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   Chapter 4 NEW TRAVELS ON AN OLD TRAIL

Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 17077

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The winter of 1918-19 we spent in and out of one of the most interesting cities in the world. Peking, with its background of history made vividly real by its splendid walls, its age-old temples and its mysterious Forbidden City, has a personality of its own.

When we had been away for a month or two there was always a delightful feeling of anticipation in returning to the city itself and to our friends in its cosmopolitan community.

Moreover, at our house in Wu Liang Tajen Hutung, a baby boy and his devoted nurse were waiting to receive us. Even at two years the extraordinary facility with which he discovered frogs and bugs, which, quite unknown to us, dwelt in the flower-filled courtyard, showed the hereditary instincts of a born explorer.

That winter gave us an opportunity to see much of ancient China, for we visited Shantung, traveled straight across the Provinces of Honan and Hupeh, and wandered about the mountains of Che-kiang on a serow hunt.

In February the equipment for our summer's work in Mongolia was on its way across the desert by caravan. We had sent flour, bacon, coffee, tea, sugar, butter and dried fruit, for these could be purchased in Urga only at prohibitive prices. Even then, with camel charges at fourteen cents a cattie (1 1/3 lbs.), a fifty-pound sack of flour cost us more than six dollars by the time it reached Urga.

Charles Coltman at Kalgan very kindly relieved me of all the transportation details. We had seen him several times in Peking during the winter, and had planned the trip across the plains to Urga as une belle excursion.

Mrs. Coltman was going, of course, as were Mr. and Mrs. "Ted" MacCallie of Tientsin. "Mac" was a famous Cornell football star whom I knew by reputation in my own college days. He was to take a complete Delco electric lighting plant to Urga, with the hope of installing it in the palace of the "Living God."

A soldier named Owen from the Legation guard in Peking was to drive the Delco car, and I had two Chinese taxidermists, Chen and Kang, besides Lu, our cook and camp boy.

Chen had been loaned to me by Dr. J. G. Andersson, Mining Adviser to the Chinese Republic, and proved to be one of the best native collectors whom I have ever employed. The Coltmans and MacCallies were to stay only a few days in Urga, but they helped to make the trip across Mongolia one of the most delightful parts of our glorious summer.

We left Kalgan on May 17. Mac, Owen, and I rode the forty miles to Hei-ma-hou on horseback while Charles drove a motor occupied by the three women.

There is a circuitous route by which cars can cross the pass under their own power, but Coltman preferred the direct road and sent four mules to tow the automobile up the mountains to the edge of the plateau.

It was the same trail I had followed the previous September. Then, as I stood on the summit of the pass gazing back across the far, dim hills, my heart was sad for I was about to enter a new land alone. My "best assistant" was on the ocean coming as fast as steam could carry her to join me in Peking. I wondered if Fate's decree would bring us here together that we might both have, as a precious heritage for future years, the memories of this strange land of romance and of mystery. Now the dream had been fulfilled and never have I entered a new country with greater hopes of what it would bring to me. Never, too, have such hopes been more gloriously realized.

We packed the cars that night and at half past five the next morning were on the road. The sky was gray and cloud-hung, but by ten o'clock the sun burned out and we gradually emerged from the fur robes in which we had been buried.

Instead of the fields of ripening grain which in the previous autumn had spread the hills with a flowing golden carpet, we saw blue-clad Chinese farmers turning long brown furrows with homemade plows. The trees about the mission station had just begun to show a tinge of green-the first sign of awakening at the touch of spring from the long winter sleep. Already caravans were astir, and we passed lines of laden camels now almost at the end of the long journey from Outer Mongolia, whither we were bound. But, instead of splendid beasts with upstanding humps and full neck beards, the camels now were pathetic mountains of almost naked skin on which the winter hair hung in ragged patches. The humps were loose and flat and flapped disconsolately as the great bodies lurched along the trail.

When we passed one caravan a débonnaire old Mongol wearing a derby hat swung out of line and signaled us to stop. After an appraising glance at the car he smiled broadly and indicated that he would like to race. In a moment he was off yelling at the top of his lungs and belaboring the bony sides of his camel with feet and hands. The animal's ungainly legs swung like a windmill in every direction it seemed, except forward, and yet the Mongol managed to keep his rolling old "ship of the desert" abreast of us for several minutes. Finally we let him win the race, and his look of delight was worth going far to see as he waved us good-by and with a hearty "sai-bei-nah" loped slowly back to the caravan.

The road was much better than it had been the previous fall. During the winter the constant tramp of padded feet had worn down and filled the ruts which had been cut by the summer traffic of spike-wheeled carts. But the camels had almost finished their winter's work. In a few weeks they would leave the trail to ox and pony caravans and spend the hot months in idleness, storing quantities of fat in their great hump reservoirs.

