From Peter Fleming: “It occurs to me that there is too much grumbling in this book. I am trying to give an honest account of this journey, but perhaps fidelity to the facts unwittingly distorts the picture, misapplies the emphasis, fails to reflect past reality (…)”
The back of our heroes was against the wall in Nomo Khantara.
Ella and Peter after a four day rest in Dzoun had left for Teijinar (at least, they thought so), ten camel stage away, or 300 km. With them goes their helper, interpreter and somehow friend, Li, and the camel master, an unnamed mongol. At the end of the first stage after Dzoun they learn that the four camels, already weakened because they are moulting (it is well known issue with camels), will not go further than Nomo Kanthara, two stages away, and as a consequence, they will need to hire another set of animals. And they learn also that it will be difficult to find camels, because summer arrives and the herds are already grazing in some remote pastures.
When they reach Nomo Khantara, they find someone they knew from the caravan of the Prince of Dzoun, who had already arrived; this guy, the chief of the gold diggers, had left Dzoun earlier, with the aim to overtake Peter and Ella at the Hertz camel shop at Nomo Khantara. Anyway, nobody got camels, nor the gold digger, nor Peter, nor two very holy lamas that were waiting for two weeks already. And if the very holy lamas do not get camels, nobody can get them in the whole Sinkiang.
And Li says that he will not continue to Teijinar oasis, because they are already in Teijinar, Nomo Khantara being the first oasis belonging to Teijinar. The fact that they have hired Li to go with them until Teijinar does not bother him, and I suspect that Li hired the camels in Dzoun to go to Nomo Kanthara. He did not need going further, as Nomo Kanthara was his home.
And the child of one gold digger was lost in the desert.
And mosquitoes did appear.
They were in deep shit.
Camel moulting from Internet
Author: Somewhere in South Africa, and view of the Andes
We are ready to start! Who? you may ask. I do not know yet :), but I hope that my enthusiasm will convince other travelers.
Let us start easy! There is a train line that runs from Kashgar to Hotan (485 Km) in 8 hours. It departs Kashgar at 10:16 and arrives Hetian at 18:26.
But the aim of this trip is not “going to places”, but “flowing into places”. We are not in a hurry to get Hotan, isn’t it? Let us stop one day in Kargilik. There are caves with Buddahs, a mosque, and, sure an open market.
Or … what about Yarkand? Any choice means that other places will be skipped. Decisions are difficult. If some reader has suggestions, please, use the comment field, I will try to add information about where to stop
This place will be the first immersion in the flow that will drive us towards East, the Oasis and the Desert.
This will be the easier leg of the trip.
Featured image: from Internet www.Christopherpitts.net
Traditionally the Silk Road direction East (“downwards”), arrived to Kashgar (at the left on the map). In Kashgar travelers must decide either go NE, towards Aksu and Urumqi, or SE, towards Yecheng, Hetian and Qiemo. This is the “Forbidden Oasis” route Ella Maillard followed,
Peter and Ella went “upwards” (Westward). Once in Xining, they should either travel NW through the Gansu Corridor (the traditional route), towards Dunhuang, where they would be probably stopped and sent back, or, avoiding Dunhuang, cross directly, due East, from Xining to Qiemo (Tchertchen). This area had no roads then, and now there are few. For instance there are no roads marked on this map in this area, but they exist, although they may lack traffic…
So, what is in between Xining and Qiemo? Qinghai Lake, Chakayan Lake, Dulan Desert, Dzoun…
And this is the road that we must follow if we want to follow Ella’s steps, as well as avoid too touristic tours.
But once in Xining, how to find a transportation on an area were there are no roads marked, in a city in which few people understand English? Xining is one million people city. Where to start if one plans something else than Qinghai Lake tour or Ta’er monastery? How tell someone than the plan is to reach Dulan, and from there Golmud?
It is important to point that Golmud (200,000, inhabitants, not in this map) is half-way between Xining and Ruoquiang. And if there is some way to cross this area, it should better be found in Golmud than in Xining.
