Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/May 1889/The Desert of Gobi and the Himalayas


By Lieutenant F. E. YOUNGHUSBAND.[1]

THE Royal Geographical Society enjoyed a profitable evening a few months ago in hearing an account by Lieutenant F. E. Younghusband of a journey which he had made across Central Asia from Manchuria and Peking to Kashmir, over the Mustagh Pass, and the discussion upon it, in which officers learned in Indian geography took part. The author started in the summer of 1885, with Mr. H. E. M. James, who has since published in the book called "The Long White Mountain" the best account of Manchuria that we have. The travelers separated, after a pleasant and profitable journey, at Newchang, Mr. James to return home by way of Chifu and America, and Lieutenant Younghusband to travel back to India through Mongolia and Chinese Turkistan.

Respecting the field of the earlier journey, the author asserts that "few countries could repay the traveler better for his labors than Manchuria. It is a noble country, and well worthy of being the birthplace of the successive dynasties which issuing from it have conquered all the countries round, and of that dynasty which to-day holds sway over the most populous empire in the world. The fertility of the soil is extraordinary; the plain country is richly cultivated and dotted over with flourishing villages and thriving market towns, and the hills are covered with magnificent forests of oak and elm. The mineral resources are at present undeveloped, but coal and iron, gold and silver are known to be procurable. The climate is healthy and invigorating, but very cold in winter, when the temperature varies from 10° below zero Fahr. in the south to 40° or more below zero in the north. Rivers are numerous and large." The principal river is the Sungari, which is navigable for vessels of three or four feet draught as far as Kirin, and whose rich valley is every year attracting thousands of colonists from China. The drawback is brigandage, which is very rife in northern Manchuria, and on account of which the people have to collect, for their own protection, in large villages and towns, so that small hamlets and detached farm-houses are never seen. Though it is Manchuria, the country is not inhabited by Manchus. They have been drained off to China proper, and their places are taken by immigrants from the Chinese provinces. The people of the original race have lost their old warlike spirit, and are a laughing-stock to the Chinese colonists. Unable to make headway against the brigands, they depend on the Chinese regiments to do that work for them.

A great many things had to be thought of in preparing for a long journey over an almost unknown country, in which were included the crossing of the terrible Desert of Gobi and of the Himalaya Mountains. Bills could not be obtained on any town in Turkistan, and it was necessary to carry money in bulk. If the Chinese copper coinage were taken, it would require a train of mules to carry a sufficient sum. The problem was solved by taking sixty pounds of solid silver, stowed away in the baggage. Clothing must be provided in anticipation both of great heat and of intense cold; and medicines had to be laid in, for the people as well as for the traveler and his party, "for they are always useful for giving to the natives. It is well I did so, for Mr. Dalgleisch's fame as a medicine-man had spread throughout Turkistan, and the Turkis thought that I, being also English, must be able to cure them instantly of any illness they had."

Ascending the valley of the Yangho from Kalgan, "the country presented a desolate and deserted appearance, for the villages were half in ruins; numerous watch-towers, now falling in pieces, were scattered over the country; and the inhabitants, looking ill-fed and badly clothed, were attempting in a half-hearted way to cultivate fields which were constantly being covered with layers of dust by the horrible sand-storms that used to occur almost daily at this time of the year. The country is of the formation called loess—a light, friable soil which crumbles to dust when the slightest pressure is put upon it. In consequence of this the roads are sunk thirty to forty feet below the level of the surrounding country; for when a cart passes along a road the soil crumbles into dust, the wind blows the dust away, and a rut is formed. More traffic follows, more dust is blown away, and gradually the roadway sinks lower and lower below the surrounding level; for the Chinese here, as elsewhere, never think of repairing a road. . . . On the 14th of April, 1886, I emerged on to the real steppes which are the characteristic features of Mongolia proper. Stretching far away in the distance there was a great, rolling, grassy plain, on which the flocks and herds and the yurtas, or felt tents, of the Mongols were scattered about. These people offered a striking contrast to the Chinese inhabiting the districts I had just left. They were strong and robust, with round, ruddy faces, very simple-minded, and full of hearty good humor. They are entirely pastoral and nomadic in their habits, and do not take to agricultural pursuits. The old warlike spirit which made them so powerful in the days of Genghis Khan has now disappeared completely. The Chinese Government has purposely encouraged the men to become Lamas, and now it is said that as many as sixty per cent of the whole male population are Lamas, who, by their religion, are neither allowed to marry nor to fight. In consequence, there is a great decrease in the fighting strength of the Mongols, as well as in the whole population. A recent famine carried away numbers more, and the country, it seems, would almost become depopulated were it not that Chinese immigrants are now invading it, and these are even outdoing the Mongols in their own callings, for I met Chinese in Mongolia who owned flocks of sheep which they were fattening for the Peking market."

