MoboReader > Literature > Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest'


Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 25480

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

After ten days we left the "Antelope Camp" to visit the Turin plain where we had seen much game on the way to Urga. One by one our Mongol neighbors rode up to say "farewell," and each to present us with a silk scarf as a token of friendship and good will. We received an invitation to stop for tea at the yurt of an old man who had manifested an especial interest in us, but it was a very dirty yurt, and the preparations for tea were so uninviting that we managed to exit gracefully before it was finally served.

Yvette photographed the entire family including half a dozen dogs, a calf, and two babies, much to their enjoyment. When we rode off, our hands were heaped with cheese and slabs of mutton which were discarded as soon as we had dropped behind a slope. Mongol hospitality is whole-souled and generously given, but one must be very hungry to enjoy their food.

A day and a half of traveling was uneventful, for herds of sheep and horses indicated the presence of yurts among the hills. Game will seldom remain where there are Mongols. Although it was the first of July, we found a heavy coating of ice on the lower sides of a deep well. The water was about fifteen feet below the level of the plain, and the ice would probably remain all summer. Moreover, it is said that the wells never freeze even during the coldest winter.

[Illustration: Mongol Herdsmen Carrying Lassos]

[Illustration: A Lone Camp on the Desert]

The changes of temperature were more rapid than in any other country in which I have ever hunted. It was hot during the day-about 85 Fahrenheit-but the instant the sun disappeared we needed coats, and our fur sleeping bags were always acceptable at night.

We were one hundred and fifty miles from Urga and were still going slowly south, when we had our next real hunting camp. Great bands of antelope were working northward from the Gobi Desert to the better grazing on the grass-covered Turin plain. We encountered the main herd one evening about six o'clock, and it was a sight which made us gasp for breath. We were shifting camp, and my wife and I were trotting along parallel to the carts which moved slowly over the trail a mile away. We had had a delightful, as well as a profitable, day. Yvette had been busy with her camera, while I picked up an antelope, a bustard, three hares, and half a dozen marmots. We were loafing in our saddles, when suddenly we caught sight of the cook standing on his cart frantically signaling us to come.

In ten seconds our ponies were flying toward the caravan, while we mentally reviewed every accident which possibly could have happened to the boys. Lu met us twenty yards from the trail, trembling with excitement and totally incoherent. He could only point to the south and stammer, "Too many antelope. Over there. Too many, too many."

I slipped off Kublai Khan's back and put up the glasses. Certainly there were animals, but I thought they must be sheep or ponies. Hundreds were in sight, feeding in one vast herd and in many smaller groups. Then I remembered that the nearest well was twenty miles away; therefore they could not be horses. I looked again and knew they must be antelope-not in hundreds, but in thousands.

Mr. Larsen in Urga had told us of herds like this, but we had never hoped to see one. Yet there before us, as far as the eye could reach, was a yellow mass of moving forms. In a moment Yvette and I had left the carts. There was no possibility of concealment, and our only chance was to run the herd. When we were perhaps half a mile away the nearest animals threw up their heads and began to stamp and run about, only to stop again and stare at us. We kept on very slowly, edging nearer every moment. Suddenly they decided that we were really dangerous, and the herd strung out like a regiment of yellow-coated soldiers.

Kublai Khan had seen the antelope almost as soon as we left the carts, and although he had already traveled forty miles that day, was nervously champing the bit with head up and ears erect. When at last I gave him the word, he gathered himself for one terrific spring; down went his head and he dashed forward with every ounce of strength behind his flying legs. His run was the long, smooth stride of a thoroughbred, and it sent the blood surging through my veins in a wild thrill of exhilaration. Once only I glanced back at Yvette. She was almost at my side. Her hair had loosened and was flying back like a veil behind her head. Tense with excitement, eyes shining, she was heedless of everything save those skimming yellow forms before us. It was useless to look for holes; ere I had seen one we were over or around it. With head low down and muzzle out, my pony needed not the slightest touch to guide him. He knew where we were going and the part he had to play.

