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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 14376

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Late on a July afternoon my wife and I stood disconsolately in the middle of the road on the outskirts of Urga. We had halted because the road had ended abruptly in a muddy river. Moreover, the river was where it had no right to be, for we had traveled that road before and had found only a tiny trickle across its dusty surface. We were disconsolate because we wished to camp that night in Urga, and there were abundant signs that it could not be done.

At least the Mongols thought so, and we had learned that what a Mongol does not do had best "give us pause." They had accepted the river with Oriental philosophy and had made their camps accordingly. Already a score of tents dotted the hillside, and argul fires were smoking in the doorways. Hundreds of carts were drawn up in an orderly array while a regiment of oxen wandered about the hillside or sleepily chewed their cuds beside the loads. In a few hours or days or weeks the river would disappear, and then they would go on to Urga. Meanwhile, why worry?

Two adventurous spirits, with a hundred camels, tried to cross. We watched the huge beasts step majestically into the water, only to huddle together in a yellow-brown mass when they reached midstream. All their dignity fled, and they became merely frightened mountains of flesh amid a chaos of writhing necks and wildly switching tails.

But stranger still was a motor car standing on a partly submerged island between two branches of the torrent. We learned later that its owners had successfully navigated the first stream and entered the second. A flooded carburetor had resulted, and ere the car was again in running order, the water had risen sufficiently to maroon them on the island.

My wife and I both lack the philosophical nature of the Oriental, and it was a sore trial to camp within rifle shot of Urga. But we did not dare leave our carts, loaded with precious specimens, to the care of servants and the curiosity of an ever increasing horde of Mongols.

For a well-nigh rainless month we had been hunting upon the plains, while only one hundred and fifty miles away Urga had had an almost daily deluge. In midsummer heavy rain-clouds roll southward to burst against "God's Mountain," which rears its green-clad summits five thousand feet above the valley. Then it is only a matter of hours before every streamlet becomes a swollen torrent. But they subside as quickly as they rise, and the particular river which barred our road had lost its menace before the sun had risen in a cloudless morning sky. All the valley seemed in motion. We joined the motley throng of camels, carts, and horsemen; and even the motor car coughed and wheezed its way to Urga under the stimulus of two bearded Russians.

[Illustration: Tibetan Yaks]

[Illustration: Our Caravan Crossing the Terelche River]

We made our camp on a beautiful bit of lawn within a few hundred yards of one of the most interesting of all the Urga temples. It is known to the foreigners in the city as "God's Brother's House," for it was the residence of the Hutukhtu's late brother. The temple presents a bewildering collection of carved gables and gayly painted pavilions flaunting almost every color of the rainbow. Yvette and I were consumed with curiosity to see what was contained within the high palisades which surround the buildings. We knew it would be impossible to obtain permission for her to go inside, and one evening as we were walking along the walls we glanced through the open gate. No one was in sight and from somewhere in the far interior we heard the moaning chant of many voices. Evidently the lamas were at their evening prayers.

We stepped inside the door intending only to take a rapid look. The entire court was deserted, so we slipped through the second gate and stood just at the entrance of the main temple, the "holy of holies." In the half darkness we could see the tiny points of yellow light where candles burned before the altar. On either side was a double row of kneeling lamas, their wailing chant broken by the clash of cymbals and the boom of drums.

Beside the temple were a hideous foreign house and an enormous yurt-evidently the former residences of "God's Brother"; in the corners of the compound were ornamental pavilions painted green and red. Except for these, the court was empty.

Suddenly there was a stir among the lamas, and we dashed away like frightened rabbits, dodging behind the gateposts until we were safe outside. It was not until some days later that we learned what a really dangerous thing it was to do, for the temple is one of the holiest in Urga, and in it women are never allowed. Had a Mongol seen us, our camp would have been stormed by a mob of frenzied lamas.

