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   Chapter 8 THE LURE OF THE PLAINS

Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 25161

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


On Monday, June 16, we left Urga to go south along the old caravan trail toward Kalgan. Only a few weeks earlier we had skimmed over the rolling surface in motor cars, crossing in one day then as many miles of plains as our own carts could do in ten. But it had another meaning to us now, and the first night as we sat at dinner in front of the tent and watched the afterglow fade from the sky behind the pine-crowned ridge of the Bogdo-ol, we thanked God that for five long months we could leave the twentieth century with its roar and rush, and live as the Mongols live; we knew that the days of discouragement had ended and that we could learn the secrets of the desert life which are yielded up to but a chosen few.

Within twenty-five miles of Urga we had seen a dozen marmots and a species of gopher (Citellus) that was new to us. The next afternoon at two o'clock we climbed the last long slope from out the Tola River drainage basin, and reached the plateau which stretches in rolling waves of plain and desert to the frontier of China six hundred miles away. Before us three pools of water flashed like silver mirrors in the sunlight, and beyond them, tucked away in a sheltered corner of the hills, stood a little temple surrounded by a cluster of gray-white yurts.

Our Mongol learned that the next water was on the far side of a plain thirty-five miles in width, so we camped beside the largest pond. It was a beautiful spot with gently rolling hills on either side, and in front, a level plain cut by the trail's white line.

As soon as the tents were up Yvette and I rode off, accompanied by the lama, carrying a bag of traps. Within three hundred yards of camp we found the first marmot. When it had disappeared underground we carefully buried a steel trap at the entrance of the hole and anchored it securely to an iron tent peg. With rocks and earth we plugged all the other openings, for there are usually five or six tunnels to every burrow. While the work was going on other marmots were watching us curiously from half a dozen mounds, and we set nine traps before it was time to return for dinner.

The two Chinese taxidermists had taken a hundred wooden traps for smaller mammals, and before dark we inspected the places they had found. Already one of them held a gray meadow vole (Microtus), quite a different species from those which had been caught along the Tola River, and Yvette discovered one of the larger traps dragged halfway into a hole with a baby marmot safely caught. He was only ten inches long and covered with soft yellow-white fur.

Shortly after daylight the next morning the lama came to our tent to announce that there was a marmot in one of the traps. The boy was as excited as a child of ten and had been up at dawn. When we were dressed we followed the Mongol to the first burrow Where a fine marmot was securely caught by the hind leg. A few yards away we had another female, and the third trap was pulled far into the hole. A huge male was at the other end, but he had twisted his body halfway around a curve in the tunnel and by pulling with all our strength the Mongol and I could not move him a single inch. Finally we gave up and had to dig him out. He had given a wonderful exhibition of strength for so small an animal.

It was especially gratifying to catch these marmots so easily, for we had been told in Urga that the Mongols could not trap them. I was at a loss to understand why, for they are closely related to the "woodchucks" of America with which every country boy is familiar. Later I learned the reason for the failure of the natives. In the Urga market we saw some double-spring traps exactly like those of ours, but when I came to examine them I found they had been made in Russia, and the springs were so weak that they were almost useless. These were the only steel traps which the Mongols had ever seen.

The marmots (Marmota robusta) were supposed to be responsible for the spread of the pneumonia plague which swept into northern China from Manchuria a few years ago; but I understand from physicians of the Rockefeller Foundation in Peking, who especially investigated the disease, that the animal's connection with it is by no means satisfactorily determined.

The marmots hibernate during the winter, and retire to their burrows early in October, not to emerge until April. When they first come out in the spring their fur is bright yellow, and the animals contrast beautifully with the green grass. After the middle of June the yellow fur begins to slip off in patches, leaving exposed the new coat, which is exceedingly short and is mouse-gray in color. Then, of course, the skins are useless for commercial purposes. As the summer progresses the fur grows until by September first it has formed a long, soft coat of rich gray-brown which is of considerable economic value. The skins are shipped to Europe and America and during the past winter (1919-1920) were especially popular as linings for winter coats.

