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ACROSS THE DESERT OF GOBI
Toward the end of the third day from Kalgan we were following a blind trail among low, grass-covered hills, all about us beautiful pastureland dotted over with herds of horses and cattle. A sharp turn in the road revealed a group of yurts like many that we had passed, but two khaki tents a little at one side showed the European, and in a few minutes I found myself among the new friends that so speedily become old friends in the corners of the world.
Here I was to make the real start for my journey across the desert, and by good luck it turned out that one member of the little settlement, a man wise in ways Mongolian, was leaving the next morning for a trip into the heart of Mongolia, and if I went on at once we could journey together for the two or three days that our ways coincided. There was nothing to detain me, fortunately, and by noon the next day I was again on the road.
I looked with some complacency at my compact but wholly adequate little caravan. My luggage, including a capacious Chinese cotton tent, was scientifically stowed away in a small Russian baggage cart, a strong, rough, two-wheeled affair drawn by two ponies, and driven by the Mongol who was to guide me to Urga. My boy bestrode rather gingerly a strong, wiry little Mongol pony, of the "buckskin" sort, gay with Western saddle and red cloth. Wang bravely said he would do his best to ride the pony when I did not care to use him, but he added pathetically that he had never before mounted anything save a donkey. As for me, I sat proudly in an American buggy, a "truly" one, brought from the United States to Tientsin and then overland to Kalgan. It was destined for a Mongol prince in Urga, and I was given the honour of taking it across the desert. There are various ways of crossing Mongolia, in the saddle, by pony, or camel cart; one and all are tiring; the desert takes its toll of the body and the spirit. But here was a new way, and if comfort in Gobi is obtainable it is in an American buggy; and with a pony for change, no wonder I faced the desert without dismay.
The combined caravans looked very imposing as we moved off. All told, we were one Swede, one American, one Chinese, seven Mongols, one Irishman (Jack), and twelve horses. Three of the Mongols were lamas, the rest were laymen, or "black men," so called from their unshorn black hair worn in a queue. They were all dressed much alike, although one of the lamas had clothes of the proper red colour, and all rode their sturdy ponies well, mounted on high-peaked saddles.
After the first day we fell into our regular course, an early start at six o'clock or so, long halt at noon, when tents were set up, and all rested while the horses grazed, and then on again until the sun went down below the horizon. During the hotter hours I took my ease in the buggy, but in the early morning, and at the end of the day I rode. The Mongols were gay young fellows, taking a kindly interest in my doings. One, the wag of the party, was bent on learning to count in English, and each time he came by me he chanted his lesson over, adding number after number until he reached twenty. The last few miles before getting into camp was the time for a good race. Then, riding up with thumbs held high in greeting, they would cry to me "San?" ("All right?") and answering back "San!" I touch my horse and we are off. Oh, the joy of those gallops with the horsemen of the desert! For the moment you are mad. Your nomad ancestors we all have them awake in you, and it is touch and go but you turn your back forever on duties and dining, on all the bonds and frills that we have entangled ourselves in and then you remember, and go sadly to bed.
The weather was delightful; whatever there might be in store for me, the present was perfect. A glorious dawn, no severe heat but for a short time in the middle of the day, which cooled off rapidly in the late afternoon, the short twilight ending in cold, starlit nights. The wonder of those Mongolian nights! My tent was always pitched a little apart from the confusion of the camp, and lying wrapped in rugs in my narrow camp-bed before the doors open to the night wind, I fell asleep in the silence of the limitless space of the desert, and woke only as the stars were fading in the sky.
At first we were still in the grassland; the rolling country was covered with a thick mat of grass dotted with bright flowers, and yurts and men and herds abounded. Happenings along the road were few. The dogs always rushed out from the yurts to greet us. They looked big and savage, and at first, mindful of warnings, I kept close guard over Jack; but he heeded them as little as he had the Chinese curs, and hardly deigned a glance as he trotted gaily along by the horses who had captured his Irish heart. Once we stopped to buy a pony, and secured a fine "calico" one, unusually large and strong. Again a chance offered to get a sheep, not always possible even though thousands are grazing on the prairie, for a Mongol will sell only when he has some immediate use for money. The trade once made, it took only a short time to do the rest, to kill, to cut up, to boil in a big pot brought for the purpose, to eat.