More than a thousand antelope were running diagonally across our course. It was a sight to stir the gods; a thing to give one's life to see. But when we were almost near enough to shoot, the herd suddenly swerved heading directly away from us. In an instant we were enveloped in a whirling cloud of dust through which the flying animals were dimly visible like phantom figures.

Khan was choked, and his hot breath rasped sharply through his nostrils, but he plunged on and on into that yellow cloud. Standing in my stirrups, I fired six times at the wraithlike forms ahead as fast as I could work the lever of my rifle. Of course, it was useless, but just the same I had to shoot.

In about a mile the great herd slowed down and stopped. We could see hundreds of animals on every side, in groups of fifty or one hundred. Probably two thousand antelope were in sight at once and many more were beyond the sky rim to the west. We gave the ponies ten minutes' rest, and had another run as unsuccessful as the first. Then a third and fourth. The antelope, for some strange reason, would not cross our path, but always turned straight away before we were near enough to shoot.

After an hour we returned to the carts-for Yvette was exhausted from excitement-and the lama took her place. We left the great herd and turned southward, parallel to the road. A mile away we found more antelope; at least a thousand were scattered about feeding quietly like those we had driven north. It seemed as though all the gazelles in Mongolia had concentrated on those few miles of plain.

The ponies were so exhausted that we decided to try a drive and leave the main herd in peace. When we were concealed from view in the bottom of a land swell I slipped off and hobbled Kublai Khan. The poor fellow was so tired he could only stand with drooping head, even though there was rich grass beneath his feet. I sent the lama in a long circle to get behind the herd, while I crawled a few hundred yards away and snuggled out of sight into an old wolf den.

I watched the antelope for fifteen minutes through my binoculars. They were feeding in a vast semicircle, entirely unconscious of my presence. Suddenly every head went up; they stared fixedly toward the west for a moment, and were off like the wind. About five hundred drew together in a compact mass, but a dozen smaller herds scattered wildly, running in every direction except toward me. They had seen the lama before he had succeeded in completely encircling them, and the drive was ruined.

The Mongols kill great numbers of antelope in just this way. When a herd has been located, a line of men will conceal themselves at distances of two or three hundred yards, while as many more get behind the animals and drive them toward the waiting hunters. Sometimes the gazelles almost step on the natives and become so frightened that they run the gantlet of the entire firing line.

I did not have the heart to race again with our exhausted ponies, and we turned back toward the carts which were out of sight. Scores of antelope, singly or in pairs, were visible on the sky line and as we rode to the summit of a little rise a herd of fifty appeared almost below us. We paid no attention to them; but suddenly my pony stopped with ears erect. He looked back at me, as much as to say, "Don't you see those antelope?" and began gently pulling at the reins. I could feel him tremble with eagerness and excitement. "Well, old chap," I said, "if you are as keen as all that, let's give them a run."

With a magnificent burst of speed Kublai Khan launched himself toward the fleeing animals. They circled beautifully, straight into the eye of the sun, which lay like a great red ball upon the surface of the plain. We were still three hundred yards away and gaining rapidly, but I had to shoot; in a moment I would be blinded by the sun. As the flame leaped from my rifle, we heard the dull thud of a bullet on flesh; at the second shot, another; and then a third. "Sanga" (three), yelled the lama, and dashed forward, wild with excitement.

The three gazelles lay almost the same distance apart, each one shot through the body. It was interesting evidence that the actions of working the lever on my rifle and aiming, and the speed of the antelope, varied only by a fraction of a second. In this case, brain and eye and hand had functioned perfectly. Needless to say, I do not always shoot like that.

Two of the antelope were yearling bucks, and one was a large doe. The lama took the female on his pony, and I strapped the other two on Kublai Khan. When I mounted, he was carrying a weight of two hundred and eighty-five pounds, yet he kept his steady "homeward trot" without a break until we reached the carts six miles away.

Yvette had been afraid that we would miss the well in the gathering darkness, and had made a "dry camp" beside the road. We had only a little water for ourselves; but my pony's nose was full of dust, and I knew how parched his throat must be, so I divided my supply with him. The poor animal was so frightened by the dish, that he would only snort and back away; even when I wet his nose with some of the precious fluid, he would not drink.

