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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 31186

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Away up in northern China, just south of the Mongolian frontier, is a range of mountains inhabited by bands of wild sheep. They are wonderful animals, these sheep, with horns like battering-rams. But the mountains are also populated by brigands and the two do not form an agreeable combination from the sportsman's standpoint.

In reality they are perfectly nice, well-behaved brigands, but occasionally they forget their manners and swoop down upon the caravan road less than a dozen miles away. This is done only when scouts bring word that cargo valuable enough to make it worth while is about to pass. Each time the brigands make a foray a return raid by Chinese soldiers can be expected. Occasionally these are real, "honest-to-goodness" fights, and blood may flow on both sides, but the battle sometimes takes a different form.

With bugles blowing, the soldiers march out to the hills. Through "middle men" the battle ground has been agreed upon, and a "David" is chosen from the soldiers to meet the "Goliath" of the brigands. But David is particularly careful to leave his gun behind, and to have his "sling" well stuffed with rifle shells. Goliath advances to the combat armed only with a bag of silver dollars. Then an even trade ensues-a dollar for a cartridge-and the implement of war changes hands.

[Illustration: Cave Dwellings in North Shansi Province]

[Illustration: An Asiatic Wapiti]

[Illustration: Harry R. Caldwell and a Mongolian Bighorn]

The soldiers return to the city with bugles sounding as merrily as when they left. The commander sends a report to Peking of a desperate battle with the brigands. He says that, through the extreme valor of his soldiers, the bandits have been dispersed and many killed; that hundreds of cartridges were expended in the fight; therefore, kindly send more as soon as possible.

All this because the government has an unfortunate way of forgetting to pay its soldiers in the outlying provinces. When no money is forthcoming and none is visible on the horizon, it is not surprising that they take other means to obtain it. "Battles" of this type are by no means exceptions-they are more nearly the rule in many provinces of China.

But what has all this to do with the wild sheep? Its relation is very intimate, for the presence of brigands in those Shansi mountains has made it possible for the animals to exist, The hunting grounds are only five days' travel from Peking and many foreigners have turned longing eyes toward the mountains. But the brigands always had to be considered. Since Sir Richard Dane, formerly Chief Inspector of the Salt Gabelle, and Mr. Charles Coltman were driven out by the bandits in 1913, the Chinese Government has refused to grant passports to foreigners who wished to shoot in that region. The brigands themselves cannot waste cartridges at one dollar each on the sheep, so the animals have been allowed to breed unmolested.

Nevertheless, there are not many sheep there. They are the last survivors of great herds which once roamed the mountains of north China. The technical name of the species is Ovis commosa (formerly O. jubata) and it is one of the group of bighorns known to sportsmen by the Mongol name of argali. In size, as well as ancestry, the members of this group are the grandfathers of all the sheep. The largest ram of our Rocky Mountains is a pygmy compared with a full-grown argali. Hundreds of thousands of years ago the bighorns, which originated in Asia, crossed into Alaska by way of the Bering Sea, where there was probably a land connection at that time From Alaska they gradually worked southward, along the mountains of the western coast, into Mexico and Lower California. In the course of time, changed environment developed different species; but the migration route from the Old World to the New is there for all to read.

The supreme trophy of a sportsman's life is the head of a Mongolian bighorn sheep. I think it was Rex Beach who said, "Some men can shoot but not climb. Some can climb but not shoot. To get a sheep you must be able to climb and shoot, too."

For its Hall of Asiatic Life, the American Museum of Natural History needed a group of argali. Moreover, we wanted a ram which would fairly represent the species, and that meant a very big one. The Reverend Harry R. Caldwell, with whom I had hunted tiger in south China, volunteered to get them with me. The brigands did not worry us unduly, for we both have had considerable experience with Chinese bandits and we feel that they are like animals-if you don't tease them, they won't bite. In this case the "teasing" takes the form of carrying anything that they could readily dispose of-especially money. I decided that my wife must remain in Peking. She was in open rebellion but there was just a possibility that the brigands might annoy us, and we had determined to have those sheep regardless of consequences.

