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Up Into Desolate Tibet
At last I grew tired of waiting, and on 30th June I issued orders that the caravan
should appear at nightfall, ready to start, outside our hut. No sooner were the camels led
out of their stable than the gadflies began to buzz about them in clouds. As fast as each
was loaded up, four men were told off to drive away the insects from it with wisps of
kamish. As soon as the sound of the caravan-bells had died away, I turned to say good-
bye to Sirkin and Chernoff; and after thanking them for all they had done for me, I shook
hands with them and watched them disappear, amid a cloud of dust, along the road leading
to Charkhlik and Kashgar.
As soon as it was night, I took my place with two canoe-men in a light and
comfortable canoe, and was speedily flying along the very last section of the course of the
Tarim. The moon was just setting, but the air was clear and the stars glittered brightly
above the wandering lakes, upon which we soon glided out, whilst a gentle breeze
breathed softly through the reeds. But we were soon in the midst of the dense reed
thickets, where no summer night breezes were able to penetrate. There it was
oppressively warm, and miasmatic and other evil vapours arose from the heated water.
I had already mapped this region, so that I was able to let myself drop off into an occasional
doze. Towards morning my canoe-men fell to singing to keep themselves awake; but we
were then not very far from the rendezvous, and just as day was breaking, up came the
caravan, marching to the sound of their own bells.
Here we quitted the canoe for the saddle, and turning our backs upon the southern
shore of the lake, we proceeded to cross the perfectly level, but monotonous and dreary,
salt desert that stretches to the foot of the mountains. The sun rose in majestic splendour,
flooding the desert with light and warmth. His rays, breaking against the fine flosky clouds
which hung like a veil before him, lit them up from behind, making them look like chaplets
of melting gold. The sky was as pure and as spotless as turquoise. In the brilliant
illumination of the oblique, almost horizontal, rays of the rising sun the panorama of the
mountains stood out in sharp, distinct outlines - an intensely fascinating picture! The
mountain ranges, changing from pink to purple shades, both alike toned down by the
distance, made a harmonious but charming background to the dry desert.
But no sooner did the sun shine out in the plenitude of his power than the heat
became oppressive, and the air again swarmed with myriads of gadflies, which we in vain
attempted to keep off with our riding-whips. We halted at an early hour of the morning
beside a salt well, and for the rest of the day it was an awful business to defend the camels
against their sworn enemies.
Next morning I was called at three o'clock, and breakfast, consisting of tea, eggs,
and bread, was served by candle-light. An hour after that we were off, for we had a long
road, about 40 miles, before us. We took water with us in two or three copper utensils.
The surface, which was hard and strewn with gravel, with not a blade of grass to be seen,
ascended gently towards the foot of the mountains. At varying and capricious distances
small heaps of stones were built up for the purpose of guiding travellers in a storm.
Asiatics manifest a certain amount of respect for their roads and tracks, and gratefully
consider it their duty, when passing, to add a stone or two to each of these wayside
Our two little pups soon grew tired, and were then packed away in a basket and
covered over with felts. Yoldash and Mashka were unable to endure the heat, and
although we gave them a drink of water occasionally, they kept dropping behind
incessantly. At length we neither heard nor saw anything of them. Thereupon Shagdur
rode back and found them lying amongst the sand, which they had scratched to one side,
in the shade of a little clay terrace. Yoldash at once rose and followed when Shagdur
called him, but Mashka refused to move. Shagdur thereupon put him on the saddle in front
of him; but before he had got very far the dog turned queer, and his head drooped limply
against the horse's shoulder. The Cossack poured down his throat the last few drops of
water he had, but it was no use; the poor beast was already dead, and he left him lying by
the roadside. With the view of saving Yoldash, we tied him, notwithstanding his desperate
protests, on the back of a camel and covered him over with a felt, and there he lay and
growled, and felt ''awfully sea-sick." The big caravan which preceded us to Mandarlik had
suffered greater losses amongst their dogs than we did, for no less than eight either died
on the way up or ran away back to the lakes.
Yes, it was a bad bit, this strip of desert that separated us from the mountains! But
by the time the sun had got over to the west we had reached our goal, after a tramp of 14
1/2 hours. We rested for a while in the first little glen we came to, where there was a brook
rippling amongst the luxuriant grass. And you should just have seen Yoldash, when he
heard the water singing amongst the stones! He pricked his ears, barked, and bit at
everything he could reach in his frantic efforts to get at liberty; and no sooner were he and
his two younger playmates - the latter somewhat stiff and "groggy" on their feet - set down
than they plunged into the brook and began to lap up the water with feverish haste. I
confess it was a real pleasure to see them. When they had drunk their fill, they stretched
themselves at full length in the water, and then went and had a good roll in the grass, and
then back again to drink. If only Mashka had been there to share it with them!