The success of our work upon the plains depended largely upon Kublai Khan. He was only a Mongol pony but he was just as great, in his own way, as was the Tartar emperor whose name he bore. Whatever it was I asked him to do, he gave his very best. Can you wonder that I loved him?

Within a fortnight from the time I bought him, he became a perfect hunting pony. The secret of it all was that he liked the game as well as I. Traveling with the carts bored him exceedingly but the instant game appeared he was all excitement. Often he saw antelope before we did. We might be trotting slowly over the plains, when suddenly he would jerk his head erect and begin to pull gently at the reins; when I reached down to take my rifle from the holster, he would tremble with eagerness to be off.

In hunting antelope you should ride slowly toward the animals, drawing nearer gradually. They are so accustomed to see Mongols that they will not begin to run in earnest until a man is five or six hundred yards away, but when they are really off, a fast pony is the great essential. The time to stop is just before the animals cross your path, and then you must stop quickly. Kublai Khan learned the trick immediately. As soon as he felt the pressure of my knees, and the slightest pull upon the reins, his whole body stiffened and he braced himself like a polo pony. It made not the slightest difference to him whether I shot from his back or directly under his nose; he stood quietly watching the running antelope. When we were riding across the plains if a bird ran along the ground or a hare jumped out of the grass, he was after it like a dog. Often I would find myself flying toward an animal which I had never seen.

Yvette's pony was useless for hunting antelope. Instead of heading diagonally toward the gazelles he would always attempt to follow the herd. When it was time to stop I would have to put all my strength upon the reins and the horse would come into a slow gallop and then a trot. Seconds of valuable time would be wasted before I could begin to shoot. I tried half a dozen other ponies, but they were all as bad. They did not have the intelligence or the love of hunting which made Kublai Khan so valuable.

The morning after encountering the great herd, we camped at a well thirty miles north of the Turin monastery. Three or four yurts were scattered about, and a caravan of two hundred and fifty camels was resting in a little hollow. From the door of our tent we could see the blue summit of the Turin "mountain," and have in the foreground a perpetual moving picture of camels, horses, sheep, goats, and cattle seeking water. All day long hundreds of animals crowded about

the well, while one or two Mongols filled the troughs by means of wooden buckets.

The life about the wells is always interesting, for they are points of concentration for all wanderers on the plains. Just as we pitch our tents and make ourselves at home, so great caravans arrive with tired, laden camels. The huge brutes kneel, while their packs are being removed, and then stand in a long line, patiently waiting until their turn comes to drink. Groups of ten or twelve crowd about the trough; then, majestically swinging their padded feet, they move slowly to one side, kneel upon the ground, and sleepily chew their cuds until all the herd has joined them. Sometimes the caravans wait for several days to rest their animals and let them feed; sometimes they vanish in the first gray light of dawn.

On the Turin plain we had a delightful glimpse of antelope babyhood. The great herds which we had found were largely composed of does just ready to drop their young, and after a few days they scattered widely into groups of from five to twenty.

We found the first baby antelope on June 27. We had seen half a dozen females circling restlessly about, and suspected that their fawns could not be far away. Sure enough, our Mongol discovered one of the little fellows in the flattest part of the flat plain. It was lying motionless with its neck stretched out, just where its mother had told it to remain when she saw us riding toward her.

Yvette called to me, "Oh, please, please catch it. We can raise it on milk and it will make such an adorable pet."

"Oh, yes," I said, "let's do. I'll get it for you. You can put it in your hat till we go back to camp."

In blissful ignorance I dismounted and slowly went toward the little animal. There was not the slightest motion until I tossed my outspread shooting coat. Then I saw a flash of brown, a bobbing white rump-patch, and a tiny thing, no larger than a rabbit, speeding over the plain. The baby was somewhat "wobbly," to be sure, for this was probably the first time it had ever tried its slender legs, but after a few hundred yards it ran as steadily as its mother.

