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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 22735

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Our arrival in Urga was in the most approved manner of the twentieth century. We came in motor cars with much odor of gasoline and noise of horns. When we left the sacred city we dropped back seven hundred years and went as the Mongols traveled. Perhaps it was not quite as in the days of Genghis Khan, for we had three high-wheeled carts of a Russian model, but they were every bit as springless and uncomfortable as the palanquins of the ancient emperors.

Of course, we ourselves did not ride in carts. They were driven by our cook and the two Chinese taxidermists, each of whom sat on his own particular mound of baggage with an air of resignation and despondency. Their faces were very long indeed, for the sudden transition from tie back seat of a motor car to a jolting cart did not harmonize with their preconceived scheme of Mongolian life. But they endured it manfully, and doubtless it added much to the store of harrowing experience with which they could regale future audiences in civilized Peking.

My wife and I were each mounted on a Mongol pony. Mine was called "Kublai Khan" and he deserved the name. Later I shall have much to tell of this wonderful horse, for I learned to love him as one loves a friend who has endured the "ordeal by fire" and has not been found wanting. My wife's chestnut stallion was a trifle smaller than Kublai Khan and proved to be a tricky beast whom I could have shot with pleasure. To this day she carries the marks of both his teeth and hoofs, and we have no interest in his future life. Kublai Khan has received the reward of a sunlit stable in Peking where carrots are in abundance and sugar is not unknown.

Besides the three Chinese we had a little Mongol priest, a yellow lama only eighteen years of age. We did not hire him for spiritual reasons, but to be our guide and social mentor upon the plains. Of course, we could not speak Mongol, but both my wife and I know some Chinese and our cook-boy Lu was possessed of a species of "pidgin English" which, by using a good deal of imagination, we could understand at times. Since our lama spoke fluent Chinese, he acted as interpreter with the Mongols, and we had no difficulty. It is wonderful how much you can do with sign language when you really have to, especially if the other fellow tries to understand. You always can be sure that the Mongols will match your efforts in this respect.

An interesting part of our equipment was a Mongol tent which Charles Coltman had had made for us in Kalgan. This is an ingenious adaptation of the ordinary wall tent, and is especially fitted for work on the plains. No one should attempt to use any other kind. From the ridgepole the sides curve down and out to the ground, presenting a sloping surface to the wind at every angle. One corner can be lifted to cause a draft through the door and an open fire can be built in the tent without danger of suffocation from the smoke; moreover, it can be erected by a single person in ten minutes. We had an American wall tent also, but found it such a nuisance that we used it only during bad weather. In the wind which always blows upon the plains it flapped and fluttered to such a degree that we could hardly sleep.

As every traveler knows, the natives of a country usually have developed the best possible clothes and dwellings for the peculiar conditions under which they live. Just as the Mongol felt-covered yurt and tent are all that can be desired, so do they know that fur and leather are the only clothing to keep them warm during the bitter winter months.

In the carts we had an ample supply of flour, bacon, coffee, tea, sugar, and dried fruit. For meat, we depended upon our guns, of course, and always had as much as could be used. Although we did not travel de luxe, nevertheless we were entirely comfortable. When a man boasts of the way in which he discards even necessaries in the field, you can be morally certain that he has not done much real traveling. "Roughing it" does not harmonize well with hard work. One must accept enough discomforts under the best conditions without the addition of any which can be avoided. Good health is the prime requisite in the field. Without it you are lost. The only way in which to keep fit and ready to give every ounce of physical and mental energy to the problems of the day is to sleep comfortably, eat wholesome food, and be properly clothed. It is not often, then, that you will need a doctor. We have not as yet had a physician on any of our expeditions, even though we have often been very many miles from the nearest white men.

It never ceases to amuse me that the insurance companies always cancel my accident policies as soon as I leave for the field. The excuse is that I am not a "good risk," although they are ready enough to renew them when I return to New York. And yet the average person has a hundred times more chance of being killed or injured right on Fifth Avenue than do we who live in the open, breathing God's fresh air and sleeping under the stars. My friend Stefansson, the Arctic explorer, often says that "adventures are a mark of incompetence," and he is doubtless right. If a man goes into the field with a knowledge of the country he is to visit and with a proper equipment, he probably will have very few "adventures." If he has not the knowledge and equipment he had much better remain at home, for he will inevitably come to grief.

We learned from the Mongols that there was a wonderful shooting ground three hundred miles southwest of Urga in the country belonging to Sain Noin Khan. It was a region backed by mountains fifteen thousand feet in height, inhabited by bighorn sheep and ibex; and antelope were reported to be numerous upon the plains which merged gradually into the sandy wastes of the western Gobi where herds of wild horses (Equus prjevalski) and wild asses (Equus hemionus) could be found.

