CHAPTER IX. THE BEAUTIFUL VALLEY OF GENAL - WALLS OF LITERATURE - SCARING UP A BEAR - END OF HORSEBACK RIDE
It was hard work on the following morning to climb again into the saddle, but the Major was insensible to all appeals for delay. Stern and inflexible as Rhadamanthus, he mounted stiffly upon his feather pillow and gave the signal for a start. With the aid of two sympathetic Kamchadals, who had perhaps experienced the misery of a stiff back, I succeeded in getting astride a fresh horse, and we rode away into the Genal (gen-ahl') valley - the garden of southern Kamchatka.
The village of Malqua lies on the northern slope of the Kamchatka River watershed, surrounded by low barren granite hills, and reminded me a little in its situation of Virginia City, Nevada. It is noted chiefly for its hot mineral springs, but as we did not have time to visit these springs ourselves, we were compelled to take the natives' word for their temperature and their medicinal properties, and content ourselves with a distant view of the pillar of steam which marked their location.
North of the village opens the long narrow valley of Genal - the most beautiful as well as the most fertile spot in all the Kamchatkan peninsula. It is about thirty miles in length, and averages three in breadth, and is bounded on both sides by chains of high snow-covered mountains, which stretch away from Malqua in a long vista of white ragged peaks and sharp cliffs, almost to the head-waters of the Kamchatka River. A small stream runs in a tortuous course through the valley, fringed with long wild grass four or five feet in height, and shaded here and there by clumps of birches, willows, and alders. The foliage was beginning already to assume the brilliant colours of early autumn, and broad stripes of crimson, yellow, and green ran horizontally along the mountain sides, marking on a splendid chromatic scale the successive zones of vegetation as they rose in regular gradation from the level of the valley to the pure glittering snows of the higher peaks.
As we approached the middle of the valley just before noon, the scenery assumed a vividness of colour and grandeur of outline which drew forth the most enthusiastic exclamations of delight from our little party. For twenty-five miles in each direction lay the sunny valley, through which the Genal River was stretched like a tangled chain of silver, linking together the scattered clumps of birch and thickets of alder, which at intervals diversified its banks. Like the Happy Valley of Rasselas, it seemed to be shut out from the rest of the world by impassable mountains, whose snowy peaks and pinnacles rivalled in picturesque beauty, in variety and singularity of form, the wildest dream of eastern architect. Half down their sides was a broad horizontal belt of dark-green pines, thrown into strong and beautiful contrast with the pure white snow of the higher summits and the rich crimson of the mountain ash which flamed below. Here and there the mountains had been cleft asunder by some Titanic power, leaving deep narrow gorges and wild ravines where the sunlight could hardly penetrate, and the eye was lost in soft purple haze. Imagine with all this, a warm fragrant atmosphere and a deep blue sky in which floated a few clouds, too ethereal even to cast shadows, and you will perhaps have a faint idea of one of the most beautiful landscapes in all Kamchatka. The Sierra Nevadas may afford views of more savage wildness, but nowhere in California or Nevada have I ever seen the distinctive features of both winter and summer - snow and roses, bare granite and brilliantly coloured foliage - blended into so harmonious a picture as that presented by the Genal valley on a sunshiny day in early autumn.
Dodd and I devoted most of our leisure time during the afternoon to picking and eating berries. Galloping furiously ahead until we had left the caravan several miles behind, we would lie down in a particularly luxuriant thicket by the river bank, tie our horses to our feet, and bask in the sunshine and feast upon yellow honeyed "moroshkas" (mo-ro'-shkas) and the dark purple globes of delicious blueberries, until our clothes were stained with crimson spots, and our faces and hands resembled those of a couple of Comanches painted for the war-path.
The sun was yet an hour high when we approached the native village of Genal. We passed a field where men and women were engaged in cutting hay with rude sickles, returned their stare of amazement with unruffled serenity, and rode on until the trail suddenly broke off into a river beyond which stood the village.