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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 15078

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

All the morning our carts had bumped and rattled over the stones in a somber valley one hundred and fifty li from where we had killed the sheep [Footnote: A li equals about one-third of a mile]. With every mile the precipitous cliffs pressed in more closely upon us until at last the gorge was blocked by a sheer wall of rock. Our destination was a village named Wu-tai-hai, but there appeared to be no possible place for a village in that narrow ca?on.

We were a quarter of a mile from the barrier before we could distinguish a group of mud-walled huts, seemingly plastered against the rock like a collection of swallows' nests. No one but a Chinese would have dreamed of building a house in that desolate place. It was Wu-tai-hai, without a doubt, and Harry and I rode forward to investigate.

At the door of a tiny hut we were met by one of our Chinese taxidermists. He ushered us into the court and, with a wave of his hand, announced, "This is the American Legation." The yard was a mass of straw and mud. From the gaping windows of the house bits of torn paper fluttered in the wind; inside, at one end of the largest room, was a bed platform made of mud; at the other, a fat mother hog with five squirming "piglets" sprawled contentedly on the dirt floor. Six years before Colonel (then Captain) Thomas Holcomb, of the United States Marine Corps, had spent several days at this but while hunting elk. Therefore, it will be known to Peking Chinese until the end of time as the "American Legation."

An inspection of the remaining houses in the village disclosed no better quarters, so our boys ousted the sow and her family, swept the house, spread the kang and floor with clean straw, and pasted fresh paper over the windows. We longed to use our tents, but there was nothing except straw or grass to burn, and cooking would be impossible. The villagers were too poor to buy coal from Kwei-hua-cheng, forty miles away, and there was not a sign of wood on the bare, brown hills.

At the edge of the kang, in these north Shansi houses, there is always a clay stove which supports a huge iron pot. A hand bellows is built into the side of the stove, and by feeding straw or grass with one hand and energetically manipulating the bellows with the other, a fire sufficient for simple cooking is obtained.

Except for a few hours of the day the house is as cold as the yard outside, but the natives mind it not at all. Men and women alike dress in sheepskin coats and padded cotton trousers. They do not expect to remove their clothing when they come indoors, and warmth, except at night, is a nonessential in their scheme of life. A system of flues draws the heat from the cooking fires underneath the kang, and the clay bricks retain their temperature for several hours.

At best the north China natives lead a cheerless existence in winter. The house is not a home. Dark, cold, dirty, it is merely a place in which to eat and sleep. There is no home-making instinct in the Chinese wife, for a centuries' old social system, based on the Confucian ethics, has smothered every thought of the privileges of womanhood. Her place is to cook, sew, and bear children; to reflect only the thoughts of her lord and master-to have none of her own.

Wu-tai-hai was typical of villages of its class in all north China; mud huts, each with a tiny courtyard, built end to end in a corner of the hillside. A few acres of ground in the valley bottom and on the mountain side capable of cultivation yield enough wheat, corn, turnips, cabbages, and potatoes to give the natives food. Their life is one of work with few pleasures, and yet they are content because they know nothing else.

Imagine, then, what it meant when we suddenly injected ourselves into their midst. We had come from a world beyond the mountains-a world of which they had sometimes heard, but which was as unreal to them as that of another planet. Europe and America were merely names. A few had learned from passing soldiers that these strange men in that dim, far land had been fighting among themselves and that China, too, was in some vague way connected with the struggle.

But it had not affected them in their tiny rock-bound village. Their world was encompassed within the valley walls or, in its uttermost limits, extended to Kwei-hua-cheng, forty miles away. They knew, even, that a "fire carriage" running on two rails of steel came regularly to Feng-chen, four days' travel to the east, but few of them had ever seen it. So it was almost as unreal as stories of the war and aeroplanes and automobiles.

All the village gathered at the "American Legation" while we unpacked our carts. They gazed in silent awe at our guns and cameras and sleeping bags, but the trays of specimens brought forth an active response. Here was something that was a part of their own life-something they could understand. Mice and rabbits like these they had seen in their own fields; that weasel was the same kind of animal which sometimes stole their chickens. They pointed to the rocks when they saw a red-legged partridge, and told us there were many there; also pheasants.