Sain Noin, one of the four Mongolian kings, had died only a short time earlier under suspicious circumstances, and his widow had just visited the capital. Monsieur Orlow, the Russian Diplomatic Agent, had written her regarding our prospective visit, and through him she had extended to us a cordial invitation.

Our start from Urga was on a particularly beautiful day, even for Mongolia. The golden roof of the great white temple on the hill blazed with light, and the undulating crest of the Sacred Mountain seemed so near that we imagined we could see the deer and boar in its parklike openings. Our way led across the valley and over the Tola River just below the palace of the Living God. We climbed a long hill and emerged on a sloping plain where marmots were bobbing in and out of their burrows like toy animals manipulated by a string. Two great flocks of demoiselle cranes were daintily catching grasshoppers not a hundred yards away. We wanted both the cranes for dinner and the marmots for specimens, but we dared not shoot. Although not actually upon sacred soil we were in close proximity to the Bogdo-ol and a rifle shot might have brought a horde of fanatical priests upon our heads. It is best to take no chances with religious superstitions, for the lamas do not wait to argue when they are once aroused.

The first day began most beautifully, but it ended badly as all first days are apt to do. We met our "Waterloo" on a steep hill shortly after tiffin, for two of the horses absolutely refused to pull. The loads were evidently too heavy, and the outlook for the future was not encouraging. An extract from my wife's journal tells what we did that afternoon.

"It took two hours to negotiate the hill, and the men were almost exhausted when the last load reached the summit Ever since tiffin the sky had been growing darker and darker, and great masses of black clouds gathered about the crest of the Bogdo-ol. Suddenly a vivid flash of lightning cut the sky as though with a flaming knife, and the rain came down in a furious beat of icy water. In five minutes we were soaked and shivering with cold, so when at last we reached the plain we turned off the road toward two Mongol yurts, which rested beside the river a mile away like a pair of great white birds.

"Roy and I galloped ahead over the soft, slushy grass, nearly blinded by the rain, and hobbling our horses outside the nearest yurt, went inside with only the formality of a shout. The room was so dark that I could hardly see, and the heavy smoke from the open fire burned and stung our eyes. On the floor sat a frowzy-looking woman, blowing at the fire, and a yellow lama, his saucer hat hidden under its waterproof covering-apparently he was a traveler like ourselves.

"The frowzy lady smiled and motioned us to sit down on a low couch beside the door. As we did so, I saw a small face peering out of a big sheepskin coat and two black eyes staring at us unblinkingly. It was a little Mongol girl whose nap had been disturbed by so many visitors. She was rather a pretty little thing and so small-just a little older than my own baby in Peking-that I wanted to play with her. She was shy at first, but when I held out a picture advertisement from a package of cigarettes she gradually edged nearer, encouraged by her mother. Soon she was leaning on my knee. Then without taking her black eyes from my face, she solemnly put one finger in her mouth and jerked it out with a loud 'pop,' much to her mother's gratification. But when she decided to crawl up into my lap, my interest began to wane, for she exuded such a concentrated 'essence of Mongol' and rancid mutton fat that I was almost suffocated.

"Our hostess was busy stirring a thick, white soup in a huge caldron, and by the time the carts arrived every one was dipping in with their wooden bowls. We begged to be excused, since we had already had some experience with Mongol soup.

"The yurt really was not a bad place when we became accustomed to the bitter smoke and the combination of native odors. There were two couches, about six inches from the ground, covered with sheepskins and furs. Opposite the door stood a chest-rather a nice one-on top of which was a tiny god with a candle burning before it, and a photograph of the Hutukhtu."

We had dinner in the yurt, and the boys slept there while we used our Mongol tent. There was no difficulty in erecting it even in the wind and rain, but it would have been impossible to have put up the American wall tent. Even though it was the fifth of June, there was a sharp frost during the night, and we were thankful for our fur sleeping bags.

Always in Mongolia after a heavy rain the air is crystal-clear, and we had a delightful morning beside the river. Hundreds of demoiselle cranes were feeding in the meadowlike valley bottom where the grass was as green as emeralds. We saw two of the graceful birds standing on a sand bar and, as we rode toward them, they showed not the slightest sign of fear. When we were not more than twenty feet away they walked slowly about in a circle, and the lama discovered two spotted brown eggs almost under his pony's feet. There was no sign of a nest, but the eggs were perfectly protected by their resemblance to the stones.

