Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

Archive for ‘January, 2013’

Mission Creep. – noun. the tendency for a task to become unintentionally wider in scope than it’s initial objective(s).  Haselstock Umbrella

It was to be a journey in Central Asia with animals to carry our gear and no map to keep us on any path.  The  objective was to have a great adventure, and that was it, pure and simple.  Then, along came the idea of filming it and things just started tumbling out of control.  Film it for what?  Pretty quickly we were talking about the mountain film festivals such as Banff and Kendal and that was all very well but then somehow TV became involved.  Discovery Channel were vaguely interested and dollar signs flickered into play.  To make a film good enough for the festival circuit these days, let alone TV, picture quality and sound have to be good, not necessarily so much so that the lenses just have to be by Carl Zeiss but certainly at a level requiring the best kit one can afford.  Well, we can’t afford squat and I’ve spent the last week getting into more and more of a head-spin over balanced microphones, digital audio recorders, Juiced Link pre amps, Dead Cat windshields, focussing issues at f1.8 and, lens adaptors, ND filters and the f-ing cost of it all!

The digital filming revolution, so exciting at first for one who still remembers the agony of a 37kg rucksack and big box of cassettes hanging on a chest karabiner has done nothing but lead me into a cul-de-sac of despair as the potential camel budget shrank first to a mule and then to a bigger rucksack.  Self-filming an ‘observational documentary’ on a DSLR camera turns out to be significantly more complicated than just heading off into the field with a Sony PD100 and a couple of good mikes used to be.  And blowing 80% of the expedition budget on kit is a big risk when I haven’t actually shot a film for over a decade and we don’t even have a definite story to follow.

So we not going to.  We’ll still film it and I still need to get a nice zoom for the job, but my eBay searches are considerably less agonising all of a sudden.  Our sound is probably going to suck, but I’ll be recording it from my camel and it’ll be OK for our own little film.  We’re going to shoot a showreel for the next journey without a map and to hell with the rest.

The information we having coming into expedition HQ right now is top quality, especially those bits that have to be translated on the internet.  Just in from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan is this veritable mine of information:

Hello also Prosper!! Travelled across Kirghizia a self-locking device, there there live kind and sympathetic people, especially in a distance from cities. At affiliate it is possible to stop for the night free-of-charge..

I do not know the price for animals. In Bishkek there live my friends Diana Ovsjanina And Andrey Ovsjanin, it is possible to find out all from children about Kirghizia. Will help to be defined before travel!!

Kind Way!!

With Love from Russia!!


Even better though is that Powertraveller Ltd, the company that has revolutionised solar power on the move, makes the brilliant Power Monkey solar phone/iPod charger and a lot more besides, is very generously sponsoring us to the tune of all the equipment necessary to charge our cameras and other batteries.  Thank you Jerry Ranger and the team for your support.  This means that whatever else happens we need only take a few batteries with us and our PowerGorilla setup will ensure we never miss a shot.  I love their kit.  It’s so well designed, compact and tough.  We just need to have the folding panel arrayed over the top of our camel while on the move and then it’s battery can charge our batteries while we sleep.  Job done.  Check it out at

The 7 ‘P’s, “Prior Preparation & Planning Prevent Piss Poor Performance”, were drummed into us all in the army and, yes, I accept that in most situations they do indeed have their place.  Sometimes though, you’ve just got to go with what you have.  We’ve got our flights now, which commit us to leaving, whether ready or not, in less than a month.  It doesn’t leave us much time, on top of everything else that’s going on, to find sponsorship for the things we need to take but can’t afford to buy, which is mainly the audio and video recording kit.

It feels great to have committed ourselves though. Bruce Parry and I did this in October 1999 at the outset of planning the ‘Cannibals & Crampons’ expedition.  It blew virtually every penny we had and gave us only six weeks to find everything else we needed for free, but as an action galvaniser it was a first class opening gambit.


This time we would have also bought flights at the 6 week point but we wanted to hear first from Ali, our contact in Kashgar, on a few questions I put to him about permits and potential ‘no-go’ areas.  Xinjiang is one of the most ethnically turbulent provinces of China and there will be enormous areas that are sensitive for one reason or another, crawling with military checkpoints, etc., etc.  He and others, however, are not being terribly helpful so we’re just going to get there and figure it out on the ground.  Maybe we’ll still be forced to rethink our expedition area but in the meantime, nothing need stop me getting on with sourcing kit. On this front I’m still persuading myself that we can get by without spending money on ‘outdoor’ gear.

What’s that picture doing there?  Why, it’s an example of getting by perfectly well with kit that might erroneously be considered substandard.

Scott team in storm3This one is more relevant perhaps.  The wind on this day in Greenland was strong enough, at one point, to blow over our sledge weighing several hundred kilos and we battled through it for just over 10 hours.  That’s me in front, Bruce Parry behind, then Chris Van Tulleken and Rory O’Connor.  I am wearing a sort of sports jacket made out of a woollen blanket, over a wind smock and over trousers of gaberdine, over an assortment of woollen jumpers and long johns. While the others are wearing their reindeer skin mitts I have opted to use mine as shock absorbers on the harness and am wearing my ancient, brilliant and much-patched dachstein felted woollen mitts.  To protect our noses from frostbite we had each cobbled together our own personal face merkin.  Mine was made from a patch of sheepskin.  Chris’s appeared to have been cut from an arctic fox’s scrotum.