I was so surprised that for a moment I simply stared. Then I leaped into the saddle and Kublai Khan rushed after the diminutive brown fawn. It was a good half mile before we had the little chap under the pony's nose but the race was by no means ended. Mewing with fright, it swerved sharply to the left and ere we could swing about, it had gained a hundred yards. Again and again we were almost on it, but every time it dodged and got away. After half an hour my pony was gasping for breath, and I changed to Yvette's chestnut stallion. The Mongol joined me and we had another run, but we might have been pursuing a streak of shifting sunlight. Finally we had to give it up and watch the tiny thing bob away toward its mother, who was circling about in the distance.

There were half a dozen other fawns upon the plain, but they all treated us alike and my wife's hat was empty when we returned to camp. These antelope probably had been born not more than two or three days before we found them. Later, after a chase of more than a mile, we caught one which was only a few hours old. Had it not injured itself when dodging between my pony's legs we could never have secured it at all.

Thus, nature, in the great scheme of life, has provided for her antelope children by blessing them with undreamed-of speed and only during the first days of babyhood could a wolf catch them on the open plain. When they are from two to three weeks old they run with the females in herds of six or eight, and you cannot imagine what a pretty sight it is to see the little fellows skimming like tiny, brown chickens beside their mothers. There is another wonderful provision for their life upon the desert. The digestive fluids of the stomach act upon the starch in the vegetation which they eat so that it forms sufficient water for their needs. Therefore, some species never drink.

The antelope choose a flat plain on which to give birth to their young in order to be well away from the wolves which are their greatest enemy; and the fawns are taught to lie absolutely motionless upon the ground until they know that they have been discovered. Apparently they are all born during the last days of June and in the first week of July. The great herds which we encountered were probably moving northward both to obtain better grazing and to drop their young on the Turin plain. During this period the old bucks go off singly into the rolling ground, and the herds are composed only of does and yearling males. It was always possible to tell at once if an antelope had a fawn upon the plain, for she would run in a wide circle around the spot and refuse to be driven away.

We encountered only two species of antelope between Kalgan and Urga. The one of which I have been writing, and with which we became best acquainted, was the Mongolian gazelle (Gazella gutturosa). The other was the goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa). In the western Gobi, the Prjevalski gazelle (Gazella prjevalski) is more abundant than the other species, but it never reaches the region which we visited.

The goitered antelope is seldom found on the rolling meadowlands between Kalgan and Panj-kiang on the south, or between Turin and Urga on the north, according to our observations; they keep almost entirely to the Gobi Desert between Panj-kiang and Turin, and we often saw them among the "nigger heads" or tussocks in the most arid parts. The Mongolian gazelle, on the other hand, is most abundant in the grasslands both north and south of the Gobi, but nevertheless has a continuous distribution across the plateau between Kalgan and Urga.

On our northward trip in May, when we took motion pictures of the antelope on the Panj-kiang plain, both, species were present, but the goitered gazelle far outnumbered the others-which is unusual in that locality. It could always be distinguished from the Mongolian gazelle because of its smaller size, darker coloring, and the long tail which it carries straight up in the air at right angles to the back; the Mongolian antelope has an exceedingly short tail. The horns of both species differ considerably in shape and can easily be distinguished.

During the winter these antelope develop a coat of very long, soft hair which is light brown-gray in color strongly tinged with rufous on the head and face. Its summer pelage is a beautiful orange-fawn. The winter coat is shed during May, and the animals lose their short summer hair in late August and early September.

Both species have a greatly enlarged larynx from which the goitered gazelle derives its name. What purpose this extraordinary character serves the animal, I am at a loss to know. Certainly it is not to give them an exceptional "voice"; for, when wounded, I have heard them make only a deep-toned roar which was by no means loud. Specimens of the larynx which we preserved in formalin are now being prepared for anatomical study.

Although the two species inhabit the same locality, they keep well by themselves and only once, on the Panj-kiang plain, did we see them running together in the same herd; then it was probably because they were frightened by the car. I doubt if they ever interbreed except in rare instances.

