The street signs of the desert

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.

 

 

I think there is nothing which makes me feel more helpless than to be alone on the plains without a horse. For miles and miles there is only the rolling grassland or the wide sweep of desert, with never a house or tree to break the low horizon. It seems so futile to walk, your own legs carry you so slowly and such a pitifully short distance, in these vast spaces.

To be left alone in a small boat on the open sea is exactly similar. You feel so very, very small and you realize then what an insignificant part of nature you really are. I have felt it, too, amid vast mountains when I have been toiling up a peak which stretched thousands of feet above me with others rearing their majestic forms on every side. Then, nature seems almost alive and full of menace; something to be fought and conquered by brain and will.

Early in our work upon the plains we learned how easy it is to lose one's way. The vast sea of land seems absolutely flat, but in reality it is a gently rolling surface full of slopes and hollows, every one of which looks exactly like the others. But after a time we developed a land sense.

The Mongols all have it to an extraordinary degree. We could drop an antelope on the plain and leave it for an hour or more. With a quick glance about our lama would fix the place in his mind, and dash off on a chase which might carry us back and forth toward every point of the compass. When it was time to return, he would head his pony unerringly for that single spot on the plain and take us back as straight as the flight of an arrow.

At first it gave him unceasing enjoyment when we became completely lost, but in a very short time we learned to note the position of the sun, the character of the ground, and the direction of the wind. Then we began to have more confidence in ourselves. But only by years of training can one hope even to approximate the Mongols. They have been born and reared upon the plains, and have the inheritance of unknown generations whose very life depended upon their ability to come and go at will. To them, the hills, the sun, the grass, the sand – all have become the street signs of the desert.


 

Across Mongolian Plains
$7.99
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The Camel Train had arrived

From Roy Chapman Andrews' excellent book 'Across Mongolian Plains' published in 1921.

Photo by  james ballard  on  Unsplash

Photo by james ballard on Unsplash

 

Our way led close along the Tola River, and just before tiffin we saw a line of camels coming diagonally toward us from behind a distant hill. I wish you could have seen that caravan in all its barbaric splendor as it wound across the vivid green plains. Three lamas, dressed in gorgeous yellow robes, and two, in flaming red, rode ahead on ponies. Then neck and neck, mounted on enormous camels, came four men in gowns of rich maroon and a woman flashing with jewels and silver. Behind them, nose to tail, was the long, brown line of laden beasts. It was like a painting of the Middle Ages — like a picture of the days of Kublai Khan, when the Mongol court was the most splendid the world has ever seen. My wife and I were fascinated, for this was the Mongolia of our dreams.

Like the trained units of an army each camel came into position, kneeled upon the ground and remained quietly chewing its cud until the driver removed the load. Long before the last straggler had arrived the tents were up and a fire blazing, and far into the night the thirsty beasts grunted and roared as the trough was filled with water. For thirty-six days they had been on the road, and yet were only halfway across the desert. Every day had been exactly like the day before — an endless routine of eating and sleeping, camp-making and camp- breaking in sun, rain, or wind. The monotony of it all would be appalling to a westerner, but the Oriental mind seems peculiarly adapted to accept it with entire contentment.

 

 

Across Mongolian Plains
$7.99
By Roy Chapman Andrews

The deathly heat of the land-wind

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926

 

Photo by  paul itkin  on  Unsplash

Photo by paul itkin on Unsplash

During the summer season, the inhabitants of Ormus do not remain in the city, on account of the excessive heat, which renders the air unwholesome, but retire to their gardens along the shore or on the banks of the river. Here they reside during the period in which there blows, every day, from about the hour of nine until noon, a land-wind so intensely hot as to impede respiration, and to occasion death by suffocating the person exposed to it.

None can escape from its effects who are overtaken by it on the sandy plain. As soon as the approach of this wind is perceived by the inhabitants, they immerse themselves to the chin in water and continue in that situation until it ceases to blow.

In proof of the extraordinary degree of this heat, Marco Polo says that he happened to be in these parts when the following circumstance occurred.

The ruler of Ormus having neglected to pay his tribute to the king of Kierman, the latter took the resolution of enforcing it at the season when the principal inhabitants reside out of the city, upon the main land, and for this purpose despatched a body of troops, consisting of sixteen hundred horse and five thou- sand foot, through the country in order to seize them by surprise.

In consequence, however, of their being misled by the guides, they failed to arrive at the place intended before the approach of night, and halted to take repose in a grove not far distant from Ormus; but upon recommencing their march in the morning, they were assailed by this hot wind, and were all suffocated; not one escaping to carry the fatal intelligence to his master. When the people of Ormus became acquainted with the event, and proceeded to bury the carcases, in order that their stench might not infect the air, they found them so baked by the intenseness of the heat, that the limbs, upon being handled, separated from the trunks, and it became necessary to dig the graves close to the spot where the bodies lay.

 

 

The Travels of Marco Polo
$10.52
By Marco Polo

The spirits who protect the desert of Lop

From 'Marco Polo' by Isaac Asimov published in 1926

 

Photo by  Randy Tarampi  on  Unsplash

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

 

It is asserted as a well-known fact that this desert is the abode of many evil spirits, which amuse travelers to their destruction with most extraordinary illusions. If, during the day-time, any persons remain behind on the road, either when overtaken by sleep or detained by their natural occasions, until the caravan has passed a hill and is no longer in sight, they unexpectedly hear themselves called to by their names, and in a tone of voice to which they are accustomed.

Supposing the call to proceed from their companions, they are led away by it from the direct road, and not knowing in what direction to advance, are left to perish. In the night-time they are persuaded they hear the march of a large cavalcade of people on one side or the other of the road, and concluding the noise to be that of the footsteps of their party, they direct theirs to the quarter from whence it seems to proceed.

But upon the breaking of day, they find they have been misled and drawn into a situation of danger. Sometimes likewise during the day these spirits assume the appearance of their traveling companions, who address them by name and endeavour to conduct them out of the proper road. It is said also that some persons, in their journey across the desert, have seen what appeared to them to be a body of armed men advancing towards them, and apprehensive of being attacked and plundered have taken to flight. Losing by this means the right path, and ignorant of the direction they should take to regain it, they have perished miserably of hunger.

 

The Travels of Marco Polo
$10.52
By Marco Polo