• Going up, towards Dzoun

    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

    2006-12-12 at 23-27-06

    Photos, but for the map, are from the Author

  • 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.

  • Xining, the city that has nothing to show

    Probably I should change my travel guide. I have always spoke bad about imaginary guides, guides based in what you are supposed to see and do, instead on what you actually see and do. My first experience was with Fodor’s Guide to Iran:

    The water mirror at the Sahn (central courtyard in a Mosque) reflects the four Iwans that surround it, offering, to clever photographs, the inverted image of their arches. The South Iwan, sided by two minarets, gives access to the prayers room. This room is simply a pure wonder of unexpected lightness and elegance under a dome of these dimensions”


    Well, one expect this:

    2009-10-27 at 11-04-48,

    although, what you see is more similar to this:

    2009-10-27 at 11-37-02

    or to this

    2009-10-27 at 11-34-08

    Moreover, on the first photograph you may see the green color of the water at the rinsing pool. This green is lime, an in the pool water you may see all kind of trash. So, it is better if you maintain the correct distance to take the photo.

    So, when I read in the Lonely Planet Guide

    ” Though many travelers use Xining as a jumping-off of landing point in the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, it’s also a wonderful place to explore the province’s varied cultures: Muslim (Huí, Salar and Uighur), Tibetan and Han Chinese, – specially the dynamite culinary mix that these groups bring together”

    and that the almost only thing to see is the Provincial Museum of Qinghai with old potteries and the Tibetan Culture Museum, which scores the longest (618 meters) thankga (tibetan scroll), which took 400 artisans to paint, and that was completed in 1997, well, I am confused. I do not expect the Guides to lie to me, but I do expect they show at least some interest.

    So, let us skip also Xining and head to the Ta’er Monastery. Well, this is worse.

    It is of enormous historical importance – said the guide – and hundreds of monks still live there but, perhaps because it is such a big tourist draw for this part of Qinghai, the atmosphere can, at times, feel a bit overrun

    And when I read that, with the “Grand Hall of the Golden Tiles”, the other worthwhile thing to see is the “Yak Butter Scripture Temple” with contains human figures, animals and landscapes carved out of yak butter… well, I wonder if I should skip Ta’er too

    … or change my travel guide 🙂

    All photos, but for the last one, are mine (Isfahan, around 1979)


  • Kumbun, Koumboum or Ta’er, aka. the Big Lamasery

    2009-08-07 at 05-34-012011-01-01 at 12-09-10Ella and Peter arrived to Sining. They had lost en route the Smigounovs, sent back by Chinese authorities  to Tsien-Tsin. An incomplete passport allowed them to leave Lanzhou, thus passing the hot potato of the two heterodox travelers to next stop, in this case Xining,

    Lanzhou authorities did not dare to stop a “Correspondent of the Imperial and Foreign Department of The Times” with her boy (usually Ella was considered as Peter’s assistant), and they gave to them a passport for the Koukou Noor, written in Chinese only and not in Tibetan.

    So, they arrived to Sining, to be stopped again, waiting for a valid passport and without authorization to leave the city. This is the first city that Ella as well as Peter find “not Chinese”. Sining is a cross-road for “Mongols from Tsaidam and Tibetans from Labrang and even from Lhassa” (PF), Both, Ella and Peter talk about the exoticism of Sining.

    They strolled in the city, talked to the Authorities, bought their last equipments: a tent, designed by Ella with an “aerodynamic” look, sleeping bags made from cured skins of mutton (you may imagine what it should be to sleep inside), a recipient (a wok?) that was utilized by Ella to make laundry first, and to cook later.

    Finally, they got an authorization to visit the Big Lamasery of Kumbun, as Peter calls it, Koumboum for Ella.

    2006-04-13 at 17-47-122011-01-01 at 12-12-02
    They were overwhelmed by the lamasery, and the life there. Both talk about the gallery with stuffed animals, their fur bathed in yak’s butter. Odor should have been overwhelming. But they enjoyed staying there. Probably they felt that their trip had already started.

    They only needed: a caravan, some camels, a guide and they were all setup!

    (photos from the Author, Chengddu and Shaolin Temple.)

  • 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!

  • Marooned in Lanzhou

    Version española al final del texto en inglés

    Let us start with the name


    Ella and Peter did not enjoy Lanchow (Lanzhou, in the Gansu province – China is so big that they ran short of names, so there are four different Lanzhous in Wikipedia). The one we refer to is Lanzhou (Gansu), a city on the banks of the Yellow River.

    They were stopped for several days due to subtleties of local Police (probably the war in the Xinjiang had also some influence). See the link Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

    This is a view of Lanzhou circa 1900. Probably it did not change a lot from there to 1935. You can see in the drawing the water wheels


    This photograph shows the river and the water wheels Ella refers to.


    Ella describes the city, the streets and the shops (that already have glass windows), she strolls outside of the city following the water porters while Peter only says “the streets of Lanzhou are romantic”, thus opening a path to guesswork.

    This city was the last city truly Han in the Silk Road, from there on travelers going West will be in a more “exotic” country, while travelers going East jumped on rafts made of inflated mutton skins to navigate the Yellow River.

