Bogda Shan covered a vast area as large as 1700 square km. The entire mountain area could be divided into three sections by the altitudes.
The section from 700 to 1700 meters above the sea level was the highland area of the front range, which was rich in minerals and covered by luxuriant forests. It was the most important resource output area in Dakang.
The section with an elevation of 1700 to 2800 meters was the mid-mountain zone consisting mainly of summer pastures and tourist sites. This section was where Tianchi was situated.
Above that was the section with an elevation of over 2800 meters, which was covered with snow all year round and where glaciers could be found. Various rivers that ran through Dakang originated from here.
Bogda Peak stood towering above them all, with a height of 5445 meters.
As a result, most residents of south Dakang lived in the highland area and the mid-mountain zone. The population of any town varied from a few thousands to ten thousand, which made the number of occupants in each village a couple hundred at most. The population density here was indeed very low.
It was a brightly sunlit day. The sun beat down fiercely—a weather characteristic of a plateau area.
The cloudless blue sky unfolded above their heads, neither too low nor too distant, which was joined by the giant pillars of snowy peaks at the horizon. Grass on the pastures had withered by now, leaving behind large patches of grayish stubble. The recent snowfall had not fully melted away, and the remaining snow gave the land a look of irregular jigsaw puzzles.
Threading across this immense pale gray was a man-made asphalt road, which, unexpectedly, had a timeless feel to it in such surroundings.
Two backpackers marched among such a view, enjoying an ease of their minds.
"Not renting a car was not such a bad idea after all. We can at least enjoy the view this way."
"Self-consolation is the specialty of the poor."
"Come on, work with me here, will you?"
The duo walked at an unnaturally fast pace along the road while bantering with each other. Xiaozhai seemed to like the place a lot and let out an exclamation, "I wish I could live here. Life here would be so happy."
"You said that about every place we've been to. Give it a break," Gu Yu commented sarcastically.
"Haha, do you know what struck me the most these past two months? I used to dream of having a small cabin of my own, but now…"
Maybe it was because of the pressure she felt recently, but once in the wild, she let herself go, which was something that rarely happened. Stretching out her arms, she called out, "I want a snow mountain, with trees and streams and flowers and grass and bears and eagles and snow and clouds!"
She suddenly raised her voice and shouted aloud, her exclamation stretched long and floated far into the distant sky.
Gu Yu joined her in the shouting. His voice intertwined with hers, then dissipated into the wilderness.
Their reaction was driven by a hippie/pubescent crisis sort of impulse. Had the lawn been soft enough, such an episode would likely be preceded by a little "lie-down" activity. As it turned out, however, some rude guy ruined it all.
An abrupt gunshot came from somewhere ahead, together with indistinct snarls. The two winced at first, then rushed out, heading in the direction the sounds came from in large strides.
They reached the scene a short while later. A herdsman taking cover behind a motorcycle was firing a shotgun. Up ahead was a pack of plateau wolves, known for their ferocity and cunningness.
Food was hard to come by in the winter, not to mention that it had been snowing. Driven by their hunger, the wolves had ventured out to the residential areas for food. When the great development took place several decades ago, the government had organized wolf-hunting operations. Nowadays, with the decrease of wild wolf population, the government had set up protection zones for them instead.
It was just so confusing for the people.
This pack was a relatively small one, consisting of seven or eight wolves, all thin and bony with savage looks. Two wounded members were lying on the ground.
They rushed out to help without giving much thought. Spotting them from afar, the herdsman shouted something at them, looking anxious, "sadfadg! @&$*%^!"
Whatever that meant, they could not understand a single syllable...
One of the wolves that was much larger, apparently the pack leader, growled at once. Two wolves stepped back from the front line and turned to handle the newcomers. Each taking one on either side, they pounced at Gu Yu and Xiaozhai respectively, baring their white fangs.
Gu Yu made no attempt to dodge, but clenched his fist and struck the wolf directly on its head, making a muffled thud.
As the saying went, bronze head, iron back, and tofu waist. The head was the toughest part on the body.
