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   Chapter 12 NOMADS OF THE FOREST

Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 20702

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Three days after the field meet we left with Tserin Dorchy and two other Mongols for a wapiti hunt. We rode along the Terelche River for three miles, sometimes splashing through the soggy edges of a marsh, and again halfway up a hillside where the ground was firm and hard; then, turning west on a mountain slope, we came to a low plateau which rolled away in undulating sweeps of bush-land between the edges of the dark pine woods. It was a truly boreal landscape; we were on the edge of the forest, which stretches in a vast, rolling sea of green far beyond the Siberian frontier.

From the summit of the table-land we descended between dark walls of pine trees to a beautiful valley filled with parklike openings. Just at dark Tserin Dorchy turned abruptly into the stream and crossed to a pretty grove of spruces on a little island formed by two branches of the river. It was as secluded as a cavern, and made an ideal place in which to camp. A hundred feet away the tent was invisible and, save for the tiny wreaths of smoke which curled above the tree-tops, there was no sign of our presence there.

After dinner Tserin Dorchy shouldered a pack of skins and went to a "salt lick" in a meadow west of camp to spend the night. He returned in the first gray light of dawn, just as I was making coffee, and reported that he had heard wapiti barking, but that no animals had visited the lick. He directed me to go along the hillsides north of camp, while the Mongol hunters struck westward across the mountains.

I had not been gone an hour, and had just worked across the lower end of a deep ravine, when I heard a wapiti bark above and behind me. It was a hoarse roar, exactly like a roebuck, except that it was deeper toned and louder. I was thrilled as though by an electric current. It seemed very far away, much farther than it really was, and as I crept to the summit of a ridge a splendid bull wapiti broke through the underbrush. He had been feeding in the bottom of the ravine and saw my head instantly as it appeared above the sky line. There was no chance to shoot because of the heavy cover; and even when he paused for a moment on the opposite hillside a screen of tree branches was in my way.

Absolutely disgusted with myself, I followed the animal's trail until it was lost in the heavy forest. The wapiti was gone for good, but on the way back to camp I picked up a roebuck which acted as some balm to my injured feelings.

I had climbed to the crest of the mountains enclosing the valley in which we were camped, and was working slowly down the rim of a deep ravine. In my soft leather moccasins I could walk over the springy moss without a sound, and suddenly saw a yellow-red form moving about in a luxurious growth of grass and tinted leaves. My heart missed a beat, for I thought it was a wapiti.

Instantly I dropped behind a bush and, as the animal moved into the open, I saw it was an enormous roebuck bearing a splendid pair of antlers. I watched him for a moment, then aimed low behind the foreleg and fired. The deer bounded into the air and rolled to the bottom of the ravine, kicking feebly; my bullet had burst the heart. It was one of the few times I have ever seen an animal instantly killed with a heart shot for usually they run a few yards, and then suddenly collapse.

The buck was almost as large as the first one I had killed with Tserin Dorchy but it had a twisted right antler. Evidently it had been injured during the animal's youth and had continued to grow at right angles to the head, instead of straight up in the normal way.

When I reached camp I found Yvette busily picking currants in the bushes beside the stream. Her face and hands were covered with red stains and she looked like a very naughty little boy who had run away from school for a day in the woods. Although blueberries grew on every hillside, we never found strawberries, such as the Russians in Urga gather on the Bogdo-ol, and only one patch of raspberries on a burned-off mountain slope. But the currants were delicious when smothered in sugar.

Yvette and I rode out to the spot where I had killed the roebuck to bring it in on Kublai Khan and before we returned the Mongol hunters had reached camp; neither of them had seen game of any kind. During the day we discovered some huge trout in the stream almost at our door. We had no hooks or lines, but the Mongols devised a way to catch the fish which brought us food, although it would have made a sportsman shiver. They built a dam of stones across the stream and one man waded slowly along, beating the water with a branch to drive the trout out of the pools into the ripples; then we dashed into the water and tried to catch them with our hands. At least a dozen got away but we secured three by cornering them among the rocks.

They were huge trout, nearly three feet long. Unfortunately I was not able to preserve any of them and I do not know what species they represented. The Mongols and Chinese often catch the same fish in the Tola River by means of nets and we sometimes bought them in Urga. One, which we put on the scales, weighed nine pounds. Although Ted MacCallie tried to catch them with a fly at Urga he never had any success but they probably would take live bait.

