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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 15934

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

This is a "hard luck" chapter. Stories of ill-fortune are not always interesting, but I am writing this one to show what can happen to an automobile in the Gobi. We had gone to Urga without even a puncture and I began to feel that motoring in Mongolia was as simple as riding on Fifth Avenue-more so, in fact, for we did not have to watch traffic policemen or worry about "right of way." There is no crowding on the Gobi Desert. When we passed a camel caravan or a train of oxcarts we were sure to have plenty of room, for the landscape was usually spotted in every direction with fleeing animals.

Our motors had "purred" so steadily that accidents and repair shops seemed very far away and not of much importance. On the return trip, however, the reverse of the picture was presented and I learned that to be alone in the desert when something is wrong with the digestion of your automobile can have its serious aspects. Unless you are an expert mechanic and have an assortment of "spare parts," you may have to walk thirty or forty miles to the nearest water and spend many days of waiting until help arrives.

Fortunately for us, there are few things which either Coltman or Guptil do not know about the "insides" of a motor and, moreover, after a diagnosis, they both have the ingenuity to remedy almost any trouble with a hammer and a screw driver.

Four days after our arrival in Urga we left on the return trip. As occupants of his car Charles Coltman had Mr. Price, Mrs. Coltman, and Mrs. Mamen. With the spiritual and physical assistance of Mr. Guptil I drove the second automobile, carrying in the rear seat a wounded Russian Cossack and a French-Czech, both couriers. The third car was a Ford chassis to which a wooden body had been affixed. It was designed to give increased carrying space, but it looked like a half-grown hayrack and was appropriately called the "agony box." This was driven by a chauffeur named Wang and carried Mamen's Chinese house boy and an amah besides a miscellaneous assortment of baggage.

It was a cold, gray morning when we started, with a cutting wind sweeping down from the north, giving a hint of the bitter winter which in another month would hold all Mongolia in an icy grasp. We made our way eastward up the valley to the Russian bridge across the Tola River and pointed the cars southward on the caravan trail to Kalgan.

Just as we reached the summit of the second long hill, across which the wind was sweeping in a glacial blast, there came a rasping crash somewhere in the motor of my car, followed by a steady knock, knock, knock. "That's a connecting rod as sure as fate," said "Gup." "We'll have to stop." When he had crawled under the car and found that his diagnosis was correct, he said a few other things which ought to have relieved his mind considerably.

There was nothing to be done except to replace the broken part with a spare rod. For three freezing hours Gup and Coltman lay upon their backs under the car, while the rest of us gave what help we could. To add to the difficulties a shower of hail swept down upon us with all the fury of a Mongolian storm. It was three o'clock in the afternoon before we were ready to go on, and our camp that night was only sixty miles from Urga.

The next day as we passed Turin the Czech pointed out the spot where he had lain for three days and nights with a broken collar bone and a dislocated shoulder. He had come from Irkutsk carrying important dispatches and had taken passage in an automobile belonging to a Chinese company which with difficulty was maintaining a passenger service between Urga and Kalgan. As usual, the native chauffeur was dashing along at thirty-five miles an hour when he should not have driven faster than twenty at the most. One of the front wheels slid into a deep rut, the car turned completely over and the resulting casualties numbered one man dead and our Czech seriously injured. It was three days before another car carried him back to Urga, where the broken bones were badly set by a drunken Russian doctor. The Cossack, too, had been shot twice in the heavy fighting on the Russian front, and, although his wounds were barely healed, he had just ridden three hundred miles on horseback with dispatches for Peking.

Both my passengers were delighted to have escaped the Chinese motors, for in them accidents had been the rule rather than the exception. During one year nineteen cars had been smashed and lay in masses of twisted metal beside the road. The difficulty had been largely due to the native chauffeurs. Although these men can drive a car, they have no mechanical training and danger signals from the motor are entirely disregarded. Moreover, all Chinese dearly love "show" and the chauffeurs delight in driving at tremendous speed over roads where they should exercise the greatest care. The deep cart ruts are a continual menace, for between them the road is often smooth and fine. But a stone or a tuft of grass may send one of the front wheels into a rut and capsize the car. Even with the greatest care accidents will happen, and motoring in Mongolia is by no means devoid of danger and excitement.

