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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 20985

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

The next morning, ten miles from camp, we passed a party of Russians en route to Kalgan. They were sitting disconsolately beside two huge cars, patching tires and tightening bolts. Their way had been marked by a succession of motor troubles and they were almost discouraged. Woe to the men who venture into the desert with an untried car and without a skilled mechanic! There are no garages just around the corner-and there are no corners. Lucander's Chinese boy expressed it with laconic completeness when some one asked him how he liked the country.

"Well," said he, "there's plenty of room here."

A short distance farther on we found the caravan which had passed us early in the night. They were camped beside a well and the thirsty camels were gorging themselves with water. Except for these wells, the march across the desert would be impossible. They are four or five feet wide, walled with timbers, and partly roofed. In some the water is rather brackish but always cool, for it is seldom less than ten feet below the surface. It is useless to speculate as to who dug the wells or when, for this trail has been used for centuries. In some regions they are fifty or even sixty miles apart, but usually less than that.

The camel caravans travel mostly at night. For all his size and apparent strength, a camel is a delicate animal and needs careful handling. He cannot stand the heat of the midday sun and he will not graze at night. So the Gobi caravans start about three or four o'clock in the afternoon and march until one or two the next morning. Then the men pitch a light tent and the camels sleep or wander over the plain.

At noon on the second day we reached Panj-kiang, the first telegraph station on the line. Its single mud house was visible miles away and we were glad to see it, for our gasoline was getting low. Coltman had sent a plentiful supply by caravan to await us here, and every available inch of space was filled with cans, for we were only one-quarter of the way to Urga.

Not far beyond Panj-kiang, a lama monastery has been built beside the road. Its white-walled temple bordered with red and the compound enclosing the living quarters of the lamas show with startling distinctness on the open plain. We stopped for water at a well a few hundred yards away, and in five minutes the cars were surrounded by a picturesque group of lamas who streamed across the plain on foot and on horseback, their yellow and red robes flaming in the sun. They were amiable enough-in fact, too friendly-and their curiosity was hardly welcome, for we found one of them testing his knife on the tires and another about to punch a hole in one of the gasoline cans; he hoped it held something to drink that was better than water.

Thus far the trail had not been bad, as roads go in the Gobi, but I was assured that the next hundred miles would be a different story, for we were about to enter the most arid part of the desert between Kalgan and Urga. We were prepared for the only real work of the trip, however, by a taste of the exciting shooting which Coltman had promised me.

I had been told that we should see antelope in thousands, but all day I had vainly searched the plains for a sign of game. Ten miles from Panj-kiang we were rolling comfortably along on a stretch of good road when Mrs. Coltman, whose eyes are as keen as those of a hawk, excitedly pointed to a knoll on the right, not a hundred yards from the trail. At first I saw nothing but yellow grass; then the whole hillside seemed to be in motion. A moment later I began to distinguish heads and legs and realized that I was looking at an enormous herd of antelope, closely packed together, restlessly watching us.

Our rifles were out in an instant and Coltman opened the throttle. The antelope were five or six hundred yards away, and as the car leaped forward they ranged themselves in single file and strung out across the plain. We left the road at once and headed diagonally toward them. For some strange reason, when a horse or car runs parallel with a herd of antelope, the animals will swing in a complete semicircle and cross in front of the pursuer. This is also true of some African species, whether they think they are being cut off from some more desirable means of escape I cannot say, but the fact remains that with the open plain on every side they always try to "cross your bows."

I shall never forget the sight of those magnificent animals streaming across the desert! There were at least a thousand of them, and their yellow bodies seemed fairly to skim the earth. I was shouting in excitement, but Coltman said:

"They're not running yet. Wait till we begin to shoot."

I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the speedometer trembling at thirty-five miles, for we were making a poor showing with the antelope. But then the fatal attraction began to assert itself and the long column bent gradually in our direction. Coltman widened the arc of the circle and held the throttle up as far as it would go. Our speed increased to forty miles and the car began to gain because the antelope were running almost across our course.

