Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

Posts by markanstice

Okay, for the third time I’ve been criticized for my ‘environmentally toxic’ choice of vehicle. “How can you call yourself a ‘permaculturalist’ and justify driving a vehicle that wouldn’t be allowed into London because of its high emissions?” The first antagonist asked, waving his hand dismissively at my latest vehicle, a 1982 Bavarian fire engine.

That’s the gist of all three accusations: that I should be driving the latest and cleanest. Before buying this monster I had already given the subject some thought, of course.  For a start, it’s a thirsty beast – 18mpg or 15L/100km – and I’m not the wealthiest.  Plus, the engine is a 1960s design, so it does indeed cough out quite a bit more particulate matter and CO2 than most things around these days.  But the fact is, I didn’t buy it for its efficiency.  I bought it because (1) it could have been tailor-made for my family’s needs, (2) it was ridiculously cheap, (3) it’s old so I can fix it myself, and (4) it’s ferkin’ cool. It ticked four out of five boxes. But none of that really answered the accusation.

Our 1982 Mercedes 608 fire engine approaching The Serai for the first time.

“Erm….,” I stammered, caught off guard, “It’s a working truck and I’m only going to do 10,000km a year in it. Anyway, it’s a recycling effort.”

I didn’t lose the argument but nor was I very convincing.  So later I did some research into car and truck emissions, fuel consumption and the crux of the matter: embodied energy.

Embodied energy isn’t very often considered these days. It should be. Everything that we buy, from carrots to cars has, in its production, burned fossil fuels and caused a CO2 emission. That’s embodied energy. The car that first accuser had turned up in was a new Landrover Discovery. My discovery about his Discovery was that approximately 30 tonnes of CO2 had been emitted in its manufacture. Then, comparing his vehicle and mine, taking into account the extra grams of CO2 per km that my fire engine emits, I found that I could drive to Capetown and back six times before I’m even in the same ballpark. In other words, if I cover my usual 10,000kms a year it will take 12 years before my fire engine has even started to catch up with the shiny new Disco.

But, in fact, I never will never come close to matching his motoring emissions. As my truck just keeps on going while he replaces his car every 3-4 years because the ashtray is full or whatever, he will continue to fall so, so far behind me in Eco-credibility that I would have to slash and burn a chunk of the Amazon and there plant soy beans for him to have any hope at all of catching up. And none of this even takes into account his embodied energy emissions before now.  I’ve never bought a new car in my life.

There, take that!  Anyone else want to ‘dis’ my ride?

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Pepe, our landlord in Spain, was spraying last month.  This little orchard valley, normally so calm and peaceful, so seemingly organic, throbbed to the chunk of his tractor and my nostrils were filled with his poison.  He was giving every fruit tree a thorough dowsing with a pesticide/fungicide mix and there are over a hundred of them.  The breeze wasn’t strong enough to purge the atmosphere and my open air office was amidst a fume.  At every extra powerful waft across my nostrils I found myself looking about for my lizard friends.  They eat from our hands here, joining us at the table every lunch time. Were they still alive?  How could their tiny lungs cope with this?


I am in love with the miniature world around me.  It’s denizens delight far more than dismay.  I can cope with a hole in my apple and even with the maggot inside – “It’s good for you.” My mother would say.  The cloud of fruit flies arising from the compost bucket only serve to remind me to be more timely with it’s emptying.  It’s not their fault.  Pepe told us we could not now, for sake of our health, eat any fruit from certain trees for 2 weeks!  Why two weeks?  Would it it take that long for the trees to recover from this train crash of an experience?  Did this stuff penetrate into the very fruit?

When he left I went out to search for survivors.  Nothing from the visible insect world moved.  So what then of the invisible world in the earth beneath my feet, whose inhabitants could not fly away, or the pupae waiting to disgorge butterflies?  In three days he emptied more than 600 litres of poisonous water into an area of barely more than a hectare.  And he was doing no more than any other modern farmer.  Therefore what of the fruit on the shelves; has that been left two weeks also?

When we were making tribal documentaries in the jungles of West Papua and the Amazon, I’d often find myself standing around waiting for the film crew to need me.  It became a game of mine in these otherwise boring moments: to stand in one spot and slowly turn through 360°, turning over every leaf within reach to see what I could find.  Almost invariably I would discover something I’d never seen before and it would tease my sense of wonder that perhaps this little creature staring back at me was as yet unknown to science too. DSC_0467

At night, the kerosene lamps in the film crew’s dining hut would attract moths by the hundred.  The variety of colours and patterns was astounding, evolution gone mad with a palette.  Mark Anstice



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Different types of insect would come in surges, covering us for a few days and then disappearing to be replaced by another.  Some of these infestations were met with more excitement by our indigenous hosts than others, such as the coming of the young cicadas.

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Ungainly in flight and slow in reaction they were easy to scoop up from wherever they’d crash-landed and the children’s mouths were stuffed full of them.  The hardened earth between the village huts glittered with their discarded wings.  We would be presented handfuls of them as a mid morning snack and I began to enjoy the crunchy sweetness.

