exist, having been worn away by winds for centuries.

"And so, bearing in mind that we must first of all make sure of providing enough food for the entire length of our journey across the desert, both for ourselves and any animals we may find necessary to have with us, I took into consideration both of these suppositions and tried to think whether the sand itself might in some way be made use of for this purpose."

I deliberated thus:

"If this desert is a former sea-bed, then the sands must surely contain strata or zones consisting of various shells, and, as shells are formed by organisms, consequently they must be organic matter. Therefore, we have only to find some means of converting this matter so that it can be digested and in this way provide the energy required for life.

"But if the sands of this desert are drift sands, that is to say, if they are of rocky origin, then again, it has been proved beyond any doubt that the soil of most of the great cases of Turkestan and also of the regions adjacent to this desert is of purely vegetable origin and consists of organic substances deposited there from higher altitudes. So we can conclude that, in the course of centuries, such organic substances must have drifted into the general mass of sands of this desert and become mixed with it. I further reflected that according to the law of gravity all substances or elements always group themselves according to their weight; therefore, here in the desert, the organic substances deposited, being much lighter than sand of rocky origin, must also have gradually grouped themselves in special layers or zones.

"Having come to this theoretical conclusion, I organized a small expedition into the desert to verify it in practice, and after travelling three days began to carry out my investigations. I soon found in certain places layers which, although barely distinguishable from the general mass of the sands, were nevertheless even on superficial examination clearly of a different origin. By microscopic examination and chemical analysis of the separate parts of this mixture of substances, I found out that it consisted of the dead bodies of small organisms and various tissues of the vegetable world. Having loaded all the seven camels I had at my disposal with this peculiar sand, I returned here, and with Professor Skridlov's permission purchased a number of different animals and set to work experimenting on them.

"I bought two camels, two yaks, two horses, two mules, two asses, ten sheep, ten goats, ten dogs and ten Keriskis cats, and keeping them hungry, that is to say, giving them a very limited quantity of food, only just enough to sustain life; I began little by little introducing into their food this sand which I had prepared in various ways. For the first few days of my experiments, none of the animals would eat any of these mixtures. But when I begin to prepare this sand in an entirely new way, after only a week's trial the sheep and goats suddenly began to eat it with great pleasure.

"I then concentrated all my attention on these animals. In two days I completely convinced myself that the sheep and goats had already hegun to prefer this mixture to all other kinds of food. It was composed of seven and a half parts of sand, two parts of ground mutton and one-half part of ordinary salt. At the beginning, all the animals undergoing my experiments, including the sheep and goats, had daily lost from a half to two and a half per cent of their total weight, but, from the day when the sheep and goats began to eat this mixture, they not only stopped losing weight but began gaining from one to three ounces daily. Thanks to these experiments, I personally have no doubt whatever that this sand could be used for feeding goats and sheep, provided it be mixed with the necessary quantity of their own meat. I can therefore propose to you today the following:

"To overcome the chief difficulty of our trip across the desert we must buy several hundred sheep and goats, and gradually, as the need arises, kill them and use their meat both for food for ourselves and for preparing the aforesaid mixture as food for the remaining animals. We need not fear any lack of the required sand, as all the data in my possession convince me that in certain places it can always be found.

"Now, as regards water, in order to provide ourselves with a sufficient supply, we must obtain a large quantity of sheep's or goats' bladders or stomach--twice as many as there are animals--and making them into khourdjeens fill them with water and load each sheep or goat with two khourdjeens.

"I have already verified that a sheep can carry this quantity of water with ease and without any harm to itself. In addition, experiment and calculation have shown me that this quantity of water will suffice for our own needs and also for the animals provided we exercise a little economy in the use of it during the first two or three days. After this we will be able, with the water carried by the sheep we have killed, to satisfy ourselves and the remaining sheep in full."

When Karpenko had finished, the second report was made by Dr. Sari-Ogli. I had met and made friends with Dr. Sari-Ogli five years before. Although by origin a Persian, from Eastern Persia, be had been educated in France. Perhaps I shall at some time write a detailed account of him, as he was a most distinguished and highly remarkable man.

Dr. Sari-Ogli spoke approximately as follows:

"After hearing the report of the mining engineer Karpenko, I shall say "Pass" as regards the first part of my report, because I consider that nothing better than his proposals can be found. However, coming to the second part of my report, which concerns the task I set myself of finding a means of overcoming the difficulties of movement in the desert during sand-storms, I wish to tell you my thoughts and the results of my experiments. The conclusions I arrived at and the experimental data I obtained complement very well, in my opinion, the proposals of Karpenko, and I shall therefore submit them to you.

"In these deserts, one has very often to pass through winds and storms, during which movement sometimes becomes quite impossible both for man and beast, since the wind lifts quantities of sand up into the air and, whirling it along, deposits mountains of it where only a moment before there were hollows.

"And so I reflected that any progress would be impeded by the whirlwinds of sand. My next thought was that sand, because of its weight, cannot rise very high and that probably there was a limit beyond which not a single grain could rise. Deliberating in this way, I decided to find out about this hypothetical limit.

