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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  



June 10. HOTAN (Xinjiang) "A Little Camel Trek" What do you pack for a two-day camel trek? Not much.  I brought the most stuff because I had the medical kit and a sleeping pad (I am the old one after all) but we mostly just had the clothes on our back, food and water.  The food only amounted to some dried fruit, biscuits and a couple of instant noodle bowls but we each had enough water for over two liters of water per day.

Our ride picked us up at the hotel at 9am and took us the 26km out to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.  When we arrived there weren't any camels in sight but a horse cart eventually pulled up towing two camels with a baby camel bringing up the rear.  The sight of the baby camel had us a bit worried since none us wanted to ride that little thing but of course another adult camel turned up shortly.  Camel number three was brought out trotting behind a scooter which looked comical.  The camel trotted effortlessly but its gangly legs and large hooves made it look like a cartoon.

Sorting out the supplies to be carried on each camel took some time.  We hadn't opted to pay for a translator and the camel man was Uyghur so he didn't speak any Chinese.  The driver spoke some Chinese but not so well that Jenny or James could get all of what he was telling us.  The CITS guy had told us we would each have small saddle bags for our belongings but it turned out that everything got consolidated.  One camel took all of the tents, sleeping bags, our water bottles and some food while a second camel got stuck carrying two large containers of water for washing and boiling and the third camel carried our camel man's stuff, my sleeping pad, the medical kit and food.  

The camel with the lightest load was the lead camel and the other two camels were tied in the second and third places with long leads to allow for eating along the way.  With all of the stuff on the two back camels they didn't look like a very comfortable ride.  It didn't seem like there was room for our legs and we were a bit worried that CITS hadn't planned very well.  But, we were informed that our legs would hang over the front of the load and not along the side.  They tried to use our bedding to pad the saddles but I stopped them.  I didn't really want to sleep on camel hair after my experience sitting on the Camel in Turpan (itchy).  These camels didn't have high humps, weren't very hairy and the saddles covered their stomachs on either side of the humps but the saddle padding still rubbed on the camel.   

I rode on the first camel, James straddled the second camel that was carrying all of the water, and Jenny had the mommy camel at the back that was carrying all of the tents and bedding.  The baby camel trailed behind its mother without being tied to the train.  The two back camels had iron holds on the front and back of the saddle but my camel had only one in front and a piece of rope to grab at the back.  When given the queue by our camel man the camels stood up one by one, raising their front legs first and then their back legs and giving you a good rock in the process.

We headed off towards the Taklamakan Desert and within minutes found ourselves navigating through some low white sand dunes.  The height of the dunes gradually increased and our camel man led us up the ridges for a view and to get his perspective for navigation.  The camel is a very awkward looking animal but I gained a whole new respect for them after seeing how well they managed the sand dunes.  When we reached the top of a high sand dune the camel man stopped for some water and I could see the steep slop down the far side of the dunes just in front of me.  I didn't know how much to trust the coordination of my camel so it made me a bit uneasy.  As the morning went on and our camels climbed up and down numerous sand dunes it became clear how adept they were at moving through the terrain.  Even on some steeper down slopes when the camel train started to slide and their legs sunk knee deep into the sand they were never phased and somehow managed to keep an eye out for food and reach for a small bush in mid-slide.  Food was their primary concern and they took every opportunity to grab the bits of passing shrubbery.  The flowered variety were their favorite but they didn't neglect the spiky ones either.  Neither their mouths or their bodies were phased by the spiky shrubs. 