August 20 was our second day in camp. At dawn I was awakened by the patter of rain on the tent and soon it became a steady downpour. There was no use in hunting and I went back to sleep. At seven o'clock Chen, who was fussing about the fire, rushed over to say that he could see two wapiti on the opposite mountain. Yvette and I scrambled out of our sleeping bags just in time to see a doe and a fawn silhouetted against the sky rim as they disappeared over the crest. Half an hour later they returned, and I tried a stalk but I lost them in the fog and rain. Tserin Dorchy believed that the animals had gone into a patch of forest on the other side of the mountain. We tried to drive them out but the only thing that appeared was a four-year-old roebuck which the Mongol killed with a single shot.

[Illustration: Wrestlers at Terelche Valley Field Meet]

[Illustration: Women Spectators at the Field Meet]

We had ridden up the mountain by zigzagging across the slope, but when we started back I was astounded to see Tserin Dorchy keep to his saddle. The wet grass was so slippery that I could not even stand erect and half the time was sliding on my back, while Kublai Khan picked his way carefully down the steep descent. The Mongol never left his horse till we reached camp. Sometimes he even urged the pony to a trot and, moreover, had the roebuck strapped behind his saddle. I would not have ridden down that mountain side for all the deer in Mongolia!

It had begun to rain in earnest by eleven o'clock, and we spent a quiet afternoon. There is a charm about a rainy day when one can read comfortably and let it pour. The steady patter on the tent gives one the delightful sensation of immediately escaping extreme discomfort. There is no pleasure in being warm unless the weather is cold; and one never realizes how agreeable it is to be dry unless the day is wet. This day was very wet indeed. We had a month's accumulation of unopened magazines which a Mongol had brought to our base camp just before we left, so there was no chance of being bored. The fire had been built half under a huge, back-log which kept a cheery glow of coals throughout all the downpour, and Chen made us "chowdzes"-delicious little balls of meat mixed with onions and seasoned with Chinese sauce. The Mongols slept and ate and slept some more. We ate and slept and read. Therefore, we were very happy.

The weather during that summer in the forest was a source of constant surprise to us. We had never seen such rapid changes from brilliant sunshine to sheets of rain. For an hour or two the sky might stretch above us like a vast blue curtain flecked with tiny masses of snow-white clouds. Suddenly, a leaden blanket would spread itself over every inch of celestial space, while a rush of rain and wind changed the forest to a black chaos of writhing branches and dripping leaves. In fifteen minutes the storm would sweep across the mountain tops, and the sun would again flood our peaceful valley with the golden light of early autumn.

For autumn had already reached us even though the season was only mid-August. It was like October in New York, and we had nightly frosts which withered the countless flowers and turned the leaves to red and gold. In the morning, when I crossed the meadows to the forest, the grass was white with frost and crackled beneath my feet like delicate threads of spun glass. My moccasins were powdered with gleaming crystals of frozen dew, but at the first touch of sun every twig and leaf and blade of grass began to drip, as though from a heavy rain. My feet and legs waist-high were soaked in half an hour, and at the end of the morning hunt I was as wet as though I had waded a dozen rivers.

One cannot move on foot in northern Mongolia without the certainty of a thorough wetting. When the sun has dried the dew, there are swamps and streamlets in every valley and even far up the mountain slopes. It is the heavy rainfall, the rich soil, and the brilliant sunshine that make northern Mongolia a paradise of luxurious grass and flowers, even though the real summer lasts only from May till August. Then, the valleys are like an exquisite garden and the woods are ablaze with color. Bluebells, their stalks bending under the weight of blossoms, clothe every hillside in a glorious azure dress bespangled with yellow roses, daisies, and forget-me-nots. But I think I like the wild poppies best of all, for their delicate, fragile beauty is wonderfully appealing. I learned to love them first in Alaska, where their pale, yellow faces look up happily from the storm-swept hills of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

Besides its flowers, this northern country is one of exceeding beauty. The dark green forests of spruce, larch and pine, broken now and then by a grove of poplars or silver birches, the secluded valleys and the rounded hills are strangely restful and give one a sense of infinite peace. It is a place to go for tired nerves. Ragged peaks, towering mountains, and yawning chasms, splendid as they are, may be subt

ly disturbing, engendering a feeling of restlessness and vague depression. There is none of this in the forests of Mongolia. We felt as though we might be happy there all our lives-the mad rush of our other world seemed very far away and not much worth while.

