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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 17865

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

It was eight o'clock before we finished breakfast in the morning, but we did not wish to begin the motion picture photography until the sun was high enough above the horizon to give us a clear field for work. Charles and I rigged the tripod firmly in the tonneau of one of the cars. Mrs. Mac and Wang, a Chinese driver, were in the front seat, while Yvette and I squeezed in beside the camera. The Coltmans, Mac, and Owen occupied the other motor. We found a herd of antelope within a mile of camp and they paraded in beautiful formation as the car approached. It would have made a splendid picture, but although the two automobiles were of the same make, there was a vast difference in their speed and it was soon evident that we could not keep pace with the other motor. After two or three ineffectual attempts we roped the camera in the most powerful car, the three men came in with me, and the women transferred to Wang's machine.

The last herd of antelope had disappeared over a long hill, and when we reached the summit we saw that they had separated into four groups and scattered about on the plains below us. We selected the largest, containing about fifty animals, and ran toward it as fast as the car could travel. The herd divided when we were still several hundred yards away, but the larger part gave promise of swinging across our path. The ground was thinly covered with short bunch grass, and when we reached a speed of thirty-five miles an hour the car was bounding and leaping over the tussocks like a ship in a heavy gale. I tried to stand, but after twice being almost pitched out bodily I gave it up and operated the camera by kneeling on the rear seat. Mac helped anchor me by sitting on my left leg, and we got one hundred feet of film from the first herd. Races with three other groups gave us two hundred feet more, and as the gasoline in our tank was alarmingly depleted we turned back toward camp.

Unfortunately I did not reload the camera with a fresh roll of film and thereby missed one of the most unusual and interesting pictures which ever could be obtained upon the plains. The tents were already in sight when a wolf suddenly appeared on the crest of a grassy knoll. He looked at us for a moment and then set off at an easy lope. The temptation was too great to be resisted even though there was a strong possibility that we might be stalled in the desert with no gas.

The ground was smooth and hard, and our speedometer showed forty miles an hour. We soon began to gain, but for three miles he gave us a splendid race. Suddenly, as we came over a low hill, we saw an enormous herd of antelope directly in front of us. They were not more than two hundred yards away, and the wolf made straight for them. Panic-stricken at the sight of their hereditary enemy followed by the roaring car, they scattered wildly and then swung about to cross our path. The wolf dashed into their midst and the herd divided as though cut by a knife. Some turned short about, but the others kept on toward us until I thought we would actually run them down. When not more than fifty yards from the motor they wheeled sharply and raced along beside the wolf.

To add to the excitement a fat, yellow marmot, which seemed suddenly to have lost his mind, galloped over the plain as fast as his short legs could carry him until he remembered that safety lay underground; then he popped into his burrow like a billiard ball into a pocket. With this strange assortment fleeing in front of the car we felt as though we had invaded a zo?logical garden.

The wolf paid not the slightest attention to the antelope for he had troubles of his own. We were almost on him, and I could see his red tongue between the foam-flecked jaws. Suddenly he dodged at right angles, and it was only by a clever bit of driving that Charles avoided crashing into him with the left front wheel. Before we could swing about the wolf had gained five hundred yards, but he was almost done. In another mile we had him right beside the car, and Coltman leaned far out to kill him with his pistol. The first bullet struck so close behind the animal that it turned him half over, and he dodged again just in time to meet a shot from Mac's rifle which broke his back. With its dripping lips drawn over a set of ugly teeth, the beast glared at us, as much as to say, "It is your move next, but don't come too close." Had it been any animal except a wolf I should have felt a twinge of pity, but I had no sympathy for the skulking brute. There will be more antelope next year because of its death.

All this had happened with an unloaded camera in the automobile. I had tried desperately to adjust a new roll of film, but had given up in despair for it was difficult enough even to sit in the bounding car. Were I to spend the remainder of my life in Mongolia there might never be such a chance again.

But we had an opportunity to learn just how fast a wolf can run, for the one we had killed was undoubtedly putting his best foot forward. I estimated that even at first he was not doing more than thirty-five miles an hour, and later we substantiated it on another, which gave us a race of twelve miles. With antelope which can reach fifty-five to sixty miles an hour a wolf has little chance, unless he catches them unawares, or finds the newly born young. To avoid just this the antelope are careful to stay well out on the plains where there are no rocks or hills to conceal a skulking wolf.

The wolf we had killed was shedding its hair and presented a most dilapidated, moth-eaten appearance; moreover, it had just been feeding on the carcass of a dead camel, which subsequently we discovered a mile away. When we reached camp I directed the two taxidermists to prepare the skeleton of the wolf, but to keep well away from the tents.