A few days later we had an experience which demonstrates how quickly trouble can arise where religious superstitions are involved. My wife and I had put the motion picture camera in one of the carts and, with our Mongol driving, went to the summit of the hill above the Lama City to film a panoramic view of Urga. We, ourselves, were on horseback. After getting the pictures, we drove down the main street of the city and stopped before the largest temple, which I had photographed several times before.

As soon as the motion picture machine was in position, about five hundred lamas gathered about us. It was a good-natured crowd, however, and we had almost finished work, when a "black Mongol" (i.e., one with a queue, not a lama) pushed his way among the priests and began to harangue them violently. In a few moments he boldly grasped me by the arm. Fearing that trouble might arise, I smiled and said, in Chinese, that we were going away. The Mongol began to gesticulate wildly and attempted to pull me with him farther into the crowd of lamas, who also were becoming excited. I was being separated from Yvette, and realizing that it would be dangerous to get far away from her, I suddenly wrenched my arm free and threw the Mongol to the ground; then I rushed through the line of lamas surrounding Yvette, and we backed up against the cart.

I had an automatic pistol in my pocket, but it would have been suicide to shoot except as a last resort. When a Mongol "starts anything" he is sure to finish it; he is not like a Chinese, who will usually run at the first shot. We stood for at least three minutes with that wall of scowling brutes ten feet away. They were undecided what to do and were only waiting for a leader to close in. One huge beast over six feet tall was just in front of me, and as I stood with my fingers crooked about the trigger of the automatic in my pocket, I thought, "If you start, I'm going to nail you anyway."

Just at this moment of indecision our Mongol leaped on my wife's pony, shouted that he was going to Duke Loobitsan Yangsen, an influential friend of ours, and dashed away. Instantly attention turned from us to him. Fifty men were on horseback in a second, flying after him at full speed. I climbed into the cart, shouting to Yvette to jump on Kublai Khan and run; but she would not leave me. At full speed we dashed down the hill, the plunging horses scattering lamas right and left. Our y

oung Mongol had saved us from a situation which momentarily might have become critical.

At the entrance to the main street of Urga below the Lama City I saw the black Mongol who had started all the trouble. I jumped to the ground, seized him by the collar and one leg, and attempted to throw him into the cart for I had a little matter to settle with him which could best be done to my satisfaction where we were without spectators.

At the same instant a burly policeman, wearing a saber fully five feet long, seized my horse by the bridle. At the black Mongol's instigation (who, I discovered, was himself a policeman) he had been waiting to arrest us when we came into the city. Since it was impossible to learn what had caused the trouble, Yvette rode to Andersen, Meyer's compound to bring back Mr. Olufsen and his interpreter. She found the whole courtyard swarming with excited Mongol soldiers. A few moments later Olufsen arrived, and we were allowed to return to his house on parole. Then he visited the Foreign Minister, who telephoned the police that we were not to be molested further.

We could never satisfactorily determine what it was all about for every one had a different story. The most plausible explanation was as follows. Russians had been rather persona non grata in Urga since the collapse of the empire, and the Mongols were ready to annoy them whenever it was possible to do so and "get away with it." All foreigners are supposed to be Russians by the average native and, when the black Mongol discovered us using a strange machine, he thought it an excellent opportunity to "show off" before the lamas. Therefore, he told them that we were casting a spell over the great temple by means of the motion picture camera which I was swinging up and down and from side to side. This may not be the true explanation of the trouble but at least it was the one which sounded most logical to us.

Our lama had been caught in the city, and it was with difficulty that we were able to obtain his release. The police charged that he tried to escape when they ordered him to stop. He related how they had slapped his face and pulled his ears before they allowed him to leave the jail, and he was a very much frightened young man when he appeared at Andersen, Meyer's compound. However, he was delighted to have escaped so easily, as he had had excellent prospects of spending a week or two in one of the prison coffins.

