Oglak Tartis

Post dated 21st March 2008.

On a dusty patch of ground on the edge of the Taklamakan desert the horses stamped impatiently. It had taken some many hours to reach this spot from across the Yengisar region, and their pulses raced with the urge to begin.

The wind blew softly across the low scrubby hills where the game was to be held. Flags marked the outer boundary and row upon row of horse and rider danced perceptibly in anticipation of the great game of Oglak Tartis…

It had been almost three years since I’d seen my first game in Afghanistan. My first encounter with the true language and ferocity of the horsemen of the Steppe had created such a strong impression, that I’d been aching to relive the experience ever since.

Known as Kok boru in Kyrgyzstan, Buzkashi in Afghanistan and Oglak Tartis elsewhere, the game is said to have originated with Ghengis Khan’s armies over 800 years ago during lightning forays into enemy territory to snatch goats and other livestock without dismounting.

It quickly became of a game of agility, used as a means to settle old blood feuds and prepare new recruits in the ways of steppe warfare. Khans and kings were known to assert their authority under the banner of their winning teams and the invention of the spectator sport form is only a recent phenomenon.1

Played throughout all the Central Asian Republics today, the rules are essentially the same throughout: take one skinned, beheaded and de-hoofed goat or calf, a few dozen of the finest horsemen on earth and let them loose on a pitch the size of several football fields.2

There are two primary versions of the game in play. Until the 1950’s the most popular version of the game in Afghanistan, involved placing a calf carcass in the center of a pitch with up to a hundred mounted horsemen – sometimes from opposing teams.

Whoever succeeded in removing the carcass, lapping the pitch and tossing the carcass over the goal line won, though the price for doing so may be at the cost of several lives, both human and equine.

In 1952, the Afghan Olympic Committee placed limits on the game in an attempt to nationalize the sport and bring a semblance of order. The game was split into two teams of 10 riders with opposing goals at each end of the pitch and a time limit assigned to each match.

Leagues were created and rumours even begun about making the game an Olympic sport!3 But then rules are only ever a guide and certainly added nothing to the skill and accomplishment I was about to bear witness on this small patch of scrubland on the rim of the Taklamakan.

Just as three years ago, the occasion that merited this game of Oglak Tartis was Nauroz, Central Asia’s New Year and a major cause for celebration.

Dust hung thick in the air of a sandy bowl as dozens of horses arrived toed by motor-trike or ridden to the event. Small dust devils whirled and eddied around the desert nearby and grit got into everything as I set my camera up to film.

This was a regular event for the people of this area and no one was passing up the chance to watch or take part. Most villages in and around the Western Taklamakan have their own teams and occasions like the one today always drew big crowds.

By 2 pm, horseman from as far away as 20kms away huddled in groups against the wind and the crowd had swelled to well-over 500. Businessmen did a thriving trade selling a combination of sweet bread and a sticky ice laden drink of caramel and plums.

At either end of the pitch, two goals sprouted like de-canvassed umbrellas awaiting their respective teams. The rules were simple. Two teams of ten horsemen competed to score as many ‘goals’ as possible by flinging a toughened sheep’s carcass on top of their opponent’s goal. This might have been the league version of the game but the skill was no less.

The opening ceremony didn’t amount to much – nothing more than a brief speech by village elders committing the games in the honour of Nauroz – and within minutes two teams of horseman were locked in a ‘scrum’ formation in the centre of the arena.

Hanging almost completely off his steed, one rider effortlessly scooped a sheep carcass off the sandy floor and booted his stallion away from the pack, horse and rider streaming away from a quickly ensuing mob, whooping and hollering for all his worth.

The sun was already near its peak as the games began, and everything had a milky white glow making it hard to distinguish man from horse through the clouds of dust that billowed around.

Nearing a goal post, the man flung the goat carcass high above the mayhem and onto the umbrella top, catching the outer-rim dangerously but not falling off. The referee hurried over to check and a goal was announced, to a renewed banter of whoops and hollers from the winning side.

Like a true child of the steppe lands that spawned it, only the best horsemen compete in these matches for only the best could survive. Though the Xinjiang game lacks the brutal force of its free-for-all Afghani cousin, it requires much more finesse and skill to compete in.

Before every game each fresh goat carcass is soaked in icy water for 24 hours to toughen up the hide to survive a new match. Once complete the insides are stuffed with wet sand to give the carcass a weight in excess of eight kilos.

Though carcasses can weigh up to 40kgs on the fields of Afghanistan, the players in Xinjiang have a much harder time, throwing the carcass high onto the goal posts. Many even lack the protective padding that many chapandez riders wear on the traditional Buzkashi fields of Afghanistan.3

Over the course of the afternoon, six games were played in all, each at 20 minutes. After the games were over, the players with the most goals won prizes of steel kettles, but it was it was the glory of the moment that drove most riders to compete today. The universal need among the Pamiri people’s to connect with a deeper instinct born on the grasslands of Central Asia eons ago.

Some might believe the game barbaric but this is a game practiced at a level of horsemanship that not even the best English riders could hope to match. A game passed down from generation to generation among races that grew out of the saddle rather than into it.

While many may have forgotten, we all at one stage came from nomadic roots and this was a belief that not even the sedentary Uighurs of Xinjiang seem to have forgotten in this ‘wild-barbaric’ game on the edge of the Taklamakan.


1. In the 1950s, Afghanistan was unified under the banner of Buzkashi, a tactic President Karzai is attempting to repeat today.



2. In times past pitches used to be up to several kilometers in length.
3. Back in the 1950s, following a surge of popularism pushed to make Buzkashi an Olympic sport.


Figuring out China’s Energy Needs

Earthquake Lakes

At 0:45am on 8th June the waters of Tanjiashan Lake in China’s earthquake hit Sichuan province finally broke the sluice level and began draining safely down the valley.

Ever since the earthquake hit on May 12th armies of engineers, workmen and bulldozers have been working around the clock to avert a possible disaster caused by the ‘earthquake lake’ bursting its banks and their efforts seem to have paid off.

In the city of Mianyang downstream of the dam, the streets were virtually empty as people were evacuated and the sluice did its work. People heaved a sigh of relief as the concerted action of thousands of soldiers drained a lake the size of 50,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Yet the threat caused by the earthquake to millions of lives throughout Western China has thrown the whole future of dam building into question, raising concerns about the future of China’s energy needs that can no longer be ignored.

The Hydro Solution

Over the past 30 years, the country’s boundless appetite for energy has already made it the second largest consumer of energy in the world, after the US, with a growth rate reaching a staggering 16% in 2004.

Demand currently far outstrips supply and the push to develop Hydro power has made China the world’s largest producer with over half the globe’s stockpile of dams within its borders.

Whilst the nation relies primarily on coal to keep its economy surging, Hydro is cleaner, relatively efficient and in plentiful supply throughout the nation. The resource supplies 6 percent of China’s energy needs and the nation still only uses one fourth of its current potential.

However, while hydroelectric energy is renewable, the land its dams are built on is not and the geological instability of the area may have far-reaching repercussions for China’s hydroelectric future.

After two weeks of downplaying the problem, the Water Resources Ministry acknowledged Sunday that 69 reservoirs and dams were on the verge of collapse, and nearly 3,000 in China had sustained damage.
Dangerous times

Of China’s 87,000 dams, the country’s Economic planning agency initially declared that 391 were affected by the earthquake, two of them severely as they lay near the epicenter of the 7.9 earthquake.

Two weeks later this figure was massively revised to 3000 dams and reservoirs affected with 69 on the “verge of collapse,” threatening millions of lives downstream.

Zipingpu dam in Wenchuan county was one of the two dams most badly affected by the quake and a typical example of the country’s current ‘erect dams at all cost’ way of thinking.

Despite warnings from the Sichuan Seismological Bureau that the dam’s construction site lay near a major fault line in Sichuan province, the dam was still given the green light in 2000.

After the May 12th quake, thousands of engineers rushed to plug what the Chinese media reported as “extremely dangerous cracks” across its outer face and while no catastrophic disaster occurred, the event is being treated by many as a major warning of things to come.

We have a saying that bridges are silver, highways are gold, and dams are diamonds. If you get a contract to build a dam, there is so much money.

The International Rivers Network reports that China has 28,500 large dams across the country with many in areas prone to seismic activity.

The rush to build dams across China has also prompted speculation that dams may not always be constructed for need of energy alone due to the size of the construction contracts and the amount of money that can easily be sidelined and pocketed by local officials.

A recent government report in January 2008 stated that 37,000 dams built during the 50’s and 60’s were already dangerously unstable and Beijing has recently earmarked $1.3 billion to repair them.

The Grand Energy Plan

However in the push to achieve energy independence, does China really any choice in the push for alternative sources of energy? Rising energy prices, outstripped demand and rampant inefficient in the energy industry provide Beijing with few options to play around with.

Energy Security

With demand for energy predicted to increase at an average 6% annually for the next few years, China faces fresh challenges in its drive to power the nation.

Over 75 % of China’s energy needs come from coal, yet today the nation is a net importer (as of 2007). Though oil reserves exist in the East China Sea, China’s stake is relatively minor and many others are claimed by rival nations.

By 2025 a staggering 77 percent of China’s oil supplies will be foreign supplied prompting the country to scramble to secure energy wherever it can, including from questionable sources such as the Sudan.

Outstripped demand

Though the country’s per capita energy use pales in comparison with the US and Japan, the market potential for cars, air conditioners and other market appliances etc… has yet to take off and could do with frightening speed unless planned for.

In an economy dominated by heavy industry, demand already regularly outstrips supply leading to frequent blackouts across the country causing huge spikes in the global price of oil such as in 2004.

The very legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is widely seen as resting on the economic prosperity of the country and an inability to supply enough power could further more lead to mass unrest in an already unstable society.


China’s energy generation is massively inefficient using about three times as much energy per unit of GDP as the US alone and nine times more than Japan. Though reducing such waste is key to securing a healthier energy independent future, efficiency reforms are likely to be expensive, hurting the bottom line of power companies and driving up the cost which could cause unrest among a populace already struggling to make ends meet.

Beijing faces further problems with provincial Governments intent on adding to the ranks of cheap coal-fired power stations that whilst highly inefficient, are much cheaper than alternative sources and instantly help alleviate the power shortages plaguing much of the country throughout the year.

Renewable Saviour?

Even if Beijing heeds the warning of seismologists for now, and takes a new tack in its dam building drive, other problems still exist.

On January 1st 2006, China’s Renewable Energy Law came into effect aiming to double the country’s reliance on renewable energy sources by 2020 and thus increasing its hydro usage by up to 15%.

Whilst a noble goal, this would “require the construction of the equivalent of the huge Three Gorges dam project every two years” in order to succeed and as always there’s always the question of whose going to foot the bill.

Other thorns in the feet of government dam advocates include finding the locations to build the mega dams required to generate the huge amounts of power that the country needs.

Though the Chinese province of Tibet is the source of many of Asia’s major rivers, many of those rivers supply millions of people in South/South East Asia who are non too happy at planned developments.

At the site of the world’s deepest gorge on the Bangladesh-India-Chinese border, a mega dam planned at a bend in the Brahmaputra River, is causing intense concerns with the Indian and Bangladeshi Governments and even speculations of war in the Indian media.

If gone ahead with, the 40GW mega dam may ease Chinese energy fears but it will also divert water away from millions of Indian’s and Bangladeshis in some of the regions poorest areas making it an untold catasphrophe in the making.

Further issues with such mega dams come from the sheer volume of factory waste, toxic metals and household rubbish that build up behind dams and affect the purity of the water supply in a society where safety often bows at the knees of bribery.

Over reliance on hydro power may also leave the country overly dependant on regular rainfall with perhaps unexpected results especially in parts that rely to a large extent on the resource. In 2003, severe droughts in China caused stark power outages in parts of the country where dammed reservoirs didn’t have enough water to supply demand at the time. http://www.energybulletin.net/111.html

For now, China’s choice is to keep building big dams, even as the social and environmental impacts of the projects are increasingly questioned.
No-win situation

Expanding deserts, an increasing population and talk of finally lifting the strict ‘One Child’ policy are bound to increase pressure on China’s resources and the Government is unlikely to abandon the potential that hydro power presents for now.

To say the country isn’t making progress in expanding its energy options is untrue and the market place itself may likely play the strongest role in solving China’s energy woes through increased efficiency.

With demand rapidly outsoaring supply the price of primary resources such as coal and oil has skyrocketed and profit margins at many of China’s power companies have halved over the past year through increased costs.

As profits get hit, many power companies may reconsider the waste produced in the power process and raise standards to increase efficiency at all levels of the supply chain.

Whatever China’s eventual course of action, the country faces multiple challenges on the road to energy security and the eventual solution will surely require a measure of compromise and certainly one of restraint and consideration.

There is no easy road to economic prosperity and as the country races forward towards it, shortcuts cannot be relied upon to achieve it and if any lesson can be learnt from the Earthquake, it’s that companies had better listen to the geologists first before that first bucket of concrete is poured.

Everything in nature has balance and for China’s Government this is something they’ll have to consider with care if their Hydro policy is to work out successfully.

By 2025, according to the US Energy Information Administration, foreign supplies will account for a dizzying 77% of China’s total oil consumption.
  • In 1994 approx 2 % of the world’s primary energy consumption was derived from hydro power, increasing to 16 % in 2004. (Reference)
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  • In 2004 hydro power produced 16% of the world’s electricity, almost one fifth of current supply. (Reference)
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  • China gets 75 % of its energy from coal powered plants, yet only uses one fourth of its hydro power potential. (Reference)
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  • China’s consumption of coal is expected to supply 78% of power demand until 2030. (China Daily 09 June 2008)
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  • Hydro power forms China’s second largest energy resource supply after coal. (Reference)
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  • China is the world’s second largest consumer of energy after the United States and was its third largest energy producer (2003). (Reference)
  • China is the fifth largest oil producing nation on earth with proven reserves of around 16 billion barrels. (Reference)
  • The largest dam in the world is China’s Three Gorges dam which cost $30 billion to build and which displaced more than 1 million people. (Reference)

Photo credit to the honglingfamily on flickr

Ten days are up

Indeed ten days are up and the Earthquake relief phase moves into a frighteningly harsh period: the rehabilitation of more than five million people.

Now the clamour is for tents, tents and more tents… 3.3 million to be exact. According to today’s China Daily over 400,000 tents have been sent to the earthquake area and by August 10th one million temporary structures have been ordered built.

The boulevards of this city of 870,000 people are now lined with plastic shelters that victims have thrown up by themselves, or with the help of volunteers.

However, China may be the factory of the world but not even this mega production house can produce three million tents over night and international help is desperately needed.

Daily newspapers here report Chinese people falling over themselves to buy tents of all seasons from shops across the country. Shop owners are being mobbed and even policemen have been seen getting in on the act.

Aid needed

In a good will gesture, the UK recently agreed to provide 30,000 tents, but as attention now shifts to China’s 5 million homeless such thoughts are but a drop in the ocean.

Having been involved in the Pakistan earthquake China’s main priority now is securing tents, medicines and experts. Being the world’s factory is all very well in the long term, but in short term, the Chinese people needs our donations.

The Chinese embassy in the UK recently released a list of the most needed items required in the relief effort that UK people can send to the embassy. Such items are crucial to the success of the work of the thousands of aid workers and volunteers toiling day and night to save lives and include protective facial masks, mobile toilets and Immarsat satellite phones.

Though I may not agree with the all-pervading big brother nature of the Chinese Government, in this instance strong leadership is needed and China is not holding back and such aid will certainly make a difference.

Ten days after the Oct 3rd earthquake hit Pakistan in 2005, aid was only just beginning to reach survivors in the most populated areas of Kashmir, and it took literally months afterwards to reach the most isolated villages.

In contrast, China mobilized over 130,000 troops mere days after the quake and is already claiming to have reached all 1044 isolated villages throughout the affected region with aid, supplies and medical care – though the area is much less complicated than the one Pakistan’s aid workers had to work in.

Lessons to be Learnt

Yet China’s toughest challenges now lie ahead in ‘phase 2’ of its recuperation efforts and the country would do well to learn from the mistakes made in Pakistan as well as the successes.

The trouble in Pakistan was that the country had no precedent to act to when the earthquake hit, which lead to an immediate break down of law and order in the donation process and a free-for-all donation drive that led to hoarding and the unfair spread of relief materials amongst the survivors affected.

Invariably the lack of guidance in the relief process led to a incredible range in the quality of the items donated, especially in the tents, equipment and clothing. Tents often couldn’t be erected properly due to missing pieces or shoddy construction leaving yet another family out in the winter cold.

Throughout the initial aid camps to be erected, sanitation was a forgotten issue in the rush to house a never ending stream of earthquake survivors. Camp guidelines provided by UNICEF and UNHCR were ignored in the rush, leading to tents erected too close to one another and tent fires spreading like while fires during meal times.

The government is setting up a 70 billion yuan ($10 billion) fund to pay for reconstruction work, and government departments have been told to cut spending by 5 percent to divert funds for rebuilding

Following its unprecedented success in covering the earthquake, this is the Chinese Government’s chance to avoid such problems through clear leadership, ample compensation and a strict timetable to rebuilding shattered lives that people can look to.

Accommodating millions of earthquake survivors is going to create ‘tent cities’ on an unprecedented scale and China needs to be ready. Hope needs a goal to cling onto and for lives torn asunder, Beijing has an unbridled opportunity to provide and stick to such one.