They were about two hundred yards away when Coltman shut off the gas and jammed both brakes, but before the car had stopped they had gained another hundred. I leaped over a pile of bedding and came into action with the .250 Savage high-power as soon as my feet were on the ground. Coltman's .30 Mauser was already spitting fire from the front seat across the windshield, and at his second shot an antelope dropped like lead. My first two bullets struck the dirt far behind the rearmost animal, but the third caught a full-grown female in the side and she plunged forward into the grass.

I realized then what Coltman meant when he said that the antelope had not begun to run. At the first shot every animal in the herd seemed to flatten itself and settle to its work. They did not run-they simply flew across the ground, their legs showing only as a blur. The one I killed was four hundred yards away, and I held four feet ahead when I pulled the trigger. They could not have been traveling less than fifty-five or sixty miles an hour, for they were running in a semicircle about the car while we were moving at forty miles in a straight line.

Those are the facts in the case. I can see my readers raise their brows incredulously, for that is exactly what I would have done before this demonstration. Well, there is one way to prove it and that is to come and try it for yourselves. Moreover, I can see some sportsmen smile for another reason. I mentioned that the antelope I killed was four hundred yards away. I know how far it was, for I paced it off. I may say, in passing, that I had never before killed a running animal at that range. Ninety per cent of my shooting had been well within one hundred and fifty yards, but in Mongolia conditions are most extraordinary.

In the brilliant atmosphere an antelope at four hundred yards appears as large as it would at one hundred in most other parts of the world; and on the flat plains, where there is not a bush or a shrub to obscure the view, a tiny stone stands out like a golf ball on the putting green. Because of these conditions there is strong temptation to shoot at impossible ranges and to keep on shooting when the game is beyond anything except a lucky chance. Therefore, if any of you go to Mongolia to hunt antelope take plenty of ammunition, and when you return you will never tell how many cartridges you used. Our antelope were tied on the running board of the car and we went back to the road where Lucander was waiting. Half the herd had crossed in front of him, but he had failed to bring down an animal.

When the excitement was over I began to understand the significance of what we had seen. It was slowly borne in upon me that our car had been going, by the speedometer, at forty miles an hour and that the antelope were actually beating us. It was an amazing discovery, for I had never dreamed that any living animal could run so fast. It was a discovery, too, which would have important results, for Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, even then was carrying on investigations as to the relation of speed to limb structure in various groups of animals. I determined, with Mr. Coltman's help, to get some real facts in the case-data upon which we could rely.

There was an opportunity only to begin the study on the first trip, but we carried it further the following year. Time after time, as we tore madly after antelope, singly or in herds, I kept my eyes upon the speedometer, and I feel confident that our observations can be relied upon. We demonstrated beyond a doubt that the Mongolian antelope can reach a speed of from fifty-five to sixty miles an hour. This is probably the maximum which is attained only in the initial sprint and after a very short distance the animals must slow down to about forty miles; a short distance more and they drop to twenty-five or thirty miles, and at this pace they seem able to continue almost indefinitely. They never ran faster than was necessary to keep well away from us. As we opened the throttle of the car they, too, increased their speed. It was only when we began to shoot and they became thoroughly frightened that they showed what they could do.

I remember especially one fine buck which gave us an exhibition of really high-class running. He started almost opposite to us when we were on a stretch of splendid road and jogged comfortably along at thirty-five miles an hour. Our car was running at the same speed, but he decided to cross in front and pressed his accelerator a little. Coltman also touched ours, and the motor jumped to forty miles. The antelope seemed very much surprised and gave his accelerator another push. Coltman did likewise, and the speedometer registered forty-five miles. That was about enough for us, and we held our speed. The animal drew ahead on a long curve swinging across in front of the car. He had beaten us by a hundred yards!

But we had a surprise in store for him, for Coltman suddenly shut off the gas and threw on both brakes. Before the motor had fully stopped we opened fire. The first two bullets struck just behind the antelope and a third kicked the dust between his legs. The shock turned him half over, but he righted himself and ran to his very limit. The bullets spattering all about

kept him at it for six hundred yards. He put up a desert hare on the way, but that hare didn't have a chance with the antelope. It reminded me of the story of the negro who had seen a ghost. He ran until he dropped beside the road, but the ghost was right beside him. "Well," said the ghost, "that was some race we had." "Yes," answered the negro, "but it ain't nothin' to what we're goin' to have soon's ever I git my breath. And then," said the negro, "we ran agin. And I come to a rabbit leggin' it up the road, and I said, 'Git out of the way, rabbit, and let some one run what can run!'" The last we saw of the antelope was a cloud of yellow dust disappearing over a low rise.