The Kombai people, in West Papua, periodically gorge on sago grubs, actually the larvae of the Capricorn beetle.  And as they break open a palm trunk to get at these there’s another insect’s larvae that’s ideal for putting in ones ears to give them a good clean.  To describe as peculiar the sensation of having an insect slowly chomping it’s way into your skull is an understatement.

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The explosion of juices around the mouth as I bit into my first sago grub was another sensation that was difficult to handle.  After a while, however, I enjoyed far more eating these alive and wriggling when they tasted like a sweet stem of grass than when they’d turned rubbery over a fire and taken on the flavour of old cheese.

Jungle peoples have no need of enslaving themselves for an expensive jewel when nature can provide something like this.

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This dude has some beetle carapaces danging from his beard.

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I took all these pictures on my little waterproof Olympus.  Many didn’t come out well, but check out the face on this little monster. Click on him a few times to get closer.

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And the mechanics of this 4cm long beetle.

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The topside of that one looks like this.  It’s feet are phenomenal.

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The Praying Mantis is my favourite, I think.  They come in myriad sizes and disguises.  I remember my attention was once grabbed by a leaf that had fallen atop a wooden balustrade.  It appeared to be balancing unnaturally on one edge and I went for a closer look.  Still it was a leaf, with a midrib and branching veins, slightly translucent in the sunlight.  Only when my prodding finger approached to within an inch did it unfold, slowly and dramatically, like the ‘Alien’ in Ridley Scott’s film, it’s long arms stretching out to fend off my finger tip.

As it’s body turned to move away it’s big eyes remained fixed menacingly upon me until it’s head had turned over 180°. It looked evil, a killer perfected. They get pretty big in West Papua, like this one on the shoulder of a Mek girl.


This is a Spanish one. Imagine being the size of an aphid and having that come after you. Surely the mantis is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the insect world.


But even to beings of our size a lot of insects pack a mean punch.  I never managed to get a good shot of the infamous ‘bullet ant’, so called because the pain of it’s sting (it was once a hornet) is akin to being shot, but nor do I imagine touching this youngster below is any picnic.


Just trying to picture the variations, or mutations conferring an advantage that this species must have gone through in the course of its evolution blows my mind like infinity. And then I try to picture all the other advantageous mutations that nonetheless didn’t make it because something untoward occurred, like being trodden on by a diplodocus.

I have no idea what species of butterfly or moth will emerge from each, but maybe this next one is the result of just such a series of successful mutations occurring in the species shown above, which led to a branch in the family or genus?


And don’t even start with the mutations that were downright disadvantageous and which rightly failed to endure. Being an amateur at all this, with only enough time to wonder at it all, for all I know, any one, or even all of the pictures above might be of just such an anomaly.



There’s no real need for me to put a barrel vault roof over our main reception room.  It’s in the original plan however and I think it’ll add WOW factor to the finished building.  It’s also fun to have a go at building a vault, so why not?


I wouldn’t be allowed to do this in Europe.  Some beige little man in a beige suit from a local authority would come and tell me it didn’t conform to some farcical regulations invented merely to give beige men positions of authority.  Yes, yes, yes, and to save lives as well, I suppose.  Whatever the case, I would need to employ a structural engineer to tell me how to conform to these regulations, he would tell me my walls shouldn’t be made of rocks and mud and suddenly the cost of it all would become untenable.  Here, in fact, if a little beige man turned up with the same deal his interference would have far more justification; Agadir was completely leveled by an earthquake in the 1960s and it’s only 200kms to the south.  I should take that seriously, but beige men can’t get their low-slung cars to within 3kms of this place so I choose take my chances instead. These two little steel bars should do the trick!


There’s another reason I wouldn’t be able to do this in Europe.  My fisherman neighbour, Hafed, patiently handing me bricks as I mess it up again and again, or mixing up more lime for me to waste, would be on the same rate per hour in Europe as I pay him here for a day.  It’s outrageous really, the daily wage here, and we pay 20% more than anyone else I know of for the same work!  He even enjoys it; it’s good money and from the rooftop he can see what all his friends are up to.  I pay the same to his younger brother, Abdullah, who has shown some flair for this kind of caper and has built two domes on his own.  He’s learnt skills that are surprisingly rare here and frequently I catch him admiring his own work with unrestrained delight.  In Europe I’d probably have a sullen youth perpetually reaching for his iPhone and at the end of each week a third of the total cost of this roof would go into his pocket for having done little but irritate me.

So, I get to play around a little here and it started way back when I asked a friend to design this building.  I don’t remember stipulating vaults, domes, towers, spiral staircases, cloisters and a stage but that’s what she came back with.  Perhaps I did.

