(Due to the rubbish internet speed in Western China I had to resize most of the pictures below or emigrate here permanently to have sufficient time for the upload, so resolution might not be great on a big screen.)
With brand new visas in our passports and an, “Ok, ok, ok.” from the regional police HQ regarding our planned route, we head for the hills again, following a south easterly bearing to intersect the next river. Even Kashi seems to share our new sense of optimism and walks with her head level with ours, sniffing the air ahead. Once again the flat and boring desert gives way initially to low mounds of stone and compressed dust and then hills of the same until, after some 30kms, through the clogged atmosphere appears the first valley and then another branching off it. We find our river and follow it, walking along a sandy path marked with the ubiquitous tyre tracks of motorcycle borne shepherds. In an attempt to make this more of a holiday we are determined from this day forth to camp at four o´clock each afternoon and now enjoy a leisurely camp routine and a bottle of beer chilled in the river. Ayelen scours the banks for wood and returns with half a tree. Things are as they should be.
The first shepherd of the following day confirms the village at the top of this valley, 35kms away, is Bouchong but has no idea whether we will find a navigable path from there to the east. We need there to be one, at least as far as the village of Akaaz from where we can pick up the old trading route we want to follow, but shepherd after shepherd is none the wiser. Soon enough the shepherds disappear as the valley turns into an impressive gorge. It´s almost 6pm by the time we find a flat enough space to pitch our tent on and we have arrived in Bouchong. It´s hardly a village, just six homesteads sitting astride the union of two rivers and a scattering of irrigated terraces, the adobe houses half hidden by poplar and almond trees. At this altitude the leaves and blossom so evident nearer the desert are only just visible but the mountain slopes behind have colour for a change, albeit that of dead grass, and the sky is blue for the first time since we entered China a month ago. A cornice of snow teeters on the nearest summit and the two rivers are chrystal clear. This seems exactly what we have been searching for. Ayelen spots a gaggle of women and goes to ask if anyone has any bread and hay to sell us. She gets the usual “Yok!” (No!). The women – one with flour all over her face from recent breadmaking activities – giggle childishly at her attempts at their language. A little further on she finds, to her surprise, a police station covered with solar panels and antennae. There is a barrier across the track complicating further progress along the valley we need to follow. She returns empty-handed but later an elderly couple appear with some old loaves and a bag of straw. The man tells us there is no path to the east, not that a camel can follow anyway, but nothing can dampen our spirits now. We´ll sort it out in the morning.
“Come out! Come out! Come here immediately!” I am half into my trousers already, awoken seconds before by the voices of maybe a dozen men approaching. It´s 2 o´clock and the tent is surrounded by soldiers. Their torches are in our faces as we emerge and it´s not a social call.
“Passports!”. “What is your purpose here?” The English speaker is a heavily built Uighur called Illias. His tone relaxes as it becomes clear we are just a weird couple strolling inexplicably around the mountains and not the vanguard of a third world war. The others, both Han and Uighur, mill about smoking and taking endless photos of us and the tent. They have driven over 250kms from Khotan and want us to return there with them. We protest, argue and cajole for over an hour in the freezing cold but apparently we are in a sensitive border area. We scoff at this for the nearest border is that with disputed Kashmir about 180kms away over mountains we cannot even begin to cross. Well, it´s for our own safety then, there are dangerous animals. We laugh at this and I mime staving off a sheep attack. Why this place is sensitive remains obscure to us, only the barrier across the track suggesting something´s going on in the valley we want to follow. In the end it´s our camel who thwarts their plans. She won´t go in the boot and so they´ll have to leave us here. But we are not allowed to continue on this route and we know that in the morning, as we retrace our steps, again, there will be phonecalls criss-crossing China and our low-level agreement with Jackson and the Pishan police will be off. Ayelen is close to tears with frustration and anger. I am filled with remorse at having brought her here. This hassle with authorities has now become the central theme of our journey and I cannot even film it. The only positive thing seems to be that they haven´t actually closed us down completely.
