On the next morning Aldat returned to the fallen yak to fetch more meat. We were at an altitude of 16,870 feet. There was a strong west wind. In the west a high pass was visible, which we had to traverse in order to meet Turdu Bai and the caravan. There being no sign of Aldat, Cherdon started out to search and found him lying ill beside his victim. Cherdon helped him down to the camp. The young huntsman was suffering from headache and nose-bleeding. Cherdon and I loaded our horses, wrapped Aldat up in his fur and helped him into the saddle.
We had seen no sign of human beings for two months. We were still two hundred and forty miles from Temirlik, where the caravan had been instructed to await our arrival. Everyone longed to get there, away from this uncanny, murderous highland. At one camping place Aldat became so sick that we tarried there for a day. With Aldat’s rifle Cherdon shot a yak and, near the camp, an antelope. The Mohammedans then tried a new cure on the patient. They skinned the antelope, undressed Aldat, and wrapped the still warm skin, hairy side out, closely round the sick man’s body.
Yoldash cut off a marmot’s retreat to his hole, and one of the men caught the little fellow, and tied him to a pole between the tents. We tried to tame him, hoping thus to acquire a nice new playfellow. But he never quite became tame. If a staff or tentpole was held out to him, he would bite large chunks out of it with his sharp front teeth. At every camp he would begin digging a new hole in which to take refuge; but before the hole was even a foot deep we would be off to a new camp.
In the evening Aldat grew still weaker. He breathed rapidly; his pulse was imperceptible; his temperature was low. When we were ready to depart the following morning, the sick man was made as comfortable as possible on his camel. Just as the beast was about to rise a strange grey pallor passed over the sunburnt face of Aldat, and he opened his eyes. He was dead. We stood there, silent and grave, around his living bier. He lay there, regally straight and proud, his broken glance directed upward to the Tibetan sky.
Notwithstanding the wishes of the men, I could not bring myself to have Aldat buried at once. His body was still warm. Part of the caravan had already begun the day’s march. Aldat’s camel, too, was allowed to rise and follow the trail. It was a sad and gloomy journey. No singing was heard nor any conversation. Only the bronze bells tolled, like church bells for a departing funeral cortege. Two ravens circled above us. Yaks, wild asses and antelopes gazed at us and approached closer than usual. They seemed to be aware that the Nimrod of the wilderness was dead.
On September 24 everyone wanted to leave the valley of Death’s shadow as early as possible. When the camels were laden and everything was ready, we went to the grave, where the Mohammedans knelt down in prayer. Then we departed. On a ridge near by I turned in my saddle. The yak-tail was fluttering in the wind. Aldat was sleeping his last sleep in majestic peace and solitude. I wheeled my horse round and the grave vanished from my sight.
No grass! No wild animals! One horse fell down for good, and the others were in bad shape. The camels waked with half-closed eyes, as if affected by sleeping sickness. We had only enough maize for two days; and we sacrificed a portion of our rice to the animals. We encamped at an altitude of 16, 800 feet. After I put out my candle in the evening, the flap of the tent burst open violently and in came – a new blizzard, with whirling clouds of snow.
We slaughtered our last sheep at the next camp. It was like murdering a fellow traveler. We continued northward. Yoldash overtook a young antelope and killed it; and we had meat once more. We advanced towards another pass. Two horses died on the way, and two more before we reached the top. One of them was the little grey horse I had ridden through the desert to Cherchen, and across the Lop Desert to the sixty wells and the ancient city. In the morning one more horse lay dead between the tents.
Again we were in familiar country. On October 8 the temperature sank to – 10 degrees. Our provisions had dwindled down to six pieces of bread and enough rice for four days. The way led through a valley enclosed by granite cliffs, and with some abandoned gold-workings in its center. We were all on foot. A camel died the next night. He had held out to the very end, proud and resigned. Now he was giving up all hope of pasturage, and had no choice but to die. His pack-saddle was consumed by the surviving veterans.
After two more days of travel eastward we broke camp on October 11, in a hopeful mood; for on that day we were to meet Islam Bai’s rescuing party. We marched all day. It grew grey and dark; yet we walked on.
“A fire in the distance!” someone shouted.
We increased our speed. Everyone was hungry. The fire disappeared. We shouted and fired some revolver shots, but got no answer. The night cold chilled us. We stopped for half an hour and made a fire. Then we continued eastward, hour after hour, through the same large valley in which Temirlik and our headquarters were situated.
The fire reappeared. We kept on for a while; but when the light finally vanished we found ourselves exhausted. Our animals were tired to death. They were naught but skin and bones. Perhaps we had seen only a phantom fire. There was some tea-water left in a jug, and I had a piece of broiled wild ass’s meat with it for supper.
Later in the day Cherdon came to me in my tent, and said he thought he saw a troop of horsemen approaching from the west. I went out with my field-glasses. Was it wild asses or a witch-dance that I saw in this enchanted valley? Whatever it was, the shimmering atmosphere caused me to see an undulating swarm of some kind, floating above the ground.
But they grew larger; they came nearer; I saw the clouds of dust they stirred up. They were indeed horsemen! Presently Islam Bai rode up to my tent and reported that all was well at head-quarters. He brought fifteen horses, and a Lucullian dinner was soon prepared for us, who had been hungry for so long. They had ridden past us during the night after our fire had gone out, and had continued west until they were set right by the trail of our camels.
Kader Ahun, a brother of Aldat, was among Islam’s men. He told of having dreamt one night that he was out walking in the waste and had met our caravan. All except Aldat were there. When he awoke he understood that Aldat had died; and he told Islam and the others about it. We figured out that he had had his dream on the very day that Aldat died. He got his brother’s rifle, the wages due to him, and the equivalent of his clothes and of the skins of yaks he had killed.
Two horses out of twelve, and four camels out of seven, remained when we reached Temirlik, two days later. And Aldat was dead.