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I fell in love with her design immediately and we have stuck fairly closely to it even though the job earmarked to pay for it all disappeared shortly afterwards, to be replaced only by a hand to mouth existence of seasonal frolics.  A few changes have been made along the way, the most dramatic of which followed our discovery that the design didn’t actually fit within the perimeters of the land.  No doubt this was my oversight, not the architect’s. In haste, for the stone masons were about to arrive, we lopped a metre off every side of every room.   And thank God we did.  It’s big enough as it is and from some viewpoints looks so vast against the surrounding farmhouses that I shudder with embarrassment and hurry home, hoping not to have to talk to anyone with it rearing up monstrously behind me like Disneyland.

The other major change has been in the time I envisaged for it’s completion…enough said on that.


It’s never been easy to think of it merely as a house; we don’t need a house as big as this. It’s always been an Eco-lodge, a ‘centre’, for art, drama, permaculture, music; creativity in all its guises.  I’m looking forward to building the stage for them all.  With no beige men in sight it will be spectacular and won’t cost me so much I have to charge future visitors a fortune.  The intention is to have interesting, colourful people staying here, not just wealthy.  Interesting and wealthy will be ideal, obviously.  And that’s another reason to build a such a vault. Nobody is going to even imagine that I was fool enough to build this thing myself.  They’ll say “Wow!”, obediently, and then ponder the cost of such a marvel, imagining a figure so reassuringly great that they’ll feel sufficiently privileged to stay here, despite the frogs’ spawn in the ‘swimming pool’.



Since getting to Azrou Issa in early November everything has hinged around catching rain. At that time it hadn’t rained for 7 months and we thought it must do so soon. The race was on to turn an enormous hole in front of the house, from which came the earth that was used as mortar for the S2230003walls, into a cistern for rainwater falling on the roof. It’s a job I’ve put off for three years, mainly because I wasn’t sure how to make it strong enough to resist tree roots without spending a fortune on it. I still wasn’t 100% certain how to go about it in November but after six drought years in the last eight our well, once nourished by a healthy trickle, is now on a drip and we are squarely in the same boat as our neighbours, as bound to the life-giving rains, or lack of them, as they are. We needed a big cistern and needed it desperately: ‘that bloody hole’ was suddenly at the top of the agenda.

We’d never seen this place looking so barren as late in the year as November, let alone December and now January. Usually there’s been enough of a watering by now for dormant weeds to haveIMG_5548 long since germinated and for there to be a carpet, albeit a threadbare one, of tiny, orchid-like wildflowers. Not so this year; not a single weed or wildflower to be seen anywhere, only a vista of dust before that of crashing surf. It’s strange to think there’s nothing but water for 2,000 miles, in one direction at least. Every day a neighbour is at the door, asking if there’s any rain on the way and I scan the internet forecasts to relay a gloomy negative.

My God, they are stoical here. But then they suppose they’re not going to die of thirst or starvation. Even when their cisterns are empty there is a communal well 2kms away that seems to be reliable. They take the donkeys down there, laden with jerrycans. So it’s not that bad. But although you may be able to water yourself and your animals from a well 2kms away you cannot water your fields with it. They ought now to be counting down the weeks to the first harvest but instead they’ve only just started ploughing.

Our well is more of a water mine than a standard well (main picture): 200ft (60m) deep with a lateral tunnel Mining2 010at 150ft (45m) that snakes off into a layer of wet clay.  The water seeps out of the clay walls, runs along the tunnel floor and into the vertical shaft. It took three years to dig with a hammer and chisel, which makes it all the more painful that it has run dry. But on the other hand I am thankful that it has. My neighbours have not and will not ever see us splashing water extravagantly about our garden, but if our permaculture experiments produce growth they cannot now even suspect us of watering at night. And the more difficult it gets for us all here the stronger becomes the case for them all taking a little leap of faith and trying something new across their own land.

I don’t know what we’ll use the well for now.  A potholing adventure for guests perhaps? A cure for claustrophobia?  When you stand at the very bottom and look up, there is just a pinprick of light.  Ayelen loves it down there.

S2570007Finishing the cistern, we lowered in a boom box and made a rain dance with some strange looking friends. And do you know what? The very next day it rained, 3″ (7.5cms), just as the forecast said it would! Now, a week later everything still looks barren, until you look down at the ground around your feet. And there they are, poking their little heads up through the terrible earth, all those tiny little seedlings reaching hungrily for light and life.

Just three months now until the next drought. There’s no time to waste; every man, woman, child, animal and plant living here knows this.  It’s time for Ayelen and I to plant trees, lots of trees, quick growing desert trees with tap roots that will find their own water, leguminous trees that will inject nitrogen into our soil and provide support to other plants.  In three years I don’t want to be able to see the ocean.  I want a forest.  We’ll start to cut them back after that and put in their place the species we want to end up with, the ones that’ll give us food, fodder, mulch and firewood.

Our neighbour, Si Mohamed, when he was helping me make our cistern strong enough to keep the roots of all these trees out, fell silent when I explained my forest plan.

“All your trees will come and drink at my cistern now.” He said, despondently.