Two hundred miles from Kalgan we passed the telegraph station of Pongkiong manned by two Chinese. It is nothing but a little wooden building with a bit of a garden. The Chinese has his garden as surely as the Englishman, only he spends his energy in growing things to eat. At long intervals, two hundred miles, these stations are found all the way to Urga and always in the charge of Chinese, serviceable, alien, homesick. It must be a dreary life set down in the desert without neighbours or visitors save the roving Mongol whom the Chinese look down on with lofty contempt. Indeed, they have no use for him save as a bird to be plucked, and plucked the poor nomad is, even to his last feather. It is not the Chinese Government but the Chinese people that oppress the Mongol, making him ready to seek relief anywhere. Playing upon his two great weaknesses, lack of thrift and love of drink, the wandering trader plies the Mongol with whiskey, and then, taking advantage of his befuddled wits, gets him to take a lot of useless things at cut-throat prices but no bother about paying, that can be settled any time. Only when pay-day comes the debts, grown like a rolling snowball, must be met, and so horses and cattle, the few pitiful heirlooms, are swallowed up, and the Mongol finds himself afoot and out of doors, another enemy of Chinese rule.
Whenever we halted near yurts, the women turned out to see me, invading my tent, handling my things. They seemed to hold silk in high esteem. My silk blouses were much admired, and when they investigated far enough to discover that I wore silk "knickers," their wonder knew no bounds. In turn they were always keen to show their treasures, especially of course their headdresses, which were sometimes very beautiful, costing fifty, one hundred, or two hundred taels.
A wife comes high in Mongolia, and divorce must be paid for. A man's parents buy him a wife, paying for her a good sum of money which is spent in purchasing her headgear. If a husband is dissatisfied with his bargain he may send his wife home, but she takes her dowry with her. I am told the woman's lot is very hard, and that I can readily believe: it generally is among poor and backward peoples; but she did not appear to me the downtrodden slave she is often described. On the contrary, she appeared as much a man as her husband, smoking, riding astride, managing the camel trains with a dexterity equal to his. Her household cares cannot be very burdensome, no garden to tend, no housecleaning, simple cooking and sewing; but by contrast with the man she is hard-working. Vanity is nowise extinct in the feminine Mongol, and, let all commercial travellers take note, I was frequently asked for soap, and nothing seemed to give so much pleasure as when I doled out a small piece. Perhaps in time even the Mongol will look clean. Asiatics as a rule know little about soap; they clean their clothes by pounding, and themselves by rubbing; but sometimes they put an exaggerated value upon it. A Kashmir woman, seeing herself in a mirror side by side with the fair face of an English friend of mine, sighed, "If I had such good soap as yours I too would be white."
But there is a good deal to be said against washing, at least one's face, when crossing Gobi. The dry, scorching winds burn and blister the skin, and washing makes things worse, and besides you are sometimes short of water; so for a fortnight my face was washed by the rains of heaven (if at all), and my hair certainly looked as though it were combed by the wind, for between the rough riding and the stiff breezes that sweep over the plateau, it was impossible to keep tidy. But, thanks to Wang, I could always maintain a certain air of respectability in putting on each morning freshly polished shoes.
Of wild life I saw little; occasionally we passed a few antelope, and twice we spied wolves not far off. These Mongolian wolves are big and savage, often attacking the herds, and one alone will pull down a good horse or steer. The people wage more or less unsuccessful war upon them and at times they organize a sort of battue. Men, armed with lassoes, are stationed at strategic points, while others, routing the wolves from their lair, drive them within reach. Sand grouse were plentiful, half running, half flying before us as we advanced, and when we were well in the desert we saw eagles in large numbers, and farther north the marmots abounded, in appearance and ways much like prairie dogs.
At first there were herds on every side. I was struck by the number of white and grey ponies, and was told that horses are bred chiefly for the market in China, and this is the Chinese preference. Cattle and sheep are numbered by thousands, but I believe these fine pasture lands could maintain many more. Occasionally we saw camels turned loose for the summer grazing; they are all of the two-humped Bactrian sort, and can endure the most intense winter cold, but the heat of the summer tells upon them severely, and when used in the hot season, it is generally only at night.
From time to time we passed long baggage trains, a hundred or more two-wheeled carts, each drawn by a bullock attached to the tail of the wagon in front. They move at snail's pace, perhaps two miles an hour, and take maybe eight weeks to make the trip across the desert. Once we met the Russian parcels-post, a huge heavily laden cart drawn by a camel and guarded by Cossacks mounted on camels, their uniforms and smart white visored caps looking very comical on the top of their shambling steeds. Most of the caravans were in charge of Chinese, and they thronged about us if a chance offered to inspect the strange trap; especially the light spider wheels aroused their interest. They tried to lift them, measured the rim with thumb and finger, investigated the springs, their alert curiosity showing an intelligence that I missed in the Mongols, to whom we were just a sort of travelling circus, honours being easy between the buggy, and Jack and me.