We now made our way slowly up over the double range of the Astyn-tagh, which
forms a boundary wall between the Central Asian desert and Tibet. Fresh air, bright nights,
an occasional light and welcome rain, no gadflies - how delightful it all was! Upon reaching
Temirlik, in the broad valley of Chimen, we were already 13,000 feet above the sea. There
we were met by two messengers from our headquarters camp, announcing that all was
well. Both messengers were strangers to us. One of them was called Khodai Vardi, a
stupid fellow, who afterwards tried to play me a nasty trick. The other was a young Afghan
from Cherchen, called Aldat. He had spent the winter amongst the mountains shooting
yaks, the skins of which he used to sell to merchants in Keriya. Young and handsome, he
roamed those high mountainous tracts all the year through, leading the life of a hunter. The
only things he carried with him were his rifle, sheepskin coat, knife and steel for striking fire.
He supported himself upon the flesh of the yaks he shot and the spring water from the
melting snows. Aldat was a likeable, though singular, person. He never laughed, never
spoke, except it was necessary; answered questions curtly and to the point, and almost
always kept to himself, with his rifle on his shoulder. His countenance was melancholy, his
glance questioning and full of wonder. His gait was like that of a king; he seemed to skim
over the ground as lightly as the antelopes, and the thin mountain air never made him tired,
though it caused all the rest of us violent heart-beating. Without a moment's hesitation
Aldat accepted the invitation to accompany me in my first Tibetan expedition. What a
strange, and yet, at the same time, what a delightful life was his!
"What do you do," I asked, "if you fail to shoot a yak and have nothing to eat?"
"I go hungry," he answered.
"Where do you sleep of nights?"
"In a crevice of the rocks or in a ravine, sometimes in a cave."
"Are you not afraid of being disturbed by wolves?"
"I have tinder and flint, and every night I make a fire. Besides, I have my rifle."
"But don't you sometimes lose your way amongst these tangled mountains?"
"I cannot lose my way. I have crossed over the passes scores of times."
"And do you never grow tired of being alone?"
"No, but I always look forward to the spring, when my brothers come to fetch the
What a restless wandering spirit in human guise! I can hardly imagine a more dreary
region to be alone in than Northern Tibet. In the daytime it would perhaps not be so bad;
but what about the nights, when the cold freezes you to the marrow, and the dark
mountain-ranges loom up weird and threatening in the moonshine? I confess the man was
a puzzle to me. I had everything I wanted - servants, a bodyguard of Cossacks, sentinels
and dogs to keep watch at night; nevertheless, when the snowstorms whirled and whined
around my yurt (Mongolian tent) in the mountains, I confess I felt it decidedly eerie.
Two or three days later we arrived at our headquarters in the valley of Mandarlik,
and found everybody, men and animals included, in first-rate condition. The fresh caravan
which I here organized embraced the following: Cherdon, my right-hand man, tent man,
valet and cook; Turdu Bai, leader of the seven camels; Mollah Shah, chief of the eleven
horses and one mule; Kutchuk, boatman for the lake trips I contemplated; Niaz, a gold-
hunter, whom we came across in the mountains, was to look after 16 sheep which we took
with us to kill; while Aldat acted as guide as far as his local knowledge extended. Yoldash,
Malchik, and a big yellow Mongol dog, which we had obtained from our nearest Mongol
neighbours, were also of the party.
Shagdur was appointed chief of the headquarters camp, with instructions to remove
it after a few days to Temirlik.
Clearly and distinctly the echoes gave back the sound of the caravan-bells, when,
on 20th July, we started up between the granite cliffs of Mandarlik to explore regions that
were then absolutely unknown. Even at the first camp we made the scenery had assumed
a more typically Alpine character, the altitude being 13,070 feet above the sea. There was
a brook in the valley, which made a merry tinkling as it flowed, and beside it were pretty
little flowers embedded in luxuriant moss. The only fuel to be obtained was the dry dung
(argol) of yaks and kulans (wild asses). The shrill whistling of the marmots outside their
earthen burrows, and the chattering of partridges, echoed on the mountain sides. Cherdon
shot some of the latter for our larder.
Next morning, July though it was, we were in the midst of winter, the country being
buried under a thick fall of snow. If the weather was like that in the middle of summer, what
must it be in the depth of winter? When we continued on the 22nd, making for a glen with
scanty grazing, it was still snowing, and during the following night the snow came down
thick and fast, and we had 8 1/2 degrees of frost.