    Orlandini, the Venetian Doctor we will refer to later, has a vivid description of the trip he did from Lanzhou to Beijing, with a geographer, a journalist, two raftsmen (one of them seriously ill) and a cook, all of them on a 3m x 5m raft. One of the raftsmen must blow almost continuously into one or another of the floating carcasses to restrain the raft from sinking.



    Version española

    A Ella y a Peter no les gustó Lanzhou, en la provincia de Gansu (China es tan grande que se quedan sin nombres para las ciudades). A la que nos vamos a referir es a la que está en la provincia de Gansu, y en las riberas del Rio Amarillo

    Allí quedaron atascados, debido a las sutilezas de la Policia local, aunque probablemente el hecho de que quisiesen dirigirse a una zona en guerra podia tener algo que ver

    Ver el link: Shipwrecked in Lanzhou

    Se ven en las fotos primero, Lanzhou ca. 1900, con las norias a las que se refiere Ella, que están en la segunda fotografía

    Ella describe la ciudad, sus calles y sus tiendas (que ya tienen escaparates de vidrio), pasea por fuera de la ciudad siguiendo a los porteadores de agua, mientras que Peter dice solo que “las calles de Lanzhou son románticas”, abriendo el camino a toda suerte de especulaciones.

    Esta ciudad era la ultima ciudad realmente Han en la Ruta de la Seda, de aquí en adelante los viajeros yendo hacia el Oeste estarían en tierras más exóticas, mientras que los viajeros yendo hacia el Este embarcaban en balsas hechas con bambú y con pieles de cordero infladas como flotadores, y en ellas bajaban el rio Amarillo.

    Orlandini, el médico veneciano al que nos referiremos mas tarde incluye una divertida descripción del viaje que hizo Rio Amarillo abajo, en una balsa ocupada por dos remeros, un cocinero, un periodista y un geógrafo ademas de el. Uno de los remeros debía estar inflando una u otra bota a cada rato

  • Please, give me a break! not yet another blog from a friend!

    Versión española al final del post.


    How to deal in writing with something that happens at different levels?

    In this blog I would like to speak about two people, Ella Maillard and Peter Fleming, the trip they did in the Takla Makan Desert, and also about who they found “en route”. But this is the excuse to talk about myself and the trip I plan to do next spring, on their steps. And not only that, but I will write also my impressions on the same places when I return from there, in May 2017

    So, these are at least three levels… what Peter and Ella did, what I hope to do myself, and, finally, what I found there.

    I will organize this in three categories: “1935” (their trip), “2016” (what their trip inspires to me now, on this blog), and “2017” (my own trip)

    I will add a fourth category, always needed 🙂 : “Others


    Then, let me present myself :

    This is me:

    2009-10-27 at 15-19-06
    The guy in red shirt, not the one in blue boxers, who was my boss then, trying to unblock from the sand our rented Fiat 127 somewhere between Nefta and Matmata, in the Sahara


    This is what I like, long stretches of non paved road, with nothing to see other that a fugitive chacal (here, in the Namib)

    2008-03-23 at 06-16-09

    or sand dunes at sunrise (more standard “desert stuff” , here in the Atacama)
    2011-12-10 at 20-18-07

    and the “repos du guerrier”, old bars, lost in the middle of nowhere (here in Copiapó, a small mining town in Chile) to have a well deserved beer.

    2011-01-04 at 20-15-35

    Said that, welcome to my blog

    more information in About me


    ——— Spanish Version ——-


    Traducción del título: “Un poquito de por favor. No quiero otro blog de un amigo!”

    ¿Cómo tratar por escrito lo que sucede a niveles diferentes?

    En este blog me gustaría tratar de dos personas, Ella Maillard y Peter Fleming, y el viaje que hicieron en el Takla Makan, pero también de los que encontraron en el camino. Pero eso es una excusa para hablar de mi mismo, y del viaje que espero hacer en la próxima primavera, siguiendo sus pasos. Y no solo eso, pero también de mis impresiones sobre estos lugares, antes de ir, y también a mi regreso

    Y eso son al menos tres niveles, lo que ellos hicieron, lo que yo espero encontrar y lo que encontré realmente.

    Organizaré el blog en categorías: “1935” (su viaje), “2016” (la preparación del mío), “2017” (escrito durante el viaje, o a mi regreso, y a todo ello añadiré una cuarta, la siempre necesaria: “Otros”

    Este soy yo:

    2009-10-27 at 15-19-06

    El de la camiseta roja, no el de los boxers azules (este era mi jefe), tratando de desatascar el Fiat 127 de alquiler en algún lugar del Sahara entre Nefta y Matmata


    Esto es lo que me gusta, carreteras rectas sin asfaltar y sin mucho que ver (algún chacal en este caso, eso era en el Namib
    2008-03-23 at 06-16-09


    o dunas de arena, “desierto modelo Lawrence de Arabia”, tan fotogénicas al amanecer. Aquí, en Atacama

    2011-12-10 at 20-18-07

    y el “repos du guerrier”, viejos bares donde tomarse una chela helada, en medio de ninguna parte (aquí, en Copiapó, ciudad minera del norte de Chile)

    2011-01-04 at 20-15-35


    Dicho esto: welcome to my blog

    Mas información en sobre mi