My point?  Well, while many of the explorers who set out in this sort of clobber did, it’s true, never come back, their untimely deaths can usually be put down to factors other than the clothing they wore.  I think we’ll get by and that’s enough on the subject.

‘The Great Game’, that shadowy 19th century ‘cold war’ between Britain and Russia, has held a fascination for me since reading ‘Kim’ as a boy.  Courageous men, often in disguise, secretly mapping the high passes and kingdoms of Central Asia and pitting their wits against the murderous tribes and potentates they found there.  The gambles they took in their quest for adventure and fame, in lands unknown and so far from any back up, and the prices often paid, make for reading that’s always riveting and often blood curdling.

Through the 20th century the region was homogenised by communism, the kingdoms and khanates turned into oblasts and collectives and the colourful remnants of the silk road have all but vanished.  Nowadays, in Kashgar, the Han Chinese are slowly outnumbering the indigenous Uyghurs and others and the few historical buildings left are being removed to allow for apartment blocks.  But Kashgar still has what is reputedly the biggest animal market in the world, and that part of Central Asia remains a staggeringly vast area of thinly populated desert, steppe and mountain; space to get truly lost in.Xinjiang

I’ve had many expedition ideas in my mind over the years but buying a horse or camel in Kashgar’s market and heading out into the emptiness for 3 months or more has never slipped out of the top five.  And now the time has come.  Ayelen’s ready and I’m ready.  We have no money for the other ideas that might have occupied us this winter and by hitch-hiking the last leg from Kyrgyzstan we can get there on the cheap.  How many pack animals we can afford, we’ll just have to see.  And in which direction we head will depend on altitude, grazing and, probably in no small measure, the police (avoidance of).  We’ll take whatever filming equipment we can rustle up in the next few weeks but no GPS or satellite phone.  Back up is for saps, and we can’t afford it anyway.  And no map.  We don’t want to be led by a map.  We’ll simply follow leads as they are presented to us by the people we meet along the way, see where we end up. The less plan there is, the less can go wrong…surely?

It’s  going to be very very cold to begin with and we don’t have a lot of kit, nor the dosh to buy a lot.  But how much do we really need anyway?  I’ve felt for sometime now that everyone just gets bogged down with the apparent need to have the very latest and best all the time.  Human nature I suppose and it was no different in Captain Scott’s day when there was still only a choice between animal skins, wool and cotton.  But really, is a RAB sleeping bag worth £400+ really necessary when the locals are sleeping in blankets?  Ok, if I was looking at carrying those blankets on my back then yes, probably.  But we’ll have horses, or camels.  And OK, it’s going to be bloody freezing there in February and March, night time temperatures as low as -25C, but blankets beneath us for a mattress and lots more on top as a duvet – job done, surely?  In fact it wouldn’t be a bad idea to not use or wear any modern-looking kit.  It’d make us more approachable to the locals and less likely to attract unwanted attention.

Sir Aurel Stein and his men, somewhere near Lop Nor

Sir Aurel Stein and his men, somewhere near Lop Nor

I mean, check out the clobber on the (in)famous archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein and his men on his way to plunder the lost civilisations of the Silk Road in around 1916.  Almost certainly he would have taken with him the finest outdoor gear available, perhaps even tailored specifically to the task at hand by some reputable gentleman’s outfitter in Piccadilly.  But there’s not a stitch of gore-tex or micro-fibre in sight.  These boys will be wearing wool next to the skin and a closely woven yarn of wool or cotton to keep out the wind, snow and rain.  Stein himself might have opted for silk undies but the others will be taking the maddening itch of course wool around the goolies in their slightly less well off stride.  Wool keeps you warm even when wet and has the added advantage of not smelling too bad even after weeks without washing.

And now take a look at Ayelen and I after a few minutes rooting around in our fancy dress box.  Those outrageous hats are in fact reindeer skin gloves left over from the last time I was in extreme cold. In 2005 I was part of a team re-enacting, in Greenland, the 1911 race to the south pole. high barnets smallWe spent 90 days in temperatures as low as -38C with windchill way below that and wore – with the exception of boots and gloves – nothing but wool, tweed and gaberdine. And we were fine.  None of us washed for the entire time save for occasionally rubbing certain areas vigorously with a handful of snow and yet upon our reappearance in civilisation nobody recoiled from our stench.  I’m not saying we would have stood up well to a close sniff but despite all the exercise we’d done there was no sign of that cloying reek that hangs in an invisible mist around some tramps.  You have to think about these things.

Back to the hats..well we won’t be taking them for they’re just too silly but I don’t reckon we need to be buying much either.  I think a handful of thin wool underwear and polo neck jumpers as layers to add and remove as required, a really thick jumper for the evenings and a good windproof and we’ll be done!

Yup, I think we´re ready to go!  It’s time to buy flights.

She has shown the utmost patience, dutifully arming herself with a spade and trekking out into the forest each cludgie morning to find a spot hidden from the ever-present goatherds, and then later to the outdoor ‘cludgie’, to squat over its bucket of sawdust.  She shared not my pride in the latter’s technological refinements – the solar chimney whisking away any pong and the fly-proof trapdoor – and yet still was uncomplaining at the onerous (but not odorous, I might add) task of occasionally emptying the bucket onto the compost heap.

And so it has given me all the more pleasure to finally present to my love a fully plumbedround window and wired, hallway crapper.  And my pride this time is not so much in my first attempts at plumbing and proper wiring, but in the subtly appropriate window. 

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