We had an opportunity to see how quickly the demand in the great cities reaches directly to the center of production thousands of miles away. When we went to Urga in May prime marmot skins were worth thirty cents each to the Mongols. Early in October, when we returned, the hunters were selling the same skins for one dollar and twenty-five cents apiece.

The natives always shoot the animals. When a Mongol has driven one into its burrow, he lies quietly beside the hole waiting for the marmot to appear. It may be twenty minutes or even an hour, but the Oriental patience takes little note of time. Finally a yellow head emerges and a pair of shining eyes glance quickly about in every direction. Of course, they see the Mongol but he looks only like a mound of earth, and the marmot raises itself a few inches higher. The hunter lies as motionless as a log of wood until the animal is well out of its burrow-then he shoots.

The Mongols take advantage of the marmot's curiosity in an amusing and even more effective way. With a dogskin tied to his saddle the native rides over the plain until he reaches a marmot colony. He hobbles his pony at a distance of three or four hundred yards, gets down on his hands and knees, and throws the dogskin over his shoulders. He crawls slowly toward the nearest animal, now and then stopping to bark and shake his head. In an instant, the marmot is all attention. He jumps up and down whistling and barking, but never venturing far from the opening of his burrow.

As the pseudo-dog advances there seems imminent danger that the fat little body will explode from curiosity and excitement. But suddenly the "dog" collapses in the strangest way and the marmot raises on the very tips of his toes to see what it is all about. Then there is a roar, a flash of fire and another skin is added to the millions which have already been sent to the seacoast from outer Mongolia.

Mr. Mamen often spoke of an extraordinary dance which he had seen the marmots perform, and when Mr. and Mrs. MacCallie returned to Kalgan they saw it also. We were never fortunate enough to witness it. Mac said that two marmots stood erect on their hind legs, grasping each other with their front paws, and danced slowly about exactly as though they were waltzing. He agreed with Mamen that it was the most extraordinary and amusing thing he had ever seen an animal do. I can well believe it, for the marmots have many curious habits which would repay close study. The dance could hardly be a mating performance since Mac saw it in late May and by that time the young had already been born.

One morning at the "Marmot Camp," as we named the one where we first began real collecting, Yvette saw six or seven young animals on top of a mound in the green grass. We went there later with a gun and found the little fellows playing like kittens, chasing each other about and rolling over and over. It was hard to make myself bring tragedy into their lives, but we needed them for specimens. A group showing an entire marmot family would be interesting for the Museum; especially so in view of their reported connection with the pneumonic plague. We collected a dozen others before the summer was over to show the complete transition from the first yellow coat to the gray-brown of winter.

Like most rodents, the marmots grow rapidly and have so many young in every litter that they will not soon be exterminated in Mongolia unless the native hunters obtain American steel traps. Even then it would take some years to make a really alarming impression upon the millions which spread over all the plains of northern Mongolia and Manchuria.

Since these marmots are a distinctly northern animal they are a great help in determining the life zones of this part of Asia. We found that their southern limit is at Turin, one hundred and seventy-five miles from Urga. A few scattered families live there, but the real marmot country begins about twenty-five miles farther north.

The first hunting camp was eighty miles south of Urga, after we had passed a succession of low hills and reached what, in prehistoric times, was probably a great lake basin. When our tents were pitched beside the well they seemed pitifully small in the vastness of the plain. The land rolled in placid waves to the far horizon on every hand. It was like a calm sea which is disturbed only by the lazy progress of the ocean swell. Two yurts, like the sails of hull-down ships, showed black against the sky-rim where it met the earth. The plain itself seemed at first as flat as a table, for the swells merged indistinguishably into a level whole. It was only when approaching horsemen dipped for a little out of sight and the depressions swallowed them up that we realized the unevenness of the land.