We were now in the Gobi. The rich green of the grassland had given way to a sparse vegetation of scrub and tufts of coarse grass and weeds, and the poor horses were hard put to get enough, even though they grazed all night. The country, which was more broken and seamed with gullies and rivers of sand, Sha Ho, had taken on a hard, sunbaked, repellent look, brightened only by splendid crimson and blue thistles. The wells were farther apart, and sometimes they were dry, and there were anxious hours when we were not sure of water for ourselves, still less for the horses. One well near a salt lake was rather brackish. This lake is a landmark in the entire region round; it seems to be slowly shrinking, and many caravans camp here to collect the salt, which is taken south. The weather, too, had changed; the days were hotter and dryer, but the nights were cool and refreshing always.
For eleven days we saw no houses but the two telegraph stations, save once early in the morning when we came without warning upon a lamassery that seemed to start up out of the ground; the open desert hides as well as reveals. It was a group of flat-roofed, whitewashed buildings, one larger than the rest, all wrapped in silence. There was no sign of life as we passed except a red lama who made a bright spot against the white wall, and a camel tethered in a corner, and it looked very solitary and desolate, set down in the middle of the great, empty, dun-coloured plain.
I had now separated from my travelling companions, cheering the friendly Mongols with some of my bountiful supply of cigarettes. As they rode off they gave me the Mongol greeting, "Peace go with you." I should have been glad to have kept on the red lama to Urga, for he had been very helpful in looking after my wants, and had befriended poor Jack, who was quite done up for a while by the hot desert sands; but I let him go well pleased with a little bottle of boracic acid solution for his sore eyes. The Mongols, like so many Eastern peoples, suffer much from inflammation of the eyes, the result of dirt, and even more of the acrid argol smoke filling the yurts so that often I was compelled to take flight. I expect the stern old Jesuit would say of them as he did of the Red Indian, "They pass their lives in smoke, eternity in flames."
For about eight days we were crossing the desert, one day much like another. Sometimes the track was all up and down: we topped a swell of ground only to see before us another exactly like it. Then for many miles together the land was as flat and as smooth as a billiard table, no rocks, no roll; and we chased a never-ending line of telegraph poles over a never-ending waste of sand. Another day we were traversing from dawn till sundown an evil-looking land strewn with boulders and ribs of rock, bleak, desolate, forbidding.
Nowhere were there signs of life, nothing growing, nothing moving. For days together we saw no yurts, and more than one day passed without our meeting any one. Once there appeared suddenly on the white track before us a solitary figure, looking very pitiful in the great plain. When it came near it fell on its face in the sand at our feet, begging for food. It was a Chinese returning home from Urga, walking all the seven hundred miles across the desert to Kalgan. We helped him as best we could, but he was not the only one.
An old red lama, mounted on a camel and bound for Urga, kept near us for two or three days, sleeping at night with my men by the cart, and sometimes taking shelter under my tent at noon, where he sat quietly by the hour smoking my cigarettes. He was a nice old fellow with pleasant ways, nearly choking himself in efforts to make me understand how wonderful I was, travelling all alone, and what splendid sights I should behold in Urga.
And so time passed; tiring, monotonous days, refreshing, glorious nights, and then toward the end of a long, weary afternoon I saw for a moment, faintly outlined in the blank northern horizon, a cloud? a mountain? a rock? I hardly dared trust my eyes, and I looked again and again. Yes, it was a mountain, a mountain of rocks just as I was told it would loom up in front of me for a moment, and then disappear; and it disappeared, and I rejoiced, for at its base the desert ended; beyond lay a land of grass and streams.
We camped that evening just off the trail in a little grassy hollow. In the night rain fell, tapping gently on my tent wall, and for hours there mingled with the sound of the falling rain the dull clang of bells, as a long bullock train crawled along in the dark on its way to Urga.
The next day rose cloudless as before. My landmark could no longer be seen, but I knew it was not far off, "a great rock in a weary land," and already the air was fresher and the country seemed to have put on a tinge of green.