Challenges to rescuers

Certainly there is not much to tempt them [elderly] in Jiangyou, where tens of thousands of homeless people are living cheek by jowl on sidewalks in cramped and unsanitary shelters rigged up from tarpaulins, with no better idea of their future than those who stayed at home.

On Thursday the official death toll reached 51,151 people with 288, 431 injured after the May 12th quake, setting it on track to surpass the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 which took 73,388 lives.

Typical of mountainous regions affected by earthquake, the dangers to aid workers are still high and seem to be getting worse.

According to the China Daily, 200 aid workers have already been killed by mud slides caused by 7,182 aftershocks since the quake struck on May 12th. Some of the aftershocks have reached as high as 6.1 on the Richter scale.

Highways are being blocked as quickly as they’re opened and as of 21st May, only one highway was open to Wenchuan near the epi-center of the quake as aftershocks caused multiple landslides blocking incoming highways.

With heavy rain predicted over the coming week, the lives of aid workers working in the field is unlikely to get any easier. Yet an even greater challenge may lie in the age of the individuals who survived the quake.

Elderly people form the bulk to the population of the earthquake area as many have been left behind as younger people in the region have left to work in the country’s factories and cities on the Eastern seaboard.

China has over 120 million migrant workers powering its economic growth for incredibly low wages and many of those workers come from Sichuan province at the heart of the earthquake area.

Many elderly survivors stranded high up in mountain villages, face extreme difficulties leaving the ruins of their accumulated life achievements and many simply choose to remain where they also fear loss of property to bandits and thieves. Such survivors will have a difficult time in the cramped conditions of relief camps and many already realize it. Life may become even worse in these camps as migrant workers swell the ranks of the families gathered in them.

Volunteers are Needed

China doesn’t just need money, it needs expert help, materials and equipment (as laid out on the Chinese embassy website). Pakistan also needed these in abundance and the faster the Chinese people receive them, the faster broken lives can be reformed.

Medical teams from Russia, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan and the UK are already amongst those already on the ground in the earthquake areas, yet still more are needed.

Doctors, nurses, engineers and anyone with a skill they think they can offer are invaluable at this stage but saying that anyone can still help.

There are several international organizations working in the earthquake relief area and some of the key ones are given below. If you are thinking about volunteering for the earthquake please find an agency to work with before hand as organistaion like MSF are already complaining about ‘free-lance’ volunteers being more of a hindrance than a help.

Final throught…

I was in Urumqi at the time of the Chinese earthquake and though it was felt as far away as Taiwan and Vietnam I felt nothing in Xinijiang. Still the newspapers here are full of information about the quake every day and just as my heart goes out to the victims through these reports I hope yours does too.

Donations Abroad

The Red Cross is most likely the best way to donate money from abroad. CN Reviews.com also has a great comprehensive list of over 30 ways to donate towards the crisis. Here is another good resource at China-crossroads.com including some fairly comprehensive information on how to volunteer.
Q & A from the Chinese Embassy in London
List of Items needed by the Chinese Embassy in London

Donations in China

For expatriates already living in China there’s no shortage of information online about how to donate to the earthquake. Following is a list of alternative ways to donate that should expand over the next few days as I short througth the plethora of ways already mentioned on the internet.

Sichuan Quake Relief - a new organisation formed with the backing of the Beijing Bookworm specifically to handle small projects associated with the rehabilitation process after the May 12th earthquake.

Ways for volunteers to go and help…

Whilst I’ve emailed several organisation about the immediate availability of volunteer work in the earthquake area, I’m still waiting for a response. In the meantime the following organisations seem to definitely offer volunteering opportunities:

Heart to heart (office in chengdu) – With an international office already established in Chengdu before the quake, Heart-to-Heart have become a hub for volunteers seeking to make a difference in the quake area.
Hands on Chengdu – is a new organisation set up specifically to match the right skills you have to offer to the locations where they’re needed the most. Fill out your profile and indicate your availability to give the staff at hands-on the information they need to for you to make the most of your time in the quake area. Currently volunteers are needed in Orphanages, lean-to schools, temporary hospitals etc.. – definitely recommended.
Volunteer Abroad Program - though lacking in details, VAP seem to offer volunteer work in the earthquake area.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeson. If you have a good heart, you can contribute. (china daily- 21st May)

Other organisations you could also try include:

Doctors without Borders
Children’s Hope Point - working now in the Earthquake zone with stranded orphans. Possibly may offer volunteer work in the near future.
Mercy Corps

For those who read Chinese, the contact details for the Chinese Red Cross office in Chengdu is:

成都市红十字会志愿者接待人电话:028-8 807 5017


成都市红十字会电话:028-86725519 / 66722258

志愿者协调人员(成都本地)电话:131118 89708

From ( www.ieeye.com ) From to: http://www.ieeye.com/post/dizhenbaoming.html

If anyone would like to recommend any more organisations to volunteer through please contact me here.

Thanks to Nick Kozak for the photo used in this post.

One Door Open, One Door Closed

May 2008 will surely always be remembered as one of the most horrifying months on record for natural disasters. Already its hallmarks have been almost 150,000 dead and literally millions homeless, suffering and starving.

Just a week ago here in China, an Earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale rocked Eastern China to its core flinging wide tremours that were felt as far away as Beijing (1500kms), Taipai (Taiwan) and even Hanoi in Vietnam.

Seizing the opportunity, the Chinese Government unleashed an unprecedented stream of news coverage from the earthquake zone resulting in an outpouring of support from across the Chinese nation.

Yet, whilst one door is cast open, another one remains brutally closed in neighbouring Burma.

Since Tropical Cyclone Nargis ravaged an area the size of Afghanistan in Southern Burma, aid has barely trickled into the South East Asian nation as the Military Junta attempts to control the rehabilitation process thus endangering the lives of millions in the process.

Such delayed aid to the millions of homeless across the country’s south means that the action needed to normally stave off disease and starvation has been critically delayed leaving many survivors in a position no better than immediately after the disaster and crucially similar to the plight of the millions stranded in China at this very time.

Each country needs help now and neither is less deserving. Food, funds and the smallest measure of fortune are slowly finding the people who need them, but it’s never enough and for those whose lives hang in the balance, this post deals with how you can help and what still needs to be done.

Broken Lives in China

We thought maybe a plane crashed or there was an explosion nearby. But then the building heaved. As we hustled down the hallways and down the stairs, the sensation was the same one you get when you take off in an airplane; with that sudden weightlessness and then the dip of the plane. Cement was flying and so was glass. Very fortunately, the building did not crumble down upon us. I can still envision one extremely hard hit and I thought the end was coming. The building rumbled so loud, it seemed to be coming down.

Smashed lives, courageous rescues and monumental suffering dominate the airwaves in China but despite all the clamour, aid is still only trickling into some areas. Since May 12th the strongest earthquake in 32 years has taken an official total of 34,073 people at time of writing, though up to 70,000 (to date) are feared dead and buried.

Wenchuan Earthquake captured on Youtube

The quake originally occurred near the town of Wenchuan, in the Chinese province of Sichuan. The area is mountainous, ridden with gorges, and relief efforts have been hampered by landslides and heavy rain. Over 4.9 million homes are claimed destroyed in one of China’s most inaccessible regions. Although over 130,000 troops are currently deployed in the earthquake zone, many have been reduced to battling over muddy mountain trails to reach hopeful survivors.

Colossal landslides of mud and rubble knocked down telephone lines and mobile phone masts and left every road blocked. On the road north from Chengdu, minibuses carrying boxes of aid sat in long tailbacks while the army was stranded 60 miles away.

In the town of Baichuan over 80% of all buildings have been destroyed with the highest death count of upto 5000 deaths. Upstream of the town of Dujiangyan, cracks have appeared in the Zipingpu damn, keeping the army busy and putting 600,000 residents at risk. Questions are also being asked today on why so many schools collapsed during the earthquake – reports state over 7000 classrooms destroyed in the disaster.

It’s important to remember that while we can’t control the destruction of the earthquake, we can help save lives afterwards and infact deaths can and must be prevented. Though foreign rescue teams were allowed into China for the first time on Friday, over 122 aftershocks exceeding 4+ on the Richter scale have already rocked the region sparking dozens of heavy landslides and hampering relief efforts.

There are plenty of ways to donate both inside and outside of China and below are several sources both official and recommended by the blogosphere. At the moment, millions of people are currently in need of blankets, emergency food, tents, drinking water and disinfectant and here are the ways you can help.

Donations Abroad

The Red Cross is most likely the best way to donate money from abroad. CN Reviews.com also has a great comprehensive list of over 30 ways to donate towards the crisis. Here is another good resource at China-crossroads.com including some fairly comprehensive information on how to volunteer.
Q & A from the Chinese Embassy in London
List of Items needed by the Chinese Embassy in London

Donations in China

For expatriates already living in China there’s no shortage of information online about how to donate to the earthquake. Following is a list of alternative ways to donate that should expand over the next few days as I short througth the plethora of ways already mentioned on the internet.

Sichuan Quake Relief - a new organisation formed with the backing of the Beijing Bookworm specifically to handle small projects associated with the rehabilitation process after the May 12th earthquake.

Recommended News and Blogs

Global Voices – Time to Pray - a number of blogs from earthquake survivors and volunteers on the front-line. This article shares an extremely comprehensive overview of earthquake news, blogs and volunteer efforts from across the zone.
China Law Blog – How you can Help
Shanghaiist – Earthquake News 2008
Shanghai Expat – Today I cried – Schuan Earthquake
NPR on location in Chengdu – NPR were filming on location in Western China when the destructive May 12th earthquake changed everything…
China Daily – Government English Paper with Earthquake 2008 Section
Xinhua – China Earthquake 2008

Daily Blogs

Daily Blog from Childrens Hope International volunteering in the Earthquake Area
Blog by Melody Zhang [CHI Director] currently travelling through remote outlying areas to survey the situation of orphans stranded by the May 12 catastrophy.

Washed Away in Burma

Though it happened two weeks earlier, tropical cyclone Nargis has claimed an official total of 78,000 thousand lives in Burma (Myanmar) and the death count continues to mount. Whilst most countries would be now thinking of rebuilding shattered lives, Burma continues to create them.

Since the May 3rd cyclone ravaged an area the size of Afghanistan in the south of the country, the Burmese military Junta’s attempts to handle the crisis “on their own” have only suceeded in exacerbating it.

Seventeen days after the cyclone as many as two million survivors are yet to receive any aid at all.

Almost immediately after the cyclone struck, rescue teams, aid and emergency supplies have all been refused as the military Government plays tough to the world outside. What few journalists have been allowed into the country talk of bodies “rotting in the streets,” starving children mobbing aid trucks and the spectre of death hanging over every remaining doorway.

Winds exceeding 100 mph obliterated thousands of villages consisting of nothing more than bamboo huts and twine. Livestock drowned, roads washed away, lives torn asunder and all their remains is death, suffering and absolutely noone to clear up the mess.

General Than Shwe, the Burmese leader, is so far from reality, he’s been seen handing out boxes of so called ‘Government aid’ with “Aid from the Kingdom of Thailand” labelled on the side. The Junta recently claimed that they’d spent over USD 1m on aid to the people of Burma despite the fact that USD 20m in aid has already been raised by the UN.

The government wants total control of the situation, although they can’t provide much and they have no experience in relief efforts.

In contrast with the transparent approach China has taken to the relief effort, many may feel that donating to Burma is a lost cause given the Government’s heavy hand in the area, but this must NOT be the case. Everyday more and more shipments of aid are making it through and into the hands of those who need them, and we can only hope the trickle of aid getting through continues to grow.

Oxfam has recently claimed that up to 1.5 million people are in danger of dying as disease, starvation and despair grip the survivors. Already outbreaks of Cholera and diarrehea have been reported and the situation is unlikely to improve for weeks.

ActionAid International have set up medical camps to cater to 550 villages or 135,000 people and are just one of the many worthy efforts working now and making a difference.

If it’s one thing the Pakistan Earthquake showed me, it’s that fast response saves lives and the window of opportunity for Burma is shrinking rapidly. The country needs countless supplies of medicine, accommodation, rice and clean water and they need them now.

Please don’t count out those in need and donate what you can. Some of the better ways are listed below and the list will certainly expand as I find more reputable sources to place on it.

Donations to Burma

British Red Cross – seemly the most reliable means to donate to the disaster and actively working now in Bruma.
Disasters Emergency Committee – Channelling funds to an umbrella organisation of 13 disaster committees with an active emergency fund for Burma.
UNICEF - With 130 staff working in Burma today, funds donated to UNICEF reach directly the people who need help the most.
ActionAid International – Through local partners in country, ActionAid has already set up an emergency medical hospital to cater to 135,000 survivors.

Photos from the Quake Zone

Above photo courtesy of Flickr.

Earthquake Update: Progress in Chains

Two years on after Pakistan’s worst disaster in living memory made a population half the size of London homeless and destroyed an area the size of Belgium, life is slowly returning to normal, but it will take time.

People aren’t dying, freezing or starving for lack of aid or attention. But on the other hand few are happy either. The scale of the damage resulting from the earthquake was so massive that progress remains painfully slow, and as another winter looms, the biggest problem for many is that the end seems far out of sight.

  • Geographical Area

    22,000 sq. Kms
  • Specifics

    7.6 Richter scale Earthquake
  • Deceased

    73,388 killed
  • Injured

  • Homeless

    3.3 million
  • Homes Destroyed

  • Cost of reconstruction

    $6 billion
  • Schools

    6000 destroyed
  • Teachers

    900 killed
  • School children

    18,000 killed
  • Students in tent schools

  • Roads affected (kms)

    2393 kms
  • Women headed households

    26% (average) of total
  • Current challenge

    Third Winter
  • Current phase of ERP

  • Recovery date

    Late 2009
Emergency Relief

On 08th October 2005, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale killed 73,888 people in Northern Pakistan. An almost equal number were injured and a further 3.3 million lives were wiped clean in seconds.

The extent of the damage was the uncompromising annihilation of 4000 villages, 600,000 homes and several major towns. Over 8000 schools were levelled; every health centre destroyed; every semblance of industry, workshop and mill wiped out. Millions of livestock, livelihoods and futures were lost to oblivion in an amazingly complex maze of mountain valleys.

For the first six months the Pakistan Government, aid agencies and thousands of volunteers concentrated solely on stabilising survivor’s lives. In the aftermath of a fortunately first mild winter, a huge relief effort began to move several million people out of the squalor of the relief camps and back to their villages in the short time before the next monsoons and winter began.

Overcoming 2743 kms of devastated roads massively slowed down reconstruction efforts, and the cost of transport skyrocketed. Before homes could be rebuilt, materials had to be delivered, water supplies re-established; latrines dug; water pumps bored and fields re-ploughed. Life needs a foundation on which to grow and sustain itself and given the totality of the destruction, it took time to stabilise people’s lives.

Early Recovery

In the days immediately following the quake, the Government established the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (or the unfortunately entitled ERRA) as the central authority in the rehabilitation effort. Big plans were drawn up, but in the typical nature of Pakistani rhetoric, many government promises were made and even fewer were believed.

With the emergency relief phase over in mid-06, ERRA began work on a twelve month Early Recovery Plan (ERP) in collaboration with the UN and numerous aid organisations to ensure a secure transition from relief to recovery and eventual reconstruction. The UN recognised that the enormity of the reconstruction process would take time and that people must be able to live comfortably during the interim.

Beginning in June 2006, the plan was finished earlier this year and focused on eight areas of development including education, health, housing, livelihood training and civic infrastructure. Instead of supervising the entire reconstruction, the UN advised ERRA to give home owners the responsibility and pride of rebuilding their own homes. Whilst the approach had been implemented during the Tsunami (2004), this was first time it had been attempted on such a large scale.

To ensure money was spent correctly, ERRA issued cash grants of up to a total of $3000 in four stages, dependant upon construction progress and compliance with new earthquake proof regulations. Last month, ERRA claimed that 339,048 houses or 65percent were now under construction, 200,000 at the foundation level, and 25,000 with walls erected. The Government aims to have all homes completed by end 2008.

Better than a tent

As a result of the massive effort made by countless organisations, only 7000 people today remain in tents with almost all families living in semi-permanent temporary accommodation. We’ve now moved through two winters and on the whole casualties have been minimal. Tents have been mostly replaced by wooden and corrugated iron shelters and most people have access to heaters and fuel.

With the assistance of international and local aid agencies over 300,000 people have since been trained as masons, carpenters, artisans and in seismic reconstruction techniques. According to some estimates, reconstruction is even happening around five to six times faster than during the 2004 tsunami.

Throughout the ERP, the goal was always to establish a liveable intervening period in which people could live whilst the enormous task of reconstruction got underway. For the average earthquake survivor, almost all have some form of roof over their heads, access to temporary healthcare facilities (thanks in part to the amazing efforts of the International Red Cross) and tent-schools for their kids.

Unstinting efforts by ERRA and partner organisations have ensured that over 20percent of water supply schemes have been repaired and temporary power, telephone and road access exist in many places. Perhaps most outstanding has been the drive to give meaning to people’s lives through training and opportunities, especially to women.

Thanks to these developments, the final stage of reconstruction will now begin at the end of this year and is predicted to last until the end of 2009. The sheer scale of the process is the reconstruction of an entire society from scratch at an estimated cost of $4.3 billion. Schools, health centres, villages, infrastructure, government offices, even entire cities need rebuilding.

Last month, President Musharaff laid the Foundation stone for the $200 million reconstruction of the city of Balakot, 20kms outside of the old town that was destroyed by the quake. The potential to build hope on a past of loss is undeniable and yet still, at the daily level of people’s lives results are far from rosy.

