298 THE SEARCH FOR THE ANCIENT CHINESE HIGH ROAD [Chap. VIII
among salt- angles to our intended easterly bearing. These ridges, as seen in Fig. 175, were not, like Yârdangs,
encrusted steep, but had a rounded appearance with comparatively easy slopes. Their height at first was only hillocks.
ten to fifteen feet. But even so they were impracticable for the camels, while the gaps between them were invariably covered with contorted cakes of hard salt, more troublesome even than the crumpled shôr that filled the little valleys separating line from line. The camels were lagging far behind, and a disquieting report about their troubles had been brought to me, when at a distance of about nine and a half miles from our last camp I climbed a big salt-coated hillock rising to about thirty feet. The view ahead, and in fact all round, was very dismal. Everywhere the eye rested on a maze of elongated salt-covered hillocks, not of the clean-cut, well-defined shape of Yârdangs, but strangely twisted and screwed. Between the rows of these ran petrified streams of shôr, curiously suggesting miniature glaciers by the small pressure ridges of their surface. Nothing could be seen of the open expanse of the sea-bed, for which I was now eagerly on the look-out in spite of the difficulties that its surface was likely to offer.
Change of I was thus left without any indication as to the probable width of this distressing belt of
course ' White Dragon Mounds '—to give them the ancient name which, as we shall see, duly belongs
tated. to them. To force our way straight through it by keeping to the course due east involved a risk
of the break-down of some at least of our camels even before we came to the open ` sea ' of hard salt. It looked, moreover, probable that no route, even in ancient times, could have led right across these forbidding hillocks. I therefore decided that the only course open to us was to move along the line running N. 200 E. to S.20° W., in which the salt hillocks stretched, until easier ground was gained.
Ground re- For this purpose we might change our course either to NNE. or to SSW. Consideration of
visited in the fact that the ancient route, where it could be clearly determined, had followed a general north-1945.
easterly bearing induced me to turn in the former direction. But if there had then been time to
reconnoitre also to the SSW., I might well have given preference to the latter move ; for when a year later, for reasons to be explained farther on, I had sent back Afraz-gul for supplementary surveys on this forbidding ground, my capable young assistant, proceeding from the above point to the SSW. in accordance with my instructions, came at a distance of about two and a half miles upon more open ground with soft shôr, and even found a patch of bare clay and gypsum where he could camp within view of the open sea of hard salt.5 We shall have occasion to return to this observation subsequently, when discussing the exact line followed by the ancient Chinese route where it crossed the bed of this strange sea.6
Along foot Having accordingly returned to the spot where the camels were halted, I led them to the
of salt- north-east, keeping as close as possible to the foot of the Yardangs ; for there the crust of salt was
Yardangs. less blistered than in the middle of the stream-like shôr-beds (Fig. i 74). I noticed that the corrugated
ridges of hard salt were highest, rising to as much as two feet above the general level, and the going worst, wherever, at a breach in the line of Yârdangs, two beds seemed, as it were, to mingle their shôr flow and increase the pressure. After having covered a marching distance of about six miles from the Mesa where the coins, &c., had been found, the height of the salt-coated ridges diminished and the shôr of the beds between them became mixed with clay and coarse sand. Two miles farther on, a long patch of soft brown shôr offered welcome relief to the camels' feet.
At a point nine miles from the Mesa, where we made a plane-table fixing, the ground looked