"For this purpose, I ordered here in the village a specially high, folding step-ladder, and with two camels and a driver set off into the desert. After one day's journey I was preparing to camp for the night, when a wind suddenly rose, and within an hour the storm had become so violent that it was impossible to remain stationary and even to breathe owing to the sand in the air.

"With great difficulty we began to set up the ladder I had brought, and somehow, even making use of the camels, we steadied it as best we could and I climbed up. Can you imagine my astonishment when, at a height of no more than twenty-five feet, I found not a grain of sand in the air?

"My ladder was some sixty feet in length; I had not climbed up a third of its height before I emerged from that hell. There above was a beautiful starry and moonlit sky, silence and a stillness such as is rarely found even at home in Eastern Persia. Below, there still reigned something unimaginable; I had the impression of standing on some high cliff on a sea-coast overlooking the most terrible storm and upheaval.

"While I stood up there on the ladder admiring the beautifu1 night, the storm began to abate and after half an hour I descended. But below a calamity awaited me. Although now the wind was only half as strong, the man who had accompanied me was still walking, as is customary in these storms, along the crests of the dunes away from the wind, leading after him only one camel; the other, he told me, had broken loose soon after I had mounted the ladder, and had gone off he knew not where.

"When it began to grow light, we set out to search for the second camel and very soon saw its hoofs sticking out of a dune not far from the place where the ladder had stood. We did not try to dig the camel out, as it was obviously dead and buried quite deep in the sand. We immediately set off on the return journey, eating our food as we went so as not to lose time, and by evening we reached our village.

"The next day I ordered several pairs of stilts of different heights, getting them in different places to avoid suspicion, and, taking with me one camel loaded with provisions and a few necessities, I again set out into the desert, where I began practicing walking on stilts--first on low ones, and then gradually on higher and higher ones. To walk over the sands on stilts was not so difficult once I had fastened to them the iron soles I had devised, and which I had ordered, again out of caution, in different places from the stilts.

"During the time I spent in the desert to practice walking on stilts, I went through two more storms. One of them, to be sure was mild, but, even so,it would have been unthinkable to move and orient oneself in it by ordinary means; but with the aid of my stilts I walked around over the sands during both of these storms, in any desired direction, as though I were in my own room. At first it was somewhat difficult not to stumble, because very often and particularly, as I have already said, during storms, there are ups and downs in the dunes. But fortunately, as I soon discovered, the upper surface of the sand-filled atmosphere has irregularities of contour exactly corresponding to the irregularities of the sands, so that walking on stilts is considerably facilitated by the fact that one can clearly see by the contours of the sand-filled atmosphere where one dune ends and another begins.

"In any case," concluded Dr. Sari-Ogli, "it has been shown that the sand-filled atmosphere has a definite and not very high limit, and that the contours of its upper surface always correspond to the contours of the desert itself; and one must admit that it is absolutely necessary to make use of this discovery in the journey we have ahead of us."

The third to report was Yelov, the philologist, who, with the peculiar, expressive manner of speech characteristic of him, addressed us as follows:

"If you will allow me, gentlemen, I will say the same thing as our esteemed Aesculapius concerning the first half of his report, namely, "I pass", but I pass also concerning everything in general which I had thought out and wiseacred about during the past month.

"What I had wished to communicate to you today is simply child's play in comparison with the ideas presented by the mining engineer, Karpenko, and my friend the doctor--as irreplaceable in respect of his origin as of his possession of a diploma.

"However, just now while the two previous speakers were making their proposals some new ideas arose in me, which you may perhaps find admissible and effective for our journey. They are as follows:

"According to the proposal of the doctor, we are all going to practice walking on stilts of different heights, but the stilts to be used on the journey itself, one pair of which each of us must take with him, will be not less than twenty feet long. Further, if we follow the proposal of Karpenko, we shall probably have a great many sheep and goats. Now I think that when our stilts are not in use, instead of carrying them ourselves, we can very easily arrange for them to be carried by the sheep and goats. As you all know, a flock of sheep is in the habit of following the first sheep, or as it is called, the leader, and therefore it will only be necessary to direct and guide those sheep harnessed to the first pair of stilts, and the rest are bound to follow in a long line, one after the other.

"In this way, apart from the advantage of not having to carry our own stilts, we can also arrange that our sheep should carry us as well. Between stilts twenty feet long placed parallel, we can easily put seven rows of sheep, three in a row, that is, twenty-one sheep in all, and for this number of sheep, the weight of one man is a trifle. We need only harness the sheep to the stilts in such a way as to leave an empty place in the centre about five and a half feet long and three feet wide, which can be used to fix up a very comfortable couch. Then each of us, instead of toiling and sweating under the weight of his own stilts, can loll about like Moukhtar Pasha in his harem or ride like a rich parasite in his private carriage through the allees of the Bois de Boulogn. Crossing the desert in such conditions, we can even, during this time, learn almost all the languages we shall need in our expeditions."