A day later, camped again at the bottom of the valley we are visited by Ahmet, the policeman who looked after our camel for five days in Koshtagha while we were getting new visas in Khotan. On the back of his motorbike are 10 flatbreads for us. He knew roughly where to find us because, retreating down the valley from Bouchong, we´d bumped into a mutual acquaintance, but still it shows how visible we are at all times if anyone really cares to look. Watching us break camp he looks almost wistful, as if he is beginning to understand the attraction of what we are doing, the freedom. His is the only house we have slept in since entering Xinjiang and it was not through a normal invitation – the police needed us to be in their ´fold´ and he alone volunteered. He and his wife are two of the four Uighurs encountered since setting out with our camel with whom we have had the time to explain ourselves a little. The other two were a husband and wife who invited us to dinner three weeks ago. With everybody else we have got no further than to ask directions or for bread, hay, etc,. If there´s a phone signal somebody will call the police. If there´s none they will jump on their bikes and go direct to the nearest station. To provide the human interest for our journey and film I was relying upon what I have always found, worldwide, to be a reliable mountain-folk hospitality. I even have some very good quality sound recording gear with which to capture a lively evening and perhaps even the sound track to our film. I haven´t even switched it on. Only now do I begin to appreciate the effects on the Uighur people of three generations of communism and foreign rule. I had thought, given that there´s an active separatist movement in Xinjiang, that the Uighurs, young and old, might have been conspiratorially friendly towards us, perhap`s even eager to break the rules of their Han masters and invite us to stay, but the relationship between the two ethnic groups is clearly not so black and white as I thought. While there´s reportedly no marriage between the ethnic groups, nor much other mingling, the Chinese efforts to outnumber the indigenous Uighur and create a monoculture here appears, to me at least, to have been quite successful. Those under 30-years old are very definitely loyal. Whatever the case, there is little hospitality towards outsiders here, only fear, mistrust and the promise perhaps of a backhander from the police. It´s a disappointment.
But leaving Ahmet for a second time we are again in high spirits, heading eastwards and over another hill. The sky is blue again and there´s nothing like sunshine after a month of white-out to wash away troubles. Yes, yes, yes: anyone in the UK will scoff at the complaint of not seeing blue sky for a month but this is different. At least in Britain there´s generally a cloud to look at; an impressive cumulo nimbus manouvering in to wipe out your BBQ perhaps, or the sun´s rays stabbing through the vapours as if the benificience of God is alighting on somebody, just not you of course. Here it´s a simply an opaque glare: no colour, no contrast, no view, no fun, no nothing. It reminds me of Lima, Peru except that there´s quite a lot of fun to be had in Lima and Montezuma´s Revenge, as the persistent mist there has been called, won´t wreck your camera in only a few weeks.
Anyway, it doesn´t matter, for just after meeting a man with a bird of prey a few hours later a strong wind sweeps across the hills and we are in a dust storm that turns Ayelen´s eyebrows grey. There´s a big herd of camels near the pass and lots of lizards underfoot but otherwise not much to describe. Ayelen asks me how the Spanish word monotonia translates into English. In the morning it´s little better and we are within three hundred metres of an oasis before we can even see the 30ft trees. We have arrived at the next river and since, still, nobody has closed us down completely and nobody has specifically said that we can´t go to the next village on our list, Akaaz, we turn southwards once more and to hell with them all. This thorn-in-the-side attitude brings us to somewhere called Kankerr. We think we´ve walked past a reservoir to get there but can´t be sure. We would happily bypass Kankerr in the murk but in my notes is an entry that between Akaaz and Kokobash is at least 80kms over mountainous terrain so we need to buy food, both for us and Kashi, for maybe five days. If only the dust could be thick enough to obscure our identities from the shopkeeper we might get away with it. It´s not of course and in any case it´s Friday, mosque day, and the humourless old bag doesn´t reopen for two hours. We retire into what appears in an extremely small way to be a restaurant and each choose from the one item on the menu a bowl of stock with a big lump of fat in it. The tail of the fat-tailed sheep is the most prized part here, naturally. Minutes later, as I´m mentally preparing myself to overpower another gag reflex – I´m getting thin and the fat is needed – in walks a policeman to hand us a phone. On the other end is Jackson, our attendant copper in Pishan…brilliant!