Although we did not expect trouble, I knew that Harry Caldwell could be relied upon in any emergency. When a man will crawl into a tiger's lair, a tangle of sword grass and thorns, just to find out what the brute has had for dinner; when he will walk into the open in dim light and shoot, with a .22 high-power rifle, a tiger which is just ready to charge; when he will go alone and unarmed into the mountains to meet a band of brigands who have been terrorizing the country, it means that he has more nerve than any one man needs in this life!

After leaving the train at Feng-chen, the journey was like all others in north China; slow progress with a cart over atrocious roads which are either a mass of sticky mud or inches deep in fine brown dust. We had four days of it before we reached the mountains but the trip was full of interest to us both, for along the road there was an ever-changing picture of provincial life. To Harry it was especially illuminating because he had spent nineteen years in south China and had never before visited the north. He began to realize what every one soon learns who wanders much about the Middle Kingdom-that it is never safe to generalize in this strange land. Conditions true of one region may be absolutely unknown a few hundred miles away. He was continually irritated to find that his perfect knowledge of the dialect of Fukien Province was utterly useless. He was well-nigh as helpless as though he had never been in China, for the languages of the north and the south are almost as unlike as are French and German. Even our "boys" who were from Peking had some difficulty in making themselves understood, although we were not more than two hundred miles from the capital.

Instead of hills thickly clothed with sword grass, here the slopes were bare and brown. We were too far north for rice; corn, wheat, and kaoliang took the place of paddy fields. Instead of brick-walled houses we found dwellings made of clay like the "adobe" of Mexico and Arizona. Sometimes whole villages were dug into the hillside and the natives were cave dwellers, spending their lives within the earth.

All north China is spread with loess. During the Glacial Period, about one hundred thousand years ago, when in Europe and America great rivers of ice were descending from the north, central and eastern Asia seems to have suffered a progressive dehydration. There was little moisture in the air so that ice could not be formed. Instead, the climate was cold and dry, while violent winds carried the dust in whirling clouds for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, spreading it in ever thickening layers over the hills and plains. Therefore, the "Ice Age" for Europe and America was a "Dust Age" for northeastern Asia.

The inns were a constant source of interest to us both. Their spacious courtyards contrasted strangely with the filthy "hotels" of southern China. In the north all the traffic is by cart, and there must be accommodation for hundreds of vehicles; in the south where goods are carried by boats, coolies, or on donkey back, extensive compounds are unnecessary. Each night, wherever we arrived, we found the courtyard teeming with life and motion. Line after line of laden carts wound in through the wide swinging gates and lined up in orderly array; there was the steady "crunch, crunch, crunch" of feeding animals, shouts for the jonggweda (landlord), and good-natured chaffing among the carters. In the great kitchen, which is also the sleeping room, over blazing fires fanned by bellows, pots of soup and macaroni were steaming. On the two great kangs (bed platforms), heated from below by long flues radiating outward from the cooking fires, dozens of mafus were noisily sucking in their food or already snoring contentedly, rolled in their dusty coats.

Many kinds of folk were there; rich merchants enveloped in splendid sable coats and traveling in padded carts; peddlers with packs of trinkets for the women; wandering doctors selling remedies of herbs, tonics made from deerhorns or tigers' teeth, and wonderful potions of "dragons' bones." Perhaps there was a Buddhist priest or two, a barber, or a tailor. Often a professional entertainer sat cross-legged on the kang telling endless stories or singing for hours at a time in a high-pitched, nasal voice, accompanying himself upon a tiny snakeskin violin. It was like a stage drama of concentrated Chinese country life.

Among this polyglot assembly perhaps there may be a single man who has arrived with a pack upon his back. He is indistinguishable from the other travelers and mingles among the mafus, helping now and then to feed a horse or adjust a load. But his ears and eyes are open. He is a brigand scout who is there to learn what is passing on the road. He hears all the gossip from neighboring towns as well as of those many miles away, for the inns are the newspapers of rural China, and it is every one's business to tell all he knows. The scout marks a caravan, then slips away into the mountains to report to the leader of his band. The attack may not take place for many days. While the unsuspecting mafus are plodding on their way, the bands are hovering on the outskirts among the hills until the time is ripe to strike.