So, probably I would consider starting the trip at the West, in Kashgar (350,000). There are buses (Lonely Planet dixit) that follow the South Path from Kashgar to Golmud. Probably it would be worthwhile to go by train to Aksu, and then find a bus to go due South to Hetian. Once there, take buses from one oasis to the other, until arriving to Golmud
In Golmud starts the most wild part of the trip… how to reach from there Dulan and Xining? well, we will see once there !
And, if there is no transportation we may revert to the train, Golmud is a train station in the Xining – Lhassa Sky train.
I must welcome the arrival of two books, Jean Bouathier “Aux confins de la Chine” (on the confines of China), and Ella’s correspondence book edited to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of her birth.
I am immersed in Jean Bouathier’s book. Bouathier is a French guy, with an Ethnology Diploma, and he studied in the “Institut National des Langues et des Civilizations Orientales” (Langues’O) which should be a guarantee. Jean speaks Turkish and Tibetan (but no Chinese), and, in June 2002 he starts an expedition in a rented Toyota Landcruiser, with a chain-smoker Chinese driver, and an interpreter, for a total amount of 25.000 Yuan (3.250 Euros). Well, as usual in China, nothing happens as he expects, the interpreter was not waiting for him at the airport, the “all-included” price did not include permits, driver had no idea on how to use a 4-wheel driven vehicle… and his international credit card was refused, leaving him stranded in Xining. Yes, definitively is better to avoid Xining trap 🙂 (more on it in another post)
Of course, as often in China, this apparently unmovable obstacles are moved, and trip starts… but Jean does not like Chinese food! or at least, the food served along the road, he is fed up of mutton and noodles. And Jean does not like Chinese music that goes on an on at full power inside the Toyota. Not he likes the blend of tobacco smoke and fuels fumes that seep from additional drums which are inside the vehicle.
But Jean has read Sven Hedin, Maillard and Fleming, he knows about the Lost Cities, and he follows the path Xining-Qinghai-Dzhoun, Golmud, Teijinar, and beyond. He talks about history, Hedin discoveries, people who has traveled this road, he references the places with texts from Hedin, or Maillard… well, the book is easy to read, and interesting.
And… “Voilà Jean”, disguised as an Indiana Jones in sandals 🙂
But, what happens to him, places where he sleeps, red tape problems, sand storms, roads that are only in the maps, rivers that are not in the same maps, makes my projected trip to seem impossible. Of course, 2002 China is not 2017 China, it has open somehow, but probably not enough. But, as Orlandini says, when someone talked about the unrest in Singkiang, with two civil wars acting simultaneously, plus the Big Game between Soviet Union, China and UK, plus Chang-Kai-Chech war against communists, plus Japanese invading Manchuria: “If one should listen to all “it is said”, one would never start a trip”.
So, let us go there and hope for the best.
Title Image: Dakar Rally bivouac in the Atacama Desert (detail) from the author
Now that we left Ella and Peter in the mysterious Dzoun, and while Li tries to get some camels to continue towards Teijinar, and Nija and the Karavansara Reading Challenge (link), somewhat delayed in Xining by winter storms and power failures, reaches us, let me do some homework to reinforce my own trip.
Well, I have found two (and a half) possible trip partners. While there is no commitment by anybody (not even by me!) to set sail together, starting in Xining in one year and one month, and traveling through the “Forbidden Oasis” I continue looking for people who may be interested in travel outside the confort area, without entering the danger area.