How to structure, position, scale and market this non-profit thing I’m creating has been occupying  every waking moment.  The route ahead and a strategy become slowly clearer but the volume of information still to read and understand grows ever larger.  Initially it seemed that getting 29 Moroccan farmers on board was going to be the hard part but, of course and as always, delivering on the words is where the real effort lies.

At first, months ago, I thought it should be a Community Interest Company (CIC), end of story.  After far too little research it seemed to be the legal entity best suited to our needs, all things considered.  But therein lay an issue I wasn’t seeing clearly enough: our needs?  I wasn’t using ‘our’ correctly.  Regarding many aspects of what I am planning for this little corner of Morocco there is no ‘our’.  There’s ‘them’, the communities of Azrou Issa and Al Faida, and there’s ‘us’, Ayelen and I.  I will never truly be one of them and nor will Ayelen.  It matters not how well we learn to speak Arabic, or how long we live amongst them for we will always be outsiders and foreigners to be excluded from certain things or titbits of information.  The cultural gap is vast and to be brutally blunt we have not the slightest desire to cross to the other side.  It’s not now, nor ever was why we are here among them.  Let’s face it, we’re here because eight years ago I wanted to buy an interesting piece of land somewhere and this piece was affordable.

So I came to my senses and stopped thinking about us all as a single group with the same aims.  Yes, for this project to succeed we must all have ‘skin in the game’ but we’re only going to be playing on the same pitch for the next five or so years.  Do I want to be going through all this head scratching again then?  Not particularly; whatever vehicle I build for myself now must be able to last until I have forgotten what it is and nodded off.  Whatever vehicle they want to build must last a lot longer.  How can a CIC, registered with Companies House in London and requiring annual accounts to be submitted there possibly serve their longterm needs?

A cooperative is what it must be.  There are plenty of these in Morocco and a national support network, presumably – though probably not –  to help it all happen and thrive.  They will have heard of cooperatives and will have trust in the format.  And indeed it proves so.  When I ask them to start one they are immediately in favour.  But on returning to Spain, wrapped up in the idea of this single project, I am still not thinking straight.  I’m still not seeing past this project to the next and the one after that.  It’s only when I sit down and try to work out how we’re going to get the money for extensive earthworks and the planting of three hundred thousand trees that my imagination begins to see through their fattening trunks to the proverbial wood beyond.

I have been thinking too small.  This project, I begin to see, need not be just a vehicle towards finding my expertise, it could be the start of something much bigger and more important, which could also realise many more of my dreams.  Every generation has it’s issues but it does seem that we who are alive today exist in a time when it’s more important than ever before that we strive, whether individually or together, to affect a real change.  It certainly features large among my ambitions, firstly because I know how good it feels to believe that you have helped in something worthy, and secondly because I have waited until my forties to become an angry young man. Nobody is advertising for ‘revolutionaries wanted’ though.  I need to work it out myself and then get on with it. One member of a permaculture forum I visit ends his posts with the quote, ‘If you have a job, get your affairs in order and leave it, for there is important work to be done.’ When not humorous I suspect self-aggrandisement as being the principle motive behind most end of message quotes but this one sets the steeple bells ringing.

Thus the Azrou Issa Permaculture Cooperative loses it’s slot as ‘The Project’ and is demoted to Project No 1; that’s theirs.  Mine’s a charitable incorporated organisation, UK-registered, a foundation which will instigate, assist, oversee and encourage this project and others to come.  Some of the trustees are already recruited and it’s going through its third and, hopefully, final name change.  Raising money for this is going to be tough and the name is important; it’s hard to settle on one.  It needs to be just right but I’m not the first to be starting a green charity or movement and many of the great ones are of course gone, or are too close to some existing organisation. Undeservedly, permaculture for many still carries hippy connotations but we are not here to knit yoghurt or sing Kumbaya to the stars. We are a vanguard of a revolution and our banner must avoid being, as my brother put it, too ‘sandaly’.

Meanwhile in Morocco, we have arrived back, our van creaking and bursting apart over the horrendous 3km track under it’s prison-beckoningly heavy load of wood and other assorted stuff that we’ve either found in skips or been given over the summer.  S2170004Hassan, the main man here, has not been to see me yet so I know that he has made no progress in starting the cooperative.   Ayelen has bet me a hour’s massage – our standard wager – that, in fact, despite all the excitement of September, he won’t even have been to see the man in town whom I arranged to assist him.  I shook on it knowing she was right; this one’s a gift.

I have to admit to a small crisis of confidence when I arrived at the Serai last week.  After a particularly hot summer and now with a howling wind tearing at the plastic bags, les fleurs de Maroc, fluttering from almost every tree, the place was looking at its worst.  The water pump had packed up in April and all our carefully planted trees and shrubsS1870003 appeared shrivelled, abandoned and barely alive.  There was a fan of rubbish sprayed out from our neighbour, Hafed’s wall as if he had just tossed it all up into the wind.  Opening the house I found everything thick with dust and gecko shit and for half an hour or so I felt paralysed and quite unable to start making it habitable.  It’s the first time since 2008 I’ve been here at this time of year, near the end of the dry season, and the scale and possible lunacy of the project I am planning was suddenly thrown into very sharp relief.  I sat on the doorstep and stared out to the ocean across the parched land and thought I must be mad.