About three o'clock in the afternoon of the second day we saw frantic signals from the agony box which had been lumbering along behind us. It appeared that the right rear wheel was broken and the car could go no farther. There was nothing for it but to camp right where we were while Charles repaired the wheel. Gup and I ran twenty miles down the road to look for a well, but without success. The remaining water was divided equally among us but next morning we discovered that the Chinese had secreted two extra bottles for themselves, while we had been saving ours to the last drop. It taught me a lesson by which I profited the following summer.

On the third day the agony box limped along until noon, but when we reached a well in the midst of the great plain south of Turin it had to be abandoned, while we went on to Ude, the telegraph station in the middle of the desert, and wired Mamen to bring a spare wheel from Urga.

The fourth day there was more trouble with the connecting rod on my car and we sat for two hours at a well while the motor was eviscerated and reassembled. It had ceased to be a joke, especially to Coltman and Guptil, for all the work fell upon them. By this time they were almost unrecognizable because of dirt and grease and their hands were cut and blistered. But they stood it manfully, and at each new accident Gup rose to greater and greater heights of oratory.

We were halfway between Ude and Panj-kiang when we saw two automobiles approaching from the south. Their occupants were foreigners we were sure, and as they stopped beside us a tall young man came up to my car. "I am Langdon Warner," he said. We shook hands and looked at each other curiously. Warner is an archaeologist and Director of the Pennsylvania Museum. For ten years we had played a game of hide and seek through half the countries of the Orient and it seemed that we were destined never to meet each other. In 1910 I drifted into the quaint little town of Naha in the Loo-Choo Islands, that forgotten kingdom of the East. At that time it was far off the beaten track and very few foreigners had sought it out since 1854, when Commodore Perry negotiated a treaty with its king in the picturesque old Shuri Palace. Only a few months before I arrived, Langdon Warner had visited it on a collecting trip and the natives had not yet ceased to talk about the strange foreigner who gave them new baskets for old ones.

A little later Warner preceded me to Japan, and in 1912 I followed him to Korea. Our paths diverged when I went to Alaska in 1918, but I crossed his trail again in China, and in 1916, just before my wife and I left for Yün-nan, I missed him in Boston where I had gone to lecture at Harvard University. It was strange that after ten years we should meet for the

first time in the middle of the Gobi Desert!

Warner was proceeding to Urga with two Czech officers who were on their way to Irkutsk. We gave them the latest news of the war situation and much to their disgust they realized that had they waited only two weeks longer they could have gone by train, for the attack by the Czechs on the Magyars and the Bolsheviki, in the trans-Baikal region, had cleared the Siberian railway westward as far as Omsk. After half an hour's talk we drove off in opposite directions. Warner eventually reached Irkutsk, but not without some interesting experiences with Bolsheviki along the way, and I did not see him again until last March (1920), when he came to my office in the American Museum just after we had returned to New York.

When we reached Panj-kiang we felt that our motor troubles were at an end, but ten miles beyond the station my car refused to pull through a sand pit and we found that there was trouble with the differential. It was necessary to dismantle the rear end of the car, and Coltman and Gup were well-nigh discouraged. The delay was a serious matter for I had urgent business in Japan, and it was imperative that I reach Peking as soon as possible. Charles finally decided to send me, together with Price, the Czech, and the Cossack, in his car, while he and Gup remained with the two ladies to repair mine.

Price and I drove back to Panj-kiang to obtain extra food and water for the working party and to telegraph Kalgan for assistance. We took only a little tea, macaroni, and two tins of sausage, for we expected to reach the mission station at Hei-ma-hou early the next morning.

We were hardly five miles from the broken car when we discovered that there was no more oil for our motor. It was impossible to go much farther and we decided that the only alternative was to wait until the relief party, for which we had wired, arrived from Kalgan. Just then the car swung over the summit of a rise, and we saw the white tent and grazing camels of an enormous caravan. Of course, Mongols would have mutton fat and why not use that for oil! The caravan leader assured us that he had fat in plenty and in ten minutes a great pot of it was warming over the fire.

We poured it into the motor and proceeded merrily on our way. But there was one serious obstacle to our enjoyment of that ride. Events had been moving so rapidly that we had eaten nothing since breakfast, and when a delicious odor of roast lamb began to arise from the motor, we realized that we were all very hungry. Dry macaroni would hardly do and the sausage must be saved for dinner. All the afternoon that tantalizing odor hovered in the air and I began to imagine that I could even smell mint sauce.