Each person has its own perception of danger, I agree, and whilst for some travelers – like me – a street market in Guayaquil or Ciudad de Mexico is not more dangerous than a stroll in the Ramblas (and probably less), for other people danger start as soon as they leave their hotel room. But I may say that I have not entered (deliberately) in danger situations, sometimes, stranded in the sands of Atacama, or in a Subway Station at Bronx, I should have preferred not to have started this particular trip, but… I enjoyed every minute of it. Afterwards, of course
No, they are not vultures! 🙂
So, I went to the “Thorn Tree”, Lonely Planet Forum, and I wrote this entry:
I am planning a trip through the South Xinjiang (Teijinar, Qarqan, Endere, Nija) in April to May (4 to 6 weeks) following the steps of Ella and Peter. I plan to find local transportation if possible, if not, eventually, to rent a car with a driver (as far as I know, this is the only way to rent a car in China without a local permit), and essentially to look to scenery places in subdued light whenever possible. I have been several times to China for business, but always in executive trips (aka. five stars hotels, interpreter, driver…)and I search now some “roads less traveled”. I do like deserts and photography, I have been already in Sahara, Namib, Atacama and I look eagerly to be in the Taklamakan. I have no budget, I am not planning to travel on a shoe-string nor to rent a limousine or go to luxury hotels (this is not an actual danger in Xinjiang anyway :). I would like to find other travel companions. Should you be interested, even if you are not planning to do this trip, leave me a message, and I will supplement the information.
I have no great expectations, but anyway, I let you know
Internet: Camel Train
Market in Chongqin
Ravens at a pose in Atacama (you do not even imagine the difficulties of raven’s training 🙂
Laguna verde, a High Altitude (4.200 m) lake in the Andes
I imagine than more or less we all know some wild donkey. Someone who is dumb and unpredictable… May I recommend Carlo Maria Cipolla’s Essay “Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”. Cipolla was Italian, born in Pavia in 1922, and was professor of Economics in Italy and Chairman in Berkeley, and wrote, tongue in cheek, one of the essays that made him famous, that included the “Laws of Stupidity”:
1.) Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
2.) The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
3.) A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
4.) Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
5.)A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
So, going back to the title of my post… How many “wild donkeys do we know”, people who causes losses to other persons, without getting no benefit?
This wild donkey affair comes from Ella and Peter trip following the south bank of Qinghai lake, then through a mountain pass arriving to Chakayan Lake and from there to the Dulan desert and its wild donkeys. Probably the sight of some wild donkeys is not enticing, but the trip is about going through roads less traveled.
Originally my trip plan consisted in staying for two or three nights at the Ta’Er lamasery, near Xinning, and going for one or two days to Qinghai Lake, in an organized tourist tour. My guide said that there are one day tours from Xinning to Qinghai Lake. You can stay overnight, or just go for a quickie :), rent a bicycle and see the dilapidated torpedo base, or take a trolleybus to visit a “Chinese-style” sightseeing village.
My previous plan was to take a High-Speed train to Golmud (the Sky Train, the trains which goes to Lhassa) and stay for several days in Golmud, radiating from there towards East (the caravan route), South (to see I do not know what), and then Northwest, towards Teijinar and the Desert Oasis. So, essentially, a disguised business trip. No adventure, major ports of call booked in advance.
But really, tourist buses and high-speed trains to follow Ella and Peter are not exactly what I dreamed for during 20 years.
So, right now I consider a Plan B, which consists in trying to find if there is some kind of public transportation along Road G109 (Qinghai Lake and Chakayan Lake and the East Bank of Dulan Desert). Really I doubt it, because one of the problems of Deserts is the lack of people who lives there :). And where there is no people… there is no public transport.
This opens a line of thought: what kind of travel I want to do? : A trip (not the “Taklamakan-tour-riding-a-bactrian-camel, plus-extra-night-in-a-mongol-yourt-with-traditional-mongolian-BBQ-and-dance-show” anyway) with fixed stops in major cities or a truly open trip, with a sleeping bag and no plans?
This is a major question, because empathy is really not a Chinese word, and I may lay stranded in some remote village: “this is a military zone, you must remain here until Beijing tell us what to do with you” (all this in Chinese, of course) with hotels forbidden to Gwailos (deprecatory for foreigners, ghost man) and sleeping in a dilapidated caravansary
One of the questions open right now, is: “How to go from Xining to Golmud, other than by camel caravan?”