A couple of hours later, waiting for the vacuum cleaner to cool down again, I went outside to fetch in some furniture and found a chameleon sitting on my office chair.  It was the first time I’d ever seen one in the garden but it was the symbolism of the chair that struck me most.  I have been a little chameleon-like myself in some ways and that this extraordinary little creature had so incongruously positioned itself seemed to be telling me that this indeed was my place, at that desk, making it all work.

I’m not overly susceptible to ‘signs’ but this place has been unusually thick with them over the years.  In the 20071226_1527first place, it was a string of coincidences that persuaded me to take an enormous leap of faith in buying the land without ever having set foot on Moroccan soil.  These were followed by the revelation that Ayelen, and this is the most bizarre of all, quite independently and before we were a couple, had chosen the exact same little patch of coastline to be interested in, in terms of buying land.  There have been others too and it’s always felt solidly right that we are here.

I carried my little visitor deep into the forest and we eyeballed one another quizzically en route.  She, or he, was very calm, two little mitten-like hands gripping my forefinger.  When I returned to the house I was in an entirely different frame of mind.  This project was the right thing to do, for a multitude of reasons, and the people would go for it.

For weeks now I’ve been going over in my head what I wanted to say to them.  How was I going to portray my plan so that they were persuaded to try it without thinking that a free meal ticket was on its way?  How was I going to turn generations of thinking on its head?  My grasp of Arabic is still feeble so, for a start, I would need a good interpreter with me, and one 23whose own enthusiasm I could inspire before we even went in.  I’ve worked with many interpreters in the past and it’s been a mixed experience.  One or two have almost got me killed.  Others have made up for my own failings in understanding a cultural nuance or three.  Watching closely for the changes of expression in my audience has generally been the surefire way of knowing the value of the man at my side, but working with a new interpreter can be nerve wracking. What’s the point of rehearsing the persuasive subtelties of what I might say when it’s another who’s going to say it, and when I’m going to have little clue as to how he’s conveyed it?   But a way around this, of course, is to keep everything very simple and have as many visual aids as possible. To this end I scour the internet for days.

There’s a lot of permaculture stuff on the net but the vast majority shows people playing around in temperate and sub-tropical climates, with fat cattle browsing amidst lush, broad-leafed vegetation.  If I showed even a few seconds of that they’d think I was a deluded idiot.  In the end there’s only really some before and after photographs I can use, some cartoon graphics, and parts of a well-known Youtube film series entitled ‘Greening the Desert‘.  Part 1 appears to have been made as an afterthought.  It’s not a film at all, but a slideshow with voiceover.  It has a powerful message, however, and the fact that it documents a salted landscape with less than half the rainfall we get here, no decent catchment, and much higher summer temperatures, is gold dust.  I fill in any gaps with my own badly drawn renditions of what we might do to harvest rainfall and a selection of permaculture oddities, such as a ‘chicken tractor’.  You’ll have to look it up.

Six hours before my presentation I go into town to meet my team.  I don’t know them from Adam but they all come highly recommended and none of those I initially had in mind are available.  Rachid (left) will interpret and hasS1910025 worked for friends in setting up a local charity.  Two friends of his: Kim (not pictured), from Germany and Fouad (right) have volunteered to film the event.  They are all young, well informed, tech savvy and speak perfect English.  I have a friend drop us off in the forest at the top of the escarpment and we walk down towards the ocean together.  By the time we arrive at the Serai I know they are all going to be great.  The only concern left is how many of the locals will turn up?

For several days now, two lads, Abdullah and Khalid, have been going around the two communitiesS1910088 encouraging everyone to come, but I know it’ll take time for people to gather.  Inside Hassan’s windowless house the atmosphere is stifling and for an hour there’s nobody but him and a younger man called Hussein.  Many are down at the beach harvesting seaweed that will end up as the agar in laboratory petri-dishes and it actually gives me a useful hour of quiet discussion.  I want to understand what it is they really want.  What does Hassan dream of for his grandchildren?  What would they do for more money if only there was more water?

They talk openly of abandoning the land.  They have heard on the news that the Government plans to allocate this part of the coast to a new system of marine reserves and they think that this will prevent them from collecting the seaweed.  If so, it’s yet another income stream that’s denuded or closed off altogether.  ManyS1910100 here have hardly any land and make their living almost entirely from the beach.  They have nowhere to keep a boat so they go out to sea in old truck inner tubes lashed to broken surf boards, through the crashing waves to lay nets beyond.  Or, when the ocean swell is less, as it is at this time of year, they collect the weed from above and below the low water mark. The fishing isn’t good anymore.  These days there are just too many boats coming out of Essaouira to comb the waters just beyond their nets, and over the horizon are the larger international fleets. For those without livestock the writing is on the wall.  Already many families have left for the town.  The diminishing rainfall and poor soil supports only wheat, peas, onions and potatoes and hardly enough of those to pay for the next batch of fertiliser.  My timing could not be more fortuitous.