Article: A year of Earthquake Relief in Pakistan with ActionAid


Reconstruction begins?

Pakistan Earthquake PhotographTo small boys relaxing on a tent in Muzaffarabad shortly after the 2005 Earthquake.

The most common complaint levelled at the Government is that progress is far too slow. To put this in perspective, let’s put you in the earthquake zone for a minute and describe life for a moment.

Due to the destruction of most livestock, crops and arable land, the price of food has sky rocketed in the earthquake area, and you must eat less while your children eat more. Since the quake struck 18 months ago, you’ve received several payments from the government, the last of which was spent building a foundation for a new home and keeping your family fed.

The last time an inspector came around to assess progress was some months ago, and every time you visit the bank, the payment he promised has not been delivered.
Jobs are a pipe dream in the local area. Your husband remains unemployed and the only ray of hope in this uncertainty is the training course you are attending in embroidery and sewing skills at the local community centre for women.

Even should the payment come, you wonder how you’ll manage. The average cost of building a home is around 500,000 Rupees ($8300), and the Government is only giving 150,000 Rupees to residents. Compounding that, material costs are expensive due to short supply and even transporting them here, high up in the valley, would cost almost as much due to the terrible condition of the road.

Every day thousands of people suffer from the problems mentioned above. Slow progress, red tape and high construction costs are just some of the banes of the Government’s DIY approach to rehabilitation. More worrying is the latent level of corruption riddling the recovery. The Dawn reports that some homeowners have paid bribes of up to 10,000Rs to local officials to speed up the transfer of building funds. Other home owners have been evicted for not paying up.

Countering this, ERRA claims to have set up 139 “construction hubs;” throughout the devastated area. The authority asserts to have trained over 50 thousand master trainers, masons and carpenters in addition to giving out a livelihood grant of 18,000 Rupees ($300) to over 250,000 families – enough for at least six months. However discontent still remains.

Today, thousands of people across the Earthquake area have no land to build on and many more have had trouble receiving compensation from the Government. Such people are usually serfs, tenants and people whose land now stands in seismic zones or landslide prone areas. They are the MIA’s of the relief process; jobless and living in tents until the Government relocates them, but many feel abandoned.

ERRA say that separate compensation packages of $1250 funded by USAID have been drawn up for ‘landless’ residents, and payouts began at the end of last month. But the truth here is that given the size and complexity of the disaster, ‘build back better’ will take time and as in all natural disasters, it’s the vulnerable that are affected the most.

The Case for Women

One of the biggest challenges facing aid organisations has been how to help women affected by the quake. The north of Pakistan is a traditionally religious area of the country and the restrictions of women in normal daily life were compounded by the inevitable problems following the disaster.

Women in Pakistan face a cultural straight jacket the moment they’re born. Girls are expected to marry young, sire large families and look after the home and livestock. Most move in with their husband’s family straightaway and are not usually allowed to leave without the presence of their husband due to the Islamic concept of Purdah. Though better in urban areas, women in rural areas are often unaware they have any rights at all, and many suffer accordingly.

Since the disaster struck, an estimated 26percent of all households are now being run by single mothers, left the face the brunt of a male dominated society and the additional burden of raising a family alone. Over 40,000 women were pregnant when the Earthquake struck and today single women face a daily problems accessing clean water, food and the ability to care for their children.

Aid agencies have risen to this challenge by working with communities to encourage equality between the sexes. Gender equality is a major part of ERRA’s development policy and aid agencies are working hard to ensure females share equal access to shelter, food, education and skills training. Agencies like the Red Cross have increased the number of female birth attendants and teachers by involving men in community based discussions so that everybody sees the benefits.

What did Education do to you?

Despite all the advancements made in women’s rights and reconstruction, education has received an incredibly low priority and little or no progress in the recovery process. During the earthquake, 18,000 students were killed as they sat down to class early that Saturday morning. Over 8000 schools were levelled and approximately 900 teachers lost their lives.

Today, 800,000 children of the 1 million or so estimated, attend school in tents, two years after the earthquake. Others are still studying in damaged buildings. According to the ERP, 1500 schools should have been built from 2006-7, yet only 70 have been completed and all by sponsors, not by the Government. UNICEF report that children are dropping out of school at phenomenal rates and this will likely increase as winter closes.

It’s a sad truth that this is only a continuation of a trend in Pakistan where country-wide literacy rates stand at 63percent male and a drastic 36percent female. In some parts of the earthquake area, literacy rates can be as low 3.5percent for men and only 1percent for women.
Villages in mountainous areas like Northern Pakistan have a hard time attracting teachers (especially female), due to their remote location and hostility of religious groups. Many face closure, creating the so-called ‘ghost school’ phenomenon. The greatest problem facing enrollment of children is the lack of schools to enroll in.

The golden opportunity here lies in the concentrated offensive being waged against illiteracy by aid agencies in the region. USAID is currently training 5000 teachers in child centred learning techniques. UNICEF has launched it’s “Welcome back to School” campaign with ERRA to ensure 100percent re-enrollment of all children and today report that 9/10 are back in school alongside 21,000 children never before enrolled. The organisation has also set up hundreds of ‘Child Protection Committees’ across the affected area to keep in school once there.

ERRA’s whole philosophy of Build Back Better revolves around building better schools, educating more children (especially girls), and providing a solid foundation for future economic success. If development continues then this is a likely result, but if schools receive the low priority they get now, then this may never happen. Save the Children have already predicted that school buildings will take 5-7 years to rebuild meaning that some children will never learn in a proper school.

Conclusion: The Grand Experiment

By all accounts the Pakistan Relief Effort has become a “model relief process” to much of the world’s media. Although I wasn’t able to visit the Earthquake zone this year, even the traditionally critical Pakistani media was surprisingly upbeat about the process. There’s an undeniable feeling that the recovery might just work, but only if progress continues as it is.

In many ways, the relief process in Pakistan has become a testing ground for a slew of new techniques the UN wishes to implement in the future. For example, the new “cluster” approach to organising worldwide emergencies and the emphasis in Pakistan of owner-driven recovery and training.

By working closely with the UN from the start, Pakistan has ensured that a steady flow of funds reach where it’s needed from traditionally fickle world donors. Out of the $250 million plus needed for the Early Recovery Plan, almost all was received and ERRA’s next challenge will be to assure that the $4.3 billion needed for reconstruction builds on previous success.

With central authority cemented under the ERRA banner, aid agencies have been able to focus more on their respective areas and highlight potential problems that might arise in the future. Aid agencies have also been able to receive funds directly from donors, increasing transparency and ensuring funds arrive on time.

On the flip side, however, donors have been reluctant to hand over funds for development techniques they know nothing about, such as livelihood training and cash grants for housing. Officials have commented that obtaining funds promised on time has been hard to accomplish, and may partly explain the delays in cash handouts to earthquake survivors.

Final thought

It’s likely to be another year before we know the true extent of the relief process in Pakistan, when houses are built and reconstruction is well underway. The slogan of build back better stands an incredible chance of succeeding but at current rates of progress is unlikely to become reality by 2009. Words are easily spoken but less easily actioned in Pakistan and if the Government doesn’t begin to prioritise key areas like education and health, they stand to lose the momentum and respect they’ve built up so far.

Success today, is success tomorrow for Pakistan. A model relief effort is crucial to the future development of the economy and the Government knows this. The US and Asian Development Bank have already promised huge sums of money to invest in infrastructure and as we move into another cold winter it remains now for Pakistan to show it has the capability to pull that off.

Primary Sources:
Housing Progress:
Development Progress
Female Recovery
Landless Quake Survivors
International Funding
General Reports
Experimental Re-development
Other Countries at risk

Earthquake Response – On the Front Line

ActionAid have been instrumental in Pakistan ever since they first set their office up there 15 years ago. After the onset of the Earthquake, confusion and chaos ruled across the north of the country. Aid was being delivered left, right and centre with little co-ordination from the Government or UN. ActionAid set up four field offices and was one of the few organisations to win acclaim for its work during that time. They’re also one of even fewer to continue working in the earthquake areas long after everyone else has gone home. As we move into the third year since Pakistan’s worst disaster in history, the organisation’s second year on the job gives a rare insight into people’s lives.

August – September 06

ActionAid’s four field offices in Mansehra, Batagram, Bagh and Muzaffarabad were kept busy as monsoon rains took lives amidst the squalor of temporary shelters that people now call home across Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PAK), and North West Frontier Province, lying adjacent to the West.

“The “most immediate needs” of the community were addressed by distributing prefabricated shelters among the vulnerable families in Bagh and Batagram.”

“Keeping in view the high ratio of females in the quake hit zone, training and capacity building in the livelihood sector has been continued, especially for women.”

September – October 06

Getting people back in work and earning is an absolute priority. One year after the Oct. 08 earthquake, survival is still difficult. Vital training provided to locals in Bagh, computer literacy taught to people in Muzaffarabad and structural repairs continued. Grumblings from local religious leaders about working women threatened progress.

“…100 masons and carpenters were trained in the construction of earth quake resistance construction in Bagh. Bagh office is in the process of identifying new areas for livelihoods rehabilitation and restoration. In Mansehra people will be trained as masons, carpenters and plumbers in Islamabad…”

October – November 06

Health centres opened in all 4 areas proving extremely effective and two ambulances since donated. After surveying local needs, latrines were purchased for local homes and livestock shelter materials also provided. Water pumps and community centres were requested by locals and quickly provided. Facilities provided to communities to utilise their recently taught skills such as milling and sewing.

“One year after the earthquake people are still living in tents as many didn’t get compensation to rebuild their homes.”

“During the reporting month, over 5000 patients were treated in all health centres in all four areas. The percentage of children was 51%, men 35% and women over 60%.”

“…men and women community organizations requested that 27 water hand pumps in Union Councils Oghi and Shamdhara, Mansehra be provided. … In Muzzafarabad women who had learnt skills … demanded a crafts and designing centre…

“Even after one year of the earthquake, unavailability of both skilled and unskilled labours causes delay in the reconstruction process. The rise in the rates of skilled and unskilled labour has also aggravated the situation of the poor communities.”

November – December 06

As winter descends, shelters, latrines and stoves provided to hundreds of freezing families. Diarrhoea outbreaks keep health centres busy, where 10,000 people are treated that month. Gyne camp arranged at local request.

“The government has not allowed reconstruction since it fears another quake could strike at any time. The shelters of the earth quake affected people neither offer protection from snow nor from rain. They have been through this since 8th October, 2005. It is like a disaster again, suffering constantly.”

“…vulnerable families were provided CGI, PGI and Lasani Sheets last month. These families were living in shelters which were only covered with cloths or tarpaulin sheets since last year.”

“To enhance the capacity of staff and local communities in the earth quake affected areas, in Muzaffarabad, Two days community midwifery training was arranged…”

January – February 07

“Thousands of quake ravaged people are still living in tents and transitional shelters on both mountains and plains in NWFP and AJK quake hit regions.”

“Conversion of prefabricated shelters into permanent shelters is an immediate need of the communities living in high altitude areas of Bagh, Battgram, Muzaffarabad and Mansehra. … 260 families … are living in these improved shelters.”

“The community centres were constructed as hubs and training centres for women. In this connection, kitchen gardening and vocational trainings were carried out in Mansehra and Muzaffarabad.”

March – April 07

Rains hamper progress. Families moved from landslide prone area. Prefab shelters, kitchens, tarpaulin and warm clothing handed out. Government (ERRA) claims 98% compensation payments have been made completely false. Many homes stand half built for lack of money and labour.

“180 prefabricated shelters, bedding, tarpaulin sheets and warm cloths have been distributed to the 256 vulnerable families in different villages of Bagh.”

“In Bagh and Battagram work on water supply schemes is progressing with slow pace due to heavy rains. However water tank has been completed in Goryar and for main pipe line, digging for 2000 feet pipe has been completed.”

“In Muzaffarabad, 115 fruit plants were distributed among the vulnerable community members of 29 villages, 1500 fruit plants were distributed among 115 right holders.”

May – June 07

Wheat harvesting and rice sowing slow down rehabilitation work somewhat. Skilled labour in short supply; training ongoing to improve the situation and get people back in work. Water supply scheme repair continues. Proposal for 3 vocational centres approved. Reconstruction of educational institutions in “cold storage.”

“Education sector has been deliberately placed in cold storage by the government in the post earthquake scenario. Most of the schools have been resumed in temporary shelters or tents. Moreover the quality of education remains a big question mark for the communities. Stationary materials have been provided to six schools for starting fare-price shops in different parts of Battagram. In Muzafarabad locations for construction of 5 child-friendly schools have been finalized with community participation.”

“Mobile Saw and crush machines were provided to CBOs which are not only creating livelihood opportunities for the persons operating these machines but also providing basic constructional material at comparatively low prices to the people who are constructing their houses.”

June – July 07

Delays in finalising plans for the new town of Bagh is preventing construction of people’s homes. Political instability in Pakistan and event at Red mosque causing some tension for female staff members working in the field. Ongoing: sanitation assessments, water supply schemes, community training and weekly progress assessments.

“The summer heat is at its peak these days with temperature escalating to 45 degree centigrade coupled with the high humidity due to monsoon. Hot weather has increased problems for common people living in prefabricated shelters. In this regard 247 fans were provided to prefab owners…”

“Similarly assessment of 300 families has been completed for shelters and cash grants in all four UCs in Battagram. Most of these families are those who had migrated after the earthquake and now, returned to their villages.”

“Three training workshops for electricians were completed in Bagh and interestingly four women also participated in these trainings. Furthermore, trainings for masons/carpenters have been delayed due to bad weather. Three vocational centres have been started in villages Makhdoom-Kot, Channat and Kotera.”

July – August 07

Monsoon delaying progress, however, conversion of prefabricated homes into permanent shelters now underway with 500 conversions assessed. Community centres act as hubs for skills training, particularly for women. Seven more under construction. Work started rebuilding community schools in Mansehra, Battgram and Muzaffarabad.

“…political instability took aside the subject of earthquake affected people’s rehabilitation and created unreliable security situation all over the country. Battgram Office was closed and the field activities were postponed for a couple of weeks due to critical law and order situation in the area.”

“Apart from the above mentioned activities, keeping in view the high ratio of females in the quake hit zone, the training and capacity building in the livelihood sector has been continued especially for women.”

“During the reporting month, the Health Centre in Battgram was burnt due to internal community conflicts that affected field activities in the area.”

Final thought

A lot of work continued unabated each month, such as community training, water supply regeneration schemes, school construction and health development. What I’ve described above is an extremely brief summary of the seemingly impossible task of redeveloping people’s lives from day one, but one that inspires the heart in its resilience to look to the light and give hope to millions through its effort.

ActionAid’s Response
  • 21 Health Centres fully operational treating 10,000 people per month
  • 8 ambulances servicing affected areas
  • Strong focus on livelihood training to accelerate the recovery process
  • Development of women’s rights and abilities to pressurise the government and improve their lives.


Source: http://www.actionaid.org.uk/100158/south_asia_earthquake.html

Permission to ride a camel, Please?

Mountain Trails

The river had flooded. The road was out. We were stranded. Within one day of leaving Datong, we were stood in the evening twilight gazing across 150m of muddy brown water at the track that continued up the other side. My hope was gone, the locals had been right. We would have to turn back.

For days since Datong, I’d received unconfirmed reports from locals that the road into the Kunlun Shan was blocked. My aim was to cross from the Pamir Mountains into the Kunlun Shan along Tibet’s Northern border via a relatively unknown mountain trail. But where one road was open another was closed, local information could never have a booth and should only be ever treated as a guide. The only solution was to travel to the source.

The roads through the Pamirs flow through an incredible series of gorges along riverside and mountain top. Riverside roads are usually unconditioned jeep tracks that resemble little more than slightly elevated river beds next to mountain torrents. Huge boulders from above and seasonal flooding from below are as much a threat to traffic today as eons before. Yet these were the Silk Road paths I wanted to follow to Beijing.

Natural defenses

From Taxkorgan our road followed the Taxkorgan river East across the Pamirs to its confluence with the muddy Yarkand River. See map. From that point the main track travels North and south below sheer cliffs towards the desert by two separate routes. The road I was following was the less used of the two and led onto a further trial that later crossed from the high Pamirs into the mysterious Kunlun Shan beyond. The Pamirs border the western edge of the Taklamakan and the Kunlun Shan border the south. I secretly hoped that the road blockage was only temporary. Perhaps at the most I could divert around it.

Leaving Datong we were stopped several times by donkey drivers, construction workers and stone miners who warned us to turn back. Six hours later we saw the truth for ourselves. The road was naught but a part of the river bed in good times and an actual part of it now. Given the height of the water this was seasonal flooding and the only life present that evening was a small gold mine buried high in the cliffs above on either side of the river, operated by a small aerial runway that dumped debris from the far of the river into a silo on ours.

Washed Away

PhotographRosa Khun fording the demon torrent before it turned nasty

No human, machine or camel train could make it across the divide. I still hoped to divert the caravan through a small village near the obstruction call Shartung but by 1830 that evening we hadn’t passed it yet. A mine workers yard told us Shartung lay up a narrow side valley an hour back down the road. It was already late so we pushed quickly to reach there by nightfall.

Unfortunately, the mountain stream we’d forded earlier had doubled in depth in the three hours since we’d crossed. Conditions from weather to water are extremely changeable in the mountains and nothing can be taken for granted. The bottom of the ford was lined with concrete and the water was running hard and fast. I sent Korban straight over pulling the weighted camel train behind. I was more concerned about the camels at that point and hadn’t given much consideration to myself.

