• Tag Archives Xinjiang
  • Pietro Orlandini, a rowdy Italian, in China in 1934 and his bike ride in the Takla-Makan

    crescent_lake_gobi_desert_chinaOrlandini, as seen yesterday, was a rowdy Italian, who was sipping his own urine “like a vermut” (his words) when fleeing from a prisoner camp in Abisinia to Kenya.

    Let us follow him in Marco Polesque journey in China, when he decided that he wanted to leave his doctor’s practice in Shanghai and return to Europe by land. We already know, by my previous post, that he was not someone to be afraid of small difficulties, such as the war in the Xinjiang, between so many factions that a cat will not find her kittens, the Cold War “avant-la-lettre” between Chinese Han and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the remnants of the “Big Game” in the Xinjiang, without forgetting the war between the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, Lin Piao et al. against Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang.

    China political situation in 1934 was complex, to define it mildly. Probably nobody in their right mind should have started this journey. But let’s talk Orlandini himself: “Rumors about the lack of safety in the road from Cheng-Tu to Sian-Fu (Chengdu to Xian), the next stage, were not reassuring. There was some fighting, although nobody knew where, nor why, nor against who. It is true that in China there is always a small war somewhere; but if we should listen to all hearsay, we would never take the road”

    kerriya3So, there he went, a mighty journey, it seems that he has no plan, nor schedule. His idea was to arrive to Urumqi through the Hexi Corridor (Langzhou, Xinning, then Northwest to Urumqi, and there to cross the border and continue via the soviet republic of Kazigistan). His trip plan is short: “I will leave, I will cross the whole China, I will follow the ancient Silk Road, until I met the Mediterranean. Wonderful!. The road is already there, it is always the same, I have good legs, why not to do it?”. Ella and Peter analyze how to avoid guarded routes, discuss a lot about passports, are well aware that the documents they have will not allow them to arrive to Kashgar, decide what weapons they need, they pack gifts for local authorities and Worcestershire sauce for Peter.

    Orlandini does nothing of this (or, at least, does not give any importance to the logistics), he skips stages, he pushes forward, until he leaves Shanghai with a suitcase and a bag (Ella and Peter needed two camels, two donkeys and two horses, but of course, they brought with them a phonograph!:) ).

    He navigated the Yang-Tze until he arrived to Chongking, then by bus to Chengdu, then Lanzhou… do you thing that he will go from there to Xining? well, no, in Lanzhou he meets a German and a Swiss, who return from Kunbum to Beijing. “for me, who strolled in China without a clear plan, it was worthwhile to change my itinerary. I will go with them to Pekin (…) then I will cross Mongolia to arrive to Turkestan through the Gobi desert”. Hop-la! soooo easy!

    So, he returns to the coast, he stays for some time in Beijing, then he leaves for Baotou, in Mongolia, and then due West through the Gobi following the old caravan route

    He matter-of-factly explains that he found bandits, he had a fight with an armed soldier (who stepped back with his rifle when Pietro yelled loudly at him), someone tried to poison him because he mistook him for a russian spy, he found quicksands and swamps and rivers without fords. Nothing stopped him. Finally he arrived to Urumqi, and there, in an official dinner, after the Chinese Governor and the Russian Consul speeches, he spoke: he said he was happy to be in the Xinjiang, who was, and will always be, a Chinese province. The Governor was happy with that, but the Russian Consul not really.

    He was applying for a soviet visa.

    He did not get it.

    He must return to Beijing.

    cicling under buranAnd then, the incredible happens “I had gotten firmly into my mind to go back by bicycle, as the road seemed suitable for this mean of locomotion” (!!). Before arriving to Urumqi (and he went back through the same caravan path) he found swamps, quick sands, sand deserts, so, it does not seem really suitable… either he was lying then, or he is lying now.

    In any case, in Urumqi he had the choice between Russian bikes, sturdy but heavy, or Japanese ones, lighter but flimsy. He sold everything and bought a Japanese bike. He just kept food for the first stage (a boiled chicken), a sleeping bag and some toiletries. It was the first bike to rode through the desert. He was happily pedaling in spite of a heavy dysentery which started several days before (!!). But he was strong, he continued pedaling, eat some chicken, without even stopping, and he slept under a shepherd’s tent. And, on the third stage, when starting a mountain pass, the bike broke. And he continued with a caravan, with his bike above a donkey. In Turfan he had the bike repaired by a local blacksmith, and he traded it for a horse… so, it was not strictly true that Orlandini crossed the desert in a bike, as he told Kini.