We spend the next three hours on and off the phone. Again we are fighting for an interesting trip. All we want to do is follow an obscure and ancient route spotted on only a few maps we´ve examined before coming here that supposedly links the villages at the head of some but not all of the valleys flanking the Kunlun Shan. Jackson, the man who had said yes, says no, we must head north again. We call our attendant soldier in khotan, Illias, to complain. Both Jackson and Illias call other people, then us again, then more people. Every one of the nine police officers now crammed into the sheep fat diner are on their phones relaying the exciting developments to yet more people. We eat more fat and the proprietor starts to chop up more tails on a wooden block next to our table. There´s a crowd outside now. I go out periodically to calm Kashi down. She hates these towns and everyone in them. Illias calls back. We can go to Akaaz, the army has no issue. That´s all we need to hear; screw Jackson. We dive into the one shop, finally now open again, and after trying fruitlessly to deal with Humourless Old Bag Ayelen jumps behind the counter herself and starts pulling things off the shelves. For our pot it´s a typically disappointing haul of a few onions, potatoes, biscuits and rice. A kilo of dried broad beans and some eggs is all that´s available in terms of protein. Jackson calls again as we are loading Kashi with 30kgs of seed corn and kunji, a local agricultural by-product that she loves. No we can´t proceed, his chief has spoken; if we go any further south we´ll be arrested. The police of Kankerr crowd around us: bugger. We camp in a field by the river and help some men transplant an almond tree instead.
So back north we go, yet again. Jackson tracks us down, this time in person, after four hour´s walk. In the car with him are two young Han Chinese men who have made a conspicious effort to look cool this morning with a sort of Miami Vice vibe. They´ve failed quite spectacularly, mainly due to their little pot bellies, but they have badges. Flashing his in my face the first says he is from the Department of Internal Affairs (or something like that). “I am Agent Zhou and this is my colleague Agent Wong.” He intones officiously. With a supreme effort I resist commenting that he´s been watching too many movies; I need to get him to like us. It´s a tall order though for here is the kind of Chinese official I have always feared having to deal with. He is arrogant, condescending and in love with his power over us. He is a machined cog who cannot be reasoned with for he is simply unable to understand anything the doesn´t fit into normal parameters. We argue back and forth for a while but it´s pretty hopeless. At one point he says he has no need to travel himself for his own country is so perfect, the irony of his trying so hard to be American lost in the breeze that occasionally envelopes our little conference in a dust cloud. He spreads his road map out over the donkey cart of a woman who´s parked in our midst and points to a place called Toowo. It´s big and very close to the main highway. We have to check in with the police there, he says. Jackson says little, merely standing to one side and looking a little sheepish; Agent Zhou clearly outranks him. We say it´ll take us five days and then watch them drive away.
I have been careful about filming in the larger villages and towns for fear of exacerbating our situation. Now I couldn´t care less and openly film the blank stares of the populace as we walk through. Two young police on a motorbike follow us and I film them too. Within an hour Jackson´s 4×4 is upon us again and the agents pile out. They scrutinize the boring footage I have taken, chastise us for not having gone to the Maldives and disappear again. We camp in an old quarry between the eastern edge of the oasis and the dry hills that hem it in. The quarry walls show just how deep is the dust. It´s as if an ancient volcano buried the land in hundreds of feet of the stuff. Having a high clay content it´s perfect for building adobe houses and irrigation ditches with and even seems pretty good for growing stuff in, but why somebody here needed to quarry for more of it defies explanation.