After about two hours we motioned to our camel man that we wanted a break. He nodded ahead and within another 15 minutes we found ourselves next to the only two trees in the whole of the desert.   We had started off at around 11am (9am local time) and it was getting into the heat of the day.  The camel man unloaded the camels and led over to some shrubbery to graze with their front hooves tied together so they couldn't take off.  He laid out a red blanket for us to rest on and gathered his own things and went off to the second tree for an afternoon nap.  It was amazingly cool under the tree and we had a nice rest, only disturbed once by a sand devil whose path crossed right over us.   After about three hours Jenny went to nudge the camel man so we could get going again.  Over the hump of dunes between our trees we could see his head raise and lower a number of times as he did his midday prayers towards Mecca.  The camels were still all in the little field but my camel had managed to shuffle its way some distance up and down the nearby dunes in search of the softer baby bushes.  

We started off again at around 5pm (3pm local time) and ended up going another 3 1/2 hours before finding a camp site.  Our camel man stripped down to his under shorts (a gray pair of boxers) for the rest of the day.  It was the first time I had seen a Uyghur man in anything but full length pants.  He was walking ahead of the camel train and must have been good and hot.  But overall, by traveling in the morning and late afternoon, it was pretty comfortable on our camels.  I was prepared to be parched and sweat drenched the whole time but with the slow movement of the camels we had a steady little breeze and, after all, we weren't doing any of the work. 

 It was about 2 1/2hours into the afternoon trek that we asked if we could find a camp site.  The angle of the sun was already starting to cause dark shadows on the dunes accentuating the find lines along the ridges and the ripples along the sides.  Our camel man began a long one hour search to find a good spot for us to stop.  It all pretty much looked the same to us so we weren't sure what he was looking for but he seemed in a hurry to find a campsite.  Perhaps he felt how tired we were getting but as he hurriedly dragged the camels up and down some of the steeper slopes of the day we wondered what the rush was about.  The camels grabbed the sand with their giant soft padded hooves, grunted as they climbed the steep bits and began to trot on the down bits, making it a bumpy ride for our already tired rear ends.  Finally the camel man stopped, tossed the small pieces of wood he had collected for our fire to the side and signaled the camels to sit down.  The sitting down was as rocky as the getting up but I never failed to be amazed by how the camels folded their legs in thirds and nestled their feet underneath them.  The sitting was always followed by a little wiggle as they worked their bodies into the sand.

Our camel man had picked out a good camp site but we were initially skeptical.  It was a raised flat area between two dunes and the wind was causing a good blow of sand when we arrived.  However, after dusk set in the wind calmed down and we experienced total silence, except for the flies that seemed to caravan with our camels and an occasional bird.  We climbed a nearby sand dune to watch the sunset but it wasn't as colorful as we had hoped.  The haze of sand made the sun appear like a white circle on the horizon.  It was dramatic in its own way but very soft. 

For dinner we ate instant noodles with water heated by our camel man.   It was fortunate that James had brought his Uyghur knife and I had some matches because our camel man had neither.  He borrowed James' knife earlier in the day to chop some sticks off of a large bush and whittle the ends into "y's" so two sticks could support a third with the kettle hanging from it.  After dinner the camel man set up his own bed on the ridge over looking the area where he'd left the camels to graze.  

The desert night was peaceful and the air was fresh.  We began to settle into our tents for some sleep when we looked up and found a whole colony of flies hiding out on the ceilings of our tents.  We had neglected to zip the doors shut after we pitched the tents and were regretting it.  Jenny and James were able to rid themselves of the flies with the use of their Tevas.  My waffled soled shoes, however, were useless and it was Jenny's deet spray that exterminated the flies in my tent.  It wasn't immediately effective though.  I was woken several times by the "buzz, buzz" sounds of some poor fly flailing on the floor of my tent that I then searched out to put out of its misery. 

June 11. HOTAN (Xinjiang) "A Little Camel Trek" I was the first to wake up in the morning at around 7:30.  The sun was still coming up and I told myself this was my only opportunity to see a desert sunrise so I dragged myself out of the tent and up to the highest sand dune next to our tent.  It was still cool and the morning sky had a heavy haze that created a similar effect on the sunrise as it had on the sunset but with more light the haze made he desert look very ethereal.  

