CHAPTER XXVIII. MENG-TING: A VILLAGE OF MANY TONGUES

During the eight days in which we remained at the "Good Hope" camp, two hundred specimens comprising twenty-one species were added to our collection. Although the altitude was still 5,000 feet, the flora was quite unlike that of any region in which we had previously collected, and that undoubtedly was responsible for the complete change of fauna. We were on the very edge of the tropical belt which stretches along the Tonking and Burma frontiers in the extreme south and west of the province.

It was already mid-February and if we were to work in the fever-stricken valleys below 2,000 feet, it was high time we were on the way southward. The information which we had obtained near Gen-kang had been supplemented by the natives of Mu-cheng, and we decided to go to Meng-ting as soon as possible.

The first march was long and uneventful but at its end, from the summit of a high ridge, we could see a wide valley which we reached in the early morning of the second day. The narrow mountain trail abruptly left us on a jutting promontory and wandered uncertainly down a steep ravine to lose itself in a veritable forest of tree ferns and sword grass. The slanting rays of the sun drew long golden paths into the mysterious depths of the mist-filled valley. To the right a giant sentinel peak of granite rose gaunt and naked from out the enveloping sea of green which swelled away to the left in huge ascending billows.

We rested in our saddles until the faint tinkle of the bell on the leading mule announced the approach of the caravan and then we picked our way slowly down the steep trail between walls of tangled vegetation. In an hour we were breathing the moist warm air of the tropics and riding across a wide valley as level as a floor. The long stretches of rank grass, far higher than our heads, were broken by groves of feathery bamboos, banana palms, and splendid trees interlaced with tangled vines.

Near the base of the mountains a Shan village nestled into the grass. The bamboo houses, sheltered by trees and bushes, were roofed in the shape of an overturned boat with thatch and the single street was wide and clean. Could this really be China? Verily, it was a different China from that we had seen before! It might be Burma, India, Java, but never China!

Before the door of a tiny house sat a woman spinning. A real Priscilla, somewhat strange in dress to be sure and with a mouth streaked with betel nut, but Priscilla just the same. And in his proper place beside her stood John Alden. A pair of loose, baggy trousers, hitched far up over one leg to show the intricate tattoo designs beneath, a short coat, and a white turban completed John's attire, but he grasped a gun almost as ancient in design as that of his Pilgrim fathers. Priscilla kept her eyes upon the spinning wheel, but John's gaze could by no stretch of imagination be called ardent even before we appeared around a corner of the house and the pretty picture resolved into its rightful components - a surprised, but not unlovely Shan girl and a well-built, yellow-skinned native who stared with wide brown eyes and open mouth at what must have seemed to him the fancy of a disordered brain.

For into his village, filled with immemorial peace and quiet, where every day was exactly like the day before, had suddenly ridden two big men with white skins and blue eyes, and a little one with lots of hair beneath a broad sun helmet. And almost immediately the little one had jumped from the horse and pointed a black box with a shiny front at him and his Priscilla. At once, but without loss of dignity, Priscilla vanished into the house, but John Alden stood his ground, for a beautiful new tin can had been thrust into his hand and before he had really discovered what it was the little person had smiled at him and turned her attention to the charming street of his village. There the great water buffalos lazily chewed their cuds standing guard over the tiny brown-skinned natives who played trustingly with the calves almost beneath their feet.

Such was our invasion of the first Shan village we had ever seen, and regretfully we rode away across the plain between the walls of waving grass toward the Nam-ting River. Two canoes, each dug out of a single log, and tightly bound together, formed the ferry, but the packs were soon across the muddy stream and the mules were made to swim to the other bank. Shortly after leaving the ferry we emerged from the vast stretches of rank grass on to the open rice paddys which stretched away in a gently undulating plain from the river to the mountains. Strangely enough we saw no ducks or geese, but three great flocks of cranes (probably Grus communis) rose from the fields and wheeled in ever-widening spirals above our heads until they were lost in the blue depths of the sky.

Away in the distance we saw a wooded knoll with a few wisps of smoke curling above its summit, but not until we were well-nigh there did we realize that its beautiful trees sheltered the thatched roofs of Meng-ting. But this was only the "residential section" of the village and below the knoll on the opposite side of a shallow stream lay the shops and markets.

We camped on a dry rice dyke where a fringe of jungle separated us from the nearest house. As soon as the tents were up I announced our coming to the mandarin and requested an interview at five o'clock. Wu and I found the yamen to be a large well-built house, delightfully cool and exhibiting several foreign articles which evinced its proximity to Burma.