Not As Described

14th September 2017

Well, I suppose our journey could have been worseIt’s tiring work this sitting on your backside in a coach for 6 or 7 hours with nothing to do but watch the scenery going past (and catch up with listening to podcasts). We’re still heading west and the desert landscape is arid, mostly flat but very rugged in places. At one point where the road runs along the side of a valley (and at one point through one of the hills) the rocks are so brightly coloured and rugged that we ask for a stop to take some photos. Having a stretch of our legs is just an additional bonus.

Dramatic landscape & new viaductWe must have been so numbed that we forgot to take photos of our lunch stop and indeed there are no photos of that morning at all. All I know is that we were in a small town (small by Chinese standards) and ate in the local equivalent of a ‘greasy spoon’ café. However, as in the UK, there can be some real gems in these places and once we got past the sight of a side of lamb hanging in the restaurant window that was the case here. Judging by the dishes going past us, the local laghman noodles was the popular choice and it was very tasty. (If you fancy giving it a go, there is a recipe here – thank you, Silk Road Chef).

A favourite type of roadside stallWe’re heading for the western end of the Taklamakan desert near the town of Makit where we have a date with some camels who are supposed to be to be taking us out into the desert for a night under canvas. However, we now learn that not only is this the first time that Wild Frontiers have run this activity but the first time that any western tour group has tried to do this. Nobody seems very clear as to what the timings are – or even where we are supposed to pick up the camels.

A bit too graphicIt’s 5pm by the time we arrive in town and as the tour notes say that we have a 10km camel ride ahead of us, we’re all anxious to get on with it / get it over with. So, it is a surprise to find that we have stopped at a museum / art gallery. The museum is small and is dedicated to the lives and history of the desert people and I’m really not in the mood for it. The art gallery does grab my attention more as the paintings are by self-taught locals who essentially are documenting their lives. At least with the simplistic style you don’t have to puzzle out multiple cryptic references and meanings in the symbolism.

17:53 and we're still waiting for our camelsEventually we get to the base from which we’ll take our camels, but even now there is still just more sitting around and neither Sadiq nor Laura know what is going on. Worse, there are a group of Chinese here that are going around taking photographs of anything and everything, but mostly of us. Janet is convinced that they are Chinese police here to keep an eye on us. Instead, they turn out to be the marketing department of the tour company that is running the camel ‘expedition’. Even so, the constant photography becomes intrusive and uncomfortable and I ask them to stop.

Ships of the desert - and prone to as much rollingAt last, we get to meet our camels and climb aboard while they are kneeling down and then hold on tight fore and aft as the camel goes through the three-stage process of standing up. There is no elegance, just cling on as you pitch forward & backward. Once we set off, its quickly apparent that even 3 or 4km (let alone 10km) is not going to happen. The camels are led along a looping ‘S’ shaped track within the grounds of the tour company (39o N). Although tethered nose to tail, the camels refuse to walk in single file – there is much jostling, braying at each other and, most of all, eating any vegetation that is within striking distance. I really didn’t like the look of their teeth and made sure to keep my knees & feet away from their mouths.

A nice orderly line (not)After about ½ an hour, we get to the top of a dune where there is a 4×4 and a dune buggy parked up and waiting for us. As are all of the marketing / publicity people. Nearby, boxes containing what is presumably bags containing our food are laid out on the ground along with bags containing travel chairs and tables. But nothing is set up and there is absolutely no sign of our tents. Although there are lots of people milling about, nobody is telling us what is happening and even Laura is perplexed. And it has now around 7:30pm and sunset is only about an hour away.

Easily the best part of the excursionEventually, we are told that we have stopped to listen to some traditional music and possibly something to eat. Our camp is allegedly by another dune a kilometre or so away. There is nothing else for it but to listen and appreciate the musicians and their authentic instruments. The setting, perched on top of a dune, was certainly effective and music seemed somehow appropriate. Apparently, they have done international tours – including playing in the UK.

Traditional instrumentsHowever, there is still no sign of food or tents. The publicity people are milling around and now seem to have been joined by the Chinese equivalent of Anneka Rice judging by the amount of posing that she is doing. At least they now have someone else to take pictures of! Then a police 4×4 arrives and there is lots of yakking with the ‘organisers’. Bit by bit, a story emerges. Well, several stories, actually…

Hardly alone in the middle of the desertFirstly, we are told that there is a forecast of ‘a big wind’ and that there are safety concerns if we were to go out into the desert camping. Later we are told that there are ‘lions and tigers’ in the desert and that it is much too dangerous. We were all waiting for the next iteration to be that there were aliens out there who might abduct us. What is very clear is that we were not going to go camping in the desert and that other than the chance to go for a camel ride, the whole thing was just a charade.

Heading off into the sunsetAnd so, as the sun sets at 9pm, the camels are brought back. The least I can do is try for some artistic shots, but neither the sun nor the camels (nor the photographer from the publicity team) really co-operate and it’s all a bit bland. There isn’t much to say about the camel ride back – we could barely see anything – however, the straps holding the saddle tight on Janet’s camel broke and she nearly ended up sliding backwards off the beast. Falling off a camel would not have been a great end to the day.

China's equivalent of Anneka RiceAt least there is food cooking by the time we get back to the base and we definitely deserve the warm beer that has appeared (thank you, Laura). We also learn that hotel rooms have been found for us back in Makit (c. 20km away). Amazing that at 9 o’clock at night a hotel can be persuaded to open up just for us. Hmm! We even get a police escort back to the hotel. As with most other hotels in China, the mattresses are rock hard so, I suppose, we can just imagine that we are camping – in the knowledge that we are safe from big winds, tigers, lions and aliens.

The more comfortable and quicker option!I am convinced that we were never going to be camping out in the desert. The excuses kept changing but no effort was ever made to set up camp. Xinjiang province is a very strange place – even for China. It is saying something when even Turkmenistan has a less oppressive feel to it. Earlier, Laura shared with us the story of Mark Kitto, a Briton (from Norfolk, even) married to a Chinese woman and who built up a business in China, only to have it stolen from him and ultimately was hounded out of China. He also visited the Taklamakan Desert only to have the police / army appear and spread stories of riots and unrest in the region that appear to be completely unfounded. Kitto tells of the impact that this oppression is having on the local Uighur population and the piece is called ‘Phantom Enemies’ (link here). Whilst our experience was not as extreme as his, the parallels between the two make his tale believable.

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