In the afternoon a little cavalcade of wild, picturesque-looking men dashed down upon us in true Mongol style, trailing the lasso poles as they galloped. With a gay greeting they turned their horses about, and kept pace with us while they satisfied their curiosity. This was my first sight of the northern Mongol, who differs little from his brother of the south, save that he is less touched by Chinese influence. In dress he is more picturesque, and the tall, peaked hat generally worn recalled old-time pictures of the invading Mongol hordes.
The great mountain had again come in sight, crouching like a huge beast of prey along the boulder-strewn plain. But where was the famous lamassery that lay at its foot? Threading our way through a wilderness of rock, heaped up in sharp confusion, we came out on a little ridge, and there before us lay Tuerin, not a house but a village, built in and out among the rocks. It was an extraordinary sight to stumble upon, here on the edge of the uninhabited desert. A little apart from the rest were four large temples crowned with gilt balls and fluttering banners, and leading off from them were neat rows of small white plastered cottages with red timbers, the homes of the two thousand lamas who live here. The whole thing had the look of a seaside camp-meeting resort. A few herds of ponies were grazing near by, but there was no tilled land, and these hundreds of lamas are supported in idleness by contributions extorted from the priest-ridden people. A group of them, rather repulsive-looking men, came out to meet us, or else to keep us off. As it was growing late, and we had not yet reached our camping-place, I did not linger long.
We camped that night in the shadow of the mountain. The ground was carpeted with artemisia, which when crushed gave out a pungent odour almost overpowering. Before turning in we received a visit from a Chinese trader who gave us a friendly warning to look out for horse-thieves; he had lost a pony two nights back. Here, then, were the brigands at last! For the next three nights we kept sharp watch, camping far off the road and bringing the ponies in around my tent before we went to sleep. One night, indeed, the two men took turns in sitting up. Fortunately my Chinese boy and the Mongol hit it off well, for the Mongol will not stand bullying, and the Chinese is inclined to lord it over the natives. But Wang was a good soul, anxious to save me bother, and ready to turn his hand to anything, putting up tents, saddling ponies, collecting fuel, willing always to follow the Mongol's lead save only in the matter of getting up in the morning. Then it was Wang who got us started each day, lighting the fire before he fell upon Tchagan Hou and pulled him out of his sheepskin; but once up, the Mongol took quiet and efficient control.
At Tuerin country and weather changed. There was now abundance of grass, and the ponies could make up for the lean days past. Thousands of cattle and sheep again gladdened our eyes, and the pony herds were a splendid sight; hundreds of beautiful creatures, mostly chestnut or black, were grazing near the trail or galloping free with flowing mane and tail.
We had been warned that the rainy season was setting in early, and for three days we met storm after storm, delaying us for hours, sometimes keeping us in camp a day or more. We stopped for tiffin the first day just in time to escape a drenching, and did not get away again until six o'clock. As some Chinese pony traders had encamped alongside of us, and there were two or three yurts not far away, I did not lack amusement. The Mongolian women camped down in my tent as soon as it was up, making themselves much at home. One was young and rather good-looking, and all wore the striking headdress of North Mongolia. Like that of the south, it was of silver, set with bright stones, but it was even more elaborate in design, and the arrangement of the hair was most extraordinary. Parted from brow to nape of the neck, the two portions were arranged in large plastered structures like ears on either side of the head; these extended out almost to the width of the shoulder, and were kept in place by bars of wood or silver, the two ends of hair being braided and brought forward over the breast. This is the style of head-dressing adopted at marriage and rarely meddled with afterwards. The dress, too, of these northern Mongol women was striking. Over their usual loose, unbelted garment (the Mongol for "woman" means "unbelted one") they wore short coats of blue cotton with red sleeves, and the tops of these were so raised and stiffened that they almost raked the wearer's ears. On their feet they had high leather boots just like their husbands', and if they wore a hat it was of the same tall, peaked sort. The sight of a Mongol woman astride a galloping pony was not a thing to be forgotten; ears of hair flapping, high hat insecurely poised on top, silver ornaments and white teeth flashing.
It was nine o'clock before we camped that night, but we did not get off the next day until afternoon because of the rain, and again it was nine in the evening when we pitched our tent in a charming little dell beautiful with great thistles, blue with the blue of heaven in the lantern light.
