CHAPTER XXIII. WESTWARD TO THE MEKONG RIVER

During the night of December 4, there was a heavy fall of snow and in the morning we awoke to find ourselves in fairyland. We were living in a great white palace, with ceiling and walls of filmy glittering webs. The long, delicate strands of gray moss which draped themselves from tree to tree and branch to branch were each one converted into threads of crystal, forming a filigree lacework, infinitely beautiful.

It was hard to break camp and leave that silver palace, for every vista through the forest seemed more lovely than the one before, but we knew that another fall of snow would block the passes and shut us out from the Mekong valley. The mafus even refused to try the direct route across the mountains to Wei-hsi and insisted on going southward to the Shih-ku ferry and up the Yangtze River on the main caravan route.

It was a long trip and we looked forward with no pleasure to eight days of hard riding. The difficulty in obtaining hunters since leaving the Snow Mountain had made our big game collecting negligible although we had traveled through some excellent country. The Mekong valley might not be better but it was an unknown quantity and, whether or not it yielded specimens, the results from a survey of the mammal distribution would be none the less important, and we felt that it must be done; otherwise we should have turned our backs on the north and returned to Ta-li Fu.

As we rode down the mountain trail we passed caravan after caravan of Tibetans with heavily loaded horses, all bound for that land of mystery beyond the snow-capped barriers. Often we tried to stop some of the red-skinned natives and persuade them to pose for a color photograph, but usually they only shook their heads stubbornly and hurried past with averted faces. We finally waylaid a Chinese and a Tibetan who were walking together. The Chinaman was an amiable fellow and by giving each of them a glass jam tumbler they halted a moment. As soon as the photograph had been taken the Chinese indicated that he expected us to produce one and was thoroughly disgusted when we showed him that it was impossible.

Repassing the Lolo village, we followed the river gorge at the upper end of which Chung-tien is located and left the forests when we emerged on the main road. From the top of a ten thousand foot pass there was a magnificent view down the canon to the snow-capped mountains, which were beautiful beyond description in their changing colors of purple and gold.

Just after leaving the pass we met a caravan of several hundred horses each bearing two whole pigs bent double and tied to the saddles. The animals had been denuded of hair, salted, and sewn up, and soon would be distributed among the villages somewhere in the interior of Tibet.

On the second day we saw before us seven snow-crowned peaks as sharp and regular as the teeth of a saw rising above the mouth of the stream where it spreads like a fan over a sandy delta and empties into the Yangtze. Here the mighty river, flowing proudly southward from its home in the wind-blown steppes of the "Forbidden Land," countless ages ago found the great Snow Mountain range barring its path. Thrust aside, it doubled back upon itself along the barrier's base, still restlessly seeking a passage through the wall of rock. Far to the north it bit hungrily into the mountain's side again, broke through, and swung south gathering strength and volume from hundreds of tributaries as it rushed onward to the sea.

For two days we rode along the river bank and crossed at the Shih-ku ferry. There was none of the difficulty here which we had experienced at Taku, for the river is wide and the current slow. It required only two hours to transport our entire caravan while at the other ferry we had waited a day and a half. Strangely enough, although there are dozens of villages along the Yangtze and the valley is highly cultivated, we saw no sign of fishing. Moreover, we passed but three boats and five or six rafts and it was evident that this great waterway, which for fifteen hundred miles from its mouth influences the trade of China so profoundly, is here used but little by the natives.

On the ride down the river we had good sport with the huge cranes (probably Grus nigricollis) which, in small flocks, were feeding along the river fields. The birds stood about five feet high and we could see their great black and white bodies and black necks farther than a man was visible. It was fairly easy to stalk them to within a hundred yards, but even at that distance they offered a rather small target, for they were so largely wings, neck, legs, and tail. We were never within shotgun range and indeed it would be difficult to kill the birds with anything smaller than BB or buckshot unless they were very near.

Heller shot our first cranes with his .250-.300 Savage rifle. He stole upon five which were feeding in a meadow and fired while two were "lined up." One of the huge birds flapped about on the ground for a few moments and lay still, but the larger was only wing-tipped and started off at full speed across the fields. Two mafus left the caravan, yelling with excitement, and ran for nearly half a mile before they overtook the bird. Then they were kept at bay for fifteen minutes by its long beak which is a really formidable weapon. As food the cranes were perfectly delicious when stuffed with chestnut dressing and roasted. Each one provided two meals for three of us with enough left over for hash and our appetites were by no means birdlike.