I have learned that these brigand scouts are my best protection, for when a foreigner arrives at a country inn all other subjects of conversation lose their interest. Everything about him is discussed and rediscussed, and the scouts discover all there is to know. Probably the only things I ever carry which a bandit could use or dispose of readily, are arms and ammunition. But two or three guns are hardly worth the trouble which would follow the death of a foreigner. The brigands know that there would be no sham battle with Chinese soldiers in that event, for the Legations at Peking have a habit of demanding reparation from the Government and insisting that they get it.

As a raison d'étre for our trip Caldwell and I had been hunting ducks, geese, and pheasants industriously along the way, and not even the "boys" knew our real destination.

We had looked forward with great eagerness to the Tai Hai, a large lake, where it was said that water fowl congregated in thousands during the spring and fall. We reached the lake the second night after leaving Feng-cheng. Darkness had just closed about us when we crossed the summit of a high mountain range and descended into a narrow, winding cut which eventually led us out upon the flat plains of the Tai Hai basin. While we were in the pass a dozen flocks of geese slipped by above our heads, flying very low, the "wedges" showing black against the starlit sky.

With much difficulty we found an inn close beside the lake and, after a late supper, snuggled into our fur bags to be lulled to sleep by that music most dear to a sportsman's heart, the subdued clamor of thousands of waterfowl settling themselves for the night.

At daylight we dressed hurriedly and ran to the lake shore. Harry took a station away from the water at the base of the hills, while I dropped behind three conical mounds which the natives had constructed to obtain salt by evaporation.

I was hardly in position before two geese came straight for me. Waiting until they were almost above my head, I knocked down both with a right and left. The shots put thousands of birds in motion. Flock after flock of geese rose into the air, and long lines of ducks skimmed close to the surface, settling away from shore or on the mud flats near the water's edge.

No more birds came near me, and in fifteen minutes I returned to the inn for breakfast. Harry appeared shortly after with only a mallard duck, for he had guessed wrong as to the direction of the flight, and was entirely out of the shooting.

When the carts had started at eight o'clock Harry and I rode down the shore of the lake to the south, with Chen to hold our horses. The mud flats were dotted with hundreds of ruddy sheldrakes, their beautiful bodies glowing red and gold in the sunlight. A hundred yards from shore half a dozen swans drifted about like floating snow banks, and ducks and geese by thousands rose or settled in the lake. We saw a flock of mallards alight in the short marsh grass and when I fired at least five hundred greenheads, yellow-nibs, and pintails rose in a brown cloud.

Crouched behind the salt mounds, we had splendid shooting and then rode on to join the carts, our ponies loaded with ducks and geese. The road swung about to the north, and we saw geese in tens of thousands coming into the lake across the mountain passes from their summer breeding grounds in Mongolia and far Siberia. Regiment after regiment swept past, circled away to the west, and dropped into the water as though at the command of a field marshal.

Although we were following the main road to Kwei-hua-cheng, a city of considerable importance not far from the mountains which contained the sheep, we had no intention of going there. Neither did we wish to pass through any place where there might be soldiers, so on the last day's march we left the highway and followed an unimportant trail to the tiny village of Wu-shi-tu, which nestles against the mountain's base. Here we made our camp in a Chinese house and obtained two Mongol hunters. We had hoped to live in tents, but there was not a stick of wood for fuel. The natives burn either coal or grass and twigs, but these would not keep us warm in an open camp.

About the village rose a chaotic mass of saw-toothed mountains cut, to the east, by a stupendous gorge. We stood silent with awe, when we first climbed a winding, white trail to the summit of the mountain and gazed into the abysmal depths. My eye followed an eagle which floated across the chasm to its perch on a projecting crag; thence, down the sheer face of the cliff a thousand feet to the stream which has carved this colossal canon from the living rock. Like a shining silver tracing it twisted and turned, foaming over rocks and running in smooth, green sheets between vertical walls of granite. To the north we looked across at a splendid panorama of saw-toothed peaks and ragged pinnacles tinted with delicate shades of pink and lavender. Beneath our feet were slabs of pure white marble and great blocks of greenish feldspar. Among the peaks were deep ravines and, farther to the east, rolling uplands carpeted with grass. There the sheep are found.