The room fills slowly and with too many children.  There are no women, of course.  I did venture the possibility S1910093that some of the older ones, the matriarchs, might attend but even this was met with derision.  Khadija (left), whose house this is, only gestures from the doorway, at one point, that someone must pour the tea if we are to drink it.  It’s frustrating that half the room must be taken up with disinterested boys while the one group that I could really rely upon to push this idea along are denied entry.  I’m still missing some of the key men too, however all but a few of the families are represented, so off we go.

Very slowly and methodically I take them through a potted history and the basics of permaculture and S1910036holistically managed grazing.  Even watching the film clips is a halting process, as almost every scene requires explanation as well as translation.  Fouad and Kim film the reactions, which vary from Hassan’s growing excitement to the unshakeable boredom of the boys lined up along one wall.  I couldn’t care less about the latter but Hassan’s enthusiasm is vital; he is the unofficial spokesman of the two communities.

The room only really comes alive when I detail my plan and reveal a sketch of how we might harness the rain falling on the hillside above. They cannot deny the sense of this.  Like me, they’ve all watched, in a flash flood event, millions of litresS1910056 of water laden with countless tons of quality soil rush past the land on its way to the beach.  My drawing shows it slowed against gabions, kept as high as possible for as long as possible, forced to drop its load, backed up and then diverted in swales along the contours, and finally into cisterns.  I was deliberately mean with my green crayon but have nonetheless painted a very different scene to the reality outside this hot little room.  They know I’m no expert.  They’ve watched and no doubt laughed at Ayelen’s and my gardening efforts.  But we too have known no better, planting fruit trees without support species, leaving the ground uncovered. What I’m talking about now is getting an expert down here and making a careful and detailed plan of terra-forming and planting.

The reaction is better than I’d ever hoped for.  To my surprise, nobody gives a damn about tearing down their drystone walls and carving great ditches everywhere.   I have a whole page of annotated counter arguments toS1910076 use, starting with the fact that their ancestors terra-formed this place when they arrived here but that things have changed since then and more needs doing now.  None are necessary.  They want to stay here and suddenly there’s a little more hope.  I spend a lot of time pressing the point that I might fail to raise any money at all to help pay for such landscaping and what’s far more important is that they come together and work as a team.  They must form a cooperative and become a taskforce with a clear economic goal or this is all just fantasy.

To finish, I outline one more, relatively new agricultural technique: aqua-ponics.  I envisage the women in control of this, harvesting all their vegetable needs, and fish too, from a few greenhouses situated on the least productive land.  All of this is possible; it just requires will and determination.  I can see it in some faces (Hassan, 2nd from left below).  Others give little away.

Once, shortly before working in Bosnia for the UN at the height of that war, I was taught a technique for reading S1910066a man’s mind.   By observing closely the flutter of his eyes as his brain processed the question just put to him and then what he might say in reply, one was supposed to be able to discern a lie from the truth.  You had first to establish whether he was left or right handed, so cigarettes and things to sign were always up one’s sleeve.  Then, while trying not to stare, you had to watch for the downward flick – processing the question – and then the upward – constructing the answer.  Top right might indicate he was thinking up a lie, top left that you were getting the truth.  Straight up, as in rolling heavenward with accompanying sigh, most likely indicated that he was bored and genuinely had no idea, but was going to bullshit you anyway.  After a few days there it was fairly clear, from all sorts of other indications, that everyone was spinning us well thought out misinformation in any case, so I rather lost interest in mind reading.

Nor would it serve me well here.  Only time is going to tell me how hard these men will be prepared to fight to stay on this land.  For now, all I need is majority consent, and for them to start the cooperative.  Hassan tells me he’ll get around all those not present and give me the definitive answer in two days.  This he does and all are in favour.  He asks me to be the cooperative chairman.  I explain there won’t be a chairman, they’ll be leading themselves democratically, but in reality I know I will indeed be the driving force, and for quite some time.

So, I have a new job.  To start with, I’m a fund-raiser and then I have a blank canvas – 100 hectares of arable, 200 of forest – on which to experiment and trial the findings of the world’s leading perma-culturalists, agro-S1890007ecologists, holistic managers and anyone else with a good idea.  It’s going to be a fascinating journey and it might even be the best job I’ve ever had.

The day after my presentation, Abdullah, one of the brighter young men in the community, went to town and enrolled in an English language course.  So it begins.

