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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 15696

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

After the first day we left the "American Legation" and moved camp to one of two villages at the upper end of the valley about a mile nearer the hunting grounds. There were only half a dozen huts, but they were somewhat superior to those of Wu-tai-hai, and we were able to make ourselves fairly comfortable. The usual threshing floor of hard clay adjoined each house, and all day we could hear the steady beat, beat, beat, of the flails pounding out the wheat.

The grain was usually freed from chaff by the simple process of throwing it into the air when a brisk wind was blowing, but we saw several hand winnowing machines which were exceedingly ingenious and very effective. The wheat was ground between two circular stones operated by a blindfolded donkey which plodded round and round tied to a shaft. Of course, had the animal been able to see he would not have walked continuously in a circle without giving trouble to his master.

Behind our new house the cliffs rose in sheer walls for hundreds of feet, and red-legged partridges, or chuckars, were always calling from some ledge or bowlder. We could have excellent shooting at almost any hour of the day and often picked up pheasants, bearded partridges, and rabbits in the tiny fields across the stream. Besides the wapiti and roebuck, goral were plentiful on the cliffs and there were a few sheep in the lower valley. Altogether it was a veritable game paradise, but one which I fear will last only a few years longer.

We found that the wapiti were not as easy to kill as the first day's hunt had given us reason to believe. The mountains, separated by deep ravines, were so high and precipitous that if the deer became alarmed and crossed a valley it meant a climb of an hour or more to reach the crest of the new ridge. It was killing work, and we returned to camp every night utterly exhausted.

The concentration of animal life in these scrub-filled gorges was really extraordinary, and I hope that a "game hog" never finds that valley. Probably in no other part of China can one see as many roebuck in a space so limited. It is due, of course, to the unusual conditions. Instead of being scattered over a large area, as is usual in the forest where there is an abundance of cover, the animals are confined to the few ravines in which brush remains. The surrounding open hills isolate them almost as effectively as though they were encircled by water; when driven from one patch of cover they can only run to the next valley.

The facility with which the roebuck and wapiti had adapted themselves to utterly new conditions was a continual marvel to me, and I never lost the feeling of surprise when I saw the animals on the open hillside or running across the rolling, treeless uplands. Had an elephant or a rhinoceros suddenly appeared in place of a deer, it would not have seemed more incongruous.

After we had killed the first wapiti we did not fire a shot for two days, even though roebuck were all about us and we wanted a series for the Museum. This species, Capreolus bedfordi, is smaller both in body and in antlers than the one we obtained in Mongolia and differs decidedly in coloration.

On the second hunt I, alone, saw forty-five roebuck, and Harry, who was far to the north of me, counted thirty-one. The third day we were together and put out at least half as many. During that time we saw two wapiti, but did not get a shot at either. Both of us were becoming decidedly tired of passing specimens which we wanted badly and decided to go for roebuck regardless of the possibility of frightening wapiti by the shooting. Na-mon-gin and the other hunters were disgusted with our decision, for they were only interested in the larger game. For the first two drives they worked only half-heartedly, and although seventeen deer were put out of one ravine, they escaped without giving us a shot.

Harry and I held a council of war with the natives and impressed upon them the fact that we were intending to hunt roebuck that day regardless of their personal wishes. They realized that we were not to be dissuaded and prepared to drive the next patch of cover in a really businesslike manner.

Na-mon-gin took me to a position on the edge of a projecting rock to await the natives. As they appeared on the rim of the ravine we saw five roe deer move in the bushes where they had been asleep. Four of them broke back through the line of beaters, but one fine buck came straight toward us. He ran up the slope and crossed a rock-saddle almost beneath me, but I did not fire until he was well away on the opposite hillside; then he plunged forward in his tracks, dead.

Without moving from our position we sent the men over the crest of the mountain to drive the ravines on the other side. The old Mongol and I stretched out upon the rock and smoked for half an hour, while I tried to tell him in my best Chinese-which is very bad-the story of a bear hunt in Alaska. I had just killed the bear, in my narrative, when we saw five roebuck appear on the sky line. They trotted straight toward Harry, and in a moment we heard two shots in quick succession. I knew that meant at least one more deer.