From the top of the dune I should have been able to see our camels and our camel man's camping spot but there were no camels in sight and the camel man was gone from his bed.  Guessing that he had taken them off somewhere for some more grazing I walked back to my tent and went to sleep again.  At around 10:30am I got up again and saw James walking around the nearby dunes.  I asked if he had seen the camels or camel man and he said "no".  So our camels and camel man had been gone for a good three and a half hours.  That was a bit of a worry.  I had been using a small compass the day before and it seemed that the dunes ran mostly from north to south so our first thought was we could probably navigate ourselves out of the dunes if the guy doesn't come back but by 11am James spotted him from the top of the dunes.  He had all of the camels in tow and was making his way towards our campsite.  It seemed that even with their feet tied together the camels were able make significant tracks in the night and these buggers had caused our camel man to get up early and track each of them down by their individual trails.  Our poor camel man already look tired and our trekking hadn't even begun.

Some of the sand dunes in this part of the desert got very high and were really magnificent.  None of them reached the massive size of the dunes in Dunhuang but I don't think I would want to be on a camel going up and down those sand dunes.  As far as we could see in any direction there was nothing but dunes and more dunes.  When we had left the day before the snow capped mountains to the south east were visible for a while but nothing could be seen across the horizon at this distance.   The amount of shrubbery had decreased as we moving further into the desert but pockets still existed to keep our camels fed.

The program on the second day was about the same as the first. After about two hours of walking we rested during the hottest part of the day before resuming at around 5pm.  The problem on the second day was that there weren't any trees to be found in this part of the desert so we had to make do with a large patch of brush that grew up high out of the sand.  The plants had hearty stems that grew up about six feet and managed to sprout some sparse greenery.  Our camel man used James' knife to but down a few stems and twist them into an arch.  He used my poncho and a blanket to cover the arch and create a little cave.  The concept was okay but is provided little air circulation and our cramped little cave felt more like a sauna with all three of us huddled inside.  He went off to the opposite side of the scrub patch and set up his own cave.

After trying to make our little shelter work I finally decided to take my chances with the shrub.  The stems were spaced about 6-12 inches apart so I was able to carve out an area on a slope to lie down.  It didn't provide complete protection from the sun but it was surprising how much cooler the little bit of brush cover made me feel.  In the open sand it was too hot for me to stand in my bare feet but between the plants I felt pretty cool and benefited from an occasional breeze as well.   Jenny gave it a try as well but the comfort level only lasted so long. We went back to make do with the cave but as I stood at the opening I saw the camels get up and start to move around.  The first camel was tied near to where our camel man was sleeping and it stood up to rub its behind on the tall brush for a good itch.  The second camel then tried to move closer to the shrubs as well, giving an annoyed side kick at the end of our tent.  The third camel, however, started to move over right onto our cave.  I pushed at its rear end to get it to move back but it gave a good kick in my direction.  Fortunately their long legs don't have very good extension to the sides.  To further display its annoyance with our tent it continued to back towards the cave and started to poop.  We grabbed up the poncho and blanket and got out of the way. 

All of the commotion woke up the camel man who came out to rearrange the camels.  He untied the third camel and brought it around alongside the second and ordered them all to lie down.  Since morning he had seemed pretty pissed off at his camels.  It was probably because they made him spend hours tracking them down from the wee hours.  While we were resting he didn't even unload the camels like he did the day before.  

We proceed to set up a new shelter on the sloped side of the bushes, well away from the camels.  We just used the intact stems to tie down the poncho so we got more air at the bottom and the angle actually provided more shade area.  We had another hour or so of rest there until we finally heard our camel man going about his afternoon prayers and got ready for more trekking.  