As yet this land has been but lightly touched by the devastating hand of man. A log road cuts the forest here and there and sometimes we saw a train of ox-carts winding through the trees; but the primitive beauty of the mountains remains unmarred, save where a hillside has been swept by fire. In all our wanderings through the forests we saw no evidences of occupation by the Mongols except the wood roads and a few scattered charcoal pits. These were old and moss-grown, and save for ourselves the valleys were deserted.

One morning while I was hunting north of camp, I heard a wapiti roar on the summit of a mountain. I found its tracks in the soft earth of a game trail which wound through forest so dense that I could hardly see a dozen yards. As I stole along the path I heard a sudden sneeze exactly like that of a human being and saw a small, dark animal dash off the trail. I stopped instantly and slowly sank to the ground, kneeling motionless, with my rifle ready. For five minutes I remained there-the silence of the forest broken only by the clucking of a hazel grouse above my head. Then came that sneeze again, sounding even more human than before. I heard a nervous patter of tiny hoofs, and the animal sneezed from the bushes at my right. I kept as motionless as a statue, and the sneezes followed each other in rapid succession, accompanied by impatient stampings and gentle rustlings in the brush. Then I saw a tiny head emerge from behind a leafy screen and a pair of brilliant eyes gazing at me steadily.

Very, very slowly I raised the rifle until the stock nestled against my cheek; then I fired quickly.

Running to the spot where the head had been I found a beautiful brown-gray animal lying behind a bush. It was no larger than a half-grown fawn, but on either side of its mouth two daggerlike tusks projected, slender, sharp and ivory white. It was a musk deer-the first living, wild one I had ever seen. Even before I touched the body I inhaled a heavy, not unpleasant, odor of musk and discovered the gland upon the abdomen. It was three inches long and two inches wide, but all the hair on the rump and belly was strongly impregnated with the odor.

These little deer are eagerly sought by the natives throughout the Orient, as musk is valuable for perfume. In Urga the Mongols could sell a "pod" for five dollars (silver) and in other parts of China it is worth considerably more. When we were in Yün-nan we frequently heard of a musk buyer whom the Paris perfumer, Pinaud, maintained in the remote mountain village of Atunzi, on the Tibetan frontier.

Because of their commercial value the little animals are relentlessly persecuted in every country which they inhabit and in some places they have been completely exterminated. Those in Mongolia are particularly difficult to kill, since they live only on the mountain summits in the thickest forests. Indeed, were it not for their insatiable curiosity it would be almost impossible ever to shoot them.

They might be snared, of course, but I never saw any traps or devices for catching animals which the Mongols used; they seem to depend entirely upon their guns. This is quite unlike the Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Malays, and other Orientals with whom I have hunted, for they all have developed ingenious snares, pitfalls and traps.

The musk sac is present only in the male deer and is, of course, for the purpose of attracting the does. Unfortunately, it is not possible to distinguish the sexes except upon close examination, for both are hornless, and as a result the natives sometimes kill females which they would prefer to leave unmolested.

The musk deer use their tusks for fighting and also to dig up the food upon which they live. I frequently found new pine cones which they had torn apart to get at the soft centers. During the winter they develop an exceedingly long, thick coat of hair which, however, is so brittle that it breaks almost like dry pine needles; consequently, the skins have but little commercial value.

Late one rainy afternoon Tserin Dorchy and I rode into a beautiful valley not far from where we were camped. When well in the upper end, we left our horses and proceeded on foot toward the summit of a ridge on which he had killed a bear a month earlier.

Motioning me to walk to the crest of the ridge from the other side, the old man vanished like a ghost among the trees. When I was nearly at the top I reached the edge of a small patch of burned forest. In the half darkness the charred stumps and skeleton trees were as black as ebony. As I was about to move into the open I saw an object which at first seemed to be a curiously shaped stump. I looked at it casually, then something about it arrested my attention. Suddenly a tail switched nervously and I realized that the "stump" was an enormous wild boar standing head-on, watching me.