Why we wanted the skins they could not understand, of course. I told them that we would take them far away across the ocean to America and put them in a great house as large as that hill across the valley; but they smilingly shook their heads. The ocean meant nothing to them, and as for a house as large as a hill-well, there never could be such a place. They were perfectly sure of that.

We had come to Wu-tai-hai to hunt wapiti-ma-lu (horse-deer) the natives call them-and they assured us that we could find them on the mountains behind the village. Only last night, said one of the men, he had seen four standing on the hillside. Two had antlers as long as that stick, but they were no good now-the horns were hard-we should have come in the spring when they were soft. Then each pair was worth $150, at least, and big ones even more. The doctors make wonderful medicine from the horns-only a little of it would cure any disease no matter how bad it was. They themselves could not get the ma-lu, for the soldiers had long since taken away all their guns, but they would show us where they were.

It was pleasant to hear all this, for we wanted some of those wapiti very badly, indeed. It is one of the links in the chain of evidence connecting the animals of the Old World and the New-the problem which makes Asia the most fascinating hunting ground of all the earth.

When the early settlers first penetrated the forests of America they found the great deer which the Indians called "wapiti." It was supposed for many years that it inhabited only America, but not long ago similar deer were discovered in China, Manchuria, Korea, Mongolia, Siberia, and Turkestan, where undoubtedly the American species originated. Its white discoverers erroneously named the animal "elk," but as this title properly belongs to the European "moose," sportsmen have adopted the Indian name "wapiti" to avoid confusion. Of course, changed environment developed different "species" in all the animals which migrated from Asia either to Europe or America, but their relationships are very close, indeed.

The particular wapiti which we hoped to get at Wu-tai-hai represented a species almost extinct in China. Because of relentless persecution when the antlers are growing and in the "velvet" and continual cutting of the forests only a few individuals remain in this remote corner of northern Shans

i Province. These will soon all be killed, for the railroad is being extended to within a few miles of their last stronghold, and sportsmen will flock to the hills from the treaty ports of China.

Our first hunt was on November first. We left camp by a short cut behind the village and descended to the bowlder-strewn bed of the creek which led into a tremendous gorge. We felt very small and helpless as our eyes traveled up the well-nigh vertical walls to the ragged edge of the chasm a thousand feet above us. The mightiness of it all was vaguely depressing, and it was with a distinct feeling of relief that we saw the ca?on widen suddenly into a gigantic amphitheater. In its very center, rising from a ragged granite pedestal, a pinnacle of rock, crowned by a tiny temple, shot into the air. It was three hundred feet, at least, from the stream bed to the summit of the spire-and what a colossal task it must have been to transport the building materials for the temple up the sheer sides of rock! The valley sinners must gain much merit from the danger and effort involved in climbing there to worship.

Farther on we passed two villages and then turned off to the right up a tributary valley. We were anxiously looking for signs of forest, but the only possible cover was in a few ravines where a sparse growth of birch and poplar bushes, not more than six or eight feet high, grew on the north slope. Moreover, we could see that the valley ended in open rolling uplands.

[Illustration: The Head of the Record Ram]

[Illustration: Map of Mongolia and China, Showing Route of Second

Asiatic Expedition in Broken Lines]

Turning to Na-mon-gin, I said, "How much farther are the ma-lu?" "Here," he answered. "We have already arrived. They are in the bushes on the mountain side."

Caldwell and I were astounded. The idea of looking for wapiti in such a place seemed too absurd! There was hardly enough cover successfully to conceal a rabbit, to say nothing of an animal as large as a horse. Nevertheless, the hunters assured us that the ma-lu were there, and we began to take a new interest in the birch scrub. Almost immediately we saw three roebuck near the rim of one of the ravines, their white rump-patches showing conspicuously as they bobbed about in the thin cover. We could have killed them easily, but the hunters would not let us shoot, for we were after larger game.