At daybreak I was awakened by a fearful tumult in the camp, and hurrying out saw
plainly that something strange had happened. The ground between our two tents was
trampled by wolves. All the sheep had disappeared, with the exception of the four which
were tied up, and Niaz had vanished too. All the men went off to look for them, and
managed to find nine sheep scattered amongst the hills, but all torn to pieces by the
wolves; they only saved one, while one was missing altogether.
Niaz, who was so excited that he was trembling from head to foot, described the
night's adventures as follows. He had lain down to sleep as usual under a felt carpet near
to the sheep, and had been awakened in the middle of the night, which was pitch dark, by
hearing the bleatings of his charges, though their cries were but faint, owing to the roar of
the storm. Jumping up, he detected three wolves amongst them, which had stolen up
against the wind and were in the act of cutting them out and driving them away from camp.
It never occurred to stupid Niaz to awaken any of the rest of us, but away he rushed
impetuously on foot after the sheep, and had spent the whole of the night running up and
down like a madman, without saving more than a single animal. The attack had been
cunningly carried out. The dogs even had noticed nothing; but then our Mongol beast had
run away. Yoldash was sleeping in my yurt, while the inexperienced Malchik lay curled up
like a hedgehog behind the men's tent. Next day we had only just started when we saw the
lost sheep come galloping down the mountain-side. It was welcomed with shouts of joy,
for it was but natural that we should rejoice more over the one sheep that was found than
over the nine that were lost.
Upon reaching the crest of the gigantic range of the Chimen-tagh we attained the
respectable altitude of 14,000 feet, and during the course of the 24th July we crossed over
two ranges even higher. I was always a long way behind the rest of the caravan, for I had
my map to make, photographs to take, and so forth. My companions on this occasion were
Cherdon and Tokta Akhun, one of our special friends from Abdal, who was accompanying
us the first few days of our journey. The day sped on; we kept closely in the track of the
caravan, and began to look eagerly for the column of smoke that should show where our
camp-fire was. We had already crossed one of the ranges, and were riding up a narrow
glen, which led to the summit of the second. The vegetation began to die away, and we
were reaching more inclement altitudes. It grew dusk, and soon it grew dark. Evidently the
caravan had pushed on over the next pass. It would, of course, have been an easy enough
matter simply to have ridden on after it until we overtook it. But then I was tied down by my
map, which I could not continue in the dark. There was therefore nothing to be done but
we must stop where we were. I sent on Tokta Akhun, with orders to return as quickly as
possible with my yurt and my boxes.
The beat of the horses' hoofs on the gravel in the bottom of the valley soon died
away, and I and my Cossack were left alone in the darkness and bitter cold, at an altitude
of 15,240 feet above the sea. We crept deeper into our skin overcoats, and sat and talked.
Cherdon told me about his adventures during their military manoeuvres in Trans-Baikalia,
and I described the melancholy nights I had spent in the Desert of Taklamakan. The frost
began to nip, and the wind came cutting like a knife down the glen. We sought shelter
behind two big blocks of stone, but it was too cold to sleep. We were tired after being
eleven hours in the saddle, and a cup of hot tea would have gone down amazingly. It
would not have been so bad if we could have made a fire, but there was no fuel to be had,
and even if there had been any we could not have found it in the dark. Then we dozed off
a little, but were soon wakened up by the long-drawn howl of a wolf; evidently there were
more than we that were going supperless that night. Finally, we had to get up and stamp
our feet, and swing our arms about to keep our blood in circulation. At length, at three
o'clock in the morning, after a wait of five hours, the relief caravan turned up, and I need
not say how good supper tasted after our seventeen hours' fast.
After that we crossed the mountain-range of the Kalta- alagan, and directed our
steps westwards along a broad flat valley, in which a great number of kulans were grazing.
Upon reaching Camp No. XV, I was astonished to find at the entrance to my yurt a couple
of fresh acquaintances, namely, two small kulan foals, only a few days old; they were
trotting about at liberty and showing not the slightest sign of fear. The men had ridden
them down after their mothers had taken to flight. They were pretty, charming creatures,
were these young wild asses, and I wanted to try and rear them on porridge and take them
along with us. But Tokta Akhun, who was an experienced kulan hunter, declared that they
could not live five days without their mothers' milk. When he told me that, I ordered the little
things to be taken back to the locality where they had been captured, so that their mothers
might find them again. But even of this Tokta Akhun would hear nothing. He had learned
by experience that the wild she-ass shuns her offspring like the plague once it has been
touched by human hands. The only service I could therefore render to these helpless
creatures of the wilderness was to have them killed, to save them from being cruelly torn
to pieces by the wolves which abounded in that region.
Our route still lay towards the west, down the valley to the lake of Kum-kol.