In order to avoid the heat of the day, and to let the camels feed by daylight, when they could be watched and kept from straying, the usual plan of the journey was to start at about three o'clock in the afternoon, and travel on till midnight or later. The nights were often extremely beautiful, and the stars shone out with an unwonted magnificence. "Venus was a resplendent object, and guided us over many a mile of that desert. The Milky Way, too, was so bright that it looked like a brightphosphorescent cloud, or as a cloud with the moon behind it. This clearness of the atmosphere was probably due to its being so remarkably dry. Everything became parched up and so charged with electricity that in opening out a sheep-skin coat or a blanket a loud crackling noise would be given out, accompanied by a sheet of fire. The temperature used to vary considerably. Frosts continued to the end of May, but the days were often very hot, and were frequently hottest at nine or ten in the morning, for later on a strong wind would usually spring up, blowing sometimes with extreme violence, up till sunset, when it generally subsided again. If this wind was from the north, the weather was fine but cold. If it was from the south, it would be warmer, but clouds would collect, and rain would sometimes fall; generally, however, the rain would pass off into steam before reaching the ground. Ahead of us we could see the rain falling heavily, but before it reached the ground it would gradually disappear—vanish away—and when we reached the spot over which the rain had been falling there would not be a sign of moisture on the ground." Instead of the rain, the sand found its way everywhere. Occasionally the march had to be given np because the camels could not make head against the violence of the wind.

A great ridge of bare sand, destitute of vegetation, at the western end of the Husku Hills, about forty miles long and nine hundred feet high, is associated with a tradition of a large military force having once been collected and preparing to march to China, when a mighty wind arose, blowing the sand against them and burying them all, together with several villages and temples.

The Altai Mountains are perfectly barren, with the upper portion composed of bare rock and the lower of long gravel slopes, formed of the débris of the rocks above. This débris is formed under the influence of the extremes of the climate upon the unprotected rock, with no rainfall sufficient to wash it away. So it accumulates in a uniform slope, often thirty or forty miles in length, leaving only a few hundred feet of the original jaggy outline of the mountain visible at the top. A prominent Altai peak was pointed out to the traveler as covering a grassy hollow which is frequented by wild camels. The Mongols are said to shoot these animals for the sake of their skins, and also to catch the young ones and train them to be ridden. They will go two hundred miles a day for a week, but can not be broken to carry a load. They are smaller than the tame camels, and are said to have short, smooth hair, in place of the long hair of the ordinary Mongolian camel. Considerable numbers of wild asses, and wild horses, the Equus Prejevalski, were seen roaming around the plains.

The most trying march in the desert was that of the last day, which was performed in sight of the Tian Shan, or "Heavenly Mountains." It was seventy miles in length, "and not a sign of water could be found throughout, while the heat was intense, for the wind blew off the heated gravel as from a furnace, and I used to hold up my hand to protect my face from it, in the same way as one would in front of a fire." On the next evening a friendly voice welcomed the party as it was ascending the lower slopes of the Tian Shan to a Turki house, with a stream of water running by it. The country on the southern slope of the range still continued desert, but with a small oasis every fifteen or twenty miles, containing a village and cultivated lands. A difference was at once observed between the Turki and ordinary Chinese towns. "In China the houses are, as a rule, large and well built, with pent roofs and overhanging eaves. The shops are of a respectable size, with plenty of room inside for the storage of goods for sale, and for several bustling shopkeepers, who serve their customers from behind good solid counters. In Turkistan the houses and shops are more after the Indian style. They are built of mud, low, and flat-roofed, and the shops small and heaped up all round with goods, so that there is little room left for the shopkeeper. . . . If you could get a bird's-eye view of Chinese Turkistan, you would see a great, bare desert, surrounded on three sides by barren mountains, and at their bases you would see some vivid green spots, showing out sharp and distinct, like blots of green paint dropped on to a sepia picture." The oases are extraordinarily fertile; every scrap of land that can be cultivated is used up, and every drop of water is drained off and used for irrigation. The inhabitants are industrious, but not so good cultivators as the Chinese. They seem peaceful and contented, dress simply and well, and live in houses which, though built of mud, are kept remarkably clean inside. They are, however, much lacking in spirit, and stand in great awe of the Chinese, who produce upon them, as well as upon all the people of these regions, an impression of their overwhelming strength and importance. They are perfect masters of the art of impressing Orientals; their officials are scarcely known as human beings, but "are presences inhabiting a great walled-in inclosure, entrance to which is barred by massive gates, and they never appear in public except in state and accompanied by an escort. China, too, is regarded by the Turkis as an almost fabulous country." They never go there, and "only hear of it from the Chinese, who give the most exaggerated descriptions of it, telling them that the emperor has an untold number of soldiers at his command, and has a hill of gold and a hill of silver, from which he obtains inexhaustible wealth." Turfan, being seated at a very low elevation and surrounded by the desert, suffers from an intense heat, and the people, to avoid it, dig underground rooms, and live in them during the day.