Camp was hardly made before our Mongol neighbors began to pay their formal calls. A picturesque fellow, blazing with color, would dash up to our tent at a full gallop, slide off and hobble his pony almost in a single motion. With a "sai bina" of greeting he would squat in the door, produce his bottle of snuff and offer us a pinch. There was a quiet dignity about these plains dwellers which was wonderfully appealing. They were seldom unduly curious, and when we indicated that the visit was at an end, they left at once.

Sometimes they brought bowls of curded milk, or great lumps of cheese as presents, and in return we gave cigarettes or now and then a cake of soap. Having been told in Urga that soap was especially appreciated by the Mongols, I had brought a supply of red, blue, and green cakes which had a scent even more wonderful than the color. I can't imagine why they like it, for it is carefully put away and never used.

Strangely enough, the Mongols have no word for "thank you" other than "sai" (good), but when they wish to express approbation, and usually when saying "good-by," they put up the thumb with the fingers closed. In Yün-nan and eastern Tibet we noted the same custom among the aboriginal tribesmen. I wonder if it is merely a coincidence that in the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome "thumbs up" meant mercy or approval!

The Mongols told us that in the rolling ground to the east of camp we could surely find antelope. The first morning my wife and I went out alone. We trotted steadily for an hour, making for the summit of a rise seven or eight miles from camp. Yvette held the ponies, while I sat down to sweep the country with my glasses. Directly in front of us two small valleys converged into a larger one, and almost immediately I discovered half a dozen orange-yellow forms in its very bottom about two miles away. They were antelope quietly feeding. In a few moments I made out two more close together, and then four off at the right. After my wife had found them with her glasses we sat down to plan the stalk.

It was obvious that we should try to cross the two small depressions which debouched into the main valley and approach from behind the hill crest nearest to the gazelles. We trotted slowly across the gully while the antelope were in sight, and then swung around at full gallop under the protection of the rising ground. We came up just opposite to the herd and dismounted, but were fully six hundred yards away. Suddenly one of those impulses which the hunter never can explain sent them off like streaks of yellow light, but they turned on the opposite hillside, slowed down, and moved uncertainly up the valley.

Much to our surprise four of the animals detached themselves from the others and crosse

d the depression in our direction. When we saw that they were really coming we threw ourselves into the saddles and galloped forward to cut them off. Instantly the antelope increased their speed and literally flew up the hill slope. I shouted to Yvette to watch the holes and shook the reins over Kublai Khan's neck. Like a bullet he was off. I could feel his great muscles flowing between my knees but otherwise there seemed hardly a motion of his body in the long, smooth run. Standing straight up in the stirrups, I glanced back at my wife who was sitting her chestnut stallion as lightly as a butterfly. Hat gone, hair streaming, the thrill of it all showed in every line of her body. She was running a close second, almost at my side. I saw a marmot hole flash by. A second death trap showed ahead and I swung Kublai Khan to the right. Another and another followed, but the pony leaped them like a cat. The beat of the fresh, clean air; the rush of the splendid horse; the sight of the yellow forms fleeing like wind-blown ribbons across our path-all this set me mad with excitement and a wild exhilaration. Suddenly I realized that I was yelling like an Indian. Yvette, too, was screaming in sheer delight.

The antelope were two hundred yards away when I tightened on the reins. Kublai Khan stiffened and stopped in twenty yards. The first shot was low and to the left, but it gave the range. At the second, the rearmost animal stumbled, recovered itself, and ran wildly about in a circle. I missed him twice, and he disappeared over a little hill. Leaping into the saddle, we tore after the wounded animal. As we thundered over the rise I heard my wife screaming frantically and saw her pointing to the right where the antelope was lying down. There was just one more shell in the gun and my pockets were empty. I fired again at fifty yards and the gazelle rolled over, dead.

Leading our horses, Yvette and I walked up to the beautiful orange-yellow form lying in the fresh, green grass. We both saw its horns in the same instant and hugged each other in sheer delight. At this time of the year the bucks are seldom with the does and then only in the largest herds. This one was in full pelage, spotless and with the hair unworn. Moreover, it had finer horns than any other which we killed during the entire trip.