We killed only one goral and a roebuck during the first two days, for a violent gale made hunting well-nigh impossible. On the third morning the sun rose in a sky as blue as the waters of a tropic sea, and not

a breath of air stirred the silver poplar leaves as we crossed the rocky stream bed to the base of the mountains north of camp. Fifteen hundred feet above us towered a ragged granite ridge which must be crossed ere we could gain entrance to the grassy valleys beyond the barrier.

We had toiled halfway up the slope, when my hunter sank into the grass, pointed upward, and whispered, "pan-yang" (wild sheep). There, on the very summit of the highest pinnacle, stood a magnificent ram silhouetted against the sky. It was a stage introduction to the greatest game animal in all the world.

Motionless, as though sculptured from the living granite, it gazed across the valley toward the village whence we had come. Through my glasses I could see every detail of its splendid body-the wash of gray with which many winters had tinged its neck and flanks, the finely drawn legs, and the massive horns curling about a head as proudly held as that of a Roman warrior. He stood like a statue for half an hour, while we crouched motionless in the trail below; then he turned deliberately and disappeared.

When we reached the summit of the ridge the ram was nowhere to be seen, but we found his tracks on a path leading down a knifelike outcrop to the bottom of another valley. I felt sure that he would turn eastward toward the grassy uplands, but Na-mon-gin, my Mongol hunter, pointed north to a sea of ragged mountains. We groaned as we looked at those towering peaks; moreover, it seemed hopeless to hunt for a single animal in that chaos of ravines and canons.

We had already learned, however, that the Mongol knew almost as much about what a sheep would do as did the animal itself. It was positively uncanny. Perhaps we would see a herd of sheep half a mile away. The old fellow would seat himself, nonchalantly fill his pipe and puff contentedly, now and then glancing at the animals. In a few moments he would announce what was about to happen, and he was seldom wrong.

Therefore, when he descended to the bottom of the valley we accepted his dictum without a protest. At the creek bed Harry and his young hunter left us to follow a deep ravine which led upward a little to the left, while Na-mon-gin and I climbed to the crest by way of a precipitous ridge.

Not fifteen minutes after we parted, Harry's rifle banged three times in quick succession, the reports rolling out from the gorge in majestic waves of sound. A moment later the old Mongol saw three sheep silhouetted for an instant against the sky as they scrambled across the ridge. Then a voice floated faintly up to me from out the ca?on.

"I've got a f-i-n-e r-a-m," it said, "a b-e-a-u-t-y," and even at that distance I could hear its happy ring.

"Good for Harry," I thought. "He certainly deserved it after his work of last night;" for on the way home his hunter had seen an enormous ram climbing a mountain side and they had followed it to the summit only to lose its trail in the gathering darkness. Harry had stumbled into camp, half dead with fatigue, but with his enthusiasm undiminished.

When Na-mon-gin and I had reached the highest peak and found a trail which led along the mountain side just below the crest, we kept steadily on, now and then stopping to scan the grassy ravines and valleys which radiated from the ridge like the ribs of a giant fan. At half past eleven, as we rounded a rocky shoulder, I saw four sheep feeding in the bottom of a gorge far below us.

Quite unconscious of our presence, they worked out of the ravine across a low spur and into a deep gorge where the grass still showed a tinge of green. As the last one disappeared, we dashed down the slope and came up just above the sheep. With my glasses I could see that the leader carried a fair pair of horns, but that the other three rams were small, as argali go.

Lying flat, I pushed my rifle over the crest and aimed at the biggest ram. Three or four tiny grass stems were directly in my line of sight, and fearing that they might deflect my bullet, I drew back and shifted my position a few feet to the right.

One of the sheep must have seen the movement, although we were directly above them, and instantly all were off. In four jumps they had disappeared around a bowlder, giving me time for only a hurried shot at the last one's white rump-patch. The bullet struck a few inches behind the ram, and the valley was empty.

Looking down where they had been so quietly feeding only a few moments before, I called myself all known varieties of a fool. I felt very bad indeed that I had bungled hopelessly my first chance at an argali. But the sympathetic old hunter patted me on the shoulder and said in Chinese, "Never mind. They were small ones anyway-not worth having." They were very much worth having to me, however, and all the light seemed to have gone out of the world. We smoked a cigarette, but there was no consolation in that, and I followed the hunter around the peak with a heart as heavy as lead.