Five minutes later we made out a roebuck rounding the base of the spur on which we sat. It seemed no larger than a brown rabbit at that distance, but the animal was running directly up the bottom of the ravine which we commanded. It was a buck carrying splendid antlers and we watched him come steadily on until he was almost below us.

Na-mon-gin whispered, "Don't shoot until he stops"; but it seemed that the animal would cross the ridge without a pause. He was almost at the summit when he halted for an instant, facing directly away from us. I fired, and the buck leaped backward shot through the neck.

Na-mon-gin was in high good humor, for I had killed two deer with two shots. Harry brought a splendid doe which he had bored neatly through the body as it dashed at full speed across the valley below him. Even the old Mongol had to admit that the wapiti could not have been greatly disturbed by the shooting, and all the men were as pleased as children. There was meat enough for all our boys as well as for the beaters.

Our next day's hunt was for goral on the precipitous cliffs north of camp. Goral belong to a most interesting group of mammals known as the "goat-antelopes" because of the intermediate position which they occupy between the true antelope and the goats. The takin, serow, and goral are the Asiatic members of this sub-family, the Rupicaprinae, which is represented in America by the so-called Rocky Mountain goat and in Europe by the chamois. The goral might be called the Asiatic chamois, for its habits closely resemble those of its European relative.

I had killed twenty-five goral in Yün-nan on the first Asiatic expedition and, therefore, was not particularly keen, from the sporting standpoint, about shooting others. But we did need several specimens, since the north China goral represents a different species, Nemorhaedus caudatus, from the one we had obtained in Yün-nan, which is N. griseus.

Moreover, Harry was exceedingly anxious to get several of the animals for he had not been very successful with them. He had shot one at Wu-shi-tu, while we were hunting sheep, and after wounding two others at Wu-tai-hai had begun to learn how hard they are to kill.

The thousand-foot climb up the almost perpendicular cliff was one of the most difficult bits of going which we encountered anywhere in the mountains, and I was ready for a rest in the sun when we reached the summit. Although my beaters were not successful in putting out a goral, we heard Harry shoot once away to the right; and half an hour later I saw him through my binoculars accompanied by one of his men who carried a goral on his shoulde


On the way Harry disturbed a goral which ran down the sheer wall opposite to us at full speed, bouncing from rock to rock as though made of India rubber. It was almost inconceivable that anything except a bird could move along the face of that cliff, and yet the goral ran apparently as easily as though it had been on level ground. I missed it beautifully and the animal disappeared into a cave among the rocks. Although I sent two bullets into the hole, hoping to drive out the beast, it would not move. Two beaters made their way from above to within thirty feet of the hiding place and sent down a shower of dirt and stones, but still there was no sign of action. Then another native climbed up from below at the risk of his life, and just as he gained the ledge which led to the cave the goral leaped out. The Mongol yelled with fright, for the animal nearly shoved him off the rocks and dashed into the bottom of the ravine where it took refuge in another cave.

I would not have taken that thousand-foot climb again for all the gorals in China, but Harry started down at once. The animal again remained in its cave until a beater was opposite the entrance and then shot out like an arrow almost into Harry's face. He was so startled that he missed it twice.

I decided to abandon goral hunting for that day. Na-mon-gin took me over the summit of the ridge with two beaters and we found roebuck at once. I returned to camp with two bucks and a doe. In the lower valley I met Harry carrying a shotgun and accompanied by a boy strung about with pheasants and chuckars. After losing the goral he had toiled up the mountain again but had found only two roebuck, one of which he shot.

Our second wapiti was killed on November seventh. It was a raw day with an icy wind blowing across the ridges where we lay for half an hour while the beaters bungled a drive for twelve roebuck which had gone into a scrub-filled ravine. The animals eluded us by running across a hilltop which should have been blocked by a native, and I got only one shot at a fox. The report of my rifle disturbed eight wapiti which the beaters discovered as they crossed the uplands in the direction of another patch of cover a mile away.