The fact that these animals can develop such an extraordinary speed was a great surprise to me, as undoubtedly it will be to most naturalists. Had we not been able to determine it accurately by means of the speedometers on our cars, I should never have dared state that they could reach fifty-five or sixty miles an hour. It must be remembered that the animals can continue at such a high speed only for a short distance-perhaps half a mile-and will never exert themselves to the utmost unless they are thoroughly frightened. They would run just fast enough to keep well away from the cars or our horses, and it was only when we began to shoot that they showed what they were capable of doing. When the bullets began to scatter about them they would seem to flatten several inches and run at such a terrific speed that their legs appeared only as a blur.

Of course, they have developed their fleetness as a protection from enemies. Their greatest menace is the wolves, but since we demonstrated that these animals cannot travel faster than about thirty miles an hour, the antelope are perfectly safe unless they happen to be caught off their guard. To prevent just this, the gazelles usually keep well out on the open plains and avoid rocks or abrupt hills which would furnish cover for a wolf. Of course, they often go into the rolling ground, but it is usually where the slopes are gradual and where they have sufficient space in which to protect themselves.

The gazelles have a perfectly smooth, even run when going at full speed. I have often seen them bound along when not particularly frightened, but never when they are really trying to get away in the shortest possible time. The front limbs, as in the case of a deer, act largely as supports and the real motive power comes from the hind legs. If an antelope has only a front leg broken no living horse can catch it, but with a shattered hind limb my pony could run it down. I have already related (see [the end of chapter IV]) how, in a car, we pursued an antelope with both front legs broken below the knee; even then, it reached a speed of fifteen miles an hour. The Mongolian plains are firm and hard with no bushes or other obstructions and, consequently, are especially favorable for rapid travel.

The cheetah, or hunting leopard of Africa, has the reputation of being able to reach a greater speed, for a short dash, than any other animal in that country, and I have often wondered how it would fare in a race with a Mongolian gazelle. Unfortunately, conditions in Africa are not favorable for the use of automobiles in hunting, and no actual facts as to the speed of the cheetah are available.

At this camp, and during the journey back to Urga, we had many glorious hunts. Each one held its own individual fascination, for no two were just alike; and every day we learned something new about the life history of the Mongolian antelope. We needed specimens for a group in the new Hall of Asiatic Life in the American Museum of Natural History, as well as a series representing all ages of both males and females for scientific study. When we returned to Urga we had them all.

The hunting of large game was only one aspect of our work. We usually returned to camp about two o'clock in the afternoon. As soon as tiffin had been eaten my wife worked at her photography, while I busied myself over the almost innumerable details of the preparation and cataloguing of our specimens. About six o'clock, accompanied by the two Chinese taxidermists carrying bags of traps, we would leave the tents. Sometimes we would walk several miles, meanwhile carefully scrutinizing the ground for holes or traces of mammal workings, and set eighty or one hundred traps. We might find a colony of meadow voles (Microtus) where dozens of "runways" betrayed their presence, or discover the burrows of the desert hamster (Cricetulus). These little fellows, not larger than a house mouse, have their tiny feet enveloped in soft fur, like the slippers of an Eskimo baby.

As we walked back to camp in the late afternoon, we often saw a kangaroo rat (Alactaga mongolica?) jumping across the plain, and when we had driven it into a hole, we could be sure to catch it in a trap the following morning. They are gentle little creatures, with huge, round eyes, long, delicate ears, and tails tufted at the end like the feathers on an arrow's shaft. The name expresses exactly what they are like-diminutive kangaroos-but, of course, they are rodents and not marsupials. During the glacial period of the early Pleistocene, about one hundred thousand years ago, we know from fossil remains that there were great invasions into Europe of most of these types of tiny mammals, which we were catching during this delightful summer on the Mongolian plains.

After two months we regretfully turned back toward Urga. Our summer was to be divided between the plains on the south and the forests to the north of the sacred city, and the first half of the work had been completed. The results had been very satisfactory, and our boxes contained five hundred specimens; but our hearts were sad. The wide sweep of the limitless, grassy sea, the glorious morning rides, and the magic of the starlit nights had filled our blood. Even the lure of the unknown forests could not make us glad to go, for the plains had claimed us as their own.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top