CHAPTER XXVII. TRAVELING TOWARD THE TROPICS
We left Yung-chang with no regret on Monday, January 28. Our stay there would have been exceedingly pleasant under ordinary conditions but it was impossible not to chafe at the delay occasioned by the caravan. Traveling southward for two days over bare brown mountain-sides, their monotony unrelieved except by groves of planted pine and fir trees, we descended abruptly into the great subtropical valley at Shih-tien.
Mile after mile this fertile plain stretches away in a succession of rice paddys and fields of sugar cane interspersed with patches of graceful bamboo, their summits drooping like enormous clusters of ostrich plumes; the air is warm and fragrant and the change from the surrounding hills is delightful. However, we were disappointed in the shooting for, although it appeared to be an ideal place for ducks and other water birds, we killed only five teal, and the great ponds were almost devoid of bird life. Even herons, so abundant in the north, were conspicuous by their absence and we saw no sheldrakes, geese, or mallards.
At Shih-tien we camped in a beautiful temple yard on the outskirts of the town, and with Wu I returned to the village to inquire about shooting places. We seated ourselves in the first open tea house and within ten minutes more than a hundred natives had filled the room, overflowed through the door and windows, and formed a mass of pushing, crowding bodies which completely blocked the street outside. It was a simple way of getting all the village together and Wu questioned everyone who looked intelligent.
We learned that shooting was to be found near Gen-kang, five days' travel south, and we returned to the temple just in time to receive a visit from the resident mandarin. He was a good-looking, intellectual man, with charming manners and one of the most delightful gentlemen whom we met in China.
During his visit, and until dinner was over and we had retired to our tents, hundreds of men, women and children crowded into the temple yard to gaze curiously at us. After the gates had been closed they climbed the walls and sat upon the tiles like a flock of crows. Their curiosity was insatiable but not unfriendly and nowhere throughout our expedition did we find such extraordinary interest in our affairs as was manifested by the people in this immediate region. They were largely Chinese and most of them must have met foreigners before, yet their curiosity was much greater than that of any natives whom we knew were seeing white persons for the first time.
Just before camping the next day we passed through a large village where we were given a most flattering reception. We had stopped to do some shooting and were a considerable distance behind the caravan. The mafus must have announced our coming, for the populace was out en masse to greet us and lined the streets three deep. It was a veritable triumphal entry and crowds of men and children followed us for half a mile outside the town, running beside our horses and staring with saucer-like eyes.
On the second day from Shih-tien we climbed a high mountain and wound down a sharp descent for about 4,000 feet into a valley only 2,300 feet above sea level. We had been cold all day on the ridges exposed to a biting wind and had bundled ourselves into sweaters and coats over flannel shirts. After going down about 1,000 feet we tied our coats to the saddle pockets, on the second thousand stripped off the sweaters, and for the remainder of the descent rode with sleeves rolled up and shirts open at the throat. We had come from mid-winter into summer in two hours and the change was most startling. It was as though we had suddenly ridden into an artificially heated building like the rooms for tropical plants at botanical gardens.
Our camp was on a flat plain just above the river where we had a splendid view of the wide valley which was like the bottom of a well with high mountains rising abruptly on all sides. It was a place of strange contrasts. The bushes and trees were in full green foliage but the grass and paddy fields were dry and brown as in mid-winter. The thick trees at the base of the hills were literally alive with doves but there were few mammal runways and our traps yielded no results. That night a muntjac, the first we had heard, barked hoarsely behind the tents.
The yamen "soldier" who accompanied us from Shih-tien delivered his official dispatch at the village (Ma-po-lo) which lies farther down the valley. The magistrate, who proved to be a Shan native, arrived soon after with ten or twelve men and we discovered that there was but one man in the village who spoke Chinese.
The magistrate at Ma-po-lo by no means wished to have the responsibility of our safety thrust upon him and consequently assured us that there were neither game nor hunters in this village. Although his anxiety to be rid of us was apparent, he was probably telling the truth, for the valley is so highly cultivated (rice), and the cover on the mountain-sides so limited, that it is doubtful if much game remains.
In the morning the entire valley was filled with a dense white fog but we climbed out of it almost immediately, and by noon were back again in winter on the summits of the ridges. The country through which we passed en route to Gen-kang was similar to that which had oppressed us during the preceding week - cultivated valleys between high barren mountains relieved here and there by scattered groves of planted fir trees. It was a region utterly hopeless from a naturalist's standpoint and when we arrived at a large town near Gen-kang we were well-nigh discouraged.