Xin Jiang – Riding Camels In The Taklamakan Desert

After we had safely regained Kashgar after our wanderings up to and back from the glacier (see earlier post on this topic – link below).   We decided to go wandering on our own (my wife Lotty, and I) for the rest of our summer break from our work in Beijing.   So to this end, we thought it might be pleasant to start off by taking a camel trip into the Taklamakan Desert which was right next to Kashgar.

Like most people outside China, we had never heard of this desert, even though it is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, at some 130 000 square miles in size (337 000 square kilometers), so we were interested to have a look at it while we were there.

So we hunted up a company who organised camel trips into the desert, made all the necessary arrangements, and took off by car to the starting point of our epic journey into this huge desert.

By the way, they had only just built a road across it a couple of years earlier, and no one much had crossed it yet.   Also the Chinese used it for their atomic bomb testing apparently…  Ho hum.

And of course, the famous Silk Road went around it too, one arm going to the north of it, the other going around the western edge.   We, to be different, intended to go straight into it, and see what happened..

We arrived at the setting off point, which turned out to be a sort of bus station on the edge of the desert. A simple building with a glass roof, long rows of plastic chairs and a short length of road outside it.  And beyond that, a vista of enormous sand dunes, so we couldn’t see very far into the desert.   Just enough to whet our appetites.  Oh and of course a lot of disdainful looking Bactrian camels (the sort with two humps).

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We were duly called to our camels by the Uighur guys who would be our guides and bosses for the next few days as we wandered into and (we hoped) out of the desert.   They showed each of us our particular camel, but neglected to tell us what they were called, or much of anything about them really, merely showing us how to climb aboard, and stay there.

Once we were all properly ensconced on our respective camels – “we” being Lotty, myself and a stray Israeli guy who was doing the same as us – we set off towards the first huge sand dune.    It was then that we discovered that we were not in any way in control of our camels, as all three of them were in fact roped together….  Ignominy!

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Anyhow, nicely linked in a sort of line off we went.

It was obvious to me pretty quickly that camels are both singularly stupid, and not in fact particularly good at walking in the desert, huge feet not-withstanding.   For some reason our guides wanted us to walk along the ridges at the top of those huge sand dunes, which are in fact truly knife blade wide.  And my daft camel kept sliding off the ridge.  Happily it never actually started to somersault down to the bottom of the dunes, but it was scary nonetheless as it lurched violently to the left or right and stumbled down the slope a bit..     A real case of hanging on for dear life.    Not easy on a camel, as I was sitting between the two humps, and thus could not easily reach the creature’s neck to hang onto.   And my saddle was made of wood, and also had nothing much to hang onto other than a sort of flexible metal hoop at the front and rear. nor were there any stirrups, as one would have on a horse.   And before you say it, the hump was no use either, as it was extremely flaccid, so if I grabbed it, my hands sank into it, and it wobbled obscenely around…  Not nice!

Owing to the huge dunes we were very rapidly inside the desert, and no sight of the outside world was possible, even though to begin with it was actually only about 1 km away, on the other side of those dunes.   We could hear the traffic on the main East/West road along the northern edge of the desert, but see nothing.

The traffic noise slowly faded away as we steadily went deeper into the desert, and the dunes slowly got bigger and bigger as well.   Some of them must have been in the region of 40 or more meters high – huge things!

As you can see from the photos, the wind made the most amazing patterns in the sand, it was beautiful…   All manner of tiny ridges, actually they were a pretty good replica of the actual dunes themselves, but in miniature – Interesting phenomena when you think about it.  A sort of fractal landscape effect.

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Anyhow, we continued in this fashion, the camel herders mooching slowly along, our camels pacing in a dignified manner along as well, and we silly tourists, perching unsteadily on top of our respective camels, and in due time it was time to stop, dismount and set up our camp for the night.   This was in a valley between dunes, in no way different to any other dunes we had passed, but pleasant nonetheless.

So while we set up our tents, the cameleers looked to their own tents and their trusty beasts.

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We each had a small two man tent, so Lotty and I shared one, the Israeli guy had one to himself, and the Uighurs mostly simply unrolled their sleeping bags and snuggled in for the night like that – having of course ensured that the camels were secured.

As you can perhaps imagine, being deep in a desert, the night sky was beyond words beautiful.. A blaze of stars and light that wheeled above us all night long.   So Lotty and I slept with our heads outside out tent, since to miss that light show was unthinkable.    Not a scene I shall forget in a hurry!!

So for the next few days it was more or less a continuation of the first day, gently walking around in the middle of huge sand dunes, and not much else to see.  But that was enough to make us happy….

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However, I was also discovering another aspect of camel riding…  You can get one hell of a sore butt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  That wooden saddle was not kind to me, and after several days of being bounced around on it, I was horribly chapped and sore.. and thus could hardly walk.   Not funny.

On the last night we camped beside a small more or less ruined hut on the edge of the desert, where a splendid meal was cooked using the cooking area of the hut.    This was a pleasant way to spend the last evening and night before we hit civilisation again.

Which is what happened the following morning.   In a surprisingly short time we found ourselves in farmland and proper tracks, and farmers and farm animals, and before we knew it, we had arrived at our bus station departure point again.  Much to the relief of my poor battered and sore butt.

So, that was our pleasant few days wandering the Taklamakan Desert, or at least the edges of it.

It took about 2 weeks before I could walk in any normal fashion again though, I really hurt myself sitting on that damn camels back…..   Not funny!

Anyhow, we returned to Kashgar, found a hotel that was allowed to take in foreigners, and regrouped for the next leg of our wanderings around Xinjiang Province – by train to Kalpin and then onwards to our arrest in the north of Xinjiang….   Oh well…

Link to post about walking in Xinjiang  Click here. 

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