I fired instantly, but even as I pressed the trigger the animal moved and I knew that the bullet would never reach its mark. But my brain could not telegraph to my finger quickly enough to stop its action and the boar dashed away unharmed. It was the largest pig I have ever seen. As he stood on the summit of the ridge he looked almost as big as a Mongol pony. It was too dark to follow the animal so I returned to camp, a very dejected man.

I have never been able to forget that boar and I suppose I never shall. Later, I killed others but they can never destroy the memory of that enormous animal as he stood there looking down at me. Had I realized that it was a pig only the fraction of a second sooner it would have been a different story. But that is the fortune of shooting. In no other sport is the line between success and failure so closely drawn; of course, it is that which makes it so fascinating. At the end of a long day's hunt one chance may be given; then all depends on a clear eye, a steady hand and, above all, judgment. In your action in that single golden second rests the success or failure of, perhaps, a season's trip. You may have traveled thousands of miles, spent hundreds of dollars, and had just one shot at the "head of heads."

Some men tell me that they never get excited when they hunt. Thank God, I do. There would be no fun at all for me if I didn't get excited. But, fortunately, it all comes after the crucial moment. When the stock of the rifle settles against my cheek and I look across the sights, I am as cold as steel. I can shoot, and keep on shooting, with every brain cell concentrated on the work in hand but when it is done, for better or worse, I get the reaction which makes it all worth while.

One morning, a week after we had been in camp, Tserin Dorchy and I discovered a cow and a calf wapiti feeding in an open forest. It was a delight to see how the old Mongol stalked the deer, slipping from tree to bush, sometimes on his knees or flat on his face in the soft moss carpet. When we were two hundred yards away we drew up behind a stump. I took the cow, while Tserin Dorchy covered the calf and at the sound of our rifles both animals went down for good. I was glad to have them for specimens because we never got a shot at a bull in Mongolia, although twice I lost one by the merest chance. One of our hunters brought in a three-year-old moose a short time after we got the wapiti and another had a long chase after a wounded bear.

It was the first week in September when we returned to the base camp, our ponies heavily loaded with skins and antlers. The Chinese taxidermists under my direction had made a splendid collection of small mammals, and we had pretty thoroughly exhausted the resources of the forests in the Terelche region. Therefore, Yvette and I decided that it would be well to ride into Urga and make arrangements for our return to Peking.

We did the fifty miles with the greatest ease and spent the night with Mamen in Mai-ma-cheng. Next day Mr. and Mrs. MacCallie arrived, much to our delight. They were to spend the winter in Urga on business and they brought a supply of much needed ammunition, photographic plates, traps and my Mannlicher rifle. This equipment had been shipped from New York ten months earlier but had only just reached Peking and been released from the Customs through the heroic efforts of Mr. Guptil.

We had another two weeks' hunting trip before we said good-by to Mongolia but it netted few results. All the valleys, which had been deserted when we were there before, were filled with Mongols cutting hay for the winter feed of their sheep and goats. Of course, every camp was guarded by a dog or two, and their continual barking had driven the moose, elk, and bear far back into the deepest forests where we had no time to follow.

Mr. and Mrs. MacCallie had taken a house in Urga, just opposite the Russian Consulate, and they entertained us while I packed our collections which were stored in Andersen, Meyer's godown. It was a full week's work, for we had more than a thousand specimens. The forests of Mongolia had yielded up their treasures is we had not dared to hope they would, and we left them with almost as much regret as we had left the plains.

October first the specimens started southward on camel back. Kublai Khan, my pony, went with them, while we left in the Chinese Government motor cars. For two hundred miles we rushed over the same plains which, a few months earlier, we had laboriously crossed with our caravan. Every spot was pregnant with delightful memories. At this well we had camped for a week and hunted antelope; in that ragged mass of rocks we had killed a wolf; out on the Turin plain we had trapped twenty-six marmots in an enormous colony.

Those had been glorious days and our hearts were sad as we raced back to Peking and civilization. But one bright spot remained-we need not yet leave our beloved East! Far to the south, in brigand-infested mountains on the edge of China, there dwelt a herd of bighorn sheep, the argali of the Mongols. Among them was a great ram, and we had learned his hiding place. How we got him is another story.

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