A few moments later we separated, Harry keeping on up the main valley, while my hunter and I turned into a patch of brush directly above us. We had not gone fifty yards when there was a crash, a rush of feet, and four wapiti dashed through the bushes. The three cows kept straight on, but the bull stopped just on the crest of the ridge directly behind a thick screen of twigs. My rifle was sighted at the huge body dimly visible through the branches. In a moment I would have touched the trigger, but the hunter caught my arm, whispering frantically, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot!"

Of course I knew it was a long chance, for the bullet almost certainly would have been deflected by the twigs, but those splendid antlers seemed very near and very, very desirable. I lowered my rifle reluctantly, and the bull disappeared over the hill crest whence the cows had gone.

"They'll stop in the next ravine," said the hunter, but when we cautiously peered over the ridge the animals were not there-nor were they in the next. At last we found their trail leading into the grassy uplands; but the possibility of finding wapiti, these animals of the forests, on those treeless slopes seemed too absurd even to consider. Yet, the old Mongol kept straight on across the rolling meadow.

Suddenly, off at the right, Harry's rifle banged three times in quick succession-then an interval, and two more shots. Ten seconds later three wapiti cows showed black against the sky line. They were coming fast and straight toward us. We flattened ourselves in the grass, lying as motionless as two gray bowlders, and a moment later another wapiti appeared behind the cows. As the sun glistened on his branching antlers there was no doubt that he was a bull, and a big one, too.

The cows were headed to pass about two hundred yards above us and behind the hill crest. I could easily have reached the summit where they, would have been at my mercy, but lower down the big bull also was coming, and the hunter would not let me move. "Wait, wait," he whispered, "we'll surely get him. Wait, we can't lose him."

"What about that ravine?" I answered. "He'll go into the cover. He will never come across this open hillside. I'm going to shoot."

"No, no, he won't turn there. I am sure he won't." The Mongol was right. The big fellow ran straight toward us until he came to the entrance to the valley. My heart was in my mouth as he stopped for an instant and looked down into the cover. Then, for some strange reason, he turned and cane on. Three hundred yards away he halted suddenly, swung about, and looked at the ravine again as if half decided to go back.

He was standing broadside, and at the crash of my rifle we could hear the soft thud of the bullet striking flesh; but without a sign of injury he ran forward and stopped under a swell of ground. I could see just ten inches of his back and the magnificent head. It was a small target at three hundred yards, and I missed him twice. With the greatest care I held the little ivory bead well down on that thin brown line, but the bullet only creased his back. It was no use-I simply could not hit him. Running up the hill a few feet, I had his Whole body exposed, and the first shot put him down for good.

With a whoop of joy my old Mongol dashed down the steep slope. I had never seen him excited while we were hunting sheep, but now he was wild with delight. Before he had quieted we saw Harry coming over the hill where the wapiti had first appeared. He told us that he had knocked the bull down at long range and had expected to find him dead until he heard me shooting. We found where his bullet had struck the wapiti in the shoulder, yet the animal was running as though untouched.

I examined the bull with the greatest interest, for it was the first Asiatic wapiti of this species that I had ever seen. Its splendid antlers carried eleven points but they were not as massive in the beam or as sharply bent backward at the tips as are those of the American elk. Because of its richer coloration, however, it was decidedly handsomer than any of the American animals.

But the really extraordinary thing was to find the wapiti there at all. It seemed as incongruous as the first automobile that I saw upon the Gobi Desert, for in every other part of the world the animal is a resident of the park-like openings in the forests. Here not a twig or bush was in sight, only the rolling, grass-covered uplands. Undoubtedly these mountains had been wooded many years ago, and as the trees were cut away, the animals had no alternative except to die or adapt themselves to almost plains conditions. The sparse birch scrub in the ravines still afforded them limited protection during the day, but they could feed only at night. It was a case of rapid adaptation to changed environment such as I have seen nowhere else in all the world.

The wapiti, of course, owed their continued existence to the fact that the Chinese villagers of the valley had no firearms; otherwise, when the growing antlers set a price upon their heads, they would all have been exterminated within a year or two.

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