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 æ†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
Is 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
Packing 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.
Camels 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.
Writing 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 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: IæŠ¦ 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.