Across Mongolian Plains

Roy Chapman Andrews

Preview: Issue 1 of 24


Careering madly in a motor car behind a herd of antelope fleeing like wind-blown ribbons across a desert which isn't a desert, past caravans of camels led by picturesque Mongol horsemen, the Twentieth Century suddenly and violently interjected into the Middle Ages, should be contrast and paradox enough for even the most blasé sportsman. I am a naturalist who has wandered into many of the far corners of the earth. I have seen strange men and things, but what I saw on the great Mongolian plateau fairly took my breath away and left me dazed, utterly unable to adjust my mental perspective.

When leaving Peking in late August, 1918, to cross the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, I knew that I was to go by motor car. But somehow the very names "Mongolia" and "Gobi Desert" brought such a vivid picture of the days of Kublai Khan and ancient Cathay that my clouded mind refused to admit the thought of automobiles. It was enough that I was going to the land of which I had so often dreamed.

Not even in the railway, when I was being borne toward Kalgan and saw lines of laden camels plodding silently along the paved road beside the train, or when we puffed slowly through the famous Nankou Pass and I saw that wonder of the world, the Great Wall, winding like a gray serpent over ridge after ridge of the mountains, was my dream-picture of mysterious Mongolia dispelled. I had seen all this before, and had accepted it as one accepts the motor cars beside the splendid walls of old Peking. It was too near, and the railroad had made it commonplace.

But Mongolia! That was different. One could not go there in a roaring train. I had beside me the same old rifle and sleeping bag that had been carried across the mountains of far Yün-nan, along the Tibetan frontier, and through the fever-stricken jungles of Burma. Somehow, these companions of forest and mountain trails, and my reception at Kalgan by two khaki-clad young men, each with a belt of cartridges and a six-shooter strapped about his waist, did much to keep me in a blissful state of unpreparedness for the destruction of my dream-castles.

That night as we sat in Mr. Charles Coltman's home, with his charming wife, a real woman of the great outdoors, presiding at the dinner table, the talk was all of shooting, horses, and the vast, lone spaces of the Gobi Desert—but not much of motor cars. Perhaps they vaguely realized that I was still asleep in an unreal world and knew that the awakening would come all too soon.

Yet I was dining that night with one of the men who had destroyed the mystery of Mongolia. In 1916, Coltman and his former partner, Oscar Mamen, had driven across the plains to Urga, the historic capital of Mongolia. But most unromantic and incongruous, most disheartening to a dreamer of Oriental dreams, was what I learned a few days later when the awakening had really come—that among the first cars ever to cross the desert was one purchased by the Hutukhtu, the Living Buddha, the God of all the Mongols.

When the Hutukhtu learned of the first motor car in Mongolia he forthwith demanded one for himself. So his automobile was brought safely through the rocky pass at Kalgan and across the seven hundred miles of plain to Urga by way of the same old caravan trail over which, centuries ago, Genghis Khan had sent his wild Mongol raiders to conquer China.

We arose long before daylight on the morning of August 29. In the courtyard lanterns flashed and disappeared like giant fireflies as the mafus (muleteers) packed the baggage and saddled the ponies. The cars had been left on the plateau at a mission station called Hei-ma-hou to avoid the rough going in the pass, and we were to ride there on horseback while the food and bed-rolls went by cart. There were five of us in the party—Mr. and Mrs. Coltman, Mr. and Mrs. Lucander, and myself. I was on a reconnoissance and Mr. Coltman's object was to visit his trading station in Urga, where the Lucanders were to remain for the winter.

The sun was an hour high when we clattered over the slippery paving stones to the north gate of the city. Kalgan is built hard against the Great Wall of China—the first line of defense, the outermost rampart in the colossal structure which for so many centuries protected China from Tartar invasion. Beyond it there was nothing between us and the great plateau.

After our passports had been examined we rode through the gloomy chasm-like gate, turned sharply to the left, and found ourselves standing on the edge of a half-dry river bed. Below us stretched line after line of double-humped camels, some crowded in yellow-brown masses which seemed all heads and curving necks, and some kneeling quietly on the sand. From around a shoulder of rock came other camels, hundreds of them, treading slowly and sedately, nose to tail, toward the gate in the Great Wall. They had come from the far country whither we were bound. To me there is something fascinating about a camel. Perhaps it is because he seems to typify the great waste spaces which I love, that I never tire of watching him swing silently, and seemingly with resistless power, across the desert.

Our way to Hei-ma-hou led up the dry river bed, with the Great Wall on the left stretching its serpentine length across the hills, and on the right picturesque cliffs two hundred feet in height. At their bases nestle mud-roofed cottages and Chinese inns, but farther up the river the low hills are all of loess—brown, wind-blown dust, packed hard, which can be cut like cheese. Deserted though they seem from a distance, they really teem with human life. Whole villages are half dug, half built, into the hillsides, but are well-nigh invisible, for every wall and roof is of the same brown earth.

