CHAPTER X. ON THE ROAD TO TA-LI FU

On August 6, we dispatched half our equipment to Ta-li Fu, and three days later we ourselves left Yuen-nan Fu at eleven o'clock in the morning after an interminable wait for our caravan. Through the kindness of Mr. Page, a house boat was put at our disposal and we sailed across the upper end of the beautiful lake which lies just outside the city, and intercepted the caravan twenty-five li [Footnote: A li in this province equals one-third of an English mile.] from Yuen-nan Fu.

On the way we passed a number of cormorant fishers, each with ten or a dozen birds sitting quietly upon the boat with outspread wings drying their feathers. Every bird has a ring about its neck, and is thus prevented from swallowing the fish which it catches by diving into the water.

After waiting an hour for our caravan we saw the long train of mules and horses winding up the hill toward us. There were seventeen altogether, and in the midst of them rode the cook clinging desperately with both hands to a diminutive mule, his long legs dangling and a look of utter wretchedness upon his face. Just before the caravan reached us it began to rain, and the cook laboriously pulled on a suit of yellow oilskins which we had purchased for him in Yuen-nan Fu. These, together with a huge yellow hat, completed a picture which made us roar with laughter; Heller gave the caption for it when he shouted, "Here comes the 'Yellow Peril.'"

We surveyed the tiny horses with dismay. As Heller vainly tried to get his girth tight enough to keep the saddle from sliding over the animal's tail he exclaimed, "Is this a horse or a squirrel I'm trying to ride?" But it was not so bad when we finally climbed aboard and found that we did not crush the little brutes.

A seventy-pound box on each side of the saddle with a few odds and ends on top made a pack of at least one hundred and sixty pounds. This is heavy even for a large animal and for these tiny mules seemed an impossibility, but it is the usual weight, and the businesslike way in which they moved off showed that they were not overloaded.

The Yuen-nan pack saddle is a remarkably ingenious arrangement. The load is strapped with a rawhide to a double A-shaped frame which fits loosely over a second saddle on the animal's back and is held in place by its own weight. If a mule falls the pack comes off and, moreover, it can be easily removed if the road is bad or whenever a stop is made. It has the great disadvantage, however, of giving the horses serious back sores which receive but scanty attention from the mafus (muleteers).

When we were fairly started upon our long ride to Ta-li Fu the time slipped by in a succession of delightful days. Since this was the main caravan route the mafus had regular stages beyond which they would not go. If we did not stop for luncheon the march could be ended early in the afternoon and we could settle ourselves for the night in a temple which always proved a veritable "haven of rest" after a long day in the saddle. A few pages from my wife's "Journal" of September fifteenth describes our camp at Lu-ho-we and our life on the road to Ta-li Fu.

    We are sitting on the porch of an old, old temple. It is on a hilltop
    in a forest grove with the gray-walled town lying at our feet. The sun
    is flooding the flower-filled courtyard and throwing bars of golden
    light through the twisted branches of a bent old pine, over the stone
    well, and into the dim recesses behind the altar where a benevolent
    idol grins down upon us.

    We have been in the saddle for eight hours and it is enchanting to rest
    in this peaceful, aged temple. Outside children are shouting and
    laughing but all is quiet here save for the drip of water in the well,
    and the chatter of a magpie on the pine tree. Today we made the stage
    in one long march and now we can rest and browse among our books or
    wander with a gun along the cool, tree-shaded paths.

    The sun is hot at midday, although the mornings and evenings are cold,
    and tonight we shall build a fragrant fire of yellow pine, and talk for
    an hour before we go to sleep upon the porch where we can see the moon
    come up and the stars shining so low that they seem like tiny lanterns
    in the sky.

    It is seven days since we left Yuen-nan Fu and each night we have come
    to temples such as this. There is an inexpressible charm about them,
    lying asleep, as it were, among the trees of their courtyards, with
    stately, pillared porches, and picturesque gables upturned to the sky.
    They seem so very, very old and filled with such great calm and peace.

    Sometimes they stand in the midst of a populous town and we ride
    through long streets between dirty houses, swarming with ragged women,
    filthy men, and screaming children; suddenly we come to the dilapidated
    entrance of our temple, pass through a courtyard, close the huge gates
    and are in another world.