But the truly important: “Will I really dare to forget how to travel as I have traveled all my life, the executive way”?
Photo credit: Panoramio: Wild donkeys in Dulan Desert
Central photo: a salted pond in Atacama, from the Author
Last photo: Panoramio, entering the Tsaidam Basin near G109
The difficulties to follow the path of a caravan.
I must start by an anecdote. The Paris-Dakar is a race divided in two kind of participants, professional drivers, cars “full equipped”, Air conditioned motorhome to receive a massage before a good night rest, and the others, purely amateurs, who have nothing of that. And several years ago, professional drivers had a GPS (but without waypoints a GPS is, more or less, a compass), but not amateurs. In one of these navigation stages, in the Sahara, an amateur, from Madrid, arrived more than half an hour earlier than the professional riders who had become lost, all together in the dunes. And this guy navigated perfectly, with a mere compass and a watch, not only this time, but in general. And the journalist interviewed him, and he said: ” it is not so difficult, you must follow camel dung, and you follow the path of the caravans”.
Well, this is what I did today, not with camel dung (in the Takla-Makan they use it, when dry, as combustible, argol, so probably I had not find a lot), but with the beads that Peter Fleming left in his “News from Tartary” book, as well as the information everybody (at least, Peter, Ella, and Lattimore) shares: a caravan starts at 6 in the morning, and walks for 8 hours approximatively, doing 30 km per day… well, this is not exactly true, average is less than that (due to cold, to water points, or for no stated reason), but sometimes they put two stages in one day (a four hour stop, and a night march) so they increase the average.
They made an approach from Tangar until meeting the caravan of the Prince of Tzoun, near the East bank of Qinghay Lake (Stage 4, Valley of Daotang River). Their second stop was a Lamasery, that can be found on Google Earth with Panoramio
They walked three days on the South Bank of Kinghai Lake, roughly in a NW direction, until Stage 7, then they take a SW direction passing on the North Bank of Chakayan Lake (the Salt Lake in Peter’s text, Stage 10), and, after two mountains passes, they arrive to the Tsaidam (after a few hours of Stage 13), and they cross the Dulan desert (Stages 14, 15 and 16) partly at night, because they are already near their goal.
With all this background I located Dzhounchia,(Stage 17, they arrived there on April 12, 1935), which is at
and this position agrees with the three camel days that Li, their interpreter, says are needed to reach Nomo-Khantara, which is 80 km away
This is the link to the caravan path:
(a new window will open with a file. You click and a window of Google Maps will open)
note: I may upload also the Google Earth file, with includes the distance between stages, but I am searching a Map application.
Ella and Peter joined the relatively small caravan of the Prince of Dzoun, who was a young man going back home, from Tangar to … well, not to Dzungharia, because this region lies to the North of the Tarim mountains, (above Urumqi) but to Dzoun, apparently a place in the middle of nowhere. The caravan was formed by 250 camels and 40 horses.
I am still looking for Dzoun (Ella) or Dzunchia (Peter). The Caravan took 16 days to reach it. Some authors identify it with Gormud, but Gormud is the Gorumu of Peter, and it is 150 km (5 days) too far. Based on the information that a loaded bactrian camel walks at 3 to 4 kilometers per hour, that the stage is usually 8 hours, and confirmed by Ella who says that 30 km is the daily fare of a caravan, in the following post(s) we will place the stages, at least from Tangar to Dzunchia.
They left Tangar with a helper, Li, four rented camels, two horses. Of course, Ella needed to bring her portable gramophone with three records :), and Peter two rifles, two pounds of marmalade, four boxes of cacao, six bottles of cognac, plus a bottle of Worcester Sauce). Two days later, they meet the 250 camels of the Prince of Dzoun and they started the Caravan life.
