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.

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.