Setting up camp we are watched by three young men in shiny, ill-fitting suits and dusty shoes. Their persistence even until dusk makes it clear they are being paid to monitor our movements. They must suspect that we´re just going to head straight into the hills again and they are right. In the morning they are back again and position themselves above us on the hillside. This makes it difficult for Ayelen to even go for a pee in private and suddenly she can contain the fire dragon within no longer. My Chinese sign is the goat. I make coffee as she chases them all out of their hiding places and back to the road where their bikes are parked. They run, occasionally trying to hide again behind a tree or the like but she keeps them moving. Regrouping astride their bikes they feel safe but she strides up to the first and, jabbing her finger repeatedly into the side of his head, questions his Muslim credentials in furious and broken Uighur. In the quarry, unable to leave our kit unattended, I put the toast on; she´ll be hungry. A crowd gathers as the next Peeping Tom gets the same treatment, my angry little Patagonian only breaking the tirade to explain to the gathering crowd that these men have been spying on her ablutions and have no shame. The third flees. As she calms down I call Jackson to complain again and he denies any knowledge. Perhaps they are spies of Agent Zhou. Who cares; we have a camel and they cannot follow on their feeble little bikes.
Back into the hills we feel a wonderful calm again. Within an hour we are walking through a high plateau of rolling sand dunes and they will need to charter a helicopter to follow us. We have plentiful food but not much water and know only that the next river is between one and two days away. Well before it we find ourselves dropping into a stupendous valley of rock and sand. The riverbed at the bottom is dry and there is little sign of life. Although only a morning´s walk from civilsation the sense of solitude is immense. Dry bushes uprooted by dust devils and blown southwards like tumbleweed by the funnelled wind are the only signs of movement between the vast outcrops of rock. I look at our little water bag and can´t help feeling a sense of trepidation as we descend. While still high up and afforded a view we´ve been careful to pick out a possible route up the other side but much of it is hidden by a jagged barrier of rock and what if we are forced back down into this valley to try another way? Ayelen doesn´t seem to go through these thought processes. If a shepherd says we´ll have a river after 8 hours of walking that´s enough for her. What lies between is largely irrevelant. I, on the other hand, seem to be compelled to run a series of ´What ifs?´ through my head the whole time. What if this route leads us into a camel-proof cul-de-sac? What if we go too far to the south and meanwhile our river is heading more to the east and we find an extra mountain blocking our access to water? It feels important or at least prudent to wonder about this sort of thing when there´s no map to consult but maybe I´m just more of a worrier than she. In the event the climb goes without a hitch and by mid afternoon we are traversing an even higher set of rolling dunes. There are steep and rocky slopes below us on most sides though and we want to get down by nightfall. Then we stumble upon a very old pathway the width of a donkey cart which might guide us through the maze. It´s very hard to follow. Sand and bushes have camouflaged it´s contours so well that at times we have to gaze ahead to a distant point to stand a chance of discerning it´s line in our peripheral vision. It leads us into a steep sided ravine which is just what I would normally avoid. These are carved by flash floods and can be too narrow at their bottom or even end suddenly at a precipice over which the earth and rock-laden water would cascade after heavy rain. A spur usually holds more promise, although choosing the right one on a convex and therefore blind slope, one that goes all the way to the bottom and doesn´t also end suddenly in a precipice, is hard. One of us will usually put in a lot of extra hillwalking in order to check these out before committing our loaded camel. This time we trust the path.