Kublai Khan looked at the dead animal and arched his neck, as much as to say, "Yes, I ran him down. He had to quit when I really got started." My wife held the pony's head, while I hoisted the antelope to his back and strapped it behind the saddle. He watched the proceedings interestedly but without a tremor, and even when I mounted, he paid not the slightest attention to the head dangling on his flanks. Thereby he showed that he was a very exceptional pony. In the weeks which followed he proved it a hundred times, and I came to love him as I have never loved another animal.

Yvette and I trotted slowly back to camp, thrilled with the excitement of the wild ride. We began to realize that we were lucky to have escaped without broken necks. The race taught us never again to attempt to guide our ponies away from the marmot holes which spotted the plains, for the horses could see them better than we could and all their lives had known that they meant death.

That morning was our initiation into what is the finest sport we have ever known. Hunting from a motor car is undeniably exciting at first, but a real sportsman can never care for it very long. The antelope does not have a chance against gas and steel and a long-range rifle. On horseback the conditions are reversed. An antelope can run twice as fast as the best horse living. It can see as far as a man with prism binoculars. All the odds are in the animal's favor except two-its fatal desire to run in a circle about the pursuer, and the use of a high-power rifle. But even then an antelope three hundred yards away, going at a speed of fifty miles an hour, is not an easy target.

Of course, the majority of sportsmen will say that it cannot be done with any certainty-until they go to Mongolia and do it themselves! But, as I remarked in a previous chapter, conditions on the plains are so unusual that shooting in other parts of the world is no criterion. After one gets the range of an animal which, like the antelope, has a smooth, even run, it is not so difficult to hit as one might imagine. Practice is the great essential. At the beginning I averaged one antelope to every eight cartridges, but later my score was one to three.

We spent the afternoon at the new camp, setting traps and preparing for the days to come-days in which we knew, from long experience, we would have every waking moment full of work. The nights were shortening rapidly, and the sun did not dip below the rim of our vast, flat world until half past seven. Then there was an hour of delightful, lingering twilight, when the stars began to show in tiny points of light; by nine o'clock the brooding silence of the Mongolian night had settled over all the plain.

Daylight came at four o'clock, and before the sun rose we had finished breakfast. Our traps held five marmots and a beautiful golden-yellow polecat (Mustela). I have never seen such an incarnation of fury as this animal presented. It might have been the original of the Chinese dragon, except for its small size. Its long, slender body twisted and turned with incredible swiftness, every hair was bristling, and its snarling little face emitted horrible squeaks and spitting squeals. It seemed to be cursing us in every language of the polecat tribe.

The fierce little beast was evidently bent upon a night raid on a marmot family. We could imagine easily into what terror the tiny demon would throw a nest of marmots comfortably snuggled together in the bottom of their burrow. Probably it would be most interested in the babies, and undoubtedly would destroy every one within a few moments. All the weasel family, to which the polecat belongs, kill for the pure joy of killing, and in China one such animal will entirely depopulate a hen-roost in a single night.

At six o'clock Yvette and I left camp with the lama and rode northeast. The plain swept away in long, grassy billows, and at every rise I stopped for a moment to scan the horizon with my glasses. Within half an hour we discovered a herd of antelope six or seven hundred yards away. They saw us instantly and trotted nervously about, staring in our direction.

Dropping behind the crest of the rise, I directed the lama to ride toward them from behind while we swung about to cut them off. He was hardly out of sight when we heard a snort and a rush of pounding hoofs. With a shout to Yvette I loosened the reins over Kublai Khan's neck, and he shot forward like a yellow arrow. Yvette was close beside me, leaning far over her pony's neck. We headed diagonally toward the herd, and they gradually swung toward us as though drawn by a powerful magnet. On we went, down into a hollow and up again on its slope. We could not spare the horses for the antelope were already over the crest and lost to view, but our horses took the hill at full speed, and from the summit we could see the herd fairly on our course, three hundred yards away.