However, with his strike, the wolf whimpered as its forehead was smashed in. The broken skull sunk into its head and impaled the brain. It collapsed to the ground like a pile of dead meat.
Gu Yu even had spare energy enough to make a sarcastic note of himself. 'This is not the self-image I expected. I'm supposed to be an immortal swordsman in an elegant white robe, not this one-punch superman.'
There wasn't much he could do about that. The combat style was determined by one's techniques. Without conjuring a vision, he could only fight by directly confronting his opponents.
The place where Xiaozhai's battle occurred, on the other hand, was a completely different picture. Moving sideways swiftly, she dodged the wolf's claws. Then, with a flash of a sharp blade, blood spurted out of its throat before it landed on the ground.
The blood splashed around, reminding one of red plum blossoms in the snow.
She was not done yet. The dagger twirled around and flew out again. This time, an old wolf eager for some action was nailed to the ground, its coarse whimpers sounding like broken bellows. It was worse than being dead.
It took almost no time at all to see three of its wolves down. The pack leader was quite a smart animal—seeing that things were going south for them, it issued a command for retreat.
"Don't let it go! It will take revenge!"
The herdsman yelled, which Gu Yu and Xiaozhai understood this time.
Gu Yu's body reacted before his brain could. Bending down and picking up a stone, he hurtled it out, which hit the wolf on its hind leg.
The leader limped, still making effort to run away. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai caught up with it without difficulty, took some rope out of their bag and tied it up into a neat bundle.
"Wow oo aah…"
The herdsman ululated, firing out a string of that unknown language again. It was before sometime when he finally turned to speak in Mandarin, "You have captured a wolf king alive. You are warriors!"
"Are you hurt?" Gu Yu felt his temples throbbing.
"I'm fine. My name is Shiriahun, thank you for saving my life!"
"Is your village nearby? We are actually on the way to visit one."
"Ah, that's great. I'll give you a ride! Let me drive you there!"
They introduced one another. The herdsman was extremely enthusiastic and was persistent in his invitation.
In the end, the three people were on their way, riding a single shabby motorcycle. Gu Yu obviously had to sit in the middle, being squeezed and squashed like a human sandwich. The five dead and injured wolves were left behind and they only took the alive one, which was dangling at the rear of the motorcycle, looking more than miserable.
The entire Western Regions were multi-ethnic and Dakang was no exception.
The village they arrived at was called Shuimogou [TL/N: meaning "watermill ditch"] whose villagers made their living through animal husbandry. The pastures varied from season to season. Spring and autumn pastures were of medium to low rate, while the summer ones were first-rate. The winter pastures were of a special kind, which were used as supplementaries.
Shiriahun's herd grazed on the north side. He was coming back home to pick up some stuff today when he ran into the wolves.
The motorcycle caused a sensation when driving into the village. Urchins in fur coats pointed and screamed at the wolf, while swarthy herdsmen with red cheeks trailed after them. After all, dead wolves were a common scene, but not an alive one.
Houses of this ethnic minority [TL/N: although not specifically named, the ethnic group here is probably the Uyghur] were usually of one of two kinds—those fit for the pasturing area and those for the agricultural area.
Yurts were the main type of houses on pastures. They were easy to relocate, disassemble, and reassemble. However, the government had planned out permanent pastures nowadays and the yurts were no longer a necessity.
The other kind were rectangular houses with skylights and flat roofs, where fruit and grains could be dried under the sun. Inside, kangs were built [TL/N: the heatable adobe sleeping platform, in case anyone couldn't remember what a "kang" is] and recesses were dug out in the walls to place food and appliances. In the wintertime, the houses were heated by fire-heated walls or heating stoves.
Each household had their own courtyard filled with flowers, fruit trees, and other plants, all very neatly organized.
Shiriahun rode into a courtyard and exchanged a few words with an old man with white beard. The latter walked up to them and saluted them with a gesture particular to their ethnic group. "Thank you very much for saving that young man!"
