Sound in the great desert. Rings out the conch shell. Do you hear it?
The long, lingering, wistful call vibrates, quivers, melts in the chasms.
Is there perhaps a monastery or a hermit?
Here we have reached the most deserted spot. Not within six days from here is there one dwelling. Where, in these desolate mountains is there one lama, thus sounding his evocation?
But it is not a lama. We are in the mountains of Dun-bure, and from times beyond memory this signified: “The Call of the Conch Shell.”
Far off, the mountain call fades away. Is it reechoing among the rocks? Is it the call of the Memnon of Asia? Is it the wind furling through the corridored crevices? Or is the mountain stream somewhere gurgling? Somewhere was born this enticing, lingering call. And he who named these mountains by their caressing title, “The Call of the Conch Shell,” heard the summons of the sacred desert.
“White Chorten” is the name of our camp-site. Two mighty masses form great gates. Is not this one of the boundaries? White signs. White pillared drippings of the geysers. White stones. Known are these boundaries. Around us, from out the death mounds of avalanches, emerge the crags of rocks. It is evening.
Above us lies another mountain pass. One must examine this site. From here we heard the conch shell. A short ascent. Between two natural turrets, like cones, is an opening; and beyond, a small circular plain like a fortress, fortified on all sides by sharp rocks. There is abundant grass upon this square and under the rocks, silently gleams the ribbon of the rivulet. Here is the very place for a camp. One can hide long and securely within this natural castle.
“Look . . . Something moves there . . . People,” whispers our fellow-traveler, and his eyes peer through the evening mist.
Through the curtain of fog it seems as if a spectacle of phantoms is passing. Or was it a sound that intrigued our imaginations? Were these perhaps swift antelopes that were noiselessly leaping by? Gazelles and antelopes are almost unnoticeable against the mellow rocks. Perhaps some one, preceding us, coveted this unapproachable site. But all is serene. In the dusk the grass seems not to rustle. The sounds and whispers slumber for the night. The fires flash out in the camp. For whom shall they serve as a guiding star?
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Again fires. The shadows dance. The tents merge into the darkness. People seem to have multiplied. The men and camels seem numberless. Heads of camels and horses appear. The heat is ponderable. It is the time of rest. The arms are laid down and one forgets that this is the very site of the looting of caravans. Only one month ago a caravan bound for China was demolished here.
It is long since our men have seen trees. It is long since they felt the caress of the tall grass. Let the fires of peace glow. A rifle shot sharply pierces the silence! Our rest is broken.
“Put out the fires! Guards—form a file! Watch the tents! Two men with rifles, to the horses! Konchok is sent to reconnoiter. If there is peace, he will sing the song of Shambhala! If there is danger—a shot!”
Once again a leap, a quiver, passes through the camp and all becomes still. The row of rifle-men take their places in the tall grass. Between the trunks of the Kara-gach the tents disappear as though submerged. A whisper—”Perhaps the men of Ja-lama. His bands are still active. His head, impaled on a spear, was taken through all bazaars but his centurions wander the length of the Gobi. You—in the rear—listen! Is it the grass rustling?” Suddenly out of the darkness sounds the song of Shambhala. Konchok is singing. Somewhere, far off, the voice is heard. It means there is no danger. But the guards still remain at their posts and the fires are not lit. The song comes nearer. Out of the rustling grass appears the dim figure of Konchok and laughs:
“Stupid Chinese. He became frightened at our bonfires. And he fired a shot in order to frighten us. He thought we were robbers. And he himself is riding a white horse.” A Chinese caravan was going from Kara-Khoto to Hami, with a hundred camels and but one rifle. The Chinese mistook our fires for the bonfires of Ja-lama and wished to frighten us. He himself was completely terrified. He constantly asked if we were peaceful people and pleaded that we stay away from his caravan by night. Then his caravan became noisy and merry little fires started to twinkle. Fire is the sign of confidence. Nevertheless, the watch increased. The password was given: “Shambhala” and the countersign: “Ruler, Rigden.”
* * *