Ten miles or so from Kalgan we began on foot the long climb up the pass which gives entrance to the great plateau. I kept my eyes steadily on the pony's heels until we reached a broad, flat terrace halfway up the pass. Then I swung about that I might have, all at once, the view which lay below us. It justified my greatest hopes, for miles and miles of rolling hills stretched away to where the far horizon met the Shansi Mountains.

It was a desolate country which I saw, for every wave in this vast land-sea was cut and slashed by the knives of wind and frost and rain, and lay in a chaotic mass of gaping wounds—cañons, ravines, and gullies, painted in rainbow colors, crossing and cutting one another at fantastic angles as far as the eye could see.

When, a few moments later, we reached the very summit of the pass, I felt that no spot I had ever visited satisfied my preconceived conceptions quite so thoroughly. Behind and below us lay that stupendous relief map of ravines and gorges; in front was a limitless stretch of undulating plain. I knew then that I really stood upon the edge of the greatest plateau in all the world and that it could be only Mongolia.

We had tiffin at a tiny Chinese inn beside the road, and trotted on toward Hei-ma-hou between waving fields of wheat, buckwheat, millet, and oats—oats as thick and "meaty" as any horse could wish to eat.

After tiffin Coltman and Lucander rode rapidly ahead while I trotted my pony along more slowly in the rear. It was nearly seven o'clock, and the trees about the mission station had been visible for half an hour. I was enjoying a gorgeous sunset which splashed the western sky with gold and red, and lazily watching the black silhouettes of a camel caravan swinging along the summit of a ridge a mile away. On the road beside me a train of laden mules and bullock-carts rested for a moment—the drivers half asleep. Over all the plain there lay the peace of a perfect autumn evening.

Suddenly, from behind a little rise, I heard the whir of a motor engine and the raucous voice of a Klaxon horn. Before I realized what it meant, I was in the midst of a mass of plunging, snorting animals, shouting carters, and kicking mules. In a moment the caravan scattered wildly across the plain and the road was clear save for the author of the turmoil—a black automobile.

I wish I could make those who spend their lives within a city know how strange and out of place that motor seemed, alone there upon the open plain on the borders of Mongolia. Imagine a camel or an elephant with all its Oriental trappings suddenly appearing on Fifth Avenue! You would think at once that it had escaped from a circus or a zoo and would be mainly curious as to what the traffic policeman would do when it did not obey his signals.

But all the incongruity and the fact that the automobile was a glaring anachronism did not prevent my abandoning my horse to the mafu and stretching out comfortably on the cushions of the rear seat. There I had nothing to do but collect the remains of my shattered dream-castles as we bounced over the ruts and stones. It was a rude awakening, and I felt half ashamed to admit to myself as the miles sped by that the springy seat was more comfortable than the saddle on my Mongol pony.

But that night when I strolled about the mission courtyard, under the spell of the starry, desert sky, I drifted back again in thought to the glorious days of Kublai Khan. My heart was hot with resentment that this thing had come. I realized then that, for better or for worse, the sanctity of the desert was gone forever. Camels will still plod their silent way across the age-old plains, but the mystery is lost. The secrets which were yielded up to but a chosen few are open now to all, and the world and his wife will speed their noisy course across the miles of rolling prairie, hearing nothing, feeling nothing, knowing nothing of that resistless desert charm which led men out into the Great Unknown.

At daylight we packed the cars. Bed-rolls and cans of gasoline were tied on the running boards and every corner was filled with food. Our rifles were ready for use, however, for Coltman had promised a kind of shooting such as I had never seen before. The stories he told of wild rides in the car after strings of antelope which traveled at fifty or sixty miles an hour had left me mildly skeptical. But then, you know, I had never seen a Mongolian antelope run.

For twenty or thirty miles after leaving Hei-ma-hou we bounced along over a road which would have been splendid except for the deep ruts cut by mule- and oxcarts. These carts are the despair of any one who hopes some time to see good roads in China. The spike-studded wheels cut into the hardest ground and leave a chaos of ridges and chasms which grows worse with every year.

We were seldom out of sight of mud-walled huts or tiny Chinese villages, and Chinese peddlers passed our cars, carrying baskets of fruit or trinkets for the women. Chinese farmers stopped to gaze at us as we bounded over the ruts—in fact it was all Chinese, although we were really in Mongolia. I was very eager to see Mongols, to register first impressions of a people of whom I had dreamed so much; but the blue-clad Chinaman was ubiquitous.

For seventy miles from Kalgan it was all the same—Chinese everywhere. The Great Wall was built to keep the Mongols out, and by the same token it should have kept the Chinese in. But the rolling, grassy sea of the vast plateau was too strong a temptation for the Chinese farmer. Encouraged by his own government, which knows the value of just such peaceful penetration, he pushes forward the line of cultivation a dozen miles or so every year. As a result the grassy hills have given place to fields of wheat, oats, millet, buckwheat, and potatoes.

