CHAPTER XXI. TRAVELING TOWARD TIBET

Since the hunters at the "Windy Camp" had proved so worthless and the traps had yielded no small mammals new to our collection, we decided to cross the mountains toward the Chung-tien road which leads into Tibet.

The head mafu explored the trail and reported that it was impassable but, after an examination of some of the worst barriers, we decided that they could be cleared away and ordered the caravan to start at half past seven in the morning.

Before long we found that the mafus were right. The trail was a mass of tangled underbrush and fallen logs and led straight up a precipitous mountain through a veritable jungle of dwarf bamboo. It was necessary to stop every few yards to lift the loads over a barrier or cut a passage through the bamboo thickets, and had it not been for the adjustable pack saddles we never could have taken the caravan over the trail.

Late in the afternoon the exhausted men and animals dragged themselves to the summit of the mountain, for it was not a pass. In a few hours we had come from autumn to mid-winter where the ground was frozen and covered with snow. We were at an altitude of more than 15,000 feet and far above all timber except the rhododendron forest which spread itself out in a low gray mass along the ridges. It was difficult to make the slightest exertion in the thin air and a bitterly cold wind swept across the peaks so that it was impossible to keep warm even when wrapped in our heaviest coats.

The servants and mafus suffered considerably but it was too late to go on and there was no alternative but to spend the night on the mountain. As soon as the tents were up the men huddled disconsolately about the fire, but we started out with a bag of traps while Heller went in the opposite direction. We expected to catch some new mammals during the night, for there were great numbers of runways on the bare hillsides. The ground was frozen so solidly that it was necessary to cut into the little Microtus tunnels with a hatchet in order to set the traps and we were almost frozen before the work was completed. The next morning we had caught twenty specimens of a new white-bellied meadow vole and a remarkable shrew with a long curved proboscis.

Everyone had spent an uncomfortable night, for it was bitterly cold even in our sleeping bags and the men had sat up about the fire in order to keep from freezing. There was little difficulty in getting the caravan started in the gray light of early dawn and after descending abruptly four thousand feet on a precipitous trail to a Lolo village strung out along a beautiful little valley we were again in the pleasant warmth of late autumn.

The natives here had never before seen a white person and in a few moments our tents were surrounded by a crowd of strange-looking men and boys. The chief of the village presented us with an enormous rooster and we made him happy by returning two tins of cigarettes. The Lolo women, the first we had seen, were especially surprising because of their graceful figures and handsome faces. Their flat turbans, short jackets, and long skirts with huge flounces gave them a rather old-fashioned aspect, quite out of harmony with the metal neck-bands, earrings, and bracelets which they all wore.

The men were exceedingly pleasant and made a picturesque group in their gray and brown felt capes which they gather about the neck by a draw string and, to the Lolos and Mosos alike, are both bed and clothing. We collected all the men for their photographs, and although they had not the slightest idea what we were about they stood quietly after Hotenfa had assured them that the strange-looking instrument would not go off. But most interesting of all was their astonishment when half an hour later they saw the negative and were able to identify themselves upon it.

The Lolos are apparently a much maligned race. They are exceedingly independent, and although along the frontier of their own territory in S'suchuan they wage a war of robbery and destruction it is not wholly unprovoked. No one can enter their country safely unless he is under the protection of a chief who acts as a sponsor and passes him along to others. Mr. Brooke, an Englishman, was killed by the Lolos, but he was not properly "chaperoned," and Major D'Ollone of the French expedition lived among them safely for some time and gives them unstinted praise.

Whenever we met tribesmen in Yuen-nan who had not seen white persons they behaved much like all other natives. They were, of course, always greatly astonished to see our caravan descend upon them and were invariably fascinated by our guns, tents, and in fact everything about us, but were generally shy and decidedly less offensive in their curiosity than the Chinese of the larger inland towns to whom foreigners are by no means unknown. As a matter of fact we have found that our white skins, light eyes, and hair are a never failing source of interest and envy to almost all Orientals.