The Witch Nichang– Chapter 76
The real journey began when we left the last oasis in the Gobi Desert that could serve as a rest stop.
The first day was easy. The vegetation grew thinner as we moved further away from the city. To the right, the sand dunes stretched to the horizon, and to the left, the desert grew more and more barren and vast, eventually becoming an endless expanse of nothingness. Even the occasional scattering of shrubs seemed lifeless. Only the watchtowers of the ancient Great Wall in the distance offered some comfort.
The dust wasn’t too bad today. The wind wasn’t as strong as when we passed through Guazhou a few days ago. The sky above us was blue, clear enough to be considered nice weather. Lian’er’s good mood continued after we left the city. She had dismounted a few times to dash freely across the boundless desert. Since we were heading in a general direction, she could keep going until the end of the horizon before she stopped and turned around, smiling and waiting with her hands behind her back for the slow-moving caravan to catch up. The two guides looked at her with awe and admiration.
The first time she did it, I just smiled and watched from the camel’s back. Since my qinggong wasn’t as good as hers, I didn’t feel like joining her, but it bothered me to see her standing alone on the distant horizon, so I jumped off the camel and went over to wait with her. That way I could talk to her so that she wouldn’t be lonely.
I wondered if I was spoiling her. After that, she always took me with her as if it was a given, and after a few rounds, that day ended up being the most physically exhausting day for me.
Because of the fatigue that followed, I didn’t have much energy left to tell Lian’er stories about Yumen Pass as we passed by the old site. I just looked at the rammed-wall city standing alone in the desolate desert on the camel’s back. Its remaining walls looked no different than they did a few centuries later.
Further north, there was a shallow pond, with reeds growing around it. There were even wild camels looming in the distance, adding a touch of life to the barren desert. We spent the night there.
And the real torture had just begun that night.
It was the same endless desert and sand dunes for the next few days. The dark brown desert and the barren sand dunes, it was a vast expanse of nothingness, not even a single bird to be seen, let alone a human being. It was always bleak when you looked ahead. Beyond bleakness, it was still bleakness. The excitement had long worn off, traveling in the desert with no end in sight, even the jingling of the camel bells sounded extremely dull.
On the other hand, the presence of saline-alkali became more and more obvious. Because of it, we couldn’t get excited too soon even when we occasionally came across a small oasis in the lifeless desert under the guidance of experienced guides. Even with shrubs and reeds growing around it, the pool of water might not be enough to replenish the caravan’s water supply.
In situations where water and food were limited, Lian’er had adapted to the situation much better than I had expected. She had a resilience that matched her pride, with a touch of wildness. In some ways, she had a greater tolerance for boredom and adversity than I did. I, on the other hand, hadn’t quite gotten used to the harsh condition.
Yes, I had been on similar journeys before, but with the help of tools. What we had to endure then was nothing like this.
The only comfort after a day’s travel was the fire we built at night. When I gazed into the sky, the stars in the desert sky were so low that they seemed to be within reach.
A few boring days had passed. As we moved on, steep mounds started to appear in the desert. At first they stood alone, but as our journey continued, there were more and more of these otherworldly landscapes. They stood tall under the scorching heat of the desert like little islands in a sea of sand, each with its own unique shape, clustered together to form an impressive spectacle.
I wasn’t sure if others knew about it, but I knew that it was the Yardang Landforms and that this was the first time Lian’er had seen such wonders. She didn’t say it, but there was a different spark to her eyes.
Sensing that, I thought it was a great opportunity. I pulled myself together and asked the girl leaning against me if she wanted to go higher and see the view from above. The suggestion seemed to suit her perfectly. Lian’er arched her brows and nodded excitedly. She eagerly grabbed my hand and jumped down from the camel’s back. After informing Old Tie, she headed for the highest mound.
The majesty of the Yardang Landforms could only be truly appreciated from above.
The sun was setting at the moment in the Gobi Desert. The sky closer to us was blue, but the sky above the horizon in the distance was as red as a fire. The mounds stretched far and wide, standing tall in the vast and boundless desert, either scattered around or clustered together. Like a blade, the orange sun carved out the outlines of the mounds, making them even more exquisite and beautiful.
Facing the sun, I looked down from the top of the high mound with Lian’er. She was lost in the view before her. Her smile seemed to be a part of this magnificent painting, complementing and blending in with the view.
And I watched her in silence before looking down at my feet after a while. At the base of the jagged rock lay the tawny sand. The long shadows that Yardang cast on the ground formed shapes that looked like claws. The intense black of the shadows was even more eerie than the mounds themselves, making me feel slightly dizzy.