Charles and I had been talking a good deal about antelope steak, and for tiffin I had cut the fillets from one of the young gazelle. We were very anxious to "make good" on all that had been promised, so we cooked the steak ourselves. Just when the party was assembled in the tent for luncheon the Chinese began work upon the wolf. They had obediently gone to a considerable distance to perform the last rites, but had not chosen wisely in regard to the wind. As the antelope steak was brought in, a gentle breeze wafted with it a concentrated essence of defunct camel. Yvette put down her knife and fork and looked up. She caught my eye and burst out laughing. Mrs. Mac had her hand clasped firmly over her mouth and on her face was an expression of horror and deathly nausea.

Although I am a great lover of antelope steak, I will admit that when accompanied by parfum de chameau, especially when it is a very dead chameau, there are other things more attractive. Moreover, the antelope which we killed on the Panj-kiang plain really were very strong indeed. I have never been able to discover what was the cause, for those farther to the north were as delicious as any we have ever eaten. The introduction was such an unfortunate one that the party shied badly whenever antelope meat was mentioned during the remainder of the trip to Urga. Coltman, who had charge of the commissary, quite naturally expected that we would depend largely on meat and had not provided a sufficiency of other food. As a result we found that after the third day rations were becoming very short.

We camped that night at a well in a sandy river bottom about ten miles beyond Ude, the halfway point on the trip to Urga. It had been a bad day, with a bitterly cold wind which drove the dust and tiny pebbles against our faces like a continual storm of hail. As soon as the cars had stopped every one of us set to work with soap and water before anything had been done toward making camp. Our one desire was to remove a part of the dirt which had sifted into our eyes, hair, mouths, and ears. In half an hour we looked more brightly upon the world and began to wonder what we would have for dinner. It was a discussion which could not be carried on for very long since the bread was almost gone and only macaroni remained. Just then a demoiselle crane alighted beside the well not forty yards away. "There's our dinner," Charles shouted, "shoot it."

Two minutes later I was stripping off the feathers, and in less than five minutes it was sizzling in the pan. That was a bit too much for Mrs. Mac, hungry as she was. "Just think," she said, "that bird was walking about here not ten minutes ago and now it's on my plate. It hasn't stopped wiggling yet. I can't eat it!"

Poor girl, she went to bed hungry, and in the night waked to find her face terribly swollen from wind and sunburn. She was certain that she was about to die, but decided, like the "good sport" she is, to die alone upon the hillside where she wouldn't disturb the camp. After half an hour of wandering about she felt better, and returned t

o her sleeping bag on the sandy river bottom.

Just before dark we heard the dong, dong, dong of a camel's bell and saw the long line of dusty yellow animals swing around a sharp earth-corner into the sandy space beside the well. Like the trained units of an army each camel came into position, kneeled upon the ground and remained quietly chewing its cud until the driver removed the load. Long before the last straggler had arrived the tents were up and a fire blazing, and far into the night the thirsty beasts grunted and roared as the trough was filled with water.

For thirty-six days they had been on the road, and yet were only halfway across the desert. Every day had been exactly like the day before-an endless routine of eating and sleeping, camp-making and camp-breaking in sun, rain, or wind. The monotony of it all would be appalling to a westerner, but the Oriental mind seems peculiarly adapted to accept it with entire contentment. Long before daylight they were on the road again, and when we awoke only the smoking embers of an argul fire remained as evidence that they ever had been there.

Mongolia, as we saw it in the spring, was very different from Mongolia of the early autumn. The hills and plains stretched away in limitless waves of brown untinged by the slightest trace of green, and in shaded corners among rocks there were still patches of snow or ice. Instead of resembling the grassy plains of Kansas or Nebraska, now it was like a real desert and I had difficulty in justifying to Yvette and Mac my glowing accounts of its potential resources.

Moreover, the human life was just as disappointing as the lack of vegetation, for we were "between seasons" on the trail. The winter traffic was almost ended, and the camels would not be replaced by cart caravans until the grass was long enough to provide adequate food for oxen and horses. The yurts, which often are erected far out upon the plains away from water when snow is on the ground, had all been moved near the wells or to the summer pastures; and sometimes we traveled a hundred miles without a glimpse of even a solitary Mongol.

Ude had been left far behind, and we were bowling along on a road as level as a floor, when we saw two wolves quietly watching us half a mile away. We had agreed not to chase antelope again; but wolves were fair game at any time. Moreover, we were particularly glad to be able to check our records as to how fast a wolf can run when conditions are in its favor. Coltman signaled Mac to await us with the others, and we swung toward the animals which were trotting slowly westward, now and then stopping to look back as though reluctant to leave such an unusual exhibition as the car was giving them. A few moments later, however, they decided that curiosity might prove dangerous and began to run in earnest.