With boots slung around our necks and trousers rolled up, Rosa and I braced together and set off across the stream. The undercurrent was strong and a third of the way across Rosa pulled away despite my protests. I continued but halfway over doubt pricked my mind and without time to condemn it, my knees wobbled, confidence evaporated, one knee buckled and I was down on both knees on the edge of a waterfall, trying to claw my way back against the undercurrent with my fingernails.

This wasn’t the movies and over I went, crashing 20m down stream with the other boulders and debris, powerless to the torrent and losing my head beneath the water with frightening regularity. The only thought I had at that point was not to give in. I regained my senses and managed to grab underwater boulders and pull myself along the current until the stream pooled and I clambered out. Stupid and silly! I was shivering from the shock one has after an unexpected threat.

Rosa was still on the other side and though I debated sending Korban across on the heaviest camel to retrieve him, neither of us were in a state for rescue so I sent Rosa back down the road to a mine worker’s yard for the night hoping the stream would be normal by morning. We pitched our tents nearby and I fell asleep to the rumble of rocks pounding down the nearby water course thankful that I still wasn’t one of them.

Gorge Country

PhotographHigh mountain trails on route to the restricted village of Kosrap

The following morning the ford was normal and I woke to find Rosa sitting nonchalantly on a rock smoking a rolly. Though the stream was low I wasn’t taking any chances and leading the small camel across on Boran, I safely landed Rosa back with the crew despite his objections that he could swim over safely. We had several guests for breakfast that morning including a crowd of semi-precious stone prospectors heading up to Shartung in hope of a lucky find. The area is known for it’s Jade (known as ‘kash’ in Uyghur), Lapis Lazuli and other gems. Some of the men had come from a far a field as Karakul, ten hours away.

I’ve encountered many individuals on the roadside over the last few weeks bearing jagged chunks of rock with thick veins of jade or other. If lucky the vein will be complete and yield a good price for the finder. A profound lack of jobs in the region means that many people resort to looking for stones to supplement their incomes and given the popularity I can only assume that many are successful.

Back in ‘small Datong’ we restocked on Naan bread and grass before pushing on. Locals are always extremely kind and we had a lovely stay in the grounds of the tiny village hotel. Such stops are crucial for the animals due to the lack of fresh water by the Yarkand River at the moment. The river water is filthy with sand and dirt and certainly not suitable for animal consumption.

Despite the maelstrom on our right, the next day’s riding was one that continued to bear the fruits of gorge country. Huge pillars of granite rock towered on either side of the river echoing the crash of the nearby water. In some places crumbling and in others heaped with sand deposited over millennia by the river to create vast table plateaus riddled with caves.

Into the Dragon’s Lair

Our trouble began at 1930 when a passing jeep we flagged down turned out to be a passing police car. We were heading towards Kosrap, a place where rumours of unrest earlier this year had sparked further rumours that the village was restricted for foreigners. However, like many places away from centers of authority in China, nobody was sure and since Kosrap lay on the only road available to us we pushed on.

PhotographInfinity crumpled on a piece of paper and dropped to Earth

On the other hand, the police felt differently. As soon as they found out I was English, I was politely asked into their vehicle also full of police officers and given the choice of leave, leave or leave. The men had a nice office for me at the police station where they questioned me about my journey and purpose. We were 17 kms outside of Kosrap, in an area of precipitous gorges and with slow moving camel train that couldn’t really move anywhere quickly before morning. But they were suspicious and my time with the camel caravan quickly came to a close. It was the 14th August.

In the police vehicle I was told I “you can return tonight.” In the police station I was informed “you can return tomorrow morning.” Then all my equipment and a bewildered Korban suddenly arrived in the middle of the night leaving Rosa to manage three camels, a horse and a 60 kg bag of corn. The police were never rude to me directly, but their treatment of my friends and I left me in doubt that we were guilty until proven innocent. The official in charge had no idea how to deal with us and as soon as High Command near Kashgar found out a strange foreigner was romping around the local countryside with camels, my fate was sealed.

The next morning, the police allowed Korban to rejoin Rosa. They wanted the camels safely secured in Kosrap and only allowed Korban to leave as I made it apparent that their wishes would be difficult for just one man. Yet Rosa wasn’t just one man and at 6am that morning the resourceful camel driver from Markit had saddled a panicky horse, packed the caravan, loaded the corn and tired the lead camel to Boran which he’d walked for the next five hours until he was united with Korban outside of Kosrap.

Meanwhile HQ in Akto (nr. Kashgar), had told Kosrap to bring me in for questioning. The presence of my video camera made them squeamish so all my luggage had to come to. The camels had arrived in town, and with them secured, I became a problem to get rid of as soon as possible as I was rammed in a jeep and off-loaded back to civilisation.

Current events aside, Kosrap was a beautiful mountain village of low mud-brick homes and winding alleyways. Two huge recently slaughtered sheep hung from an outside butchery when I arrived and the bazaar was the kind where every face was a familiar one. Activity moved everywhere from bustling shops to the piety of the local mosque. Still, most of all I was shocked. As a reflection on caravan travel, I was stunned to discover that the village was almost 100% Uyghur after several weeks of Tajik villages. Time with the caravan runs slow and such a change of population after several weeks was a big thing to accept at the time.

Leaving the Mountains

PhotographChanging Boran’s horse shoes Xinjiang style!

Thus we left the mountains. The jeep bounced out of Kosrap on a rough stone track that descended rapidly over the next two hours to the village of Karchung and the unwelcome arms of the desert. Slopes became more gradual and peaks more eroded. Greenery was as scarce as even a hint of life. And yet, just as the desert seemed ready to claim us, the Yarkand Deriya (river) suddenly opened before us and our world morphed into a greater picture of shunning ridges and rippled terrain. Infinity crumpled on a piece of paper and dropped to Earth on this spot. It was a last gasp of mountainous defiance and I was sad to leave it behind. My heart will always belong to the mountains where tradition clings on in the remotest corners and every new gorge has a different meaning.

We arrived in Akto with nightfall and the next morning travelled slowly from one place to another until I was finally plonked in Artush. There several bigwigs quizzed me on my purpose, donations, camera and equipment. A translator reviewed my latest tape and I was clear to leave. After a courtesy lunch, I was dumped unceremoniously in Kashgar with an inaudible sigh of relief. The verdict: make your own way back to Karchung where you will meet your camel drivers and caravan. You can continue your journey from there. I was a liability they wanted rid of and I never saw those officers again.

The Road to the End

Within 24 hours I was back in Karchung. Rosa and Korban were on their way down to meet me but I was bitter. The arrest meant nothing, but the 100kms I’d lost meant everything. I wasn’t allowed to complete my own journey due to events beyond my control. But then, one should never get too complacent.

Mere hours after arriving in Karchung, a harried phone call from Korban informed me that Rosa was on a major drinking bender, he was out of cash and needed help fast. They had made it to a small hamlet 20kms outside of Kosrap and hiring a motorbike I sped up to rejoin them.

PhotographRosa and Korban beating the seeds of grass to feed the animals

The road up was bleak and I missed all the enjoyment of the journey down. I had no intention of staying, intent only on dropping off bags and cash but Rosa soon changed my mind. Hat missing, shirt unbuttoned, trousers half down and staggering, there was no way I was returning to Karchung that night. Rosa’s 73 year old mother had recently lost her sight in one eye and my camel driver had chosen to wash away the resultant doctor’s fees in alcohol. Whilst Korban set up camp, I walked Rosa around for the next few hours and eventually got him to sleep before we collapsed and faced a long march the next day.

On August 18th, we began a footsore 45 km hike down to Karchung from Aratash. Korban spent most of the day back in Kosrap reclaiming unreturned belongings and we arrived together 13 hours later at 9pm. The bazaar (market) was quiet as we hunted for a place to sleep. A hotel and a hospital proved unwelcoming and as usual it was in a local backyard that we made the best friends and had the best night’s rest.

The Kewip Doctor

Sunday was market day and everybody was in town. Grocery stalls, stationery shops, ice-cream vendors and donkey carts jostled for space and the crowds milled between. Clucks, bays and moos protested as sales were made and the local medicine man was doing a roaring trade.

Amidst a patchwork of multi-hued canopies and stalls, Tahorchi Korban (77) sat with his wife and a hodge-podge of medicines from all over the world. Patients sidled up from all sides to gawp or receive attention. The Kewip doctor’s (local doctor’s) fee was the medicine he sold and he had something for everything. Dried snake (Igiri) for colds and shivers, thistle flowers for sore throats, dried rat droppings for rashes and antibiotics for everything else. Sunday was a relaxing day at the market. Monday was an unwelcome arrival.

A Storm in a Horseshoe

Boran hated it. He hated being strung up like a side of beef between two poles, but there was no other way to do it. The experts knew what they were doing. Boran’s front right shoe had snapped in two at the front whilst grazing and needed replacing. I had several spare horseshoes from Pakistan and since his other feet were fine we just replaced the one.

No horse like’s its feet tampering with and Boran least of all. Yet Xinjiang farriers have a ruthlessly effective way of dealing with this and spare no horse leniency when it comes to getting the job done. Without giving him time to think, I led Boran between two large goal posts outside of the farrier’s village shop. His bridle was quickly tethered to a crossbar above and a thick rope circled around his body. Two large loops were then passed under his chest and lower belly, suspending his weight off the ground and effectively immobilizing the equine.

The horse did all he could to escape, bucking, whinnying and sinking on his haunches to put weight on this front feet but he was tethered beyond movement and wasn’t going anywhere. This was a procedure common throughout Xinjiang and though I felt sorry for him, the farrier took only ten minutes to trim the hoof, level it off and place a new shoe on it. Given all the hassle I’ve had with previous horses, the whole operation was like lightning and I appreciated the work done, even if the skill lacked.

Permission to ride my Camel, please?

PhotographThe caravan together at the end for the final time

I’d been back from the farrier’s shop no more than an hour when the phone rang. “Police here, come quick,” Korban breathlessly announced. I rushed over for more fun. “Where is your permit?” the officer demanded. “You should have a permit from Urumchi, where is it?” I had no permit, nor never had. I’d been plainly told before I left by KMA that none was needed. My route passed through areas freely open to independent travel and there shouldn’t have been a problem. I did have paperwork stating my itinerary and purpose as well as my own information leaflets, yet neither was good enough for this weasel like man.

‘Out of the frying pan…’ I thought. “Would I ever make it to Beijing?” Though I’d been instructed to continue my journey by the big wigs previously, no police officer at their station would backup events as the reality is they probably shouldn’t have let me continue in the first place. Nobody would take responsibility for their actions. Karchung also lay in a different county to Kosrap and I was basically told, “different county, different rules.” The weasel then tried intimidating me through his superior office who growled over the phone lines, “sell your camels or you will be punished.” Obviously a reasonable man.

As the afternoon wore thin, I suggested meeting in Yarkand the following morning when I hoped to recover the mobile numbers of the officers who had cleared me to come to Karchung. I handed over my passport and arranged to accompany an officer down. I wasn’t going anywhere.

The next morning, the local police officers were all out stone prospecting and didn’t return all day. At 5pm, Keyoum from KMA called to inform me that every major police station from Karchung to Urumchi now knew about my ‘case.’ Despite my route lying through open areas, I actually did require a permit to cross Xinjiang with camels. Further more, if I wanted to continue “you must return to Kashgar, send your camel drivers home and arrange the permits you need here.” The visa office also knew about this so complying wasn’t really an option. The powers that be eventually allowed me to keep the camels in Karchung whilst I travelled to Karchung to organise the relevant documents. Rosa and Korban returned to their respective homes and I was soon on the bus to Kashgar weighted with three camel loads of bags.

Taking a Stance

Am I angry? No. Am I determined? Yes. Determined to see this through to the end and get my camel caravan back on the road to Beijing. The past three weeks have been one continual headache after another but I’ve always known China would be a hard nut to crack and I will see this through.

Boran and the camels are presently staying with Alim and Kamil Jan, the two lads who brought us to their house in the middle of the night several days ago. Ironically it was the boys?father, who had notified the police about the camels in his donkey yard some days ago. Yet there was no malicious intent and he was only doing what he deemed right. On the 22nd of August I had a fun final day with Korban and Rosa in Yarkand and I’m presently waiting for news of my applications from the military office in Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang province).

In retrospect, given the inadequacy of my previous paperwork, my run in with the police in Karchung was bound to happen sooner or later. China isn’t Pakistan or India and now that I understand the country a little better I’m presently applying for permits for every province from Xinjiang to Beijing. I hate being separated from my team. I hate being separated from my caravan. But to look on the bright side, the camels are now with a great family whom I know and trust, it’s late summer and a lovely time of year to be on the Southern Silk Road.

At the end of the day, Marco Polo needed permits, turns out so do I.

Tackling the Pamirs

With a click of a button I’m amazed that I can email now from the Pamirs. The technology is nothing new, but the ability to do so from this location was a long lost fantasy to previous Silk Road caravans in china.

Ten days gripped me like a vice in Kashgar clinching me in a state of final frenzy as I rushed to ensure all bricks were in place and all holes covered. At the fore of my mind was the need for good bags, new camel equipment, filming and finances. Time is never enough, need is always greater.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this brief respite was acquiring North Face bags from Beijing. I’d heard about a lot about the North Face Base camp bags, seen them in Kashgar coming off Pamiri expeditions and know they were right for the coming ride. Bombproof, waterproof, dust proof and camel proof, yet highly expensive and only available in Beijing. Getting hold of three required navigating China’s financial system and a lot of circular conversations in Chinese getting nowhere fast.

On the 16th July, gears shifted and the final pieces of the puzzle clunked into place. Camels were never meant for truck travel and in true caravan fashion it was infinitely more sensible to walk them down from Karakul. The distance to the start of the journey was 100kms, the town Taxkorgan and the man Zaire; the same Kyrgyz who’d looked after the camels for the past month.

An Open Question

PhotographThe timeless monument of Taxkorgan Fort guarding the Silk road since Xuan Zang

Taxkorgan greeted me like an open question open to suggestion and a hundred possible answers. It took three days to walk the camels down the main road to the Tajik town and another two for me to arrive. Daily updates accompanied their progress but I don’t think I was ever prepared to find the camels stabled in a school.

With my belongings stationed in Karakul, it was an extremely packed car of tack, rucksacks and animal fodder that pulled up to an old dilapidated school on the outskirts of town. The former center of learning was but a shell of its former glory and today used as a colony for local families, three camels and a horse. After unloading, the car rushed off to face a fine for not possessing a tourist license and I had a closer look at my former camels. (Note that I was accompanied on this journey by Memet Bhacti, who’d been asked by KMA to originally accompany me on this journey back in May. The offer had been rejected at the time due to his father’s ill health, but his brother had been the one to escort Alexandra Tolstoy across Xinjiang to Xian – and narrated in her book, ‘Last Secrets of the Silk Road’).

Lumbering forwards two of the beasts thrust their snouts through the barricaded entrance of a former classroom as I greeted them. Their blankets had been dumped in a ragged heap on the ground, and two of my formerly shaggy beasts had somehow molted their entire winter coat in the ten days we’d been separated. Boran was tethered in the classroom cum stable next door looking forlorn but healthy.

All the animals had been stabled with Memet Imim, a Kyrgyz family relation of Zaire’s whose family home was in the classroom opposite to the camels. Memet was a large man in his late forties I’d met several times before at Karakul Lake. His slow movements and slightly dimwitted approach to life made him great around the prickly Boran and true to this word he faithfully looked after my suppository of belongings while we were in Taxkorgan. But the man was wily in business and when it came to the cost of room rent, learning truth from local fiction was a skill I quickly had to acquire.

From the day I arrived in town my primary concerns were finding grass fodder for the animals countering Memet Imim’s attempts to secure more money for the animals and replacing broken camel equipment. The camels had wisely chosen to eat the one saddle that had been left dumped in their enclosure and another run to Kashgar was needed to buy another one. Finding a new cameraman and dealing with a hospitalized drunken camel driver rounded off the six days in town but it was the enraged owner of the school that eventually bade us farewell.

PhotographBattling the Camels in a mining Explosion near Xindie

Ranting and raging over the injustice of camels in his complex, the Tajik man created a storm in a teacup while a vet was examining our small camel for problems. The animal wasn’t touching his food and had a series of strange marks around his snout. Calling the vet was a last minute precaution to later problems. The Tajik owner has two issues. One, being that the wily Memet Imim hadn’t paid him a cent of the money I’d given him for the animal’s ‘room.’ Two, he wasn’t happy about three smelly camels living in his school and basically wanted us to leave straight away. However, the man wouldn’t see reason. The animals had lived in the school for eight days and one more night would hardly make a difference. The issue of money was between him and Memet Imim and in the end a policeman had to be called to mediate the issue.

Thus on Friday, 27th July 2007, we set off for good. Everything from fate, God and Taxkorgan combined had thrust us out on the open road. There was no looking back. It took over four hours to pack, film and persuade the horse to leave his sanctuary and at 0930am we were off. Beijing beckoned and our first day was underway. It was the start of a beautiful day.

Taxkorgan Fort passed slowly on our right as we headed 35kms to our first night’s stop at Xindie. Since time memorial Taxkorgan has been a Silk Road stopover and the fort is a relic of a previous time. ‘tax’ (Tash) literally translates as ‘stone’ in the local Uighur and Tajik languages and rumour has it that a stone tower near Taxkorgan once provided a much needed navigation point for Silk Road caravans heading East across the Taklamakan desert, West into Central Asia or South into India.