Our way led close along the Tola River, and just before tiffin we saw a line of camels coming diagonally toward us from behind a distant hill. I wish you could have seen t

hat caravan in all its barbaric splendor as it wound across the vivid green plains. Three lamas, dressed in gorgeous yellow robes, and two, in flaming red, rode ahead on ponies. Then neck and neck, mounted on enormous camels, came four men in gowns of rich maroon and a woman flashing with jewels and silver. Behind them, nose to tail, was the long, brown line of laden beasts. It was like a painting of the Middle Ages-like a picture of the days of Kublai Khan, when the Mongol court was the most splendid the world has ever seen. My wife and I were fascinated, for this was the Mongolia of our dreams.

But our second day was not destined to be one of unalloyed happiness, for just after luncheon we reached a bad stretch of road alternating between jagged rocks and deep mud holes. The white horse, which was so quickly exhausted the day before, gave up absolutely when its cart became badly mired. Just then a red lama appeared with four led ponies and said that one of his horses could extricate the cart. He hitched a tiny brown animal between the shafts, we all put our shoulders to the wheels, and in ten minutes the load was on solid ground. We at once offered to trade horses, and by giving a bonus of five dollars I became the possessor of the brown pony.

But the story does not end there. Two months later when we had returned to Urga a Mongol came to our camp in great excitement and announced that we had one of his horses. He said that five animals had been stolen from him and that the little brown pony for which I had traded with the lama was one of them. His proof was incontrovertible and according to the law of the country I was bound to give back the animal and accept the loss. However, a half dozen hard-riding Mongol soldiers at once took up the trail of the lama, and the chances are that there will be one less thieving priest before the incident is closed.

It is interesting to note how a similarity of conditions in western America and in Mongolia has developed exactly the same attitude of mutual protection in regard to horses. In both countries horse-stealing is considered to be one of the worst crimes. It is punishable by death in Mongolia or, what is infinitely worse, by a life in one of the prison coffins. Moreover, the spirit of mutual assistance is carried further, and several times during the summer when our ponies had strayed miles from the tents they were brought in by passing Mongols, or we were told where they could be found.

Our camp the second night was on a beautiful, grassy plateau beside a tiny stream, a tributary of the river. We put out a line of traps for small mammals, but in the morning were disappointed to find only three meadow mice (Microtus). There were no fresh signs of marmots, hares, or other animals along the river, and I began to suspect what eventually proved to be true, viz., that the valley was a favorite winter camping ground for Mongols, and that all the game had been killed or driven far away. Indeed, we had hardly been beyond sight of a yurt during the entire two days, and great flocks of sheep and goats were feeding on every grassy meadow.

But the Mongols considered cartridges too precious to waste on birds and we saw many different species. The demoiselle cranes were performing their mating dances all about us, and while one was chasing a magpie it made the most amusing spectacle, as it hopped and flapped after the little black and white bird which kept just out of reach.

Mongolian skylarks were continually jumping out of the grass from almost under our horses' feet to soar about our heads, flooding the air with song. Along the sand banks of the river we saw many flocks of swan geese (Cygnopsis cygnoides). They are splendid fellows with a broad, brown band down the back of the neck, and are especially interesting as being the ancestors of the Chinese domestic geese. They were not afraid of horses, but left immediately if a man on foot approached. I killed half a dozen by slipping off my pony, when about two hundred yards away, and walking behind the horses while Yvette rode boldly toward the flock, leading Kublai Khan. Twice the birds fell across the river, and we had to swim for them. My pony took to the water like a duck and when we had reached the other bank would arch his neck as proudly as though he had killed the bird himself. His keen interest in sport, his gentleness, and his intelligence won my heart at once. He would let me shoot from his back without the slightest fear, even though he had never been used as a hunting pony by Prince Tze Tze from whom he had been purchased.

In the ponds and among the long marsh grass we found the ruddy sheldrake (Casarca casarca), and the crested lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). They were like old friends, for we had met them first in far Yün-nan and on the Burma frontier during the winter of 1916-17 whence they had gone to escape the northern cold; now they were on their summer breeding grounds. The sheldrakes glowed like molten gold when the sun found them in the grass, and we could not have killed the beautiful birds even had we needed them for food. Moreover, like the lapwings, they had a trusting simplicity, a way of throwing themselves on one's mercy, which was infinitely appealing. We often hunted for the eggs of both the sheldrakes and lapwings. They must have been near by, we knew, for the old birds would fly about our heads uttering agonizing calls, but we never found the nests.