The next day I was getting a little desperate, and against Tchagan Hou's advice I decided to try bullying the weather, and when the rain came on again I refused to stop. As a result we were all soaked through, and after getting nearly bogged, all hands of us in a quagmire, I gave it up and we camped on the drenched ground, and there we stayed till the middle of the next day spending most of our time trying to get dry. The argols were too wet to burn, but we made a little blaze with the wood of my soda-water box. For two days we had tried in vain to buy a sheep, and the men's provisions were running short. If it had not been for the generous gift of the Kalgan Foreign Office, we should have fared badly, but Mongols and Chinese alike seemed to be free from inconvenient prejudices, and my men, whom I called in to share the tent with me, feasted off tins of corned beef, bologna sausage, and smoked herring, washed down by bowls of Pacific Coast canned peaches and plums; and then they smoked; that comfort was always theirs, and if the fire burned at all, it smoked, too, and occasionally a drenched traveller stopped in to be cheered with a handful of cigarettes. And then all curled up in their sheepskins and slept away long hours, and I also slept on my little camp-bed, and outside the rain fell steadily.
But at last a morning broke clear and brilliant; the rain was really over. The ponies looked full and fit after the good rest, and if all went well we should be in Urga before nightfall. We were off at sunrise, and soon we entered a beautiful valley flanked on either hand by respectable hills, their upper slopes clothed with real forests of pine. These were the first trees I had seen, except three dwarfed elms in Gobi, since I left behind the poplars and willows of China. Yurts, herds, men were everywhere. Two Chinese that we met on the road stopped to warn us that the river that flowed below Urga was very high and rising fast, hundreds of carts were waiting until the water went down, and they doubted if we could get across. This was not encouraging, but we pushed on. It was plain that we were nearing the capital, for the scene grew more and more lively. At first I thought it must be a holiday; but, no, it was just the ordinary day's work, but all so picturesque, so full of ιlan and colour, that it was more like a play than real life.
Now a drove of beautiful horses dashed across the road, the herdsmen in full cry after them. Then we passed a train of camels, guided by two women mounted on little ponies. They had tied their babies to the camels' packs, and seemed to have no difficulty in managing their wayward beasts. Here a flock of sheep grazed peacefully in the deep green meadows beside the trail, undisturbed by a group of Mongols galloping townwards, lasso poles in hand, as though charging. Two women in the charge of a yellow lama trotted sedately along, their quaint headdresses flapping as they rode. Then we overtook three camels led by one man on a pony and prodded along by another, actually cantering, I felt I must hasten, too, but unhurried, undisturbed, scarcely making room for an official and his gay retinue galloping towards the capital, a bullock caravan from Kalgan in charge of half a dozen blue-coated Celestials moved sedately along, slow, persistent, sure to gain the goal in good time, that was China all over.
And then the valley opened into a wide plain seamed by many rivers, and there before us, on the high right bank of the Tola and facing Bogda Ola, the Holy Mountain, lay Urga the Sacred, second to Lhasa only in the Buddhist world.
But we were not there yet; between us and our goal flowed the rivers that criss-cross the valley, and the long lines of carts and horses and camels and bullocks crowded on the banks bore out the tale of the Chinese. We push on to the first ford; the river, brimming full, whirls along at a great rate, but a few carts are venturing in, and we venture too. Tchagan leads the way, I follow in the buggy, while the boy on the pony brings up the rear, Jack swimming joyously close by. The first time is great fun, and so is the second, but the third is rather serious, for the river gets deeper and the current swifter each time. The water is now almost up to the floor of the buggy, and the horse can hardly keep his footing. I try to hold him to the ford, cheering him on at the top of my voice, but the current carries us far down before we can make the opposite bank.
Four times we crossed, and then we reached a ford that seemed unfordable. Crowds are waiting, but no one crosses. Now and then some one tries it, only to turn back, and an overturned cart and a drowned horse show the danger. But we decide to risk it, hiring two Mongols, a lama and a "black man," to guide our horses. One, on his own mount, takes the big cart horse by the head; the other, riding my pony, leads the buggy horse. Wang comes in with me and holds Jack. The crowds watch eagerly as we start out; the water splashes our feet. First one horse, then another, floundering badly, almost goes down, the buggy whirls round and comes within an ace of upsetting, the little dog's excited yaps sound above the uproar. Then one mighty lurch and we are up the bank. Four times more we repeat the performance, and at last we find ourselves with only a strip of meadow between us and Mai-ma-chin, the Chinese settlement where we plan to put up. Clattering along the stockaded lane we stop before great wooden gates that open to Tchagan's call, and we are invited in by the Mongol trader who, warned of our coming, stands ready to bid us welcome.