    But interesting, isn’t it?

    Photos: all from the Gobi desert, taken from the Internet


  • July 1935: Keriya-Khotan by Camel Train

    MongolCamelTrain&GlacierJuly, 1st, 1935, Ella and Peter left Keriya. They left there the Byronian-eyed camel “Pearl of the Tsaidam”, also camel Number 2, and Cynara, the mare that Peter traded for Greys at Issik Pakte, when it was clear that Greys cannot continue. Their caravan was a small one, although impressive: Four donkeys, Kini’s stallion (rather sick) and a horse with old galls for Peter, plus Aziz, their guide, and Tuzun Ahun, a guard with his horse who had received orders from the aksalal in Tchertchen to convey them to Kaskgar. That was impressive!

    And really, it seems that Peter did not like too much this part of the trip:

    “and before the stage was half over, I discovered that his back was a mass of old galls. So I did the last three hours on foot”

    “I found the others in a place called Karaki, where no food of any sort was available”

    “Next day we started early. I abandoned my horse and did a grilling nine-hour march on foot”

    “At noon we we went on, the heat was terrible” (by the way, we will be there two months early which is not bad)

    “Towards dusk, we came to Chira (…) to hot and tired to care that I was loosing face by traveling on foot”

    “Our inn, in Chira, was grubby and unspacious. Flies, which now played in our life the baleful part formerly allotted, by an inscrutable Providence, to mosquitoes, abounded” (of course we should expect flies, mosquitoes, and probably some fleas, too)

    “Our miserable donkeys from Chira were played out (..)”

    and it goes on and on, until the Caravan arrives to Khotan (Hotan), on July 6, 1935, after 5 miserable stages, although sleeping in oasis: Kariki, Chira, Bäshtograk and Lop

    It is important to note that almost all the humankind has traveled as they did, during 3.000 years and even more. This kind of travel now is a choice, as travelers on the “Camino de Santiago” know well.

    After the photo you will find links, Photos information, contact form and area map


    To May 2017 Trip:
    2017: Hotan Keriya
    May 2017: General View of the trip Part 1
    May 2017: General View of the trip Part 2

    From Internet

    Contact Form

    Area Map

  • A journey to the South shores of the Taklamakan. Crew wanted

    2011-04-03 at 18-12-25So, I have finally defined the trip and its dates! (May 2017) Anyone interested may ask question, submit his/her ideas, give suggestions, enroll using the Contact form at the end of this post (after mountain road photo)

    The aim of the journey is to merge with the countryside, to photograph places and people (which means wake up early to benefit from the Golden Hour) , and, essentially, to keep away of the “Western Bubble”. That of course means that the journey probably will not be a “Picnic Party”, as Peter Fleming defines the passage from Teijinar to Cherchen. It must not be, either, an adventure in which to be stranded in the middle of nowhere as the narrator of The Little Prince:

    “So I lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to, until I had an accident with my plane in the Desert of Sahara, six years ago. Something was broken in my engine. And as I had with me neither a mechanic nor any passengers, I set myself to attempt the difficult repairs all alone. It was a question of life or death for me: I had scarcely enough drinking water to last a week.”

    Main idea is to follow the South Silk Route during May 2017, from Kashgar to Xinning, although with several “escape points” to be used to shorten the trip if one is tired of useless hours waiting for a bus, or of people spitting nearby, or of the lack of “Western Hygiene”. This is not a trip for the faint of heart, nor for people expecting a “South Silk Road and Oasis Towns, all included Tour”. But it is not either for people who expects the thrilling of a Desert Adventure on the Taklamakan, reduced to drink camel’s urine not to die of thirst.

    Plan is to have reservations for some of the fixed legs (for instance Kashgar-Hotan, 560 Km by train), for hotels in some oasis towns, and see what can be done in other places.