As I continued to stare at them in the evening breeze, I felt as if the sky had begun to spin. I took two steps back and moved slightly further away from the edge, then slowly felt my way down and sat down cross-legged. Feeling a slight itch in my nose, I had an idea what was going on. When I touched my nose, I saw a viscous crimson on my hand.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of blood, and I was facing upwind. I just had to rub the blood off on the gravel, and then pinch my nose and pretend to look at the vast sky for a while, and everything would be fine.
Fortunately, the few times this had happened before, I had managed to take care of it quietly and no one had noticed. At times like this, it was better not to worry people unnecessarily as much as possible.
But it was only a matter of time before someone noticed it, since we spent most of our time together.
I was hoping to hide it until we reached the Lop Nur that the guides kept talking about. It was said to be a vast and misty lake, surrounded by lush forests, with water deep enough to drive boats. There were even indigenous people living there, and it was the only resting place in the boundless desert. Once we got there, I could catch my breath.
Unfortunately, things didn’t always go as planned.
That day, we arrived at another destination that the guides had mentioned earlier—Bai Long Dui (White Dragon Mounds). I chuckled when I first heard the name back in the days, and it turned out that it had been the same name for centuries.
Bai Long Dui consisted mostly of earth mounds, similar to the Yardang Landforms, except that it was mainly composed of sand gravel, gypsum, and saline alkali, which gave it its grayish color, reflecting glints of silver light under the sun, like scales, hence the name of this vast Yardang landform, White Dragon, given by people in the past. I vaguely remembered someone had told me this, but who? And when? I couldn’t remember.
This was the Gobi Desert, but it wasn’t just the Gobi Desert. A thin layer of white can be seen everywhere on the yellowish brown ground, like frost on the ground but it was actually alkaline salt. The white alkaline salt had formed a fragile salt crust on the surface of the ground. Once broken through, the ground underneath felt like mud. Even the camels sank a little when they walked on it, making a crunching sound like stepping on snow. With every step they took, their hooves came out covered with salt and mud, making their steps extremely heavy and slow.
It was easy to imagine what this place would be like if a strong wind happened to sweep through here.
The wind seemed to come out of nowhere like a phantom wind, sweeping the area in an instant and swirling between the countless mounds with its eerie howl that sounded like the wailing of ghosts. That was not all; the wind, carrying grains of sand and salt, came at us relentlessly, so much so that we could hardly open our eyes or even breathe.
But our experienced guides didn’t stop. They shouted and told us to get out of here. Then they spurred the camels on as fast as they could, stopping only occasionally to look around as if searching for something. Old Tie couldn’t wait any longer and went to ask them. Then he came back and told us, blocking the wind with his hand, that once the wind started kicking up here, it wouldn’t stop for days, so we had to take the old route. What was called “the old route” was just a north-south trail that had been beaten out over the years. As long as we could find that route, we could easily get through Bai Long Dui. Otherwise, it was hard to say how we would fare.
Since it had come to this, everyone did their best to find the route. The three of us jumped onto the nearby mounds, each looking in a different direction while braving the sand-carrying wind, trying to find the route.
Visibility was extremely poor. Sand and dust shrouded the world like a tawny blizzard. I stood downwind, cupping my hand at the side of my eyes, trying to block off some of the wind and dust. Only then could I open my eyes and see.
Our search didn’t go well at first. The guides were moving forward in a general direction, and we were following close behind on the mounds, afraid that we would lose them if we weren’t careful. We looked around while keeping our eyes on the caravan. Being hit in the face and body by tiny grains that I had no idea whether they were sand or salt, my eyes and throat became so dry that it started to hurt.
Anyone would know that it wasn’t the time to care about such things. Enduring the pain, I kept on looking. From time to time, I would look back to make sure Lian’er was safe somewhere before I continued searching.
Finally, our hard work paid off. Just as I was about to give up, a faint trail appeared in the middle of the sandstorm, like a thin thread winding along the yellow ground in the distance, fading in and out of sight. Overjoyed, I shouted, put my hand down, and turned to call the others, but suddenly, I felt a warm wetness dripping onto the back of my hand.
I looked down without thinking, and as expected, I saw drops of crimson red. I didn’t care and just wiped it off, thinking to take care of it quickly, but when I looked up, my eyes met another.
Lian’er wasn’t far away from me, and she had good hearing. She must have heard the shout just now.
Looking into her simmering eyes, I knew it was too late to turn around and hide it, so I forced a stiff smile, knowing that my smile was probably drier than the Gobi Desert.