Kashi has disliked going down steep hills. Having initially needed a prodding to follow us down anything steeper than the average wheelchair ramp she has been gaining in confidence, however, and of late has put up little fight. Now, as the slope becomes progressively more perilous, I am having to try to hold her back, walking beneath her head and holding onto her halter directly. If she goes too fast her load will bounce onto and over her forward hump and on any surface other than soft sand her soup plate feet are not best designed to slow momentum once it´s picked up. We´ve watched herds of camels running down hillsides at full tilt as if unable to go any slower but they are unladen and they stick resolutely to the sandy parts where their feet can dig in. Camels are not goats and leading Kashi into a situation where she could easily suffer a bad fall has been my most recurrent fear on this trip. What do you do with half a ton of injured camel half way up a mountainside? Suddenly it becomes clear that if this was ever a path travelled by donkey carts they would have to have been dismantled and carried piecemeal over the next bit. We take it in turns to hold Kashi while the other takes a look. For a human it´s really nothing: a 50m section of exposed rock with one big step to make then a fairly narrow ledge followed by a slope of smooth granite, all with a long drop on one side; it´s not overly steep and there are small ridges in the rock to prevent ones feet from slipping away. Where Kashi´s concerned, however, I´m certain we´ll have to unload her and ferry all the kit down ourselves. With no load she ought to be ok. I want Kashi to make the choice however and lead her gingerly to the top of the big step. To my surprise she jumps down without hesitation and then unconcernedly tackles the ledge too. Only in the middle of the final slope where her feet are slipping on the pebble scattered rock does she seem unsure and we both stay there for some minutes trying to work out the best way forward. In the end I decide she´ll have the best grip if she turns around 90 degrees and follows me along an exposed strata line in the rock. She seems to sense my sudden confidence and follows with little more than a grunt. At the bottom there are congratulations all round. It´s a big moment for all of us. My understanding of what she is capable of is radically altered and so is hers, I think. Not only that but we seem to have won her trust at last. During the first few weeks her following us down this little rocky obstacle would have been inconceivable. At the same time time however, I know that we mustn´t put her into rock climbing situations much more complicated than this one. We probably won´t get the chance to in any case.
We camp on the river bank, hidden from the public by a cliff. There´s one small homestead opposite though and Ayelen approaches this to ask for hay. We don´t really want to see anyone. We´ve all but given up on the Uighurs and just want a few days on our own before the next set of police latch onto us. This time we´re lucky. The old farmer there isn´t likely to call anybody and throws up his arms in horror at her offer of payment for his hay. It´s not a bad spot and we stay put the following day, unsure of what to do next. We can get to Toowo as instructed and without using any roads to keep a semblance of our our trip intact, but then what? We´ll be out of the hills and into the featureless desert plains, forced to enter bigger and bigger towns to register with the police stations there. It´ll take us further and further away from camel country and Kashi is becoming increasingly difficult to handle on busy roads. I can´t see the point but I don´t want to give up either. I realise that I´m looking for a final excuse to call it a day and Ayelen finds it in the afternoon. She ventures onto the gravelled track to assess how far we are from a source of bread and meets several groups of people. They all start talking animatedly amongst themselves as soon as they see her and she clearly hears the word tuga (camel) over and over again. There´s only one way every one in a valley can know about us before we´ve even arrived and that´s if it´s being broadcast on the local tannoy system. It´s the straw that breaks this camel´s back. We are completely outgunned and we´ve had enough. Our talk turns immediately towards selling Kashi and getting the hell out of this screwed up country. It´s disappointing not to have even made it onto that old trading route and now we´ll never know if it is even feasible for a camel, but at least we´ve tried. We´ll continue our Central Asian walk in Kyrgystan with a couple of donkeys.
We decide to back track to the last town. One of the men there we´d asked for information concerning the lie of the land ahead had expressed an interest in buying Kashi and we are certain there will be others. We just want to have one more night of solitude and stock up on water in order to camp in the big empty valley. In fact it isn´t empty for just as we have pitched the tent a herd of Bactrians round the corner and crowd about Kashi. Grazing on the thorny little bushes they move on and then suddenly climb the steep hillside to the west, towards water. They are somebody´s stock and there´ll be a herdsman somewhere to keep a general eye on things and push them back here when they´ve drunk. Relatively speaking, though, and for the moment, they are free. Kashi gazes after them until the last has disappeared and it´s clear to me I have a duty to leave her in the hills rather than transport her to the sunday market in Khotan from where she´ll likely be put back into a barn. Daunting in any case are the logistics of selling a camel in a city market: transport costs, where to keep her for the night either side and having only a matter of hours in which to sell her or face the depressing task of shipping her back out. Some buyer is sure to sniff out our mounting panic and hammer our price down. Conversely, in one of these small communities we can take our time and find a good home for her and without the transport costs we´ll probably gain the same amount of money. There´s a sense of relief at having made the right decision and we mess around in the morning, delaying our exit from this wild spot.