I’m good at quite a lot of things.  I can fix your car, sail your boat, make all manner of things in wood, steel, IMG_7035stone, thatch and brick, stitch up your wound, shoot the balls off a gnat at 300 yards, knit a hat and even darn your socks.  I’m a paraglider, kite surfer, rock climber, scuba diver, skier, dancer, yacht master, soldier, film maker, public speaker, TV Presenter, and writer.  I can even J-turn a car.

What irks me is that I’m expert at nothing.

If there exists one single aspect of my life that I’ve harnessed and ridden all the way it’s the resolve to have as much fun and variety as possible.  This is not a philosophy that looks to the future very much, nor one that has made me a lot of money.  No matter, I’ve always thought, for I would at least be immune to such future ailments as the mid-life crisis.  But growing older doesn’t miss anybody out.  Just as the electronic music emerging these days starts to sound to me like taking off ones ear defenders in a car plant, I am beginning to see all sorts of things through older eyes.  At 46 I’m on the downhill run and it gets faster and faster.  I don’t regret a single thing and I’m proud of how I’ve spent my time but there is a gap in my experience that now yawns quite wide.  I realise suddenly that it’s time for me to find the thing I’m going to be expert at.

I’m ready – and this takes some saying – for a career.

There, it’s said.  It’s out in the open.  So what’s it going to be, this last minute career?  What’s going to provide for us and take me into my dotage?

Ayelen wants me to write and to get back into TV.  Well, it’d be great to make a living at writing, but having published one book and made less than a grand from it I hold onto no literary fantasies.  With the advent of e-books it’s easier than ever before to publish but for the same reason there are many more pigs to compete with in the pen.  What will I write about?  I have not the imagination for fiction, nor am I a salesman able to write convincingly on any old subject.  I am only interested in writing about something I am genuinely passionate about.

It would be great to get back into TV too, for in many ways it was the perfect job; it took me to amazing places to meet phenomenal people and do crazy things with them.  But I want something I’m more in control of, DSC_0149something less fickle, less crap, and most importantly, more pertinent to the state of things today.  A lot of the programming I helped to make I am not proud of at all.  Magical experiences with forest dwelling peoples around the world were slashed and burned down to ‘wow-factor’ energy hits, injected like a stimulant between adverts for toxic ‘must-haves’.  I had no power over the edit, but when it bred controversy I was held accountable nonetheless.  In any case, since that time I have indeed pitched occasional ideas to TV.  All have had an environmental angle, because there lies my interest, and all have been refused, because the viewing public don’t want to hear about the environment.  No, TV is not my path.  I’ve never owned one, for a start.

So I’m sitting, lying, staring at the ceiling, thinking, worrying a little, wondering where my role is in this spiralling world, where the money’s going to come from this winter, worrying some more, when suddenly it comes to me. It’s an idea I’ve been talking about for years but somehow I’ve kept filing it away for the future, a project to be started only when we have finished building The Serai in Morocco.  Now, I realise with a start, is the time for it.  And it has everything I’m looking for: challenge, global relevance, longevity and satisfaction.

So what is it?

Our neighbours in Morocco, whom we live amongst only when we have a little money for building, are salt of the earth types.  They lead simple lives, scratching a partial subsistence from poor soil in an environment that, IMG_4520whether through geo-engineering or CO2 emissions or whatever, grows drier and drier, year upon year.  When they need cash, they sell a goat or try to catch whatever fish have escaped the foreign trawlers criss-crossing the Atlantic horizon.  Their fields do not feed them all year round.  For generations, and despite appearances to the contrary, they have followed the mono-culturalist ways of modernising agriculture.  They plant one crop per field and every spring, after the harvest, they turn their goats onto the land to strip it bare.  The sun then beats down on it for uninterrupted months, desiccating it for the incessant wind to blow away.  Every autumn, after the first light shower, with donkey and cattle plough teams they inject the dead earth with fertilisers to give the next crop something to feed on.

And so it might go on.  But electricity arrived two years ago and now everyone has a satellite TV.  The young IMG_4369men and women, like Abdullah here, now in his twenties and one of the first generation to be educated, watch Egyptian soap operas displaying exaggerated lifestyles.  Nobody wants to herd goats anymore and even if they did, the forest that provides grazing through the summer heat is now degrading fast.  Driven by drought and higher expectations, Abdullah and his contemporaries will soon enough join the worldwide exodus from countryside to city and the older generation is powerless to prevent it.

Enter permaculture, agro-ecology, holistic management and us.  I’m no expert in these things, not yet,  but I’ve done a course and I have spent hundreds of hours researching, on the internet, everything from soil types toIMG_6742 dam-building to starting a cooperative.  Such is the power at our fingertips these days.  The founders of permaculture and their proteges have achieved amazing things in climates even more ferocious than this.

I know enough to believe firmly that we – the communities of Azrou Issa and Al Faida – can turn this strip of coastline around and create a sustainable future for the young, and also for the house that we’ve been labouring over. It’s the perfect place for such an experiment:  a borderline-arid landscape with too much wind and ever decreasing rain.  But there are very positive features too, such as the huge water catchment potential contained in the hillside behind.  The Serai can become the research centre, a place of accommodation and learning for incoming volunteers and students from near and far.  We’ll use the land as the classroom blackboard for region-specific study and we’ll experiment. Ultimately I hope that our younger neighbours, both men and women, will be qualified teachers in their own right, to go out and spread the word.

