But I digress from my travel.
Little out of the ordinary marked my travels to Lao-ya-kwan (6,800 feet), an easy stage. My meager tiffin at an insignificant mountain village was, as usual, an educational lesson to the natives. Each tin that came from my food basket—one’s servant delighted to lay out the whole business—underwent the severest criticism tempered with unmeaning eulogy, picked up and put down by perhaps a score of people, who did not mean to be rude. When I used their chopsticks—dirty little pieces of bamboo—in a manner very far removed from their natural method, they were proud of me. Outrageously panegyric references were made when an old man, scratching at his disagreeable itch-sores under my nose, clipped a youngster’s ear for hazarding my age to be less than that of any of the bystanders, the length of my moustache and a three-day growth on my chin giving them the opinion that I was certainly over sixty.[AG]
I entered Lao-ya-kwan under an inauspicious star. No accommodation was to be had, all the inns were literally overrun with sedan chairs and filled with well-dressed officials, already busy with the “hsi-lien” (wash basin). In my dirty khaki clothes, out at knee and elbow, looking musty and mean and dusty, with my topee botched and battered, I presented a most unhappy contrast as I led my pony down the street under the sarcastic stare of bystanding scrutineers. The nights were cold, and in the private house where I stayed, mercifully overlooked by a trio of protesting effigies with visages grotesque and gruesome, rats ran fearlessly over the room’s mud floor, and at night I buried my head in my rugs to prevent total disappearance of my ears by nibbling. Not so my men. They slept a few feet from me, three on one bench, two on another. Bedding was not to be had, and so among the dirty straw they huddled together as closely as possible to preserve what bodily heat they had. Snow fell heavily. In the early morning sunlight on January 13th the undulating valley, with its grand untrodden carpet of white, looked magnificently beautiful as I picked out the road shown me by a poor fellow whose ears had got frost-nipped.
No easy work was it climbing tediously up the narrow footway in a sharp spur rising some 1,000 feet in a ribbed ascent, overlooking a fearful drop. Over to the left I saw an unhappy little urchin, hardly a rag covering his shivering, bleeding body, grovelling piteously in the snow, while his blind and goitrous mother did her best at gathering firewood with a hatchet. The pass leading over this range, through which the white crystalline flakes were driven wildly in one’s face, was a half-moon of smooth rock actually worn away by the endless tramping of myriads of pack-ponies, who then were plodding through ruts of steps almost as high as their haunches.