The First Day

However, like all first days, problems are the things we couldn’t anticipate and ours began five kilometers outside Taxkorgan. As the main road neared, one of the ropes attaching the ride’s banners to the lead camel snapped and the animal went berserk. The rope became entangled around its legs and neck and the Bactrian’s struggles were ripping the nose pegs out of the other animals behind. Suddenly, the whole caravan was in danger of breaking loose and sprinting forward I was able to cut the front camels lead rope with my knife. The head beast finally calmed down but the banners were now in shreds and only serious repairs would fix them.

Everything was in a mess and just as we were righting fate’s undoing, a cry and a shout rent the air. Screaming and bellowing for all his worth a local man came stumbling over a nearby rise. His hat was askew, coat in tatters and eyes bloodshot. I’d no time for the local drunk. Yet this one stormed over grabbing the ropes of a nearby camel and dragging it over the road. Apparently we were on his property and he wanted us off. He couldn’t see we were in a temporary pickle and as the camel he was dragging screamed in pain I grabbed the imbecile and marched him from the scene. I was furious, but drunks act on impulse not on thought and fortunately the man acquiesced when we’d moved everything off his land.

PhotographPushing on alongside the idle Taxkorgan River

The delay had cost us an hour and we still had 30 kms left to march. After a short push along the main road to Kashgar our road branched off to the left and civilisation became an afterthought in a sudden world of villages, stone and wilderness. Crags ruled, rocks dominated and life hid in the crevasses. The Silk Road was never easy and this first day certainly wasn’t to be. The muddy waters of the Taxkorgan River swirled to our right and we made good time on a recently tarmaced road, straight into the maw of China’s industrial might.

The Chinese are investing incredible sums of money in this region as their economy expands and needs grow. Raw material consumption is exponential at present and the Pamirs are the perfect source. Rich in minerals, metals and water?we were about to enter the thick of it. In an almost abrupt transition we traveled from nothingness into a hive of activity. Bulldozers and diggers were as common above the road as the dump trucks ploughing down it. Huge industrial scale tunnels created a warren in the hillside above and it was only through God抯 grace that we noticed the frantic waving from above.

Walking with Dust Storms

Once again, China reminded us that nowhere within her territory was without upheaval as from the heights above an explosion ricocheted through the gorge. A storm of debris pounded the surrounding area and the camels decided enough was enough. The head camel tired from a heavy load and unconditioning, knealt down and tried to roll. Dust clouds billowed around and pent-up traffic blasted their way past. Hell had erupted in a matter of seconds but nothing would stop the camels.

As one camel lay down, the others had to follow and we all became ghosts in the flesh, yanking, yelling, heaving and intimidating the reluctant beasts back to their feet. Xindie was but a stone’s throw away, yet though we’d left early it was already 9pm. Without knowing what to expect predicting everything is impossible and as I learnt in Pakistan you sometimes just have to deal with problems one thing at time.

A blanket of darkness welcomed us into Xindie, broken only by a single light. Aside from the road workers tents at the start of the village, the area was strangely silent and hardly the hundreds of people I’d been told lived here. Our cameraman directed us to a local Tajik camping ground two kilometers out of the village and we spent an eerie night amongst the recent ruins of former residences. Daylight brought no new clues to the absence of life here and it wasn’t until several days later that I learnt the terrible truth. A freak storm had unleashed cataclysmic mud slides on the village destroying the community who have since been relocated to Taxkorgan. (I suspect moved by an anxious local government keen to avoid another disaster).

Our first day on the road had been hard and unpredictable. Though we arrived in the dark, even the horse offered little protest as he was unsaddled. Organising four strange animals, camping by torch light and cooking for five people on an untested petrol stove made our first day a hard reality pill to swallow. And yet once done, lesson learnt. Though the next few days weren’t easy none was as tough as that first one. I’d passed my own mental exam and morning put everything in perspective.

Over Nature’s Fortress

PhotographLocal Tajik man tossing hay next to the road

Throughout the next day we picked our way through a tapestry of nature’s gorges winding one way and the next with the adjoining river. We cleared China’s industrial backyard after a few hours and before long pockets of greenery broke through the barrenness around. Small squat homes of mud and brick began to dot the roadside, wasteland turned to lush green fields and cows mooed in the field. Nature’s cell had finally been broken and a new world beckoned.

The road disintegrated into a rock strewn mess better suited to a river bed than a key local artery. In a region upturned by armies and politics we were now in the heartland of China抯 Tajiks. A traditional people to whom respect is highly valued and with the time that village life brings to invest in friendships and each other. We were now truly on the other Pamir Highway connecting Taxkorgan to Yarkand and a route little changed in a thousand years.

Here TV and telephones are a broken dream. Women don traditional head-dresses and men peaked baseball caps. Villages are typically constructed of mud and stone dwellings akin to adobe when plastered. Along the road connecting village to village, donkey transport is as common as 4x4s. Jobs are a rarity here. Most people make a living off the land or selling Jade or precious stones from the surrounding hills. Education is still difficult for most children as schools are few and far between. As far as I can tell few in the region offer instruction in Chinese, thus few graduates are able to contribute to China’s economy and earn a high wage in a private of Government job. Boys are often given preference over girls to attend the better schools with Chinese classes. The Tajik language is never taught.

Still, people here are industrious; for every village we passed through has been beautifully landscaped with poplar lined roadsides and neatly walled fields. Most remarkable is that almost every nook, cranny and boulder by the road has been built around them to create pens for chickens or enclosures for livestock. Land is at a premium in the mountains sand every scrap of arable land had been tilled. Finding grass for the animals has been one of the main problems we’ve faced so far.

Hunting for Grass

At the end of our second day, we entered Bilda village, an explosion of greenery after a desert of brown. We were greeted by a friendly family distantly related to our cameraman. Whiles I still had business back in Taxkorgan, the caravan spent five days at Bilda. As in Taxkorgan I was surprised at Bilda to find grass so scare in an area so plentiful. Locals would not allow us to graze our animals but they were eager to sell us bagfuls of fodder at a hefty price. It’s a point that vexes me still.

However, the further into the mountains we’ve travelled, the friendlier the people have become. Grass has become more forthcoming (often for free) and calls to tea or pulao rice echo from doorways in the villages we stay. We’ve passed through a staggering patchwork of vaulted gorges and precipitous cliffs created through an eon of erosion. The caravan has responded well to the road and life with the camels is a slow one.

On the Road

PhotographDay to day breakfast of fried egg, Naan bread, noodles and melon

Since Bilda, we’ve spent four days on the road and five days off it. It’s now two weeks since we left Taxkorgan. Each day has been a fresh learning curve as new equipment is tested and things repacked for better storage and easier access. Each night we’ve camped opposite the camels after a battle with the river to pitch tents amongst the stones alongside.

Camels travel slowly at around four kilometres per hour and we make around 30 kms per day (around 160 kms completed). Food whilst travelling has been mainly noodles and naan bread and grass for the camels bought locally. Camels will eat anything from grass to cardboard and have an insatiable appetite. One of their favourite foods is bizarrely thistles (known as ‘Khu Ha’ locally) and half an hour amongst nature’s weeds is enough to give a camel a bellyful. A camel generally thinks for itself more than a horse and if fed-up, tired or hungry will simply kneel without warning or lunge across the road for the nearest greenery.

Boran has been an episode in his own right and each day is a new goal reached. A week ago I was able to put on his saddle without help and a few days ago it was his bridle. Trust is slowly developing between us, and like all friendships time is needed to water it further. Camels are less complicated than horses but our three have their own idiosyncrasies that I’ve only just beginning to understand.

Regarding the crew?despite his drunken misdemeanour some weeks ago, Rosa Khun has developed into a great camel driver diligent in his duties, knowledgeable and with a ready cackle. Communicating is getting easier as my Uighur improves and the man seems content with a bellyful at night and a road to walk on the next day. He doesn’t ride horses! Korban on the other hand can be churlish and conveniently absent minded when he wants but he does as asked and seems to keep a level head in a crisis. I expect he抣l be with us for another week.

Off the Road

After three days on the road I was glad when we eventually pulled into the tiny oasis of Lenga, a small island of forest on a low plateau over the Yarkand River. The camels needed resting, horseshoes needed checking and I had a whole gamut of chores to complete from darning socks to washing clothes, to repairing equipment and repacking. Despite a run-in with the local police (who ironically translated from Chinese to Uighur for me when they found I knew a little), our brief stopover was also the occasion to treat two of the camels.

For days, two of the animals had been attracting an extraordinary number of flies and it turned out their nose-pegs were infected. Camels in Xinjiang (NW China) are controlled by a single wooden peg driven through the upper ligaments of their nose while they抮e still young. A length of rope is attached to this, which is used to keep the camel in check and in line with the caravan. On the move, the rope of each camel is tied loosely to the pack saddle of the animal in front and the caravan ticks forward as one.

However, one of the nose pegs had almost come loose and another sat over a gaping wound unhealed from a previous time ?and left untreated would become home to maggots and any number of untold nasties. One at a time, each camel was made to kneel and a length of rope wrapped around its left knee, passed over its neck and around its right knee, thus preventing the beast from rising. Its head was then carefully positioned next to a nearby tree and the nose pegs were readjusted and wounds disinfected and treated. We are currently using a new tea-tree based ointment called White Healer from Ranvet in Australia.

Challenges to Come

It’s been five days now since ‘surgery’ and both camels have improved. In this heat, keeping flies away is impossible but I expect the wounds to heal quickly. From hereon, the gorges get tighter and we face possible problems with flooding on the Yarkand River as we head towards the Tibet border and into the Kunlun Mountains. The next major Silk Road center is at Hotan about 500kms from our present position, where silk weaving and jade trading are still a major part of local life. Our caravan plods on. Slow going equals a slow life and problems come and go on the wind that carries them. Until next time.

Organising the Caravan Part 2

Making decisions is easy, it’s all the ‘what ifs’ that get in the way and finding the right camel driver threw up a whole bunch. There was no ideal. No one man who matched all the requirements of English speaker, Chinese speaker, camel expert and route guide to Beijing all rolled into one.

Of course there were plenty of possibilities, yet friends helped narrow it down and in the end it was either the camel drivers from Karakul Lake (around 300kms from Kashgar) or a man from Markit. The Karakul chaps were expensive yet spoke English, Chinese and knew camels. The man from Markit (bordering the desert near Kashgar), had 30 years experience with camels, yet spoke no English and little Chinese.

The what-ifs churned through my mind; what if we can’t communicate, how will we deal with Chinese officialdom if he can’t speak Chinese, what if… but then life would be dull without a challenge and aside from communication issues, the man from Markit was perfect for the job.

I first met Roza Khun at a table in John’s Caf?in mid-June, but then again more formally with his wife on 02nd July. He’ve brought no winter clothing with him for our Pamir/Kunlun crossing and his wife wanted an advance to help feed their family of six at home.

However, these things weren’t really a problem. Roza had already led a 20 plus day expedition across the heart of the Taklamakan desert with 30 odd camels and 5 English people and they’ve managed well. He was highly recommended by KMA and although my Uyghur wasn’t great, we could communicate what we needed. Further more I had another solution to the communication issue.

During a follow up trip to Karakul I’ve met Korban, a young raffish Kyrgyz lad who lived in the next door 憏urt?to Manas and Ayesha. His English was adequate, he understood Chinese, he fit my budget and most importantly he provided a crucial link between myself and Roza during the first difficult two weeks of the journey.

The Dilemma of the Third Camel
Camel Choosing PhotographIs this my good side or perhaps this one? Rosa Khun mulling over a third camel?.

It was my privilege to have Maria Lagarde from Mexico film the entire start of the journey across China. Although our time together was only a short six weeks, she was certainly up to the job and her professionalism, vision and ability with the video camera was exemplary and I highly recommend her. Her future is bright.

With less than four days to go before Maria left for another shoot in Cairo, we left for Karakul once again to begin a trial journey around the lake. The advantages gave more time to uncover future problems, eliminate existing ones and film the vital preparation stages of the journey that can’t be shot myself.

With the benefit of time, I’ve been mulling over the idea that I’ll need a third camel for the journey ahead. Our total supplies currently range under 200kgs but add on another 150litres of water for the scarcer sections of desert and that’s another 150kgs. It’s better to be safe than sorry so with Roza and the usual bunch of Karakulites we headed out to buy another.

Over 60 camels were gathered in a nearby village on route to Muztagh Ata base camp, around 15 kms away from Karakul. In fact Karakul had been virtually emptied of camels and only the sound of baleful calves, wailing for their mothers rent the air as we motored away from the lake.

The day was typical mountain weather, sometimes balmy, sometimes cloudy and the camels were tethered in a line to a nearby fence as we arrived. This time picking out the big from the small was easy, yet the weather had turned hot and most were now furless. Doubt pricked my mind over their suitability to the Kunlun cold yet there was little choice otherwise. After the usual song and dance of price haggling we settled on the biggest camel there for around ?60. As Roza put it, “this one will fetch you ?00 in Hotan.”

A Final Party
Camel Packing PhotographPacking the Camels for the First time with Maria filming.

The night before we left we had a grand party in an adjoining yurt. A goat was slaughtered and both Ayesha and Korban’s mother spent the afternoon boiling it up, cooking Palau and an assortment of other local dishes. I bought the goat from Korban’s father and it was nice to see the whole local community involved in the preparation.

Though always money conscious, this little community has given a lot. They’ve hosted the animals, and given bed and board to my friends and I without complaint or charge. Their laughter and smiles always made my stay there something to look forward to and it was good to give something back.

It had already gone 9pm by the time the party started. Much of the afternoon had been spent loading the camels in a test run for the following morning and it had taken longer than expected. Camel hide yurts typically cost over 2000 RMB (about ?50) and this one had been nicely decorated inside with embroidery and hanging blankets.

All of a sudden the night was whisked into high gear. Sitting on a raised dais the entire local community from babies to biddies swelled our numbers to 30. The food cloth was laid out and plate upon plate of local grub was whipped out. First was Chwati, a sweet version of the Indian chapatti, then Kita Kitana, a thicker less sweet type of Chwat, bowls of yogurt and Palau rice followed, with a huge bowl of hacked up goat placed with pomp in the middle.

I was given the honour of first chunk of goat flesh to sit prominently on my Palau. An Imam blessed the food and the journey and everybody tucked in. Music followed food, first with a local Rewab player (a type of guitar) enthralled by the camera and then by a bizarre Kyrgyz style disco. Bulging bellies groaned for the next hour and a half as the local DJ, whipped disc after disc into his portable synthesizer for our disco in a yurt.

Where Camels dare and horse don’t

It was at six o’clock in the morning when Roza announced “at yok,” translated as “horse, not have.” The morning had begun well. Jumping on bikes, I with Korban, Manas with Zaire, we spent the morning completing motor-cross circuits over the surrounding scrub hills.

We quickly found the brute’s hoof prints disappearing off the roadside but couldn’t trace them more than a few hundred meters. It was the start of a long morning drama that lasted another six hours. We eliminated all the possibilities, travelling 40kms down the road to Kashgar and combing many surrounding valleys. We came across several herds of wild horses near local Kyrgyz villages but found no sign of mine.

At 12.30pm I got a phone call from Zaire saying “come home, horse found” and indeed he had. Stood nonchalantly munching grass, the horse stood with a smaller specimen, he’ve managed to free during the night. Needless to say, he wasn’t very popular with the neighbours from that point on.

Chomping Camels PhotographCamels chomping on grass during a brief respite in the weather and our trial run around Karakul Lake.

Trying to catch a horse on open ground is impossible without other horses and experience and we had a manic chase on our hands over the next hour. Eventually, we cornered the impish duo between the shores of a nearby lake and a rock wall. He wasn’t happy to be captured but at least we could now hit the road.

Loading camels is a complicated process the first time you see it. One camel needs 30m of rope to lash the bags on with. With bags weighed and placed on either side, a loop of rope is laid on top of the reluctantly kneeling camel. What follows is a series of twists and turns that weaves an elaborate web to tie a balanced pyramid of bags over the camel’s humps.

Each Bactrian camel has its own blanket consisting of two long wooden poles, about 1.2m long on either side of the hump and on top of a thick stuffed pad. Bags are distributed equally on either side of the hump and lashed on to the animal using the wooden poles for stability. Depending on the load, a good camel handler will use the entire length of 30m to secure the necessities to a camel’s back. The left over length is then tucked neatly away afterwards.

Foot, Pad and Hoof

On 07, 07, 2007 we set off from Karakul for the small hamlet of Yirak Yak, 20kms down the Friendship Highway to Pakistan. Packing had taken only a few hours after our practice run and even the horse allowed Roza and I to tack him up. However his temporary spell of acquiescence wasn’t to last.

Being on the road again felt as if eighteen months had slipped by in a second. All this time I’ve worked towards or dreamt about leaving and eventually doing so wasn’t a disappointment. Hiking through the mountains felt very much like in Pakistan. The hot and cold temperatures of the day, the wet and wilds of changeable mountain weather.

We took to the road as three travellers should, full of confidence and with no glance back. The shiny blacktop of the road stretched ahead into the waiting arms of a gathering storm. The browns and blacks of the surrounding peaks reflected in the shadows of the rapidly encircling clouds as we marched on our way to Yirak Yak.

Diary writing PhotographWriting my diary at Yirak Yak, just before The Great Horse Chase began.

Around 7.30pm a brief spell of sunshine gave way to the squall that had been threatening for ours and we drenched by the time we reached our destination. One thing you can’t do with camels is obtain something once it’s lashed on and my jacket unfortunately was one of them.