The excitement of the chase had been an excellent preparation for the hard work which awaited us not far ahead. The going had been getting heavier with every mile, and at last we reached a long stretch of sandy road which the motors could not pull through. With every one except the driver out of the car, and the engine racing, we pushed and lifted, gaining a few feet each time, until the shifting sand was passed. It meant two hours of violent strain, and we were well-nigh exhausted; a few miles farther, however, it had all to be done again. Where the ground was hard, there was such a chaos of ruts and holes that our arms were almost wrenched from their sockets by the twisting wheels.

This area more nearly approaches a desert than any other part of the road to Urga. The soil is mainly sandy, but the Gobi sagebrush and short bunch grass, although sparse and dry, still give a covering of vegetation, so that in the distance the plain appears like a rolling meadowland.

[Illustration: At the End of the Long Trail from Outer Mongolia]

[Illustration: Women of Southern Mongolia]

When we saw our first northern Mongol I was delighted. Every one is a study for an artist. He dresses in a long, loose robe of plum color, one corner of which is usually tucked into a gorgeous sash. On his head is perched an extraordinary hat which looks like a saucer, with upturned edges of black velvet and a narrow cone-shaped crown of brilliant yellow. Two streamers of red ribbon are usually fastened to the rim at the back, or a plume of peacock feathers if he be of higher rank.

On his feet he wears a pair of enormous leather boots with pointed toes. These are always many sizes too large, for as the weather grows colder he pads them out with heavy socks of wool or fur. It is nearly impossible for him to walk in this ungainly footgear, and he waddles along exactly like a duck. He is manifestly uncomfortable and ill at ease, but put him on a horse and you have a different picture. The high-peaked saddle and the horse itself become a part of his anatomy and he will stay there happily fifteen hours of the day.

The Mongols ride with short stirrups and, standing nearly upright, lean far over the horse's neck like our western cowboys. As they tear along at full gallop in their brilliant robes they seem to embody the very spirit of the plains. They are such genial, accommodating fellows, always ready with a pleasant smile, and willing to take a sporting chance on anything under the sun, that they won my heart at once.

Above all things they love a race, and often one of them would range up beside the car and, with a radiant smile, make signs that he wished to test our speed. Then off he would go like mad, flogging his horse and yelling with delight. We would let him gain at first, and the expression of joy and triumph on his face was worth going far to see. Sometimes, if the road was heavy, it would need every ounce of gas the car could take to forge ahead, for the ponies are splendid animals. The Mongols ride only the best and ride them hard, since horses are cheap in Mongolia, and when one is a little worn another is always ready.

Not only does the Mongol inspire you with admiration for his full-blooded, virile manhood, but also you like him because he likes you. He doesn't try to disguise the fact. There is a frank openness about his attitude which is wonderfully appealing, and I believe that the average white man can get on terms of easy familiarity, and even intimacy, with Mongols more rapidly than with any other Orientals.

Ude is the second telegraph station on the road to Urga. It has the honor of appearing on most maps of Mongolia and yet it is even less impressive than Panj-kiang. There are only two mud houses and half a dozen yurts which seem to have been dropped carelessly behind a ragged hill.

After leaving Ude, we slipped rapidly up and down a succession of low hills and entered upon a plain so vast and flat that we appeared to be looking across an ocean. Not the smallest hill or rise of ground broke the line where earth and sky met in a faint blue haze. Our cars seemed like tiny boats in a limitless, grassy sea. It was sixty miles across, and for three hours the steady hum of the motor hardly ceased, for the road was smooth and hard. Halfway over we saw another great herd of antelope and several groups of ten or twelve. These were a different species from those we had killed, and I got a fine young buck. Twice wolves trotted across the plain, and at one, which was very inquisitive, I did some shooting which I vainly try to forget.

