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Across Mongolian Plains by Roy Chapman Andrews

We had tiffin at a tiny Chinese inn beside the road


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--canyons, 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.


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