Immediately on the left of our route was a continuous belt of gigantic sand-dunes. The
open valley was infested by a species of gadfly, which terribly tormented our horses and
the wild game by fastening themselves in their nostrils. When the kulans are attacked by
these enemies, they protect themselves by keeping their noses close to the ground and
grazing. The yaks, on the other hand, quit the scene, taking refuge at sunrise up amongst
the sand-dunes, where there were no gadflies, and towards evening they used to come
down to the steppes again. That afternoon, however, about four o'clock, there sprang up
a violent storm of intermingled hail and rain, and the yaks understood that their tormentors
would then retire from the scene, so that they might safely go down and begin to graze.
The first to show itself was a cow with her calf, which came sliding down the steep sandy
slope; but as soon as she caught sight of us, she at once turned back. Then appeared a
herd of over thirty individuals, who arranged themselves in a line on the top of a lofty dune.
I had to stop and for a time to watch the truly magnificent spectacle through my glass. The
yaks made an extraordinary picture, their black hides standing out sharply cut against the
yellow sand, while their heads were lifted as if they smelt danger. We could almost see the
enjoyment with which they sniffed the refreshing rain that was pattering on the hillsides.
A little bit farther on Cherdon caught sight of a solitary wolf-cub, which he rode down,
and caught, and bound, and brought with him to our camp beside the lake. The little brute
bit fiercely, and made no end of a to-do, trying every art and device it was master of to
escape. And although the Mussulmans, who could not forget the sheep which had been
torn to pieces, tied him up as they thought securely, the cunning beast managed to get the
better of them, for during the night he bit the rope through and ran off with the noose round
his neck. My men hoped that, as he grew, the rope would choke him; but I thought it more
likely that the cub's mother would gnaw it to pieces and so set him free.
During the next two weeks we crossed over the biggest and highest mountain range,
that is so far as the general level of the crest is concerned, not only of Asia, but of the
whole world - that is to say, the Arka-tagh. The main pass reached an altitude of 17,000
feet above the sea, or more than 1,200 feet higher than the top of Mont Blanc. Then for
nearly two months we remained constantly at an altitude considerably above that of the
highest mountain-peak in Europe. Need I say that travelling in such regions is attended
with a certain amount of difficulty. Sometimes we would travel for several days together
without finding a blade or a twig for the animals to eat, and when we did at length find any,
it was so thin and hard that they were unable to satisfy their hunger upon it. Our animals,
therefore, began to grow thin and weak. Cherdon's horse, of which he was especially fond,
and which would come when he called it, was the first to succumb. The nature of the
ground, too, was trying in the extreme. We were incessantly going up passes and down
glens and gorges, threading a perfect labyrinth of mountains. Almost every day I had to
send one or two men southwards to find out a path by which the caravan could advance.
Day by day we penetrated some twelve or fifteen miles further towards the heart of
unknown Tibet. But in proportion as the animals' strength gave out so did our store of
provisions shrink, though this helped them by making their loads gradually lighter. We had
not the heart to slaughter our four remaining sheep, which now followed us of their own
accord like dogs, and fortunately we had no need to do so, for in the entrance to a glen
Aldat managed to surprise and bring down two orongo antelopes, creatures which have
elegant, lyre-shaped horns. Cherdon's cartridges were now all finished, and the only
ammunition we had was that which Aldat used for his old-fashioned musket.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the journey, and rejoiced in the knowledge that I was the
first European who had ever travelled amongst those mountains, where tracks there are
none save those made by the wild animals, and footprints there are none except those
impressed by yaks, kulans and antelopes. It was a No Man's Land; rivers, lakes and
mountains were without names. For the space of some six or eight weeks I felt as if it were
my kingdom - a land of stupendous earth-waves suddenly converted into stone!
On the night of 6th August, when, after a hard day's work, I went out of my tent, the
sky was clouded; but far away in the south there was a massive glacier, the broad firn
expanses of which shone pale and cold under the midnight moon. My men were all fast
asleep, the caravan animals all secured, the campfires burning low, and not a sound was
to be heard save the pensive, murmurous song of the brook rippling amongst stones. The
night was brooding silently and serenely above the untrodden wilderness. Far away in the
south I pictured to myself the mighty buttress of the Himalayas, with India and its sultry
jungles at their feet. Far away in the west our Tibetan mountains merged into the Pamir
highlands, while in the opposite direction when the sun rises upon us it is already noon-tide
in the Celestial Kingdom. In vain did I look for a fire or any trace of a human being. I was
in an uninhabited and uninhabitable part of the earth. I felt like a grain of dust in the midst
of the boundless universe, and almost fancied I could hear the "swish" of the planets as
they rolled on their never-ending orbits through the immensities of space.
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