But most interesting to me among the wild life along our way was the bustard. It is a huge bird, weighing from fifteen to forty pounds, with flesh of such delicate flavor that it rivals our best turkey. I had always wanted to kill a bustard and my first one was neatly eviscerated at two hundred yards by a Savage bullet. I was more pleased than if I had shot an antelope, perhaps because it did much to revive my spirits after the episode of the wolf.

Sand grouse, beautiful little gray birds, with wings like pigeons and remarkable, padded feet, whistled over us as we rolled along the road, and my heart was sick with the thought of the excellent shooting we were missing. But there was no time to stop, except for such game as actually crossed our path, else we should never have arrived at Urga, the City of the Living God.

Speaking of gods, I must not forget to mention the great lamasery at Turin, about one hundred and seventy miles from Urga. For hours before we reached it we saw the ragged hills standing sharp and clear against the sky line. The peaks themselves are not more than two hundred feet in height, but they rise from a rocky plateau some distance above the level of the plain. It is a wild spot where some mighty internal force has burst the surface of the earth and pushed up a ragged core of rocks which have been carved by the knives of weather into weird, fantastic shapes. This elemental battle ground is a fit setting for the most remarkable group of human habitations that I have ever seen.

Three temples lie in a bowl-shaped hollow, surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of tiny pill-box dwellings painted red and white. There must be a thousand of them and probably twice as many lamas. On the outskirts of the "city" to the south enormous piles of argul have been collected by the priests and bestowed as votive offerings by devout travelers. Vast as the supply seemed, it would take all this, and more, to warm the houses of the lamas during the bitter winter months when the ground is covered with snow. On the north the hills throw protecting arms about the homes of these half-wild men, who have chosen to spend their lives in this lonely desert stronghold. The houses are built of sawn boards, the first indication we had seen that we were nearing a forest country.

The remaining one hundred and seventy miles to Urga are a delight, even to the motorist who loves the paved roads of cities. They are like a boulevard amid glorious, rolling hills luxuriant with long, sweet grass. In the distance herds of horses and cattle grouped themselves into moving patches, and fat-tailed sheep dotted the plain like drifts of snow. I have seldom seen a better grazing country. It needed but little imagination to picture what it will be a few years hence when the inevitable railroad claims the desert as its own, for this rich land cannot long remain untenanted. It was here that we saw the first marmots, an unfailing indication that we were in a northern country.

The thick blackness of a rainy night had enveloped us long before we swung into the Urga Valley and groped our way along the Tola River bank toward the glimmering lights of the sacred city. It seemed that we would never reach them, for twice we took the wrong turn and found ourselves in a maze of sandy bottoms and half-grown trees. But at ten o'clock we plowed through the mud of a narrow street and into the courtyard of the Mongolian Trading Company's home.

Oscar Mamen, Coltman's former partner, and Mrs. Mamen had spent several years there, and for six weeks they had had as guests Messrs. A. M. Guptil and E. B. Price, of Peking. Mr. Guptil was representing the American Military Attache, and Mr. Price, Assistant Chinese Secretary of the American Legation, had come to Urga to establish communication with our consul at Irkutsk who had not been heard from for more than a month.

Urga recently had been pregnant with war possibilities. In the Lake Baikal region of Siberia there were several thousand Magyars and many Bolsheviki. It was known that Czechs expected to attack them, and that they would certainly be driven across the borders into Mongolia if defeated. In that event what would be the attitude of the Mongolian government? Would it intern the belligerents, or allow them to use the Urga district as a base of operations?

As a matter of fact, the question had been settled just before my arrival. The Czechs had made the expected attack with about five hundred men; all the Magyars, to the number of several thousand, had surrendered, and the Bolsheviki had disappeared like mists before the sun. The front of operations had moved in a single night almost two thousand miles away to the Omsk district, and it was certain that Mongolia would be left in peace. Mr. Price's work also was done, for the telegraph from Urga to Irkutsk was again in operation and thus communication was established with Peking.

The morning after my arrival Mr. Guptil and I rode out to see the town. Never have I visited such a city of contrasts, or one to which I was so eager to return. As we did come back, I shall tell, in a future chapter, of what we found there.

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