302 THE SEARCH FOR THE ANCIENT CHINESE HIGH ROAD [Chap. VIII
composed of soft disintegrated clay with plentiful flakes of gypsum, offered excellent going to our weary feet.
The wide view obtained from our next plane-table fixing, on a low hillock about twelve and a half miles from camp, necessarily raised in my mind the question why this plain had escaped erosion, such as had produced the broad belt of Yardangs just traversed, or alternatively why it should have been worn and levelled down so much more uniformly. The fact of the aneroid recording a steady rise distinctly supported the former assumption, without supplying the required explanation. I shall presently recur to this and some kindred geological questions suggested by the present environment of the ancient sea-bed. To the east and south-east we could now see clearly the terminal spurs of at least two separate ranges of low hills jutting out towards the great basin, with a wide gravel glacis descending at their foot. Westwards the view ranged over the vast salt-encrusted plain of the ancient sea-bed, stretching unbroken to the horizon, but edged by the Yârdang belt which we had just transversely passed through. This seemed to end south-westwards along a line of which the nearest point lay about four or five miles from where we stood. Beyond this line to the south no Yârdangs were to be seen, either now or on our farther progress.
The fact that we had been able on the preceding day to cross the formidable obstacle presented by the salt-encrusted sea-bed by a single day's march had furnished me with an adequate and most welcome explanation why the ancient Chinese route we had successfully traced from L.J. to the ` Mesa of the coins and dagger ' had followed that direction to the north-east which at first seemed so puzzling. That direction was indeed leading away at right angles from the south-westerly line which would have offered the shortest route from Lou-lan to the ` valley ' of Besh-toghrak and thence to Tun-huang. But the great detour implied by that initial north-easterly bearing of the route had now proved amply compensated ; for it reduced the very serious physical difficulties which beset the crossing of the dried-up sea-bed within limits such as Chinese perseverance and practical ingenuity in transport organization might cope with.
There remained the disturbing doubt as to whether direct archaeological evidence could be found, in the utterly lifeless wastes we were crossing, that ancient traffic had actually passed over the ground where I conjecturally located its line. After our long trying marches, in a region totally devoid of resources, there still remained a considerable distance to cover with our worn-out transport before we could hope to reach drinkable water. It was therefore incompatible with due regard for my caravan's safety to spare days for that close and systematic search which alone could give reasonable hope of discovering small relics, such as had helped me to the west of the ancient sea-bed. But fortune again favoured me and came to my assistance with finds which, small as they were, sufficed to give assurance that we were still near the ancient desert track.
We had scarcely proceeded more than half a mile to the south-south-west of the above-mentioned low hillock when a Chinese copper coin of the large inscribed Wu-chu type was picked up by one of the camelmen in my presence. On continuing our march in the same direction for only two furlongs Afrdz-gul's keen eyes lit upon a spherical bead of translucent white glass, C. ciii. 05, lying on the coarse sand which here lightly covered the soil.10 These two small objects picked up along the very line of our march raised a strong presumption that they had dropped from traffic following a route of identical or closely similar bearing. A second coin picked up within a mile and three-quarters of the first fully confirmed this conclusion ; but the find was attended by a discovery which at the time was bound to exercise our minds even more by its strangeness. Niàz Pâwân, one of our two Lopliks, while searching the ground in the direction we were following suddenly noticed a man's footprints leading off to a small hillock close to the west of our route.
1° C. ciii. 05. Glass bead, translucent white, spherical. Diam. f". Pl. XXIII.