After the first two reports and this finale from Yelov, there was obviously no further need for other proposals. We were all so astounded at what we had heard that all of a sudden it seemed to us that the difficulties of crossing the Gobi had been intentionally exaggerated, and even the impossibility of it suggested expressly for the traveller.

And so, accepting these proposals, we all of us agreed, without any discussion, to conceal from the local inhabitants, for the time being, our impending departure into the desert--that world of hunger, death and uncertainty. Accordingly, we planned to pass off Professor Skridlov as a daring Russian merchant, who had come to this region on some wild commercial venture. He had come, supposedly, to buy up sheep to send to Russia, sheep being very dear there, whereas here they could be bought much more cheaply; and he intended at the same time to export strong, long, thin poles to the factories in Russia, where they would be made into frames for stretching calico. In Russia, such hard wood is unobtainable and the frames made of the wood there soon wear out, owing to the constant movement in the machines, so that poles of this quality would bring a high price. For these reasons, the daring merchant wished to embark on this risky commercial enterprise.

Having decided this, we all became high-spirited and spoke of the journey ahead of us as though it were no more than crossing the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

The next day we moved to the bank of the river, near the place where it disappears into the fathomless depths of the sand, and there we pitched the tents brought from Russia, which we still had with us. Although the site of our new camp was not at all far from the village, nevertheless no one lived in that place, and it was not probable that it would enter anyone's head to come there, to the very gates of that arid hell. Some of us, passing ourselves off as clerks and other servants of the eccentric Russian merchant, Ivanov, made the rounds of the bazaars in the vicinity and began buying up thin poles of various lengths, and also sheep and goats and soon we had a whole flock in our camp.

We then began intensive practice at walking on stilts, first on low ones, and then gradually on higher ones.

One fine morning twelve days later, our extraordinary cortege moved off into the wastes of the sands, amid the bleating of sheep and goats, the barking of dogs, and the whinnies and brays of the horses and asees we had purchased in case of need.

The cortege soon spread out into a long procession of litters, like the grandiose processions of ancient kings. Long rang out our jovial songs and the shouting back and forth to each other from our improvised litters, which followed each other some distance apart. Of course, as always, the remarks coming from Yelov produced roars of laughter.

Although we went through two terrible sandstorms, we arrived several days later almost at the heart of the desert, without any fatigue and fully satisfied with everything--even with having learned the language we needed. We were approaching the spot which was the principal goal of our expedition

Everything would probably have ended as we had planned, if it had not been for the accident to Soloviev.

We had been travelling mostly at night, making use of the abilities of our comrade, the experienced astronomer Dashtamirov, to orient ourselves by the stars.

One day we made a halt at dawn to eat and also to feed our sheep.

It was still very early. The sun had only just begun to grow hot. We were just sitting down to our freshly prepared mutton and rice, when on the horizon there suddenly appeared a herd of camels. We at once guessed that they must be wild ones.

Soloviev, a passionate hunter and a dead shot, immediately seized his rifle and ran in the direction where the silhouettes of the camels could be seen; and we, laughing at Soloviev's passion for hunting, settled down to the hot food, excellently prepared in these unprecedented conditions. I say unprecedented because in the midst of these sands, and so deep in the interior, it is usually considered impossible to build a fire, as there is sometimes not even saksaul (1) to be found for hundreds of miles. But we built fires at least twice a day to cook our meals and prepare coffee or tea, and not only ordinary tea, but also Tibetan tea, brewed in the stock from the bones of the slaughtered sheep. For this luxury we were indebted to the device of Pogossian, who had the idea of making saddles of special wooden sticks for loading the sheep with the bladders of water; so now, as we killed the sheep, there was quite enough wood left over every day for the fires.

An hour and a half had passed since Soloviev had gone after the camels. We were already preparing to continue our journey, and there was still no sign of him. We waited a further half-hour. Well knowing the punctiliousness of Soloviev, who never kept anyone waiting, and fearing some mishap, all but two of us took our guns and set off to search for him. Soon we again perceived the silhouettes of the camels in the distance and went towards them. As we came near, the camels, evidently sensing our approach, fled to the south, but we kept on going.
Four hours had passed since Soloviev had gone. Suddenly one of us noticed a man lying several hundred paces away, and when we came up we recognized Soloviev, who was already dead. His neck had been bitten half through. All of us were overwhelmed with heart-rending grief, for we had all loved this exceptionally good man.

Making a litter of our guns, we carried Soloviev's body back to the camp. The same day, headed by Skridlov, who performed the duty of priest, we buried Soloviev with great solemnity in the heart of the desert, and immediately left that for us accursed place.

Although we had already done much towards the discovery of the legendary city which we had expected to find on our journey, we nevertheless changed all our plans and decided to leave the desert as soon as possible. So we struck out more to the west and in four days arrived at the Keriyan oasis, where normal country begins. From Keriya we continued further, but now without Soloviev, dear to us all.

Peace to thy soul, honest and ever loyal friend of all friends!

1. A tree or tree-like shrub that grows in the sand.