There was even more bird life than I had seen the previous September. The geese had all flown northward where we would find them scattered over their summer breeding grounds, but thousands of demoiselle cranes (Anthropoides virgo) had taken their places in the fields. They were in the midst of the spring courting and seemed to have lost all fear. One pair remained beside the road until we were less than twenty feet away, stepping daintily aside only when we threatened to run them down. Another splendid male performed a love dance for the benefit of his prospective bride quite undisturbed by the presence of our cars. With half-spread wings he whirled and leaped about the lady while every feather on her slim, blue body expressed infinite boredom and indifference to his passionate appeal.

Ruddy sheldrakes, mallards, shoveler ducks, and teal were in even the smallest ponds and avocets with sky-blue legs and slender recurved bills ran along the shores of a lake at which we stopped for tiffin. When we had passed the last Chinese village and were well in the Mongolian grasslands we had great fun shooting gophers (Citellus mongolicus umbratus) from the cars. It was by no means easy to kill them before they slipped into their dens, and I often had to burrow like a terrier to pull them out even when they were almost dead.

We got eighteen, and camped at half past four in order that the taxidermists might have time to prepare the skins. There was a hint of rain in the air and we pitched the tent for emergencies, although none of us wished to sleep inside. Mac suggested that we utilize the electric light plant even if we were on the Mongolian plains. In half an hour he had installed wires in the tent and placed an arc lamp on the summit of a pole. It was an extraordinary experience to see the canvas walls about us, to hear the mournful wail of a lone wolf outside, and yet be able to turn the switch of an electric light as though we were in the city. No arc lamp on Fifth Avenue blazed more brightly than did this one on the edge of the Gobi Desert where none of its kind had ever shone before. With the motor cars which had stolen the sanctity of the plains it was only another evidence of the passing of Mongolian mystery.

Usually when we camped we could see, almost immediately, the silhouettes of approaching Mongols black against the evening sky. Where they came from we could never guess. For miles there might not have been the trace of a human being, but suddenly they would appear as though from out the earth itself. Perhaps they had been riding along some distant ridge far beyond the range of white men's eyes, or the roar of a motor had carried to their ears across the miles of plain; or perhaps it was that unknown sense, which seems to have been developed in these children of the desert, which directs them unerringly to water, to a lost horse, or to others of the

ir kind. Be it what it may, almost every night the Mongols came loping into camp on their hardy, little ponies.

But this evening, when we had prepared an especial celebration, the audience did not arrive. It was a bitter disappointment, for we were consumed with curiosity to know what effect the blazing arc would have upon the Mongolian stoics. We could not believe that natives had not seen the light but probably they thought it was some spirit manifestation which was to be avoided. An hour after we were snuggled in our fur sleeping bags, two Mongols rode into camp, but we were too sleepy to give an exhibition of the fireworks.

We reached Panj-kiang about noon of the second day and found that a large mud house and a spacious compound had been erected beside the telegraph station by the Chinese company which was endeavoring to maintain a passenger service between Kalgan and Urga. The Chinese government also had invaded the field and was sending automobiles regularly to the Mongolian capital as a branch service of the Peking-Suiyuan railroad. In the previous September we had passed half a dozen of their motors in charge of a foreign representative of Messrs. Jardine, Matheson and Co. of Shanghai from whom the cars were purchased. He discovered immediately that the difficulties which the Chinese had encountered were largely the result of incompetent chauffeurs.

We had kept a sharp lookout for antelope, but saw nothing except a fox which looked so huge in the clear air that all of us were certain it was a wolf. There are always antelope on the Panj-kiang plain, however, and we loaded the magazines of our rifles as soon as we left the telegraph station. I was having a bit of sport with an immense flock of golden plover (Pluvialis dominicus fulvus) when the people in the cars signaled me to return, for a fine antelope buck was standing only a few hundred yards from the road. The ground was as smooth and hard as an asphalt pavement and we skimmed along at forty miles an hour. When the animal had definitely made up its mind to cross in front of us, Charles gave the accelerator a real push and the car jumped to a speed of forty-eight miles. The antelope was doing his level best to "cross our bows" but he was too far away, and for a few moments it seemed that we would surely crash into him if he held his course. It was a great race. Yvette had a death grip on my coat, for I was sitting half over the edge of the car ready to jump when Charles threw on the brakes. With any one but Coltman at the wheel I would have been too nervous to enjoy the ride, but we all had confidence in his superb driving.