The Kirghiz, whose country came next in order, were found more well-to-do than the Mongols or Kalmucs, dressing better, living in better tents, and keeping them clean; fine, strong men, not so industrious as the Turkis, but a great deal more so than the Mongols." We put up every night in their tents, and they were generally very civil, though naturally rather curious to know who I was and see all my things. The Afghan had a hard time answering all the questions, so, when he found it monotonous, he used to spread a rug and solemnly say his prayers. He was a Hadji, and, to keep up his religion properly, had to pray five times a day. When he had been traveling all day, and had not been able to say his prayers, he used to make up for it in the evening by repeating them once every half-hour or so." On the plain called the Syrt were large fields of wheat grown by the Kirghiz, who had built houses to store their grain in, but continued to live themselves in their tents. "They said they preferred not living in houses, as they were always afraid of their tumbling down upon them." The author himself, when crossing the Himalayas a few days afterward, had to guard against the dangers of living in a tent. In that region the Kanjutis are on the watch for the traveler, and, learning his ways in the day, attack him at night. If he pitches a tent, they cut the ropes and catch him inside it. "So, as I wished to end my journey in India, and not in Kanjut, I gave up using a tent, and for three weeks, while crossing the Himalayas, bivouacked out, spreading my rugs on the ground on the least windy side of any friendly rock I could find, and always changing my position after dark."

A complete outfit had to be procured for crossing the lofty range—good, sound, hard ponies, spare shoes for them, and tools for shoeing them; pack-saddles and blankets, and long sheep-skin coats for the men, and, as there would be no paths, pick-axes and spades for road-making. "As we got further into the mountains, I noticed that the heavy haze which perpetually hangs over the Kashgar and Yarkand districts faded away. This haze must, I think, be formed of dust stirred up by the strong winds which blow almost daily in those districts, for I noticed that there was a thin, permanent coating of dust on the rocks in the valley of the Tisuaf River, where there is practically no natural dust, but over which this haze continually hangs, and that, as we advanced inland and the haze disappeared, so also did this coating of dust on the rocks."

From the summit of the Aghil Darvan Pass (sixteen thousand or seventeen thousand feet high) the author had a view of the great Mustagh Range, or Karakorum Mountains, which form the water-shed between the rivers that flow into the Indian Ocean and those which take their way toward central Asia, with an immense glacier flowing down from the main range. "The appearance of these mountains is extremely bold and rugged as they rise in succession of needle peaks, like hundreds of Matterhorns collected together; but the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and all the Swiss mountains would have been several hundred feet below me, while these mountains rose up in solemn grandeur thousands of feet above me. Not a living thing was seen and not a sound was heard; all was snow and ice and rocky precipices, while these mountains are far too grand to support anything so insignificant as trees or vegetation of any sort. They stand bold and solitary in their glory, and only permit man to come among them for a few months in the year, that he may admire their magnificence and go tell it to his comrades in the world beneath. As I looked on the scene, I felt as if I were intruding on the abode of some great, invisible, but all-pervading deity."

After ascending the Sarpo Laggo River for a few miles toward the Mustagh Pass, "we came in view of the great peak K2, the second highest mountain in the world, 28,250 feet in height. We could see it through a break in the mountains, rising up straight, bold, and solitary, covered from foot to summit with perpetual snow. The upper part, for perhaps five thousand feet, was a perfect cone, and seems to be composed entirely of ice and snow, the accumulation of ages. The lower part was more precipitous, but steep enough to throw off the snow altogether, while at the base was a great glacier formed by the masses of snow which fell from its sides. It was a magnificent sight, and I could scarcely tear myself away from it." The name K2 has been given to this mountain by the Trigonometrical Survey, waiting the discovery of a native name for it, for this enlightened corps always prefers native names when they can be found. Probably, however, like Mount Everest,[2] it has no name, not being familiar enough to the people to receive one, for both summits can be seen only from almost inaccessible places. The name Peak Godwin-Austen, after the officer who first surveyed the Mustagh Range and glaciers, was proposed for it at this meeting of the Royal Geographical Society.

The thrilling description of the crossing of the Mustagh Pass, where the party reached the height of nineteen thousand feet above the sea, is too long to be quoted here. It simply includes the usual adventures of icy Alpine climbing intensified, and adds no new facts. General Strachey, President of the Geographical Society, remarked, in the discussion of Lieutenant Younghusband's paper, that this pass appeared to be the center of the most wonderful accumulation of glaciers on the face of the earth. Some of them, which Colonel Godwin-Austen described, and which Lieutenant Younghusband must have passed over, were from thirty to forty miles in length, and probably, by passing from one to another, the traveler should be able to go over a glacier surface of seventy or eighty miles.

  1. Condensed from the author's paper in the "Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society."
  2. The name commonly given as the native name of Mount Everest is not the name of the pinnacle itself, but of one of the satellite peaks by which it is surrounded, and which shut it off from ordinary view.