Half an hour later we sat down for a look around. I studied every ridge and gully with my glasses without seeing a sign of life. The four sheep had disappeared as completely as though one of the yawning ravines had swallowed them up; the great valley bathed in golden sunlight was deserted and as silent as the tomb.

I was just tearing the wrapper from a piece of chocolate when the hunter touched me on the arm and said quietly, "Pan-yang li la" (A sheep has come). He pointed far down a ridge running out at a right angle to the one on which we were sitting, but I could see nothing. Then I scanned every square inch of rock, but still saw no sign of life.

The hunter laughingly whispered, "I can see better than you can even with your foreign eyes. He is standing in that trail-he may come right up to us."

I tried again, following the thin, white line as it wound from us along the side of the knifelike ridge. Just where it vanished into space I saw the sheep, a splendid ram, standing like a statue of gray-brown granite and gazing squarely at us. He was fully half a mile away, but the hunter had seen him the instant he appeared. Without my glasses the animal was merely a blur to me, but the marvelous eyes of the Mongol could detect its every movement.

"It is the same one we saw this morning," he said. "I was sure we would find him over here. He has very big horns-much better than those others."

That was quite true; but the others had given me a shot and this ram, splendid as he was, seemed as unobtainable as the stars. For an hour we watched him. Sometimes he would turn about to look across the ravines on either side and once he came a dozen feet toward us along the path. The hunter smoked quietly, now and then looking through my glasses. "After a while he will go to sleep," he said, "then we can shoot him."

I must confess that I had but little hope. The ram seemed too splendid and much, much too far away. But I could feast my eyes on his magnificent head and almost count the rings on his curling horns.

A flock of red-legged partridges sailed across from the opposite ridge, uttering their rapid-fire call and alighted almost at our feet. Then each one seemed to melt into the mountain side, vanishing like magic among the grass and stones. I wondered mildly why they had concealed themselves so suddenly, but a moment later there sounded a subdued whir, like the motor of an aeroplane far up in the sky. Three shadows drifted over, and I saw three huge black eagles swinging in ever lowering circles about our heads. I knew then that the partridges had sought the protection of our presence from their mortal enemies, the eagles.

When I looked at the sheep again he was lying down squarely in the trail, lazily raising his head now and then to gaze about. The hunter inspected the ram through my glasses and prepared to go. We rolled slowly over the ridge and then hurried around to the projecting spur at the end of which the ram was lying.

The going was very bad indeed. Pieces of crumbled granite were continually slipping under foot, and at times we had to cling like flies to a wall of rock with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet below us. Twice the Mongol cautiously looked over the ridge, but each time shook his head and worked his way a little farther. At last he motioned me to slide up beside him. Pushing my rifle over the rock before me, I raised myself a few inches and saw the massive head and neck of the ram two hundred yards away. His body was behind a rocky shoulder, but he was looking squarely at us and in a second would be off.

I aimed carefully just under his chin, and at the roar of the high-power shell, the ram leaped backward. "You hit him," said the Mongol, but I felt he must be wrong; if the bullet had found the neck he would have dropped like lead.

Never in all my years of hunting have I had a feeling of such intense surprise and self-disgust. I had been certain of the shot and it was impossible to believe that I had missed. A lump rose in my throat and I sat with my head resting on my hands in the uttermost depths of dejection.

And then the impossible happened! Why it happened, I shall never know. A kind Providence must have directed the actions of the sheep, for, as I raised my eyes, I saw again that enormous head and neck appear from behind a rock a hundred yards away; just that head with its circlet of massive horns and the neck-nothing more. Almost in a daze I lifted my rifle, saw the little ivory bead of the front sight center on that gray neck, and touched the trigger. A thousand echoes crashed back upon us. There was a clatter of stones, a confused vision of a ponderous bulk heaving up and back-and all was still. But it was enough for me; there could be no mistake this time. The ram was mine.

The sudden transition from utter dejection to the greatest triumph of a sportsman's life set me wild with joy. I yelled and pounded the old Mongol on the back until he begged for mercy; then I whirled him about in a war dance on the summit of the ridge. I wanted to leap down the rocks where the sheep had disappeared but the hunter held my ann. For ten minutes we sat there waiting to make sure that the ram would not dash away while we were out of sight in the ravine below. But I knew in my heart that it was all unnecessary. My bullet had gone where I wanted it to go and that was quite enough. No sheep that ever walked could live with a Mannlicher ball squarely in its neck.