Kublai Khan braced himself like a polo pony when he felt the pressure of my knees, and I opened fire almost under his nose. At the crack of the rifle there was a spurt of brown dust near the leading animal. "High and to the left," shouted Yvette, and I held a little lower for the second trial. The antelope dropped like a piece of white paper, shot through the neck. I paced the distance and found it to be three hundred and sixty-seven yards. It seemed a very long shot then, but later I found that almost none of my antelope were killed at less than three hundred yards.

As I came up to Kublai Khan with the dead animal, I accidentally struck him on the flank with my rifle in such a way that he was badly frightened. He galloped off, and Yvette had a hard chase before he finally allowed her to catch him. Had I been alone I should probably have had a long walk to camp.

It taught us never to hunt without a companion, if it could possibly be avoided. If your horse runs away, you may be left many miles from water, with rather serious consequences. I think there is nothing which makes me feel more helpless than to be alone on the plains without a horse. For miles and miles there is only the rolling grassland or the wide sweep of desert, with never a house or tree to break the low horizon. It seems so futile to walk, your own legs carry you so slowly and such a pitifully short distance, in these vast spaces.

To be left alone in a small boat on the open sea is exactly similar. You feel so very, very small and you realize then what an insignificant part of nature you really are. I have felt it, too, amid vast mountains when I have been toiling up a peak which stretched thousands of feet above me with others rearing their majestic forms on every side. Then, nature seems almost alive and full of menace; something to be fought and conquered by brain and will.

Early in our work upon the plains we learned how easy it is to lose one's way. The vast sea of land seems absolutely flat, but in reality it is a gently rolling surface full of slopes and hollows, every one of which looks exactly like the others. But after a time we developed a land sense. The Mongols all have it to an extraordinary degree. We could drop an antelope on the plain and leave it for an hour or more. With a quick glance about our lama would fix the place in his mind, and dash off on a chase which might carry us back and forth toward every point of the compass. When it was time to return, he would head his pony unerringly for that single spot on the plain and take us back as straight as the flight of an arrow.

At first it gave him unceasing enjoyment when we became completely lost, but in a very short time we learned to note the position of the sun, the character of the ground, and the direction of the wind. Then we began to have more confidence in ourselves. But only by years of training can one hope even to approximate the Mongols. They have been born and reared upon the plains, and have the inheritance of unknown generations whose very life depended upon their ability to come and go at will. To them, the hills, the sun, the grass, the sand-all have become the street signs of the desert.

In the afternoon of our second day I remained at the tents to measure specimens, while Yvette and the lama rode out toward the scene of our morning hunt to locate an antelope which one of our Mongol neighbors had reported dead not far away. At six o'clock they came galloping back with the news that there were two gazelles within three miles of camp. I saddled Kublai Khan and left with them at once. Twenty minutes of steady trotting brought us to the summit of a slope, where we could see the animals quietly feeding not five hundred yards away.

It was just possible to stalk them for a long-range shot, and slipping off my pony, I flattened out upon the ground. On hands and knees, and sometimes at full length, I wormed my way through the grass for one hundred yards. The cover ended there and I must shoot or come into full view of the gazelles. They were so far away that the front sight entirely covered the animals, and to increase the difficulty, both were walking slowly. The first bullet struck low and to the right, but the antelope only jumped and stared fixedly in my direction; at the second shot one went down. The other animal dashed away like a flash of lightning, and although I sent a bullet after its white rump-patch, the shot was hopeless.

The antelope I had knocked over got to its feet and tried desperately to get away, but the lama leaped on his pony and caught it by one hind leg. My automatic pistol was not in working order, and it was necessary to knife the poor beast-a job which I hate like poison. The lama walked away a dozen yards and covered his face with the sleeve of his gown. It is against the laws of the Buddhist religion to take the life of any animal or even to see it done, although there are no restrictions as to eating flesh.

With a blanket the Mongol made a seat for himself on his pony's haunches, and threw the antelope across his saddle; then we trotted back to camp into the painted western sky, with the cool night air bringing to us the scent of newborn grass. We would not have exchanged our lot that night with any one on earth.

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