James and I had switched camels that day so he was in front and I was in the middle.  From behind I could more easily see how the animals scrambled up and down the steep dunes.  Their legs went all over the place and it was probably a good thing I hadn't seen it the day before.   They looked totally unstable and when we really got  moving they rope ties between them went taught and the rear camels were propelled forward with a yank.  But with all of the slipping and slide they never missed a step.  They started to refuse to go down some steep slopes which made us a little nervous.  If the camel didn't want to go what could that mean?  But their wide front hooves provided them with impressive breaking ability in the loose sand and they never felt like they were loosing their balance.  With all of the bulbous weight of their bodies coupled with the loads they were carrying it was a mystery how they stayed balanced on their long skinny legs and even managed to walk with one foot in front of the other.  But, as skinny as their legs were they were also  sinewy.  

Our baby camel was growing up before our eyes.  He had protested often on the first day with frequent squeaky moans.  His mom was either moving or sitting which made it difficult for him to get milk and he took every available chance to get what he could.  But, he was also learning to chew on the spiny shrubs like the three big camels.  The constant walking appeared to tire him out as well.  He was only four months old and probably had never been on a long distance trek before.  By the second day he had more confidence and let himself straggle behind the camel train.  Only when we would quickly drop down over the edge of a dune would we see him come scrambling over after us, worried that he was getting left behind.  He also conserved energy by taking the low road when our camel train was led to the top of a dune.  We could look down the slope and see him moving swiftly along, keeping his eye on us.  Compared to the three adult camels he was a fluffy little guy.  The enormous camel I sat on in Turpan had been really furry as well but for some reason many of the adult camels were mostly fur and hair free.  I suppose if their skin could take the sun the hair wasn't such an asset in the desert.

Two hours seemed to be the magic time limit for riding a camel.  No matter how comfortable we started out there were little lumps and bumps that made themselves apparent as time went on.  The saddles were prone to shifting as well.  After we lurched up one steep hill I noticed that my saddle had move back a hump.  The front rail was now behind the front hump and if I rocked backwards I would feel the second hump right under my tailbone.  It wasn't the terribly comfortable for me and I am sure the camel felt the same way.  The lead camel was a more exposed ride since it had less load and only one front rail on the saddle and I thought it tired my legs out more quickly.  The loaded down camels had more of a plateau on their backs.  Our driver had tried to tell us you could lounge any which way on the camel once we got going.  Obviously he had never ridden a camel.  There were far too many ups and downs for that and the bigger surprise came when they decided to stand or sit without any notice.

The green trees on the Hotan oasis had started to come into view again.  The hazy sky still blocked out the mountains but we knew we were getting close to where we had started.  To our surprise the camel man stopped the camels and unloaded them while we were still some distance into the desert.  We thought our second night of camping was going to be near the road but this spot was still pleasantly isolated from civilization.  Again the camel mad made a camp for himself over the sand dune from our tents.  From the ridge we could see him doing his evening prayer towards Mecca.  It would have made quite a photo with him sitting in the middle of the sand dunes but he was a pretty serious fellow and praying was a serious business so I respected his privacy.  

After the camel man got our water ready for dinner he looked at me and made a drinking motion.  It took us a minute to realize that he was asking to use some of the Uyghur tea that I had brought.  He must have seen in when he loaded my food onto his camel.  I got the box out, he thanked me and then promptly disappeared with the kettle over the side of the sand dune.  When he returned he handed me back my tea.  We were also wanting some tea and after watching us try to start a fire on our own in the wind to boil more water he came over and got one going in a matter of seconds.  Unfortunately, he loved to use our food trash for kindling which included the plastic bowls our noodles had come in. It smelled something awful but burned quickly.  I know how bad it is for the air to burn plastic but I also knew the alternative was probably for them to leave their trash in the desert which wasn't great either.  Anyway with no way to communicate with this man there was little chance we were going to explain to him the potential damage he was causing to he ozone layer.  It is one of many problems caused by the developed world meeting the undeveloped world.  As if we don't already have enough problems dealing with recycling in the developed world the undeveloped areas are at a complete disadvantage.    


CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30