Awake at 4 am, two hours to load the camels (each one of their four camels was in a different lien, so, their are not loaded at the same time), departure at six, eight hours walk, unloading camels and horses, meal preparation, eating, and then staying into the tent. During the march, or eventually in the afternoon, Peter went to hunt geese, or hare, or antelope. Geese were sacred for Mongols, Peter’s killings were not butchered following the rituals for muslim, the fact that these acts may seem offensive were not really a problem for them, except for the first goose, that they almost gave to the Prince.
Lattimer caravan organization does not agree with Ella (Peter almost does not speak about it, he is more interested in hunting every animal that moves). The Prince’s caravan had people riding camels, although the were going “up”, and each lien was approximatively of 10 camels, instead of 18, but we recognize in her description the “camel pullers”, the Master Cook, in this case a woman, and, of course, the Caravan Master, in this case the Prince.
So they walked, they hunted (Peter), they cooked (Ella), and, apparently, they had a lot of fun. Arriving to Dzunchia Peter says something, curious to say the least:
The place (Dzunchia) has nothing impressive. It is impossible, even in the most romantic mood, to find anything enticing in it
“Even in the most romantic mood”? well, this says everything, don’t you think so?
And to end this chapter, another quote, this time from Ella Maillart:
It is said that Mongols do not wash because they are afraid to become fishes after their death. Moreover, water from wells seems full of spells; coming from inside the Earth, were are the female spirits, it will only become healthy when exposed to the Air and the Sun, who belong to the male world of superior regions. But this unheard-of dirtiness is not annoying in winter, when cold weakens the smell of rancid butter their fur is imbibed
Photos, but for the map, are from the Author
Ella and Peter joined the caravan of Dzoun Prince at Tangar. Two hundred fifty camels must be an impressive line.
We will be back to Ella and Peter at the Koko (or Koukou) Nor on the next post, in the meanwhile I present a “Camel Train”, aka. a Caravan.
A caravan is a vessel at sea, and it is as organized as a ship. A caravan is formed by different groups belonging to different owners that travel together. But all them are under the orders of the “Caravan Master”, all other participants are travelers. Under him is the “hsieng-teng” equivalent to the bosom in a ship, the official for intendancy. He is responsible when camels are stopped, he must see that they have water enough, that they can graze, that they are correctly tied. Then came the “camel pullers”, a special race of men who are in charge of camels. They do not help other travelers, their unique responsibility is the welfare of camels. They have the power to make walk any traveler instead of riding the camel, even if the traveler is the owner of the camel (On the way West (or “up”), men must walk always, they may eventually ride a camel in the way down – towards East) .
Each camel puller is in charge of a row of no more than 18 camels (“lien”, which is considered the maximum number of animals a camel puller can manage. Each camel has a fixed place on its lien. Two liens make a “pa”, and these two lien march together always, either side by side or end-on and their camels pullers help one another to load and unload. In front of the Caravan goes the Master-Cook, who must start the camel-dung fire ASAP to have the meal prepared for the men, as soon as they have arrived, unleaded the camels, and tied them. At the front of the second lien walks an assistant to the Master Cook, then on the third the Second Cook, who is in charge of water. So, the way of promotion is easy, from camel puller (like seamen in a ship), their only job being to be in charge of their animals. Then they become Second Cook, and they will learn where to find water in the path of the Caravan, then Master Cook helper, who must learn how to distribute provisions on Road, and finally Master Cook, who organizes meals.
Camel pullers are allowed to bring with them half a camel load of goods in the West Journey and one in the East and trade with them, keeping the benefits. Eventually, if they are the owners of camels, he may add one to the caravan, keeping benefits for himself.
So, Caravan Organisation is:
Caravan Master, full responsibility. <-> Ship’s Commander
Hsiang-Teng, responsible of Caravan at rest <-> Bosom
Master Cook and his aid: Logistics and Meal Preparation
Second Cook: In charge of water. <-> Navigator
Camel puller: drives a lien <-> Sailor
By the way, a 500 camel caravan charge is the equivalent of half a charge of a byzantine vessel, who transported goods in the Red Sea.