The buck crossed the road not forty yards in front of us, just at the summit of a tiny hill. Charles and I both fired once, and the antelope turned half over in a whirl of dust. It disappeared behind the hill crest and we expected to find it dead on the other side, but the slope was empty and even with our glasses we could not discover a sign of life on the plain, which stretched away to the horizon apparently as level as a floor. It had been swallowed utterly as though by the magic pocket of a conjurer.

Mac had not participated in the fun, for it had been a one-man race. Fifteen minutes later, however, we had a "free for all" which gave him his initiation.

An extract from Yvette's "Journal" gives her impression of the chase:

"Some one pointed out the distant, moving specks on the horizon and in a moment our car had left the road and started over the plains. Nearer and nearer we came, and faster and faster ran the antelope stringing out in a long, yellow line before us. The speedometer was moving up and up, thirty miles, thirty-five miles. Roy was sitting on the edge of the car with his legs hanging out, rifle in hand, ready to swing to the ground as soon as the car halted. Mr. Coltman, who was driving, had already thrown on the brakes, but Roy, thinking in his excitement that he had stopped, jumped-and jumped too soon. The speed at which we were going threw him violently to the ground. I hardly dared look to see what had happened but somehow he turned a complete somersault, landed on his knees, and instantly began shooting. Mr. Coltman, his hands trembling with the exertion of the drive, opened fire across the wind shield. As the first reports crashed out, the antelope, which had seemed to be flying before, flattened out and literally skimmed over the plain. Half a dozen bullets struck behind the herd, then as Roy's rifle cracked again, one of those tiny specks dropped to the ground.

"It was a wonderful shot-four hundred and twenty yards measured distance. No, this isn't a woman's inaccuracy of figures, it's a fact. But then you must remember the extraordinary clearness of the air in Mongolia, where every object appears to be magnified half a dozen times. The brilliant atmosphere is one of the most bewildering things of the desert. Once we thought we saw an antelope grazing on the hillside and Mr. Coltman remarked disdainfully: 'Pooh, that's a horse.' But the laugh was on him for as we drew near the 'horse' proved to be only a bleached bone. At a short distance camels and ponies stood out as though cut in steel, seeming as high as a village church steeple; and, most ridiculous of all, my husband mistook me once at a long, long distance for a telegraph pole! Tartarin de Tarascon would have had some wonderful stories to tell of Mongolia!"

[Illustration: The Water Carrier for a Caravan]

[Illustration: A Thirty-five Pound Bustard]

[Illustration: Young Mongolia]

We had hardly reached the road again before Mrs. Coltman discovered a great herd of antelope on the slope of a low hill, and when the ears carried us over the crest we could see animals in every direction, feeding in pairs or in groups of ten to forty.

We all agreed that no better place could be found at which to obtain motion pictures and camp was made forthwith. Unfortunately, the gazelles were shedding their winter coats and the skins were useless except for study; however, I did need half a dozen skeletons, so the animals we killed would not be wasted.

It was four o'clock in the afternoon when the tents were up and too late to take pictures; therefore, the photography was postponed until the next day, and we ran over toward a herd of antelope which was just visible on the sky line. When each of us had killed an animal, the opinion was unanimous that we had enough. I got mine on the first chase and thenceforth employed my time in making observations on the antelope's speed.

Time after time the car reached forty miles an hour, but with an even start the gazelles could swing about in front and "cross our bows." One of the antelope had a front leg broken just below the knee, and gave us a hard chase with the car going at thirty-five miles an hour. I estimated that even in its crippled condition the animal was traveling at a rate of not less than twenty-five miles an hour.

My field notes tell of a similar experience with the last gazelle which Mac killed late in the afternoon. ". . . We ran toward another group of antelope standing on the summit of a long land swell. There were fourteen in this herd and as the car neared them they trotted about with heads up, evidently trying to decide what species of plains animal we represented. The sun had just set, and I shall never forget the picture which they made, their graceful figures showing in black silhouettes against the rose glow of the evening sky. There was one buck among them and they seemed very nervous. When the men leaped out to shoot we were fully two hundred and fifty yards away, but at his third shot Mac dropped the buck. It was up again and off before the motor started in pursuit and, although running apart from the herd, it was only a short distance behind the others. Evidently the right foreleg was broken but with the car traveling at twenty-five miles an hour it was still drawing ahead. The going was not good and we ran for two miles without gaining an inch; then we came to a bit of smooth plain and the motor shot ahead at thirty-five miles an hour. We gained slowly and, when about one hundred yards away, I leaped out and fired at the animal breaking the other foreleg low down on the left side. Even with two legs injured it still traveled at a rate of fifteen miles, and a third shot was required to finish the unfortunate business. We found that both limbs were broken below the knee, and that the animal had been running on the stumps."

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