The whole performance had the gravest possibilities, and we were exceedingly fortunate in not having been seriously injured or killed. By playing upon their superstitions, the black Mongol had so inflamed the lamas that they were ready for anything. I should never have allowed them to separate me from my wife and, to prevent it, probably would have had to use my pistol. Had I begun to shoot, death for both of us would have been inevitable.

The day that we arrived in Urga from the plains we found the city flooded. The great square in front of the horse market was a chocolate-colored lake; a brown torrent was rushing down the main street; and every alley was two feet deep in water, or a mass of liquid mud. It was impossible to walk without wading to the knees and even our horses floundered and slipped about, covering us with mud and water. The river valley, too, presented quite a different picture than when we had seen it last. Instead of open sweeps of grassland dotted with an occasional yurt, now there were hundreds of felt dwellings interspersed with tents of white or blue. It was like the encampment of a great army, or a collection of huge beehives.

Most of the inhabitants were Mongols from the city who had pitched their yurts in the valley for the summer. Although the wealthiest natives seem to feel that for the reception of guests their "position" demands a foreign house, they seldom live in it. Duke Loobitsan Yangsen had completed his mansion the previous winter. It was built in Russian style and furnished with an assortment of hideous rugs and foreign furniture which made one shiver. But in the yard behind the house his yurt was pitched, and there he lived in comfort.

Loobitsan was a splendid fellow-one of the best types of Mongol aristocrats. From the crown of his finely molded head to the toes of his pointed boots, he was every inch a duke. I saw him in his house one day reclining on a kang while he received half a dozen minor officials, and his manner of quiet dignity and conscious power recalled accounts of the Mongol princes as Marco Polo saw them. Loobitsan liked foreigners and one could always find a cordial reception in his compound. He spoke excellent Chinese and was unusually well educated for a Mongol.

Although he was in charge of the customs station at Mai-ma-cheng and owned considerable property, which he rented to the Chinese for vegetable gardens, his chief wealth was in horses. In Mongolia a man's worldly goods are always measured in horses, not in dollars. When he needs cash he sells a pony or two and buys more if he has any surplus silver. His bank is the open plain; his herdsmen are the guardians of his riches.

Loobitsan's wife, the duchess, was a nice-looking woman who seemed rather bored with life. She rejoiced in two gorgeous strings of pearls, which on state occasions hung from the silver-encrusted horns of hair to the shoulders of her brocade jacket. Ordinarily she appeared in a loose red gown and hardly looked regal.

Loobitsan had never seen Peking and was anxious to go. When General Hsu Shu-tseng made his coup d'état in November, 1919, Mr. Larsen and Loobitsan came to the capital as representatives of the Hutukhtu, and one day, as my wife was stepping into a millinery shop on Rue Marco Polo, she met him dressed in all his Mongol splendor. But he was so closely chaperoned by Chinese officials that he could not enjoy himself. I saw Larsen not long afterward, and he told me that Loobitsan was already pining for the open plains of his beloved Mongolia.

In mid-July, when we returned to Urga, the vegetable season was at its height. The Chinese, of course, do all the gardening; and the splendid radishes, beets, onions, carrots, cabbages, and beans, which were brought every day to market, showed the wonderful possibilities for development along these lines. North of the Bogdo-ol there is a superabundance of rain and vegetables grow so rapidly in the rich soil that they are deliciously sweet and tender, besides being of enormous size. While we were on the plains our food had consisted largely of meat and we reveled in the change of diet. We wished often for fruit but that is nonexistent in Mongolia except a few, hard, watery pears, which merchants import from China.

Mr. Larsen was in Kalgan for the summer but Mr. Olufsen turned over his house and compound for our work. I am afraid we bothered him unmercifully, yet his good nature was unfailing and he was never too busy to assist us in the innumerable details of packing the specimens we had obtained upon the plains and in preparing for our trip into the forests north of Urga. It is men like him who make possible scientific work in remote corners of the world.

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