Yirak Yak was a small American frontier style homestead tucked away at the feet of Muztagh Ata mountain towering above. It was pitch black when we arrived at 9.15pm and it was in a sodden state that we unloaded the bags into an adjoining yurt. Though we had had no problem with the camels, the horse proved different.

As we removed his tack, the feel of the blanket going on this back spooked him and the renegade bolted. The sandy soil of the area was no match to an adrenalin enraged beast fresh out of a storm and the spike was ripped out easily. I glanced in despair at Zaire only to see him shrug his shoulders. Though I didn’t realize at the time, the entire paddock was fenced in and the horse would be fine till morning. Suddenly his name came to me. As changeable as the weather, yet as frightening as the black clouds rolling overhead, ‘Boran’ would be his name, or ‘storm’ in the local Uyghur language.

Playing with Storms

The next day brought more trouble with Boran and this time it wouldn’t be easy. With Muztagh Ata rearing overhead, the horse was a black speck of defiance against a stunning backdrop of white might. In a paddock the size of 16 football fields, catching a horse isn’t easy. There was no lake to corner him around and what followed was three days of headaches.

Chasing him on motorbikes proved fruitless and we certainly weren’t cowboys. My original plan had been to carry on with the camels to the village of Karasu, 25kms further on, but I shelved the idea and directed the caravan back to Karakul. The horse had been unbridled for too long and I knew that it would take more than just backup to catch him once again.

Without the need to film, the return journey was quicker than the journey there. Maria Lagarde left at 12.30pm with Zaire by bike to Karakul and eventually by car and flight to Cairo, Egypt. The excitement of the journey down had lifted and I remember the four hour stretch back as only a footsore one of unchanged socks, unused muscles and long extents of black top.

The morning brought another disastrous attempt to recover Boran. Nine locals, five motorbikes and general incompetence failed to catch the happy go lucky equine. This was a one man job and though I had no idea what I was doing, I remained on while the others returned to the lake.

So what did I learn? Under a hot blazing sun, I refused to play Boran’s game. Here we had been in a field the size of an aircraft hanger trying to chase a horse with nothing more than hope and a length of rope. No way! So I just followed him. For the next seven hours I traipsed around the field after him. Though he galloped away every time I came close, I admired his spirit and fearlessness.

Over time the distance between us became smaller and smaller. Boran stopped legging away each time I came close and began to stop more frequently, pricking his ears in wonder (or annoyance) at this stranger following him around the field trying to win his trust. Eventually the gap narrowed to ten meters and when presented with water even one meter was possible.

Yet today was not going to be the day I caught him. Not alone and not with such small collateral of trust between us. Boran’s heart is a good one and though I cursed him endlessly at the time I knew he was the right horse for this ride when I caught him.

But how to catch him? I didn’t want to be mangled and I certainly didn’t want to harm him. Involving another person would take time and what was needed was some way to immobilize him without completely destroying the relationship I was trying to build.

Where Horses will dare
The Full Filming Crew PhotographThe full team gathered for the final time at Yirak Yak on July 08th.

The following morning I returned armed with l0m of rope, 10litres of water and a bucket. My plans were simple. Plan A. Offer Boran water inside a loop of rope and attempt to throw the lasso over his head whilst he drank. Plan B. Place a loop of rope in front of said bucket and quickly draw it tight as soon as both legs were inside.

Plan A was a disaster for the horse wasn’t stupid and wouldn’t go anywhere near the bucket. Plan B had him curious and after several attempts his thirst overcame his caution and as soon as one hoof was inside I slowly drew tight the noose, flicked it upwards and tightened it around his ankle.

He immediately tried to run but the rope was anchored around my waist and the horse was instantly grounded. He stood confused and unsure of what to do. Over the next 30 minutes we both stood eye to eye, equine occasionally eating grass and testing the rope, me sweating my bollocks off in the sun.

Eventually, Roza arrived by bike with more rope and we managed to fashion a make shift halter onto the horse. With the halter on, he became malleable once again and surprisingly meek. He’s a strange one. He displayed the courage of a war charger in our little battle with him the day before, but this day he was as mild as a stabled riding pony. To him humans are cruel harsh masters who only use and abuse. I intend to prove him wrong.

The Road Ahead

It took four agonizing hours to ride Boran back to Karakul (without a saddle) and within another two hours we were on our way back to Kashgar. Blue Peter’s pickup carried us back, held together by bits of tape and twine and this is where I am sat now.

The main lessons learnt from our minor trip were in how we packed and the bags we have. It’s too early to predict any equipment problems but all seem to be working fine at the moment. I’ve still got some bags to buy, web updates to make and paperwork to complete.

The road ahead is a long one. Silk trade routes were never defined by today’s modern highways and the first month of our journey now lies along an old trade route that extends from the Pamirs and through the heart of the Kunlun Shan to Hotan. The area is rough, poor and hopefully relatively unchanged. We’ll be on the road again within the week.

After note: I抦 told that many of the camels on Muztagh Ata are overloaded and treated badly. I can only comment that those I saw used in Karakul were fit, healthy and in no way seemed in bad condition.

Organising the Caravan Part 1

It’s a tremendous time at the moment, sort of like sitting in an airplane waiting for a skydive. I arrived in Hong Kong on the 22nd February and left on the 4th June 2007 and now with days to go the whole R4E expedition is about to kick off.

Yet how do you organize a first expedition? Where do you start? With long term logistics such as equipment, permits etc… mostly organised, the past month has been primarily a time of lists upon lists of immediate items needed such as food, animals, tack and labour.

And most important of all was time. Time to check the route, time to film in Kashgar and time to ensure everything is bought and working before departure. Time has always been a luxury in my final days before crossing Pakistan and India, and it wasn’t going to limit me again.

Karakul Sensibilities

Was choosing a camel driver going to be a simple case of line the candidates up and choose one? I’d have like to think so as I arrived at Karakul Lake with Maria on the 13th June, unprepared for touristic sensibilities and collapsing camerawomen.

Karakul Lake is a tourist hotspot in the centre of the Pamir Mountains at an ethereal 3500m above sea level and around 400kms from Kashgar. Tourists from across China and overseas flock here to pray for a clear blue sky and a picture with the might of Muztagh Ata above them and the crystal blue waters of the lake behind.

The lake is also near to Muztagh Ata base camp and home to the once nomadic Kyrgyz population. During the summer high season big expensive expeditions gather in the Pamirs to attempt the Muztagh Ata and Kongur Shan peaks. The local Kyrgyz provide the expertise and their camels give the transport.

And yet tourist dollars bring a tourist way of mind and this is unfortunately how many Kyrgyz think. China is the sort of place where the sponge of bureaucracy soaks up much of the profits from big expeditions and little money trickles down to the local populations around Karakul.

With the bus loads of tourists arriving daily, Kyrgyz see tourists as a valuable opportunity to make money which I don’t decry. It’s the attachment of money to every little offer of help, small service or otherwise that I don’t like. The greedy local rubbing his index finger and thumb together at me and saying "how much" in whatever language.

Many things justify an expense, yet the kindness of the human heart should not. There are of course exceptions, which I’ll come to later, yet very few things in Karakul come for free and the offer of payment is never refused.

Choosing a Camel Driver

Kashgar Sunday Market PhotographThe bedlam and chaos of Kashgar’s Sunday Animal Market

The basic offer tabled was a journey together from Taxkorgan to Dunhuang, about halfway to Beijing and approximately 2500kms distant. Included was a salary, food, insurance and all the equipment they would need.

Camels were and are alien creatures to me at present and camel trains need camel drivers. Their safety and my own at the start of this journey is imperative and a good camel driver’s expertise is imperative over the first four months of the ride to Dunhuang.

I had arranged to meet two local Kyrgyz camel drivers through a contact of Kashgar Mountaineering Adventures at the lake. Both of these dollar hardened vets wanted more than double the local price and I even had to hire the yurt we were meeting in!

Still, all clouds have a silver lining, and mine emerged through Zaire and his family. As negotiations quickly collapsed, a young man in a Kyrgyz cap and jeans came forward to offer his services along the road to Dunhuang. Although this was not meant to be, my friendship to him, his yurt and family was and began a series of repeat visits to Karakul that proved exceptions do exist and that help can often come from the most surprising sources.

A New Horse

Buying a horse is always exciting and though not Peshawar, Kashgar’s Sunday market was an engaging place to be. After scouting the local equine scene the week before I knew what to expect on my second visit on June 17th.

Karakul Lake PhotographBoran grazing by the tranquility of Karakul Lake

Kashgar’s Sunday market is a huge Central Asian affair playing host to a mix of nationalities and minorities from across the region. Thousands of people gather to barter, buy, borrow and gossip over a huge range of goods that spill into the streets and remind you that China is somewhere far away.

About ten years ago the animal section of the market was moved from central Kashgar to the outskirts to create more room for people and establish some order to chaos (and in the process removing much of its charm). But the animal market is still an old piece of the Silk Road even if locked behind four walls. Mayhem and bargains rolled into one. Weathered faces, bubbling cauldrons and thousands of bleating, baying, complaining, sheep, goats, cows and equines being paraded and fought over.

Horses are located at the very top of the market away from the bedlam. It’s usual in this region for a middle man to negotiate the sale between the buyer and seller. In this case I was accompanied by Semet Sadik, an old Asian horse hand and quite different to the veterinarians who helped me in Pakistan and India.

As in Pakistan, it’s not about how well disciplined or behaved your horse is, it’s about how fast it can gallop and how strong it looks. Physical strength towers over mental ability. The most crazy horse in the land may also be the most highly valued and one of the first one’s I tried almost killed me.

Karakul Lake PhotographThe future of the common Yurt? Concrete Kyrgyz yurts gracing Karakul’s shore.

"Bullet" was all crimped mane and fancy tail and the most expensive horse on the lot. Yet almost as soon as I boarded the phantom brained brute, he bolted, stringing me along somewhere after his tail and leaving me plastered against the far brick wall.

It was only a bruised ego I suffered and after him there was only three other horses worth considering. There were around 25 horses gathered and Semet Sadik had already been over them with a keen eye. He told me he could tell the age and type of horse from his eyes and of the three only one showed any promise.

Not only did the final horse look strong, he was the only one who allowed me to walk and trot him around the upper paddock. To me, he had more brains than the other three combined and after some protracted negotiations Semet helped seal the deal at around £230 which fit my budget exactly.

As a finale, we sealed the deal with a touch of the seller’s hand to the ground to show solidarity and finality in the earth and we soon had the horse on a truck to Karakul. With the buying of the horse there was no turning back and stabling the horse in Karakul would help acclimatise the animal to high altitude and get him accustomed to the camels – whom horses generally dislike.

Why do I Care, I’m a Camel

Karakul Inside Yurt PhotographZaire and friends gathered inside a local Kyrgyz yurt.

The horse arrived several hours before we did at the white washed walls of Zaire’s brother’s yurt in Karakul. Night time is cold at 3500m and with the words "and you can stay with us for free", we didn’t linger very long outside after the stallion was unloaded and put out to graze lakeside.

Zaire’s brother Manas lived by the lake with his wife Ayesha and their three year old son Mustaffa. They made a living selling bric-a-brac items from Kashgar to tourists at the lake. Like most Kyrgyz dentistry was an unaffordable luxury and Manas?toothless grin was one of the highlights of my stays there.

Both Manas and Ayesha lived in a one of the newer concrete yurts abundant by the lake. Many Kyrgyz today live in village house in the winter and a summer yurt like this one in the summer. Traditional camel hide yurts are still more popular but the concrete ones are inherently more practical.

We arrived back in Karakul to visit a ‘Monday camel market’ follow-up to Kashgar’s animal market the day before, yet what we perceived was something far different.

It was simply a fact that every day camels and their owners gather by the lake to give rides to tourists and not an ancient camel market as I’d been led to believe. Nevertheless, it was nice to believe so to some extent. To me camels are one of the most alien creatures on Earth, their cries of protest reflecting another world far away and a direct reminder of the alien lifestyle I’m about to embark on.

Make no mistake that this final section of the journey is a completely different story to India or Pakistan. Experience from these latter two countries will only get me so far and finishing this journey in one piece and accomplishing everything else is the challenge now.

What had begun as a beautiful morning quickly turned into a day of intermittent squalls and gusts. Between 30 and 40 camels were huddled by the lake giving reluctant rides to occasional Chinese tourists. Most were in various stages of molting with huge clumps of fur hanging off to create some rather amusing new hair styles.

Camels by Karakul Lake PhotographCamels molt in the summer but lose their impressive presence in the process.

I needed two camels to carry the expedition’s luggage for the next four months to Dunhuang (where I can exchange or buy more). A medium camel can carry around 100kgs of equipment, food and water per day without hassle over a long distance. On offer were various sizes, the only problem was choosing one.

As far as camels go, I know little and though Zaire was present, he was mainly a yes-man and only occasionally offered an opinion. However, this was a good place to choose one. Many camels had straight humps, broad chests and strong legs from a life of rich grazing and carting tourists several hundred metres up and down the lake.

Sealing the Deal

By lining the beasts up next to the lake it was possible to see which was bigger (although as soon as one was lined up, another was being towed away for another tourist to ride!). Riding them showed their temperament and good old gut instinct settled my mind on the first one. The owner was brought forward and the deal struck.

The second camel was harder to find. Many of the camels were being taken home early due to the wintry gusts blasting us all morning and only small and furless ones seemed to be left. Although I was assured otherwise, I didn’t feel comfortable taking a completely molted camel into the icy cold of the Kunlun Shan.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a shaggy monster loomed over the crowd. This brute could carry a small truck and was perfect for the journey. The owner on the other hand was unwilling to sell. Yet patience is a buyer’s reward and a seller’s frustration and his price came down to a more modest £300.

Zaire agreed to keep both camels and the horse with Manas and we were soon on the road back to Kashgar to buy food, sort out finalities and decide on a camel driver for the next four months.

Hong Kong or Bust

The Last Frontier in China

Hopes, dreams and a whiff of adventure carried me to Dunhuang for a winter sojourn before I considered continuing my journey in spring. The train journey from Kashgar was cold and was only memorable for existing in double digits for far too long. For 37 hours our train chugged to Turpan from where I took a bus across twelve hours of desert out of Xinjiang and Central Asia into China proper.

Dunhuang has always been a frontier town on the rough and tumble edges of the Chinese empire. A speck amidst the roaring expanse of the Gobi desert and yet a critical trade node for those passing in or out of China. The accumulation of mountain ranges, deserts and imposing geography made the town a natural gateway to China for those heading in and a departure point of sorrow for those heading west.

The oasis has always lain at the head of a natural bottleneck of life between icy Tibet and parched Mongolia and thrived on the Silk Road trade that flowed through it. The traditional Chinese name was Sha-Chou (city of sands) whilst Marco Polo referred to the vast dunes nearby as the "rumbling sands." Whilst a promise of Chinese civilization lay along the Yellow river to the east, the uncompromising dunes of the Taklamakan marched to the West. Two Silk roads developed over time to skirt this colossus and as in Kashgar, both converged in Dunhuang.

Over the centuries, the importance of this piece of greenery on China’s periphery waxed and waned with the trade of the Silk Routes. During the Han dynasty (200BC – 200AD) the Great Wall of China was extended here to protect her foremost boundary and a small Bhuddist cave complex developed, created through a vision and expanded through the fears of passing traders who had caves carved to ensure a safe desert crossing. Thus, whether, a traveller’s hope or a traveller’s nightmare, this was my home for the next two months.

Progress at a Price

Our bus crashed across an unending monotony of flat gray desert along a road that lay somewhere between bad and worst. Hardened frost had sealed my window shut and only glimpses made it through in the pre-dawn light. The friendly dwarfs that had designed the sleeper bus had done a great job, as I could barely move from my coffin when we arrived in Dunhuang bus station.

My goals in Dunhuang were to teach English, learn Chinese and learn as much about camels as possible during the harsh North China winter. I intended to continue my journey in the spring and this seemed the perfect place to lay a successful foundation for a future journey and a place to call home for a while.

Dunhuang teaching PhotographMy unforgettable tourguide class in Dunhuang on Valentines Day

Chinese philosophy to development is usually to smash, burn and destroy everything old and rebuild again excessively brash, excessively wide and excessively superficial within no more than five years. The Chinese are a very practical people and I admire their determination to improve the nation but everyday I get the feeling that everything is being rushed and it’s an opinion I’ve heard reflected on a number of occasions by Chinese friends.

In Kashgar, superficiality hasn’t quite managed to smother the wealth of local heritage. In China, ‘reconstruction’ usually begins along new roads ploughed through on a north south axis and later fills in the gaps. Yet in Kashgar, the Chinese seem to be content with keeping the redevelopment cycle to the blatantly Chinese part of the city and picking away at the surrounding buildings that give Kashgar its character, soul and a place in my heart.

Dunhuang was slightly different. Development only arrived in town ten years ago with China’s famous Western expansion program but the city still had a feeling of the old about it. Whilst the town centre had been virtually rebuilt around a compass axis, the streets were narrower and people still loitered along them. Whilst the face of Dunhuang is changing quickly, its people aren’t and the place still had a small town mentality that I fell in love with almost instantly. The oasis is locked in by a prison of surrounding dunes and it would be uncommon not to walk down the street and say  hi" to a dozen people.

Yesterday’s Politics

However what surprised me the most in Dunhuang, was the attitude of the town and the old demarcation of the Chinese empire. Not one Uighur graced her streets as I wandered around town during my initial first days and I saw very few over the following two months. Although I was technically in another province (Gansu), Xinjiang lay but a few hours away and I was surprised to see almost 100% Han Chinese crowding the streets.