At six o'clock we saw the first yurt and purchased a supply of argul so that we could save time in making camp. The lamps of the car were hors de combat and a watery moon did not give us sufficient light by which to drive in safety, so we stopped on a hilltop shortly after dark. In the morning when the motor was cold we could save time and strength in cranking by pushing it down the slope.

Much to our disgust we found that the argul we had purchased from the Mongol was so mixed with dirt that it would not burn. After half an hour of fruitless work I gave up, and we divided the tin of cold sausage. It was a pretty meager dinner for four hungry men and I retired into my sleeping bag to dream of roast lamb and mint sauce. When the Cossack officer found that he was not to have his tea he was like a child with a stick of candy just out of reach. He tried to sleep but it was no use, and in half an hour I opened my eyes to see him flat on his face blowing lustily at a piece of argul which he had persuaded to emit a faint glow. For two mortal hours the Russian nursed that fire until his pot of water reached the boiling point. Then he insisted that we all wake up to share his triumph.

[Illustration: The Middle Ages and the Twentieth Century]

[Illustration: A Mongolian Antelope Killed from Our Motor Car]

[Illustration: Watering Camels at a Well in the Gobi Desert]

We reached the mission station at noon next day, and Father Weinz, the Belgian priest in charge, gave us the first meal we had had in thirty-six hours. The Czech courier decided to remain at Hei-ma-hou and go in next day by cart, but we started immediately on the forty-mile horseback ride to Kalgan. A steady rain began about two o'clock in the afternoon, and in half an hour we were soaked to the skin; then the ugly, little gray stallion upon which I had been mounted planted both hind feet squarely on my left leg as we toiled up a long hill-trail to the pass, and I thought that my walking days had ended for all time. At the foot of the pass we halted at a dirty inn where they told us it would be useless to go on to Kalgan, for the gates of the city would certainly be closed and it would be impossible to enter until morning. There was no alternative except to spend the night at the inn, but as they had only a grass fire which burned out as soon as the cooking was finished, and as all our clothes were soaked, we spent sleepless hours shivering with cold.

The Cossack spoke only Mongol and Russian, and, as neither of us knew a single word of either language, it was difficult to communicate our plans to him. Finally, we found a Chinaman who spoke Mongol and who consented to act as interpreter. The natives at the inn could not understand why we were not able to talk to the Cossack. Didn't all white men speak the same language? Mr. Price endeavored to explain that Russian and English differ as much as do Chinese and Mongol, but they only smiled and shook their heads.

In the morning I was so stiff from the kick which the gray stallion had given me that I could get to his back only with the greatest difficulty, but we reached Kalgan at eight o'clock. Unfortunately, the Cossack had left his passport in the cart which was to follow with his baggage, and the police at the gate would not let us pass. Mr. Price was well known to them and offered to assume responsibility for the Cossack in the name of the American Legation, but the policemen, who were much disgruntled at being roused so early in the morning, refused to let us enter.

Their attitude was so obviously absurd that we agreed to take matters into our own hands. We strolled outside the house and suddenly jumped on our horses. The sentries made a vain attempt to catch our bridle reins and we rode down the street at a sharp, trot. There was another police station in the center of the city which it was impossible to avoid and as we approached it we saw a line of soldiers drawn up across the road. Our friends at the gate had telephoned ahead to have us stopped. Without hesitating we kept on, riding straight at the gray-clad policemen. With wildly waving arms they shouted at us to halt, but we paid not the slightest attention, and they had to jump aside to avoid being run down. The spectacle which these Chinese soldiers presented, as they tried to arrest us, was so ridiculous that we roared with laughter. Imagine what would happen on Fifth Avenue if you disregarded a traffic policeman's signal to stop!

Although the officials knew that we could be found at Mr. Coltman's house, we heard nothing further from the incident. It was so obviously a matter of personal ill nature on the part of the captain in charge of the gate police that they realized it was not a subject for further discussion.

After the luxury of a bath and shave we proceeded to Peking. Charles and Gup had rather a beastly time getting in. The car could not be repaired sufficiently to carry on under its own power, and, through a misunderstanding, the relief party only went as far as the pass and waited there for their arrival. They eventually found it necessary to hire three horses to tow them to the mission station where the "hard luck" story ended.

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