They separated almost immediately, and we raced after the larger of the two, a huge fellow with rangy legs which carried him forward in a long, swinging lope. The ground was perfect for the car, and the speedometer registered forty miles an hour. He had a thousand-yard start, but we gained rapidly, and I estimated that he never reached a greater speed than thirty miles an hour. Charles was very anxious to kill the brute from the motor with his .45 caliber automatic pistol, and I promised not to shoot.

The wolf was running low to the ground, his head a little to one side watching us with one bloodshot eye. He was giving us a great race, but the odds were all against him, and finally we had him right beside the motor. Leaning far out, Coltman fired quickly. The bullet struck just behind the brute, and he swerved sharply, missing the right front wheel by a scant six inches. Before Charles could turn the car he had gained three hundred yards, but we reached him again in little more than a mile. As Coltman was about to shoot a second time, the wolf suddenly dropped from sight. Almost on the instant the car plunged over a bank four feet in height, landed with a tremendous shock-and kept on! Charles had seen the danger in a flash, and had thrown his body against the wheel to hold it steady. Had he not been an expert driver we should inevitably have turned upside down and probably all would have been killed.

We stopped an instant to inspect the springs, but by a miracle not a leaf was broken. The wolf halted, too, and we could see him standing on a gentle rise with drooping head, his gray sides heaving. He seemed to be "all in," but to our amazement he was off again like the wind even before the car had started. During the last three miles the ground had been changing rapidly, and we soon reached a stony plain where there was imminent danger of smashing a front wheel. The wolf was heading directly toward a rocky slope which lay against the sky like the spiny back of some gigantic monster of the past.

His strategy had almost won the race. For a moment the wolf rested on the ridge, and I leaped out to shoot, but instantly he dropped behind the bowlders. Leaving me to intercept the animal, Charles swung behind the ridge only to run at full speed into a sandy pocket. The motor ceased to throb, and the race was ended.

These wolves are sneaking carrion-feeders and as such I detest them, but this one had "played the game." For twelve long miles he had kept doggedly at his work without a whimper or a cry of "kamerad." The brute had outgeneraled us completely, had won by strategy and magnificent endurance. Whatever he supposed the roaring car to be, instinct told him that safety lay among the rocks and he led us there as straight as an arrow's flight.

The animal seemed to take an almost human enjoyment in the way we had been tricked, for he stood on a hillside half a mile away watching our efforts to extricate the car. We were in a bad place, and it was evident that the only method of escape was to remove all the baggage which was tied to the running boards. Spreading our fur sleeping bags upon the sand, we pushed and lifted the automobile to firm ground after an hour of strenuous work. Hardly had we started back to the road, when Charles suddenly clapped both hands to his face yelling, "My Lord, I'm burning up. What is it? I'm all on fire."

Mrs. Coltman pulled his hands away, revealing his face covered with blotches and rising blisters. At the same moment Yvette and I felt a shower of liquid fire stinging our hands and necks. We leaped out of the car just as another blast swept back upon us. Then Charles shouted, "I know. It's the Delco plant," and dived toward the front mud guard. Sure enough, the cover had been displaced from one of the batteries, and little pools of sulphuric acid had formed on the leather casings. The wind was blowing half a gale, and each gust showered us with drops of colorless liquid which bit like tiny, living coals.

In less than ten seconds I had slashed the ropes and the batteries were lying on the ground, but the acid had already done its work most thoroughly. The duffle sacks containing all our field clothes had received a liberal dose, and during the summer Yvette was kept busy patching shirts and trousers. I never would have believed that a little acid could go so far. Even garments in the very center of the sacks would suddenly disintegrate when we put them on, and the Hutukhtu and his electric plant were "blessed" many times before we left Mongolia.

[Illustration: Mongol Horsemen on the Streets of Urga]

[Illustration: The Prison at Urga]

[Illustration: A Criminal in a Coffin with Hands Manacled]

When we reached the road, Mrs. Mac was sitting disconsolately in a car beside the servants. We had been gone nearly three hours and the poor girl was frantic with anxiety. Mac and Owen had followed our tracks in another motor, and arrived thirty minutes later. Mac's happy face was drawn and white.

"I wouldn't go through that experience again for all the money in

Mongolia," he said. "We followed your tracks and at every hill

expected to find you dead on the other side and the car upside down.

How on earth did you miss capsizing when you went over that bank?"

At Turin we found Mr. and Mrs. Mamen camped near the telegraph station awaiting our arrival. The first cry was "Food! Food!" and two loaves of Russian bread which they had brought from Urga vanished in less than fifteen minutes. After taking several hundred feet of "movie" film at the monastery, we ran on northward over a road which was as smooth and hard as a billiard table. The Turin plain was alive with game; marmots, antelope, hares, bustards, geese, and cranes seemed to have concentrated there as though in a vast zo?logical garden, and we had some splendid shooting. But as Yvette and I spent two glorious months on this same plain, I will tell in future chapters how, in long morning horseback rides and during silent starlit nights, we learned to know and love it.

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