I killed four light-gray geese with yellow bills and legs and narrow brown bars across the head, and a broad brown stripe down the back of the neck. I could only identify the species as the bar-headed goose of India (Eulabeia indica), which I was not aware ever traveled so far north to breed. Later I found my identification to be correct, and that the bird is an occasional visitor to Mongolia. We saw only one specimen of the bean goose (Anser fabalis), the common bird of China, which I had expected would be there in thousands. There were a few mallards, redheads, and shoveler ducks, and several bustards, besides half a dozen species of plover and shore birds.

Except for these the trip would have been infinitely monotonous, for we were bitterly disappointed in the lack of animal life. Moreover, there was continual trouble with the carts, and on the third day I had to buy an extra horse. Although one can purchase, a riding pony at any yurt, cart animals are not easy to find, for the Mongols use oxen or camels to draw most loads. The one we obtained had not been in the shafts for more than two years and was badly frightened when we brought him near the cart. It was a liberal education to see our Mongol handle that horse! He first put a hobble on all four legs, then he swung a rope about the hind quarters, trussed him tightly, and swung him into the shafts. When the pony was properly harnessed, he fastened the bridle to the rear of the other cart and drove slowly ahead. At first the horse tried to kick and plunge, but the hobbles held him fast and in fifteen minutes he settled to the work. Then the Mongol removed the hobbles from the hind legs, and later left the pony entirely free. He walked beside the animal for a long time, and did not attempt to drive him from the cart for at least an hour.

Although Mongols seem unnecessarily rough and almost brutal, I do not believe that any people in the world can handle horses more expertly. From earliest childhood their real home is the back of a pony. Every year, in the spring, a children's race is held at Urga. Boys and girls from four to six years old are tied on horses and ride at full speed over a mile-long course. If a child falls off it receives but scant sympathy and is strapped on again more tightly than before. A Mongol has no respect whatever for a man or woman who cannot ride, and nothing will win his regard as rapidly as expert horsemanship. Strangely enough the Mongols seldom show affection for their ponies, nor do they caress them in any way; consequently, the animals do not enjoy being petted and are prone to kick and bite. My pony, Kublai Khan, was an extraordinary exception to this rule and was as affectionate and gentle as a kitten-but there are few animals like Kublai Khan in Mongolia!

The ponies are small, of course, but they are strong almost beyond belief, and can stand punishment that would kill an ordinary horse. The Mongols seldom side except at a trot or a full gallop, and forty to fifty miles a day is not an unusual journey. Moreover, the animals are not fed grain; they must forage on the plains the year round. During the winter, when the grass is dry and sparse, they have poor feeding, but nevertheless are able to withstand the extreme cold. They grow a coat of hair five or six inches in length, and when Kublai Khan arrived in Peking after his long journey across the plains he looked more like a grizzly bear than a horse. He had changed so completely from the sleek, fine-limbed animal we had known in Mongolia that my wife was almost certain he could not be the same pony. He had to be taught to eat carrots, apples, and other vegetables and would only sniff suspiciously at sugar. But in a very short time he learned all the tastes of his city-bred companions.

Horses are cheap in Mongolia, but not extraordinarily so. In the spring a fair pony can be purchased for from thirty to sixty dollars (silver), and especially good ones bring as much as one hundred and fifty dollars. In the fall when the Mongols are confronted with a hard winter, which naturally exacts a certain toll from any herd, ponies sell for about two-thirds of their spring price.

In Urga we had been led to believe that the entire trip to Sain Noin Khan's village could be done in eight days and that game was plentiful along the trail. We had already been on the road five days, making an average of twenty-five miles at each stage, and the natives assured us that it would require at least ten more days of steady travel before we could possibly arrive at our destination; if difficulties arose it might take even longer. Moreover, we had seen only one hare and one marmot, and our traps had yielded virtually nothing. It was perfectly evident that the entire valley had been denuded of animal life by the Mongols, and there was little prospect that conditions would change as long as we remained on such rich grazing grounds.

It was hard to turn back and count the time lost, but it was certainly the wisest course for we knew that there was good collecting on the plains south of Urga, although the fauna would not be as varied as at the place we had hoped to reach. The summer in Mongolia is so short that every day must be made to count if results which are worth the money invested are to be obtained.

Yvette and I were both very despondent that evening when we decided it was necessary to turn back. It was one of those nights when I wished with all my heart that we could sit in front of our own camp fire without the thought of having to "make good" to any one but ourselves. However, once the decision was made, we tried to forget the past days and determined to make up for lost time in the future.

[Illustration: The Traffic Policeman on Urga's "Broadway"]

[Illustration: A Mongol Lama]

[Illustration: The Grasslands of Outer Mongolia]

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