It was a long, cold walk over the hills against the biting wind, and after driving one ravine unsuccessfully Harry descended to the bottom of a wide valley, while I continued parallel with him on the summit of the ridge. Three roebuck suddenly jumped from a shallow ravine in front of me, and one of them, a splendid buck, stopped behind a bush. It was too great a temptation, so I fired; but the bullet went to pieces in the twigs and never reached its mark. Harry saw the deer go over the hill and ran around the base of a rocky shoulder just in time to intercept three wapiti which my shot had started down the ravine. He dropped behind a bowlder and let a cow and a calf pass within a few yards of him, for he saw the antlers of a bull rocking along just behind a tiny ridge. As the animal came into view he sent a bullet into his shoulder, and a second ball a few inches behind the first. The elk went down but got to his feet again, and Harry put him under for good with a third shot in the hip.

Looking up he saw another bull, alone, emerging from a patch of cover on the summit of the opposite slope four hundred yards away. He fired point-blank, but the range was a bit too long and his bullet kicked up a cloud of snow under the animal's belly.

I was entirely out of the race on the summit of the hill, for the nearest wapiti was fully eight hundred yards away. Harry's bull was somewhat smaller than the first one we had killed, but had an even more beautiful coat.

We were pretty well exhausted from the week's strenuous climbing and spent Sunday resting and looking after the small mammal work which our Chinese taxidermists had been carrying on under my direction.

Monday morning we were on the hunting grounds shortly after sunrise. At the first drive a beautiful buck roe deer ran out of a ravine into the main valley where I was stationed. Suddenly he caught sight of us where we sat under a rock and stopped with head thrown up and one foot raised. I shall never forget the beautiful picture which he made standing there against the background of snow with the sun glancing on his antlers. Before I could shoot he was off at top speed bounding over the bushes parallel to us. My first shot just creased his back, but the second caught him squarely in the shoulder, while he was in mid-air, turning him over in a complete somersault.

A few moments later we saw the two beaters on the hill run toward each other excitedly and felt sure they had seen something besides roebuck. When they reached us they reported that seven wapiti had run out directly between them and over the ridge.

The climb to the top of the mountain was an ordeal. It was the highest ridge on that side of the valley and every time we reached what appeared to be the crest, another and higher summit loomed above us. We followed the tracks of the animals into a series of ravines which ran down on the opposite side of the mountain and tried a drive. It was too large a territory for our four beaters, and the animals escaped unobserved up one of the valleys. Na-mon-gin and I sat on the hillside for an hour in the icy wind. We were both shaking with cold and I doubt if I could have hit a wapiti if it had stopped fifty feet away.

Harry saw a young elk go into a mass of birch scrub in the bottom of the valley, and when he descended to drive it out, his hunter discovered a huge bull walking slowly up a ravine not two hundred yards from me but under cover of the hill and beyond my sight.

A little before dark we started home by way of a deep ravine which extended out to the main valley. We were talking in a low tone and I was smoking a cigarette-my rifle slung over my shoulder. Suddenly Harry exclaimed, "Great Scott, Roy! There's a ma-lu."

On the instant his rifle banged, and I looked up just in time to see a bull wapiti stop on an open slope of the ravine about ninety yards away. Before I had unslung my rifle Harry fired again, but he could not see the notch in his rear sight and both bullets went high.

Through the peep sight in my Mannlicher the animal was perfectly visible, and when I fired, the bull dropped like lead, rolling over and over down the hill. He attempted to get to his feet but was unable to stand, and I put him down for good with a second shot. It all happened so quickly that we could hardly realize that a day of disappointment had ended in success.

On our way back to camp Harry and I decided that this would end our hunt, for we had three fine bulls, and it was evident that only a very few wapiti remained. The species is doomed to early extinction for, with the advent of the railroad, the last stand which the elk have made by means of their extraordinary adaptation to changed conditions will soon become easily accessible to foreign sportsmen. We at least could keep our consciences clear and not hasten the inevitable day by undue slaughter. In western China other species of wapiti are found in greater numbers, but there can be only one end to the persecution to which they are subjected during the season when they are least able to protect themselves.

It is too much to hope that China will make effective game laws before the most interesting and important forms of her wild life have disappeared, but we can do our best to preserve in museums for future generations records of the splendid animals of the present. Not only are they a part of Chinese history, but they belong to all the world, for they furnish some of the evidence from which it is possible to write the fascinating story of those dim, dark ages when man first came upon the earth.

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