In our caravan there are two, who knew personally Ja-lama. One is a Tsaidamese, who was fortunate enough to escape from captivity. The other is a Mongolian lama, an experienced smuggler, who knows all secret paths in the desert, paths unknown to any one else, and hidden streams and wells. Was he not at one time the co-worker of Ja-lama? He smiles:
“Not always was Ja-lama a bad man. I have heard how generous he could be. Only you had to obey his great forces. He was a religious man. Yesterday you saw a big white suburgan on the hill. His prisoners were ordered to put these white stones together. And whoever was protected by him, could cross the desert quite safely.”
Yes, yes, probably this lama had something to do with this late illustrious bandit. But why should a simple bandit build a whole city in the desert?
In the first rays of the sun we saw a tower and part of a wall behind the next sandy hill. A party of us, with carabins ready, went to explore the place, because our caravaneers insisted that some of the men of Ja-lama might be lurking behind that wall. We remained and looked through our field glasses, but after half an hour George appeared on the top of the tower and this was the sign that the citadel was empty. We went to inspect this city and found that only the spirit of a great warrior could have outlined such a building plan. Around the citadel we saw many traces of yurtas, because the name of the Ja-lama attracted many Mongols, who came to be under his protection. But later they scattered, having seen, in the Mongolian bazaars, the gray head of their former leader on a spear.
Probably Ja-lama dreamt to live long in this place, because the towers and walls were solid and his house was spacious and well defended by a whole system of walls. In an open field of battle the Mongols could not conquer him. But a Mongolian officer came to his place, apparently for peaceful negotiations. And the old vulture, who always penetrated into all sorts of ruses, was this time blind. He accepted this mission and the bold Mongol came, carrying a large white hatik in his hands, but behind the hatik a Browning was ready. Thus he approached the ruler of the desert and while transmitting to him the honorable offering, shot him straight through the heart. Really, everything must have been dependent on the strong hypnotic power of Ja-lama, for, strange to say, when the old leader fell dead, all his followers were at once in great commotion, so that quite a small detachment of Mongols could occupy the citadel without a battle. Behind the walls we could see two graves. Were they the graves of the victims of Ja-lama, or, laying to rest in one of them, was there the decapitated body of the leader himself?
I remember how in Urga I was told a long striking story about the speculations which arose regarding this head of Ja-lama. It was preserved in alcohol and so many wanted this peculiar relic, that after changing many hands the “relic” disappeared. Did it bring luck or sorrow to its possessor? Nobody knows the real psychology of Ja-lama, who was graduated in law in a Russian university and afterwards visited Tibet, being for some time in personal favor of the Dalai-Lama. One thing is evident, and that is that his story will complete the legend of Gobi and for many years it will be magnified and adorned with the flowers of fantasy of Asia. For long times to come the ten fingers will be in the air in front of bonfires. The flames of the bonfires are glowing.
But there are moments when the fires of the desert become extinct.
They are extinguished by water, whirlwind and fire.
Studying the uplands of Asia one is astonished at the quantity of accumulated loess. The changeability of the surface gives the biggest surprises. Often a relic of great antiquity appears washed up almost to the surface. At the same time an object of considerably recent times appears covered up with heavy accumulated layers. During the study of Asia, one has especially to consider surprises. Where are those gigantic streams which carried on their way such quantities of stone and sand, completely filling ravines and changing the profile of the entire district. Maybe all these are only catastrophes of long ago.
The sky is covered with clouds. In the neighboring mountains in the direction of Ulan-Davan, at night, a strange dull noise constantly fills the space. And not once, or twice, but for three whole nights, you awaken and hear this incomprehensible symphony of nature and you do not even know, is it friendly or hostile? But in these vibrations there is something attracting and compelling you to listen attentively.
A gray day begins. Small rain. During the daily noises you do not discern this mysterious tremor of the night. People are busy with the customary tasks. Their thoughts are directed towards the usual perspectives of the near future. They are ready to sit at their usual dinner on the shore of a tiny stream, around which live peaceful marmots.
But the wonders of Asia are coming suddenly. Through a broad chasm, from the mountain tops a current rushes onward. Suddenly it overflows the high banks of the stream. It is no longer a stream, but a gigantic stormy river. It attacks a big area. Yellow, foaming waves full of sand catch the tents and whirl them away like the wings of butterflies. From the depths of the waves the stones are leaping to your very feet. It is time to think of saving oneself. Horses and camels, sensing danger, themselves rush up the mountain. From the distant Mongolian yurtas that stand in the valley, cries are heard. The current fills and demolishes strongly made yurtas. What can withstand this power? The tents are destroyed, many things are carried away. The current rushes through, transforming all into a slimy swamp. Twilight and a cold unfriendly night and as cold a morning.
The sun lights up a new site. The stream has settled already in new banks. Before us there lay lifeless, sloping hills, newly created by the power of the stream. Our things, during one night, became deeply imbedded in the new soil. Digging up some of them you imagine the formation of stratas of Asia. What surprises they present for an investigator, when really the prehistoric is mixed with the almost contemporary. The fires, extinguished by the stream, slowly begin to burn anew the dry branches and roots.
Not only water extinguishes the fires, but the great fire itself destroys these peaceful milestones.
The steppe is burning. Local people hurry to depart. And you rush away from these dangerous parts. Horses feel the danger equally strongly and tense their ears, hark-ening to the whirling, rumbling noise. The yellow wall, covered with black rings of smoke, is moving on. What an unheard-of noise and what leaps of flames.
Looking at the wall you recall how Mongolian Khans and other conquerors of Asia used to light up the steppes deciding thus the destiny of battles. But of course the fiery element sometimes turned against the creators of the fire themselves. Your fellow traveler measures the distance between the flames and you with calm Mongolian eyes and talks quietly, as of the most usual thing: “I think that we will succeed in departing in time. We have to reach that mountain”—and he points to a far-off hill.