June, 1923: The French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin was traveling on mule back in the vastness beyond the Great Wall, west of Peking. He saw it from a distance: the Ordos, the inner Mongolian desert. He saw from the mule what he had seen often in Egypt years before, “the burnt stones of the desert and the sand of the dunes in the dusk.”
The Ordos is a desert plateau 3,000 feet high, from which mountains rise. It spreads 35,000 square miles. The Great Wall separates the Ordos from the fertile lands to the east and south in Shansi and Shensi provinces.
He was forty-two years old, tall and narrow, fine-featured.
He wore a big felt hat like a cowboy, and thick boots. Rough weather had cut lines on his face. He had carried stretchers during the Great War for a regiment of sharpshooters. His courage at the front—at Ypres, Arras and Verdun—won him several medals, which the surviving men of his regiment reFOR quested for him. One of his fellows recalled his “absolute contem…