Many Dunhuang residents claim they still live on the ‘frontier’of China and that progress here was slow, making me wonder how they classified Xinjiang. Whereas Han Chinese lose few opportunities moving throughout greater China, can the same be said for her minorities? In Xinjiang, Uighurs still outnumber Han Chinese and whereas that cohesion may limit their impetus to move, there is an undeniable stigma against them in China proper and how welcome they are made to feel there is open to debate.

Teaching Tribulation

As I arrived in Dunhuang, so did Christmas and on the face of things, the festive season was everywhere. Pictures of Santas adorned shop fronts, Christmas music belched from occasional shops and the streets thronged with shoppers?except there was no spirit anywhere. Come Christmas day, the streets were still busy, school children continued to classes and the same grinning Santas only confirmed the season as a western marketing novelty to garner more custom. Could this be the way we are heading in the West?

Two months teaching in Dunhuang skipped by in a heartbeat. My original placement had been arranged back in September last year and the plan had been to teach in a rural school outside Dunhuang where my time would have the most value. Yet I should have known that expectations should never be made to order and I quickly found that the local education board had other ideas.

Being a foreigner in China, I was expected to deliver the best and want the best too and nothing would change that. I later learnt that there hadn’t been a foreign teacher in town in over twenty years and nobody was about to allow that opportunity to leave for some unnamed village, whatever benefit that may bring. Thus I committed myself to Dunhuang.

For the first two weeks everything went well. Despite my nerves my class was great and were virtually all poor farmers children from surrounding villages. I threw myself into the job aiming, to improve their conversational and reading skills in the short time we had, yet the biggest difficulty was again keeping my own expectations to a realistic level. As in most of Asia, the Chinese education system places an emphasis on thinking for the student, rather than getting the students to think for themselves. Most mornings I was greeted with a sea of potatoes more used to being spoon fed the answer than thinking it up and most mornings I almost tore my hair out in frustration as I readapted to a job I hadn’t done for almost two years.

An Unexpected Opportunity.

Hong Kong PhotographSunset over Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong

The year finally closed with an earthquake off the coast of Taiwan that severed all international communication with China and a bombshell from the education authority revoking my permission to teach in Dunhuang. Though 憄ermission?had been supposedly arranged in September ?6, the head of the authority hadn’t realized that permission was needed from the provincial capital 1200 kms away. In other words the man in charge, hadn’t done his homework or cared enough to try. The main excuse offered was that Dunhuang was on the frontier of China so they hadn’t known!

Exams in mid-Jan obliterated any chance of teaching long into the New Year and the school had long planned to set me up teaching English to tour guides until March. With the cancelling of their course, several tour guides approached me and I agreed to take them for informal classes until Chinese New Year.

Thus for the next six weeks, 12 tour guides and myself crammed into a room the size of cupboard for four hours of conversation, public speaking skills and vocabulary. I relished the challenge of engaging with equals with whom one could readily sit down and discuss the finer points of Chinese politics at anytime and I was surprised about how much of my own language’s grammar that I learnt. Every day, one member from the class taught me Chinese and I still had enough spare time to roam the surrounding countryside, visit local camel wallahs and plan the trip to come.

Thus the benefits of teaching English to tour guides are:

1. An encyclopedic gathering of local experts who can probably teach you just as much as you can them.
2. Learn a lot about Chinese culture and the English language.
3. Free tours around one of the most significantly historic areas in China
4. The ability to go drinking with your students
5. An unhealthy obsession with the word ‘lascivious’ that provokes raucous laughter whenever used.

The Year of the Pig (4705)

Time flew by teaching in Dunhuang. Not only did I learn a lot about myself from the challenge but I gained an invaluable insight into China’s history and into the Chinese mind itself that no amount of time living in Xinjiang had ever revealed. More than ever I review Xinjiang as a part of China, but as distinct as England from Uruguay, (if not more). There may be similarities but for me the difference is this; I could travel in China but I could live in Xinjiang.

The 4705th Chinese New Year takes took place on the 18th February 2007. Although we finished class on Valentines Day, about a third of my students disappeared almost a week before to go please the kitchen god, make ready their homes and food or travel out of Dunhuang to visit relatives.

Hong Kong PhotographPollution in Hong Kong creates a somewhat different Picture Postcard Image

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is the biggest event in the Chinese cultural calendar and the biggest mass human migration on the planet. In 2007 X billion people traveled around the world to visit friends and family in readiness for the first day of the celebration.

The festival traditionally lasts for 15 days but only seven are now observed in an ever advancing China, yet just like our Christmas the whole face of the country changed. In Dunhuang, firecrackers and fireworks appeared by the bucketful on street corners and vendors were doing a roaring trade well over two weeks before eve. New Year’s markets selling red couplets and auspicious signs appeared around town and as the sun set on New Years Eve the streets thronged with anxious buyers and an exorbitant amount of the colour red.

Thousands of years ago a ferocious beast called a Nian terrified the residents of a village in China, devouring them and wreaking havoc on their lives at the start of every 12 months. An immortal visited the village and advised the residents to smother the village with red decorations and fill bamboo shoots with gun powder. When the evil Nian returned to the villages, the residents lit the gunpowder and made such a display that the Nian fled faraway and never returned again.

At midnight on the 18th February all manner of explosions ripped across Dunhuang as her residents set off millions of fire-crackers to see off the last year and keep evil spirits out of the next. Doors unbolted and hinges creaked as thousand of residents scurried out of their homes onto the streets and back alleys of Dunhuang to light reams of Chinese crackers, leaving doors and windows open to allow the old year to pass out and welcome in the new.

‘Nian’in Mandarin Chinese means year and the first day of the New Year is traditionally one for greeting distant family and relations. Red packets with money are given to children and dumplings (jiaozi) are eaten by the plateful. Symbols are hugely important during this time, odd numbers are considered unlucky and the number four is associated with death. Fish is linked with surplus or extra and the Chinese symbol for it is often displayed. No one ever said China was an easy culture to understand!

Fellowship of the Royal Geographic Society

In mid-February, I was nominated to become a fellow of the prestigious Royal Geographic Society in London, UK. CuChullaine O扲eilly of the Long Riders Guild, a fellow himself, put forward my name and I was approved soon after. This is not only an honour but a privilege and responsibility and my humble thanks goes to CuChullaine and the RGS.

Hong Kong or Bust

With a little tour guide help, I managed to reach Hong Kong without difficulty. Although it was the middle of February the temperature rapidly turned from desert cold to tropic warm as the train plummeted south towards Guangzhou. Crossing into the former colony was a simple matter of boarding a bus in Guangzhou on the Chinese side and sitting put for three hours whilst we idled across the border. Customs offered few checks.

The city hadn’t changed much since my last visit there in 2002 but my perceptions certainly had. Last time my eyes took in the terrifying expanse of ethereal skyscrapers, the Indian ghetto of Chungking and the tourist markets of Kowloon. This time I saw the people, the competition, the hive-drone mentality, the language and the imperfect cracks in a perfect place.

Memoirs of the Present

Chinese New Year PhotographA Lion troupe driving out the bad of the New Year and the Good into the New one

I hadn’t intended to spend three months in Hong Kong, and it was mainly by accident that I did. On my first day, I relished the freedom of being able to buy good milk, read an English newspaper and eat crisp sandwiches on a bus stop! I caught an orderly bus to a Youth hostel on an old World War 2 battlement and relived a polar life to that of China only three hours away.

My first impressions of the city were of all the small things I抎 forgotten about England, represented on an island over 10,000kms away; double yellow lines, bright red fire hydrants, beat up old trams, pelican crossings, milk and crisp sandwiches, rugby sevens, a penchant for queuing and one huge glaring difference – the chance to speak English.

The city fills the heart with many joys but number one is the chance to speak English. Nothing can express the joys of being able to speak, read and think in English with other people after a year in China. It’s no lie when I say that I got more things done in one day in Hong Kong than in a week in China.

The Issue with Conformity

Hong Kong has many quirks; Filipino guest-workers on Sundays, bamboo scaffolding building some of the worlds highest skyscrapers and brothels cum bars in Wanchai. And yet, it was the amalgamation of it all that intrigued me the most; the world class business centre, the 14 million tourists every year, the rickety trams that trundled down Hong Kong Island, the amazingly efficient MTR metro.

One of the things that I noticed immediately on entering Hong Kong was the huge difference between Cantonese (the local language) and the Mandarin Chinese spoken by the majority of the Chinese population. I realized in fact that my previous perception of China had come out of Hong Kong, yet the two languages are poles apart and the attitudes of both people are very different.

Ghosts of the Past

My time in Hong Kong began easily. I knew what I had to do and Hong Kong made sure they got done. As a British National I had no worries about spending time in Hong Kong but I needed a one year visa for China that was only available here. That took only a day to arrange and over the next week I scoured the city for the remaining pieces of equipment I needed. Yet while Hong Kong proved a shopper’s paradise for outdoor goods, key pieces such as satellite phones, solar panels and cooking sets were elusive and the only option was to order online.

Time is no man’s friend. Decisions are often easy to talk about but difficult to make and I spent the following weeks hung over mine. My insulated life in Dunhuang was over, and tough decisions had to made on the ride’s future and how to conduct it. This ride has always been self-funded and getting this far has taken deep pockets, loyal sponsors and amazing parents and the choice to continue the ride’s documentary was extremely difficult to make. This time there would be no film crew from India or Pakistan, no partner to share the costs, no shoulder to lean on in the middle of the Gobi desert. This time it would be only me and I had to be sure I could deal with that.

Facing the truth and banning deception is one of the hardest things a man can do. No sympathy awaits a man in the central Gobi desert, there’s no shoulder to cry on for he who slips up, no lifeline to rescue you. Every journey must have an end and I realized that after Hong Kong mine would be a camel length away and as time drew to a close, each day became a daily battle to reach finality on an ideal I抎 set myself. Each day was a small step forward, another base covered amidst a sea of endless opportunities.

There’s no medal at the end of this journey, no pat the back or a well done to you. Something greater awaits – self-respect. The knowledge that my heart prevailed in its eternal battle with the doubt of the mind. The knowledge that I did my best whatever the outcome. The knowledge that in my short life, I did something worthwhile at least once and I can’t ask for more. Life moves forward not backwards. We can’t sit on the fence forever.

The Promise of the Future

Chinese New Year PhotographThe infinite heights of Hong Kong Island on a balmy May day

Hong Kong is still one of the busiest ports in the world, with unimaginable wealth tied up amongst a rough and tumble of skyscrapers competing for space on a stamp size area of China. It’s one of the most densely populated places on the planet, has one of the longest life spans (average 80) and is the world’s eighth largest trading economy. If I couldn’t get my ride organised in Hong Kong, then no where would do and after three months of work all proved true.

Over the three months, equipment flooded into Mt. Davis Youth Hostel and my deep appreciation goes to a supportive staff. Hong Kong is a duty free port and the ideal place to import directly into China, especially video cameras. In our crazy world, every thing has an opposite and every problem has a solution. Hong Kong International Film school provided advice and training and on May 24th Maria Lagarde flew in from Malaysia to film the start of the ride.

Sponsors both new and old proved their support to R4E and the ride can proudly welcome, McNett, Loco Engineering, Nomads Travel, Global Solar and MailaSail onboard the project. Graphic design for the journey was provided courtesy of Ichi Design and Translation and a big shout out must go to Stratos Global who provided the ride with a working satellite phone after we discovered at the last moment that the data connection on my old one didn’t work.

The ride now has 18 regular sponsors, the trappings of a fantastic documentary, marketing, a full equipment roster and the driver and support to this ride through. BBC Manchester has agreed to host a weekly blog on the journey to come and now all that remains is to buy the camels…

Memories from Over the Khunjerab

Nearly all Pakistani’s have a heart attack when I tell them I’m 27, single and without child. I was sat on the bus in the thick of it all, heading once again towards Rawalpindi. I glanced out of the window, I was back. Back in the land of minarets against the sunset, the wail of the Muezzin carried on the wind and the generosity of a nation unfurled in every new encounter. A thousand memories danced by the glass; horse stealing in Pari, the flaming heart of the Kohistani, the windy nights of Pathan and above all the memories of taking two Afghani horses through it all.

A memory is a creation of new synaptic connections between the neurons of our brain, caused by the stimulation of nerve cells in our bodies. We remember things most easily that involve all our senses, so the more senses you trigger the easier it is to remember. That same memory may then be felt across your entire nervous system as the chemicals in your brain lie on the surface of every cell in your body.

The seven weeks I spent in Pakistan and India were like a rollercoaster ride of memories and lessons from the past two years. Seeing the sights and sounds of each country made me realize what it was I loved about each and gave me a strength that I’ve missed being in China alone. Sometimes direction is the hardest thing to follow and motivation only matters when channeled in the right direction.

It was Ramadan in Pakistan when I arrived in Rawalpindi, a special time of year as the entire Muslim Ummrah fasts as one and celebrates its daily break together. As the sunsets across the landscape, the Muezzin’s calls echo across a nation and a carnival mood grips the air. I was glad to be in Pakistan rather than china, where the call of the Muezzin is an echo in the soul rather than a reflection of the landscape. I was glad to visit friends once again, to relive and share new tales and catch up on old news.

Clear Steps Forward

Changes have visited Pakistan since I last have. Mobile phones have appeared along the length of the Karakorum Highway (providing a major boon to the communication starved communities of the upper parts) and peace has finally settled across Gilgit. October 08th also marked the one year anniversary of the South Asian Earthquake (74,000 dead, 70,000 injured) and the Government claims reconstruction is now underway.

Not content with resurfacing the entire KKH on their side, the Chinese are now surveying the Pakistan side to widen the road at key points from tip to tail. This is a boon and a bust for local people. A boon because it will save local lives and increase trade. A bust, because trade from Pakistan is practically negligible and the only people to really gain from this are the Chinese and well-oiled Pakistani politicians. The more extravagantly planned rail connection between Islamabad and Kashgar may prove more productive.

Three weeks passed quickly and the commentary that PTV justifiably required for their film on last year’s ride was completed. The copy of the tapes I needed sat in my bags and the Indian border now stood in front of me, but a stone’s throw away.

A Truly Indian Affair

I’d forgotten that current seat on an Indian train meant ‘current for as long as a place on a bench was free’ and I spent an intrepid night of feet behind my back, heads in my lap, a leaky window and the drip, drip, drip of water dropping gently down my spine. As we pulled into New Delhi train station from Amritsar, the carriage was so tightly packed that I had to physically pick people up and hurl myself off the train to avoid ending up in Bombay.

Festival fever gripped the capital as I wandered through downtown Delhi, on route to a meeting with 25th Frame Productions. The Hindu celebration of Diwali was only a few days away and the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr was shortly after. Delhi Metro had finally been completed and I was frankly amazed as its efficiency. When it was being built the planners had been given free reign to get things done properly and even Indians can’t quite believe the results. The street cows have also now been micro-chipped…

Festivals of Light
Pakistan Earthquake PhotographThe lights, sounds and charitable atmosphere of Eid in Old Delhi, India.

When the night of Diwali truly arrived the full might of India’s chaos was unleashed on the streets. I reminisced of the same night, two years ago when I soothed a troubled mare through the lot. Boys, adults, cows, and the insane gathered in any space available to unleash a full blown war of fireworks on anybody in sight. Bangers, crackers and anything live were suddenly thrown off balconies into the waiting throngs below. Dogs pelted as rockets sought their rears; Catherine wheels shrieked across the floor for delighted young children to dance in their middle, cycle rickshaws ran the gauntlet through series after series of aerial bombardments. An incessant smoke pulsed with the deafening roar of a thousand projectiles and an elephant then paraded through the middle of it all. And this year was supposedly less frenzied than normal!

Eid-ul-Fitr was slightly more subdued than Diwali, but no less vibrant. The three day festival marks the end of Ramadan and the breaking of a month of fasting when all are free to feast. I was in Old Delhi for the celebrations. A thousand festival lights strung across the streets and the air buzzed with an expectant excitement. The poor clung to nearby restaurants awaiting their dues and the faithful enjoyed the relaxing of restrictions that Ramadan had imposed. It was a stark contrast to the solemnity of last years Eid in Pakistan.

I climbed up to Delhi’s ancient Jamma Masjid – a forerunner to Pakistan’s Badshahi Mosque – and sat in the open hall to enjoy the pure acoustics of the Imam’s singing and the simple quiet above the din of the city. In many respects, the Muslims of Old Delhi are much the same as the people of Pakistan. The food is the same, the architecture the same, religion the same, the people the same. The war between the two Governments is self-fulfilling in that the power-struggles of the few corrupt the ambitions of billions.

Before leaving India, for two days I stayed at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and proved that despite my previous visit, I still had much to learn. For two days I found an inner-calm to my thoughts, an anchor of solidarity in the oneness of people, their belief and sense of duty to others that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Above all I embraced their acceptance. Washing-up time was always my favourite time of day!

Shattered Reflections

Thus I began the return journey to Kashgar. A week had passed since I entered India and once again I was crossing that all too familiar border. Once again it opened my eyes to the differences between the two countries and quite frankly, Pakistan appeared poorer. The neat green fields and trade-heavy road on the Indian side gave way to a much bleaker road in Pakistan. Buffaloes, cows and donkey carts graced the road much more than trucks or buses. The impression of surviving one day to the next was much stronger in Pakistan and India appeared almost orderly by comparison.

Pakistan Earthquake PhotographTwo Sadus on their way to visit the Pakistan border at Wagah, near Amritsar.