    The journey will progressively become more and more difficult (on a difficulty level of 0 to 5, it will start in a 2, and – hopefully – end in a 4). It starts in level 2 (or even, may be three) because I do not count on people speaking English, and I do not speak Chinese, nor Russian, nor Turk, and then becoming more and more difficult as we advance towards East (link follows) Departing from Kashgar. <- Link Next posts on this category will address the detail of each leg starting with (link follows) Leg 1 Kashgar Hotan <- Link 2009-10-26 at 16-51-21

    Photos (all from the Author):
    Featured image: Drifting Sands in Atacama
    Dunes at sunset in Atacama
    Stranded Dakar Rally  car in Atacama
    Mountain Road in the Andes, near Valle del Elqui

    Contact Form:

  • Location names in Qinghai and Xinjiang

    tumblr_ltw6yuEGrs1r5dogro1_500As the followers of this blog (do they exist?) may already know, I follow the footsteps of Ella Maillard and Peter Fleming in Qinghai and Xinjiang.

    I thought that locating them in Google Earth should be a straightforward issue, just copying the name they wrote, pasting in Google Earth, and then, voilà, place found!.

    Well, it is not like this, there are no place names in the desert. So, our travelers asked our guide. If the guide was mongol, they got a Mongol name. Sometimes they got the Chinese name. But people in this area were essentially Uyghur, so, some names come in the Uyghur flavor. This is all? not really, because each population has their own alphabet. Well, Uyghur had no one, not two, but three alphabets, one of them being Latin, the other Cyrillic and the third Arabic.

    Mongol is a little more complex: From Wikipedia: “At the very beginning of the Mongol Empire, around 1204, Genghis Khan defeated the Naimans and captured an Uyghur scribe called Tata-tonga, who then adapted the Uyghur alphabet—a descendant of the Syriac alphabet, via Sogdian—to write Mongol. With only minor modifications, it is used in Inner Mongolia to this day. Its most salient feature is its vertical direction; it is the only vertical script that is written from left to right. (All other vertical writing systems are written right to left.) This is because the Uyghurs rotated their script 90 degrees anticlockwise to emulate the Chinese writing system.

    As a variant of the traditional script there exists a vertical square script (Босоо дөрвөлжин), also called folded script, used e.g. on the Mongolian banknotes.”.

    Anyhow, the alphabet(s) issue is of minor importance, because herders and guides were, essentially, illiterates.

    gI_113477_Middelfart-MiddlefartSo… when Peter says that they see the Ayak Kum Kul, on their way from Issik (or Issyk) Pakte to Cherchen (or Tchertchen), what place he refers to?

    They usually wrote the name of the place in their own phonetic transcription, which depends on the “landing” language, for example, what Ella (who writes in French) spells as Ou (as Ourumtchi or Doulan) is an single U. Peter does not need this, because the French OU is the English U.

    They departure name is the Mongol or Uyghur name which has nothing to do with the Chinese name. What they spell Cherchen (Peter) or Tchertchen (Ella), is written in 2000 maps as (Chärchän or Qarqan), but also as Qiemo, which is the Han name, and which will be, probably, the “official” name of the place. So, probably maps will have always the Han name, that people do not know about (or do not want to know, due to political reasons), and sometimes the local name.

    The algorithm to find the place is:
    – Try to find the place in Peter’s book.
    – Wrote it in the Search panel of Google Earth

    If it does not appear (as usual), Google it. It is worthwhile to note that Googleing unusual place names is useless, there are profiles on Facebook for each combination of vowels and consonants.

    If you do not find it, search in the US military Place names database.

    Once you find the place, you copy military coordinates (easier, as it is a single code, and not two) and you paste them in Google Earth and that’s it, you got the place.!

    Photos: Place names from the Internet
    Featured Image, Namib Desert, Author

  • Setting sails towards South Silk Road in Spring 2017.

    ussr in construction_kamele KopieNow 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

    Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHAutosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH_33_0576
    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

    2011-01-09 at 17-30-24

    Photo credits
    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

  • How to be a Caravan Master

    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) .

    9_Camel_train_with_tolarno_wool_1914Each 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.

  • Bye, bye, Lanzhou

    My trip to Xinjiang was supposed to start “officially” in Lanzhou. So, I went to the sources, and when a guide says:

    “Lanzhou is an important communication node. In 1990 it was considered the most contaminated town in Earth. Although it has some destinations interesting around the city, it has little sense to lengthen the stay for more time than the time needed to extend your visa or buy a train ticket” (Lonely Planet)

    It means”do not stop here!”

    I will not see the Yellow River rafts, nor the water wheels in the Water Wheel Park 1024px-Lanzhou-011

    nor I will take a Gondola ride in some themed hotel


    Bye, bye, Lanzhou, happy not to have seen you!