The Mongol, above all things, is not a farmer; possibly because, many years ago, the Manchus forbade him to till the soil. Moreover, on the ground he is as awkward as a duck out of water and he is never comfortable. The back of a pony is his real home, and he will do wonderfully well any work which keeps him in the saddle. As Mr. F. A. Larsen in Urga once said, "A Mongol would make a splendid cook if you could give him a horse to ride about on in the kitchen." So he leaves to the plodding Chinaman the cultivation of his boundless plains, while he herds his fat-tailed sheep and goats and cattle.

About two hours after leaving the mission station we passed the limit of cultivation and were riding toward the Tabool hills. There Mr. Larsen, the best known foreigner in all Mongolia, has a home, and as we swung past the trail which leads to his house we saw one of his great herds of horses grazing in the distance.

All the land in this region has long, rich grass in summer, and water is by no means scarce. There are frequent wells and streams along the road, and in the distance we often caught a glint of silver from the surface of a pond or lake. Flocks of goats and fat-tailed sheep drifted up the valley, and now and then a herd of cattle massed themselves in moving patches on the hillsides. But they are only a fraction of the numbers which this land could easily support.

Not far from Tabool is a Mongol village. I jumped out of the car to take a photograph but scrambled in again almost as quickly, for as soon as the motor had stopped a dozen dogs dashed from the houses snarling and barking like a pack of wolves. They are huge brutes, these Mongol dogs, and as fierce as they are big. Every family and every caravan owns one or more, and we learned very soon never to approach a native encampment on foot.

The village was as unlike a Chinese settlement as it well could be, for instead of closely packed mud houses there were circular, latticed frameworks covered with felt and cone-shaped in the upper half. The yurt, as it is called, is perfectly adapted to the Mongols and their life. In the winter a stove is placed in the center, and the house is dry and warm. In the summer the felt covering is sometimes replaced by canvas which can be lifted on any side to allow free passage of air. When it is time for the semiannual migration to new grazing grounds the yurt can be quickly dismantled, the framework collapsed, and the house packed on camels or carts.

The Mongols of the village were rather disappointing, for many of them show a strong element of Chinese blood. This seems to have developed an unfortunate combination of the worst characteristics of both races. Even where there is no real mixture, their contact with the Chinese has been demoralizing, and they will rob and steal at every opportunity. The headdresses of the southern women are by no means as elaborate as those in the north.

When the hills of Tabool had begun to sink on the horizon behind us, we entered upon a vast rolling plain, where there was but little water and not a sign of human life. It resembled nothing so much as the prairies of Nebraska or Dakota, and amid the short grass larkspur and purple thistles glowed in the sunlight like tongues of flame.

There was no lack of birds. In the ponds which we passed earlier in the day we saw hundreds of mallard ducks and teal. The car often frightened golden plover from their dust baths in the road, and crested lapwings flashed across the prairie like sudden storms of autumn leaves. Huge, golden eagles and enormous ravens made tempting targets on the telegraph poles, and in the morning before we left the cultivated area we saw demoiselle cranes in thousands.

In this land where wood is absent and everything that will make a fire is of value, I wondered how it happened that the telegraph poles remained untouched, for every one was smooth and round without a splinter gone. The method of protection is simple and entirely Oriental. When the line was first erected, the Mongolian government stated in an edict that any man who touched a pole with knife or ax would lose his head. Even on the plains the enforcement of such a law is not so difficult as it might seem, and after a few heads had been taken by way of example the safety of the line was assured.

Our camp the first night was on a hill slope about one hundred miles from Hei-ma-hou. As soon as the cars had stopped, one man was left to untie the sleeping bags while the rest of us scattered over the plain to hunt material for a fire. Argul (dried dung) forms the only desert fuel and, although it does not blaze like wood, it will "boil a pot" almost as quickly as charcoal. I was elected to be the cook—a position with distinct advantages, for in the freezing cold of early morning I could linger about the fire with a good excuse.

It was a perfect autumn night. Every star in the world of space seemed to have been crowded into our own particular expanse of sky, and each one glowed like a tiny lantern. When I had found a patch of sand and had dug a trench for my hip and shoulder, I crawled into the sleeping bag and lay for half an hour looking up at the bespangled canopy above my head. Again the magic of the desert night was in my blood, and I blessed the fate which had carried me away from the roar and rush of New York with its hurrying crowds. But I felt a pang of envy when, far away in the distance, there came the mellow notes of a camel-bell. Dong, dong, dong it sounded, clear and sweet as cathedral chimes. With surging blood I listened until I caught the measured tread of padded feet, and saw the black silhouettes of rounded bodies and curving necks. Oh, to be with them, to travel as Marco Polo traveled, and to learn to know the heart of the desert in the long night marches! Before I closed my eyes that night I vowed that when the war was done and I was free to travel where I willed, I would come again to the desert as the great Venetian came.

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