It´s always important to end something on a good note if you can and, ironically, in selling our camel we finally present the Uighurs with an easily graspable reason for being in their midst. It makes all the difference in the world. They are suddenly friendly, en masse. I walk the 8kms from our campsite in the dusty quarry to the centre of Sanjer to buy more camel food and spread the word. I am immediately surrounded and spend a happy hour in spirited negotiation. In the afternoon Ayelen takes Kashi in the opposite direction to another community centre and experiences the same. By the end of the day our top offer is Y9000 (we bought her for Y12000) but it´s from a man who owns no others so she´ll likely be kept in solitude. I wanted to recoup more than this but in the end it´s only money and an image of my woolly friend in that valley is worth more to me than Y1000 (US$160). I am prepared to accept less from a man who owns 40 of the beasts. Ayelen doesn´t get this at all and taunts me about finding a generous butcher. There´s no danger of that though; unwittingly we bought just about the most expensive kind of camel going and from the most expensive place: a five year old female ready to breed and from a city market. Only a young female already pregnant is more valuable so no one in their right mind will kill Kashi for meat. Had we had access to the right information we would have headed into the hills and perhaps bought an older female for Y5000 but if our three Uighur contacts in Kashgar couldn´t discover this in the months before our arrival how were we going to?
We load Kashi for the last time and wander out of the quarry the next morning. The three silver-suited spies are there again and get onto their phones immediately. Seconds later Jackson calls to ask us where we are, as if he didn´t know, the lying little git. I laugh and tell him we´re going south to Akaaz then ring off. He can do little to hurt us now. We´ll have sold Kashi by the time we get to the bus stand 8kms away in Sanjer and will be in Kashgar by nightfall, 500kms away and outside his prefecture. We pick a meandering route through the oasis calling out to all we pass that this fine specimen is for sale and after three hours have negotiated another offer of Y9000. This time it´s from a man who says he has another fifteen camels and I am happy to shake on it. But a handshake here doesn´t seem to hold the same weight as in other places and he draws out the deal painfully, trying again and again to get us to accept a lesser amount because he´s a bit ´short´, finally holding us back a further 25 minutes over just Y100. It´s only $16 but it´s also the final jab from a people who have made it very hard for us to like them and there´s simply no way on this earth that we´re going to give him a single yuan. Perhaps it´s a Uighur ritual, who knows, but in the dusty heat it´s a tedious one and I just want to have him flogged. But at last he makes a big show of having to borrow the money from a passing ´stranger´ and we can unpack Kashi and say goodbye to her.
Kashi has been absolutely fantastic; strong, good-natured, hard working and uncomplaining for somewhere between 700-800kms. I was expecting at least to be spat on and kicked in the course of our journey and hoping not to be scalped or pinned against a wall and beaten half to death by her head and neck: all well known Bactrian tactics. In fact, not once did she show the slightest bit of aggression towards either of us. Camels have the remarkable ability to kick with all four feet in any direction. One enormously tall one in Khotan market kicked me very hard in the hand from 5 feet away and with such speed I never even saw it coming. Being able to hobble our camel so she could browse without running off was crucial to our being able to provide her with a varied diet and I was nervous about being that close and vulnerable, trying to tie her feet and getting kicked black and blue in the process. In the end all the signs point at us having treated her well and fed her more than enough. She gained half a hump in her time with us, never showed any sign of ill-health and displayed obvious pleasure at our daily routine of brushing, scratching and removing sheep ticks. I very much doubt she´ll get such good treatment ever again.
On our way to Kashgar, at one of the several police checkpoints at which all Uighur passengers have to disembark and show ID cards, who should walk onto our bus but Jackson. He asks us to take our bags off and we refuse. “They’re heavy, you do it!” He doesn´t press this but, while the other passengers look on, has us empty our hand luggage onto the road for a thorough search. He gives no explanation as to why and several times murmurs, “Sorry.” Ayelen is lastingly furious. My anger quickly gives way to pity, and delight at our own good fortune. We have passports and money in our pockets: Kyrgyzstan, here we come.