When we finally descended, the animal lay halfway down the slope, feebly kicking. What a huge brute he was, and what a glorious head! I had never dreamed that an argali could be so splendid. His horns were perfect, and my hands could not meet around them at the base.

Then, of course, I wanted to know what had happened at my first shot. The evidence was there upon his face. My bullet had gone an inch high, struck him in the corner of the mouth, and emerged from his right cheek. It must have been a painful wound, and I shall never cease to wonder what strange impulse brought him back after he had been so badly stung. The second ball had been centered in the neck as though in the bull's-eye of a target.

The skin and head of the sheep made a pack weighing nearly one hundred pounds, and the old Mongol groaned as he looked up at the mountain barriers which separated us from camp. On the summit of the first ridge we found the trail over which we had passed in the morning. Half an hour later the hunter jerked me violently behind a ledge of rock. "Pan-yang," he whispered, "there, on the mountain side. Can't you see him?" I could not, and he tried to point to it with my rifle. Just at that instant what I had supposed to be a brown rock came to life in a whirl of dust and vanished into the ravine below.

We waited breathlessly for perhaps a minute-it seemed hours-then the head and shoulders of a sheep appeared from behind a bowlder. I aimed low and fired, and the animal crumpled in its tracks. A second later two rams and a ewe dashed from the same spot and stopped upon the hillside less than a hundred yards away. Instinctively I sighted on the largest but dropped my rifle without touching the trigger. The sheep was small, and even if we did need him for the group we could not carry his head and skin to camp that night. The wolves would surely have found his carcass before dawn, and it would have been a useless waste of life.

The one I had killed was a fine young ram. With the skin, head, and parts of the meat packed upon my shoulders we started homeward at six o'clock. Our only exit lay down the river bed in the bottom of a great ca?on, for in the darkness it would have been dangerous to follow the trail along the cliffs. In half an hour it was black night in the gorge. The vertical walls of rock shut out even the starlight, and we could not see more than a dozen feet ahead.

I shall never forget that walk. After wading the stream twenty-eight times I lost count. I was too cold and tired and had fallen over too many rocks to have it make the slightest difference how many more than twenty-eight times we went into the icy water. The hundred-pound pack upon my back weighed more every hour, but the thought of those two splendid rams was as good as bread and wine.

Harry was considerably worried when we reached camp at eleven o'clock, for in the village there had been much talk of bandits. Even before dinner we measured the rams and found that the horns of the one he had killed exceeded the published records for the species by half an inch in circumference. The horns were forty-seven inches in length, but were broken at the tips; the original length was fifty-one inches; the circumference at the base was twenty inches. Moreover, mine was not far behind in size.

As I snuggled into my fur sleeping bag that night, I realized that it had been the most satisfactory hunting day of my life. The success of the group was assured, with a record ram for the central figure. We had three specimens already, and the others would not be hard to get.

The next morning four soldiers were waiting in the courtyard when we awoke. With many apologies they informed us that they had been sent by the commander of the garrison at Kwei-hua-cheng to ask us to go back with them. The mountains were very dangerous; brigands were swarming in the surrounding country; the commandant was greatly worried for our safety. Therefore, would we be so kind as to break camp at once.

We told them politely, but firmly, that it was impossible for us to comply with their request. We needed the sheep for a great museum in New York, and we could not return without them. As they could see for themselves our passports had been properly viséed by the Foreign Office in Peking, and we were prepared to stay.

The soldiers returned to Kwei-hua-cheng, and the following day we were honored by a visit from the commandant himself. To him we repeated our determination to remain. He evidently realized that we could not be dislodged and suggested a compromise arrangement. He would send soldiers to guard our house and to accompany us while we were hunting. We assented readily, because we knew Chinese soldiers. Of course, the sentinel at the door troubled us not at all, and the ones who were to accompany us were easily disposed of. For the first day's hunt with our guard we selected the roughest part of the mountain, and set such a terrific pace up the almost perpendicular slope that before long they were left far behind. They never bothered us again.

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