"Don't mention it. It was nothing, we're glad to be able to help."
"Modesty is a virtue. I heard you wanted to spend the night here. We welcome you, our honorable guests."
The old man spoke in an outdated fashion, which sounded somewhat peculiar.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were here to investigate in the first place and took advantage of the invitation. What they had in mind was to find a place to sleep and ask around about Tianshan Sect. However, they had underestimated the hospitality of the villagers.
To welcome their guests, they held a BONFIRE DINNER!
You heard it right! One of those commonly seen in reality shows, where a bunch of people circled around the fire dancing awkwardly, some overdone sentimentality was provoked, followed by a long-shot from the air, showing a bonfire moving away from the camera and disappearing into the hazy night, supplemented by a chicken-soup-for-the-soul off-screen voice—that sort of bonfire dinner!
To say that Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were about to burst into tears was not an exaggeration. Such event annoyed them more than anything else. However, it was hard to turn down a warm-hearted offer like this and they had to attend despite their utter embarrassment.
That evening, apart from those staying behind to take care of the winter pastures, everyone showed up on the big square of the village. A bonfire was set up in the center and long tables were lined up in a row. Hard liquor, roasted nang [TL/N: nang is a kind of crusty pancake (staple food of the Uyghur people) ] and milk dough drop [TL/N: a milk product favored by people of several ethnic groups, it looks like little lumps of "crystallized" milk] were served. They had even slaughtered a few sheep for the occasion.
On a biting cold winter night like this, one's breath turned into white steam in the air after swallowing down a mouthful of meat. The steam rose again after washing down the meat with some strong liquor. It was like cultivating. As for the wolf, well, it had turned into their dinner by now and the largest piece was now lying in Gu Yu's bowl.
"Thank you for saving my elder brother!"
While Gu Yu was focusing on his food, a girl with long, thick braids came up to him for a toast. She had dark skin and relatively delicate features.
"Glad to help, you're welcome." He stood up in a hurry to return the courtesy.
"I'm Ayhan. The door of my home is always open to you."
The girl drank her bowl of liquor bottom up, announced her name and went away briskly.
"Hey, why didn't she toast me?" Xiaozhai was amazed; she even held up the bowl in her hand.
Immediately after her words, a sturdy man approached them and said in a thick nasal voice, "Shiriahun is my buddy. Saving him is the same as saving me. Thank you!"
With that, he gulped down a full bowl of liquor and blurted out, "I heard you were very bold and powerful. I like vigorous women."
Xiaozhai felt her mouth twitching. "These villagers have an interesting way of complimenting people."
At that moment, someone ran near and whispered into the old man's ear; he waved the person off and said to them, somewhat displeased, "My dear guests, they found the bodies of the wolves gone when they went to pick them up. I'm very sorry about that."
"Oh, probably people from other villages took them." Gu Yu was indifferent to the news.
"That's impossible. People here follow the rules. Only those who killed the animal can take the body and no one will tamper with other people's game. This must be the deeds of outsiders." The old man was very assertive.
"That's ok. We've got the leader anyway and the wolf pack won't be able to retaliate."
He turned to appease the old man, whose face lightened up slightly at the words, instead. The old man then said, "Wolf fangs are the most precious part of a wolf. I've asked them to have them polished and hand them to you tomorrow. The fangs are magical treasures. With them, you will be blessed by deities of the snow mountains."
"Haha, we appreciate that, thanks!"
That was something which actually interested them a lot.
The weather was so cold that the banquet broke off a while later and they did not get a chance to ask about Tianshan Sect.
The two of them spent the night in the home of an auntie. The house was not very big. The walls were draped with felt blankets and so was the floor.
The stove was radiating merrily. Heat rose up and penetrated the surface of the kang, making them as comfortable (or rather, restless) as flapjacks flipped around in a hot pan.
They lay side by side, fully clothed. Xiaozhai stretched herself and suddenly said, "It's so annoying!"
Gu Yu replied in a whisper, his eyes still closed, "We've got our own business to mind. Ignore them... for now."