This was an important point considering the business men I was traveling across with. Though India has its own share of problems with power struggles, it seems that Pakistan has more of them in a much smaller space. Whether landowner, business man or politician, there are too many vested interests. Too many people who want to see life remain the same and the Government has to lay incentives if they expect others to follow. China has a big advantage over both countries in that the Government has an immense hold on the economy and mind of the population. When China moves forward, it moves forward as one. In South Asia it is the individual that is king and the Government unwilling.

Life detained me for a week after my arrival in Lahore. On a two hour call-in radio interview with Pakistan’s FM 103, passions rose high on the topic of education and with the twilight of Thursday came the arrival of Sufi night.

The Spiritual Side of Islam

This certainly wasn’t my first visit to the Shah Jamal Shrine, but it was the first time I’ve committed it to words. Sufism is the spiritual side of Islam, a quest that takes devotees a lifetime to achieve. Another facet of Pakistan life that fails to make the international headlines and yet is infinitely the most intriguing. For the virgin visitor, the shrine is the easiest access point to the mystical underbelly of the country and every Thursday night Lahore’s Backpacking hub, arranges transport to the self-styled ‘Sufi Night’. Imagine…

Amidst the leafy bows of the Shah Jamal Shrine, Sufis spin and whirl to the ascending beat of the Dhol drummers. The rhythm pounds through the room, echoing through the rivulets of souls sealing one man to the next with the hope of a connection with God. A state of being so void, empty and precise one can almost feel his breath. Smog lays heavy and the glimmer of a hundred spliffs dot the haze. Pale faces peer up from a sea of brown as the beat picks up and the quest for ascendance reaches fever pitch. Waves of crescendos clatter the divide, as another and another Sufi master fall pray to the sound. Waist length hair spills out parallel to a whirlwind of movement as feet, body and arms celebrate perfect unison at the heart of the Shrine. Long robed Kafirs move in an asynchronous blur; white beards whipping the air as their human forms disappear.

A horn resounds and with one huge step, Gonga Sain enters the Sufi ring. He whirls and dances. He assumes a feline grace. Oiled black hair and long red robes swirl in a fusion of symmetry as his mighty Dhol drum flies out in front, cutting a swathe through misguided Sufis. As he moves, the crowd responds and heads on all sides whip back and forth in search of their own spiritual intensity. Men dance in the aisles and in spite of myself, I pump my fists into the air to the full surprise of nearby locals. The full pulse and power of the shrine carry away the most ardent non-believers to another plain and to even write this down as words is to defy the experience and the feeling one achieves.

Lahore then disappeared for the last time behind me and over two weeks I drifted slowly North into the mountains of Northern Pakistan. Business beckoned in Islamabad and there were places to visit before I reached China, first being the former epi-centre of last year’s earthquake in Balakot and final being the Afghanistan border itself.

Recovery from Disaster
Pakistan Earthquake PhotographLike a phoenix from the ashes, Balakot rises again to a uncertain future.

Virtually the whole of Balakot’s bazaar had been rebuilt from the ashes of decay and devastation of one year earlier. Thin metal sheeting moulded around wooden frames in a vague resemblance of the former town centre and the speed of recovery was breathtaking. I can remember the distant memory of life at the time, as people clawed together the ruins of their lives to somehow survive the coming winter and the loss of entire families. Yet today only order stood where chaos once reigned.

Last winter was a mild one for the people of the Earthquake zone and the truth is they were lucky. Roads remained open, aid was delivered and fatalities were few. However, life hasn’t gotten any easier. People are very much on their own as obstacles rise like a rash on the rehabilitation area. Following the quake, 80,000 complaints were registered against the distribution of the Government’s reconstruction subsidy and the amount has proven far too little against the rising costs of building materials and labour in the area.

Dissemination of information is also a huge problem. Many people were not informed when home inspections were being carried out and thus missed out on subsidies by not being present. Subsidies are released in stages in compliance with the Government’s building regulations but the one-size-fits-all design approved by the authorities, doesn’s meet every situation and uncertainty exists as plans continually change. In Balakot, a new city is being planned but so far no construction work has seen daylight.

This winter is predicted to be far worst than the last and over 2 million people will be living in temporary shelters. Reconstruction may take up to eight years to complete and although preparations are being completed, as always it’s the people who will suffer the most.

Read the full update: One year after the Earthquake

The Chapursan Valley

Arching high above the Karakorum our jeep now sped, racing quickly towards my final rendezvous with a unique friend high on the Afghan border with Pakistan. The jeep wound up the hard mountain road from the border post at Sust and headed deep into the mountains to the North. Desolation screamed around us. Far below, the river thrashed wildly, cutting a whip like path through the boulders and harsh ruggedness of the wind scarred valley around and the land spoke of a cruelty that only truly mountainous places can bring. It was nighttime when we reached the village of Karmin at the heart of the Chapursan Valley.

Pakistan Earthquake PhotographRiding high on the shoulder of the Pakistan-Afghan border, the groom walks towards his future bride to be.

The Chapursan Valley is an almost mythical place secluded high in the confines of NW Pakistan amid the snows of the Pamirs and Karakorum. It is a world apart from the rest of the country and part of the fabled Hunza Kingdom of old. A touch of isolation and a reminder of the aching vastness that only stinging solitude can bring.

I spent four days in the valley and the time drifted far too quickly. The friend I? come to visit was a man by the name of Alam Jan Dario. It has always been my good fortune to know Alam Jan and we’ve been in touch for almost two years. Alam is Pakistan’s only Long Rider and is a well-known musician, poet and explorer. Every Summer Alam rides high into the upper echelons of Afghanistan’s Pamirs in the Wakkan corridor to see family and friends and he’s the leading drive for responsible tourism in the valley.

Spending the night in the company of the jeep driver and his family, my first morning in Karmin was spent visiting the village school. Straight away, F.G. Middle School, Karmin was an intriguing example of a partnership between the Government and Community in running a school. Yet what was really interesting was the unprompted action and success of the community to take educational matters into their own hands in schooling their own. This school faces logistical problems just like anywhere else in Pakistan (e.g. lack of skills and teachers), but unlike the rest of Pakistan, this school was prepared to solve them.

Read School Report 11: A Wakki Uniqueness

Chapursan is the kind of idyllic place you hope to see but never find. Local people are Ismaeli Muslims and speak a Tajiki dialect called Wakki (after the Wakkan corridor in Afghanistan nearby). Villages are small and every house has an open-door. Alam’s home was a typical dwelling in the village of Zhudkhon at the far end of the valley near Afghanistan. Foreigners often stay with Alam’s family in the ‘Pamir Serai.‘ Thick stone walls and juniper wood beams wrapped his house in warmth against the biting cold outside and a huge pan of tea sat boiling on the central stove as I entered. For three nights I slept on the floor with Alam’s family near that stove and I can assure you there’s no better place to slumber in the entire world.

Pakistan Earthquake PhotographHospitality in Chapursan isn’t a word, it’s a way of life. The Groom greeted by the Bride’s family.

Over the next few days I learnt a lot about Chapursan. I attended a wedding in Karmin and was amazed at the measure of respect and appreciation for elders and each other in the valley. I accompanied Alam Jan on mountain bikes and spent a night by a shine called Babagundi on the Afghan border. I shared food with everyone we met, drank litres of tea (a very Wakki custom) and wished I was a small cat next to a fire in a shepherds hut on a cold day. We also met the man who’d taken my pack mare, Kabul across into Afghanistan this year.

Sherbaz had originally bought Sparks and Kabul off me to use for horse trekking with tourists. However, the tourists never came and in a grass starved landscape, the mares became a liability. Alam Jan is a good friend of Sherbaz and through his contacts; Kabul is now home in Afghanistan, where the people of the Wakkan corridor need strong mares for breeding – I even met the very man who’d taken her – and Sparks should be heading that way come summer. Wakki people are renowned for their love of horses and both couldn’t be in a better place.

Return of the Ibex

Up on the Khunjerab Pass and the Chinese border welcomed once more; a floating amphitheatre of fluted peaks rising through the icy stillness of a dozen small glaciers emptying onto the road.

Nearing the summit, our bus passed a herd of Ibex grazing high on the scree slopes above, bathing the valley with their presence. It was a moment of majesty since many of these regal animals walk the line of extinction and heading slowly back towards Kashgar, I took it as a promising sign of things to come.


I’d like to pay my respects to Long Rider Tim Cope, whose father suddenly died in a car accident whilst Tim was crossing Asia on horseback in the footsteps of Genghis Khan. Tim has been in the saddle for two and a half years now and was in the Ukraine when he received the tragic news. For his strength, courage and all he has achieved, I wish him well.

Earthquake Update – November 2006

If we don’t take the quake-affected people seriously, history may never forgive us.
Dawn Newspaper, 08 October 2006

So wrote the Dawn Newspaper exactly one year to the day that 3.5 million lives were turned upside down by Pakistan’s worst natural disaster. See below for a reminder.

The Present: Balakot

Before we plunge in, take a breather and picture Balakot City on the 12th November 2006. A reborn memory. Virtually the whole bazaar has been rebuilt from the ashes of decay and destruction. Everything made of thin metal sheeting and wooden frames, moulded together into a living replica of its former glory.

Your feet carry you out of the bazaar and out into the hills above Balakot. It’s a damp, drizzerly day. Signs of the earthquake are still around; a cracked wall, a half buried building, a pile of rubble hidden by cloth fencing and next to nearly every wreck of a building sits a tent or metal shelter.

As I picked my way across the freezing cold water of the river that morning, Mohammad Siddique was waiting on his bike to carry me to lunch with his family. He was living in a half-domed structure of tarpaulin stretched over a bamboo frame. Since the earthquake, he??? survived a cold, wet, yet mild winter with his family in the construction after receiving a Government subsidy of 25,000 Rupees last November. He was now waiting for another subsidy to build something better.

His is the case of many of the survivors of last year’s earthquake that killed 73,388 dead and injured 69,412 more. Balakot alone suffered 14,000 fatalities…

The Past: A quick look back…

Looking back at the calamity of October 05th, the world could only expect things to get worse. Millions of deaths were predicted. I myself saw only a bleak future for the masses living in tents across the country. Yet, the winter was a mild one. Roads remained open for longer so that aid was easily delivered and despite rocky periods, the relief process was seen as a success. There were no epidemics, no starvation and no untoward loss of life. Most people received food; clothing and money to build prefabricated metal shelters that have replaced the tents that once dotted the landscape.

Prefabricated schools and hospitals were also established in key locations across the affected area and Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and aid agencies became involved rebuilding people’s lives. Seeds, livestock and drinking water were provided to farmers and incentives such as food-for-cash were begun. In January the infamous Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority (ERRA) came into operation and in April, plans were announced to distribute a further 150,000 Rupees (approximately $3000 US in total) of subsidies to each earthquake survivor to help construct a new house. Each building had to comply with ERRA’s strict earthquake resistant building standards and money was to be released in stages as the foundation, walls and roof were finally finished. Distribution began in August.

Since the earthquake struck, the Government has offered 100,000 Rupees (1 lakh) for every death in a family and according to Government figures 17% of the 600,000 houses needed have begun construction and 27% should be completed by the end of next year. Full rehabilitation of the areas is expected to take five years.

The Near Future: A Slow Process

But back at the daily level of people’s lives, things are not flying along so smoothly. Although Mohammad Siddique’s ‘house’ has been inspected, he complained to me about the wait he had to endure to find out when the second payment of 75,000Rs would be cleared.

Confusion also reigned over how he was expected to build it, as ERRA has changed the design of Earthquake resistant buildings at NGO and public behest. Providing a one-size-fits-all building design doesn’t suit every situation. For people living high up the mountain side, it’s impossible to transport all the construction material needed without incurring huge costs. A recent wooden standard was since adopted and rumour now has it that ERRA may waive these preconditions in the future.

Both of these hurdles are slowing down the rehabilitation process and many people are in a similar boat. Oxfam estimates that as many as 1.8 million face a second winter in temporary shelters. A winter that is estimated to be much harsher than the last by both Oxfam and the Pakistan Met office.

As the cost of building materials and labour in Balakot and the affected areas has skyrocketed, many people are complaining that they can’t afford to build a new house with the money provided. This was a mistake by the Government from the start as money was described as compensation rather than as the subsidy intended.

As many as 80,000 complaints have also been filed since last November over the mishandling of the first batch of subsidies distributed by ERRA. Money was issued on a per roof basis and discarded the fact that many families live in one house. That may be one house, three bathrooms and several floors. This is something ERRA’s inspection teams should have picked up on from the start.

Reconstruction in urban areas has also yet to begin. In Balakot an entire new city is planned 20kms to the South at a location called Bakriyal. “New Balakot” may house up to 50,000 people from all over the area and opposition is stiff. Yet it is estimated that 80% of people will make the move. As in Bagh, the entire centre of Balakot has declared a red zone?due to an active fault line that was found to run through it. Plans are now afoot to turn the town into a tourist spot, yet the key question that sprang to my mind here was, why are the people here being promised compensation if they are to be relocated to a government built house elsewhere?

Altaf Saleem, the ERRA chief, argues that he will rebuild 80% of the 600,000 houses estimated within the first three years. That means that if a household contains on average 6 people, 720,000 people will still be living in makeshift shelters in three years time. The Asian Development Banks places reconstruction time at eight years and still others place this at 10 to 15. (Dawn, 08 October 2006)

Yet another issue is the 35,000 people still living in relief camps in Pakistan. Many are landless and poor and either lived in rented accommodation or had their homes washed away by landslides in last July’s monsoons.

The Far Future: Seeds of Change

The Coming Winter

The World Food Programme (WFP) say they may need to support up to 350,000 this coming winter across the mountains of Northern Pakistan. Food is now being moved to strategic locations for distribution through aid agencies. The lessons learnt from last winter seem well appreciated.


Pakistan Earthquake PhotographTent Relief Camp in the grounds of Muzaffarabad Football Stadium (Oct 2005)

Despite the massive shock of life lost to the earthquake, there maybe a huge blessing in disguise lurking beneath. As fresh schools are built across the damaged area, a new initiative formed between UNICEF and the Government aims to get more children enrolled than ever before, especially girls.

Not all villages before had a school and many students had to walk long distances to reach the nearest one (e.g. 36 schools catering to 110 villages in Shegarh council, NWFP). Today there is a tent school in every village, and “attention is now being given to make schools disabled friendly” (Dawn, 08 October 2006).

Recruiting teachers for far flung areas is also never easy. Presently lack of teaching staff is one of the biggest problems and around 1000 to 1500 schools are run by a single teacher. Many teachers resent the poor infrastructure and weather of the mountains yet slowly this is changing. (Dawn, 08 October 2006).

Huge emphasis is being placed on teacher training. USAID has recently agreed to train 30,000 teachers in the Pak Quake area as well building 50 schools and teacher training centres are planned.

In areas where people believe djinns (spirits) live in trees and scarecrows stand in graveyards, education will take time to settle in but the opportunity is there and Pakistan looks unlikely to miss it.


Dissemination of information is crucial to the rehabilitation process and improving just this one key area will clear away the cobwebs of distrust that have seeded so many hearts until this point. At the moment people are running pillar to post through one bureaucratic problem after another, trying to find out the next step they should take in order to rebuild their lives.

People simply don’t know what’s going on. Because inspection schedules were never published this year, many people missed the inspection of their homes and thus missed out on the Governments first subsidy! Because building codes are not published properly, people don’t know how they should build their home or what alternatives are available. That combined with the dilly dallying of bureaucracy, means that many will rebuild their homes in non-accordance with ERRA guidelines.

Fault for this also lies in the way ERRA is setup. It is the nature of Pakistan, for those in power to hold onto it as a life force and the federal government played the same ball when setting up ERRA. Local Councils were completely sidelined in the formation of ERRA and instead a completely separate network of offices was set up near the capital. This gave no local point of contact for the people the Government is trying to help. The UNHCR recently set up a radio service to fill the information gap, but this is hardly their job.

So, as always, people are on their own when it comes to reconstructing their shattered lives. It’s difficult to winterize entire villages and with the slow release of funds many people will surely spend the next few winters outside.

A body was recently formed to deal with national disasters, called the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). What remains to be seen now is if the action can live up to the promise?

Any further needs

Many NGOs are still working hard in the region to re-establish lives and constantly need support. Many are providing much needed medical facilities and medicines to amputees and the long-term ill. Others are providing toys for children and aid to survive a predictably harsher winter. With a hot meal at night and a warm bed to snuggle into we take our lives for granted. As the winter rolls through the Northern Hemisphere just picture yourself sat outside and then contact one of the organizations below to make that small little bit of difference.


Dawn Newspaper:Pakistan
One year on, quake-hit Pakistan works towards tentless terrain: UNHCR
Victims bracing for a harsher Winter: The Post
Oxfam:1.8 million people will be living in temporary shelters this winter
Pakquake.com: UN air operations to resume this winter
World Food Programme
Dawn interview with Altaf Saleem
British Red Cross: One year on: Many Survivors still at Risk
Asian Development Bank: Reconstruction will take eight years
U.S. to train 30,000 teachers in Pakistani quake areas
Shifting Concerns: The need to find a job or a house
Rural Development Policy Institute (RDPI): Review of Earthquake Recovery & Reconstruction
Surveys and articles conducted by the highly acknowledged RisePak Group
Associated Press of Pakistan: Rehabilitation and Construction efforts

Much information also gleaned from Newspapers on sale 08 October 2006, especially Dawn. Local research and interviews were also conducted in Balakot on 12 November 2006.