If we can make it work here we can take the lessons learnt to other sites around Morocco, and then to other semi-arid lands, empowering people at grass roots level and sucking carbon from the atmosphere as we go.  Great God, I am almost feverish with excitement!!

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I must recruit all my neighbours into this madcap scheme before anything else happens.  And it’s not going to be easy.  They are a conservative bunch, to say the least, and who am I but a ‘gowrie’, a foreigner, and a non-religeous one at that. Every one of our European friends in Morocco has an armful of stories to illustrate how cultural differences disrupt practice and how, in the end, whatever has been initially embraced falters and dies when it becomes clear that some personal input might be required.  The Straits of Gibraltar can seem like an unbreachable chasm at times, across which European logic and Moroccan logic frown at one another uncomprehendingly.

But in many ways I have been preparing for this moment for the last seven years.  I have a relationship with our neighbours and for whatever it’s worth, it’s a good one.  It’s been forged.  It’s not something I could have bought or even have acquired in any less time. Ayelen has been crucial to it’s development.  They know we are honest and fair in our dealings with them but also that we are not to be taken for a ride.  We know that they too are honest and generous but that they are always looking for the ‘easy angle’.  We laugh a lot together and get our hands dirty together.  They have built the Serai and they know we have put every spare penny earned over four years into their pockets.  Few outsiders have been employed and everything is extremely squint as a result.  The women adore Ayelen and her idiosyncrasies. The men are impressed with my range of skills and my tenacity in learning new ones.  We are impressed by their humour, stoicism, humility and their ability for hard work when the occasion demands it.

I really think we can work this idea together but I’m under no illusions that it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a long and very hard journey, but they say the first steps are the toughest.  And this is one of the first steps: publicising the intent.

The second step is tomorrow, when I hit the people with my idea.  At the end of it I’ll either have a new job or I’ll be back to staring at the ceiling, worrying.

Optimistic we are on this the second evening of the donkey phase, despite the setbacks.  I can’t speak for Ayelen on this but only before the very start of this trip did I wonder which would be the easier to handle between a camel and two donkeys.  As soon as we’d had time to get used to our Bactrian camel it was clear that she was going to be a dream compared to two of a species renowned for it’s simple-minded and irrational obstinacy. Yet even now I still nurse the presumption that I can do it better than others, that I have a certain ‘way’ with animals and that within a day or two we’ll have these two little jennies going in a straight line and at more than 2kmph without having to beat the crap out of them.

This belief is supported by such useful websites as that of the Donkey Sanctuary in the UK.  No donkeys have the crap beaten out of them in the Donkey Sanctuary.  One must take the time to learn what makes them tick, what scares them and why and one must familiarise oneself with the various proverbial carrots on sticks.S1570009

Using this violence free approach we just make it out of town before the elder of the two has shed her load and escaped.  Mellis and Tolkonbek, the men who sold us these monsters, advised having one of us in front leading the older animal, the younger one tied to the older’s load and the other of us bringing up the rear.  The younger one overtakes the other then veers across her front, upsetting both loads.  This scares both animals who then accelerate off the road, towing me in their wake.  Ayelen tries to head them off and grab the younger one’s halter and we all end up in a kind of Larson-esque jacknife situation with passing drivers slowing down for a good laugh.  Among them are Mellis and Tolkonbek who have been on a huge bender since offloading their most useless animals onto two hapless tourists for double the normal price.  They shout good-humoured advice at us before swerving away, barely able to steer through the vodka haze and belly laughs.  We are laughing too because it IS comedy and I only wish there was somebody else to film us.  Neither of us can make the donkeys move at all on our own and the camera is missing it all.

We’ve set ourselves the task of getting from here, the very small town of Kochkor, to the ancient caravanserai of Tash Rabat and then finally to the village of At-Bashi – to sell the donks – in the next 22 days.  On the map covering the wall of a local tourist service it looks to be around 370kms and will feature four mountain passes, three of which are over 3000m and probably still a wee bit snow covered.  Where the ground is good and relatively level we need to be covering 20kms a day or we’re not going to make it.  That’s not a lot to ask, but in S1600019the last two days we’ve done about 7kms.  Admittedly the first day was largely spent manufacturing our tack; sewing a couple of old hessian sacks into a very stylish set of saddlebags in which to carry food, and converting some webbing straps into halters. The older of the two (left) carries our rucksacks, tent and tripod while the younger (below) carries food and cooking equipment.  I’m happy neither of the loads are excessive and that in fact we have good animals.  After a morning looking at various shabby and uncooperative beasts we found a herd of six from which I was allowed to choose whichever I wanted.  Mellis and Tolkonbek looked on, agog with unconcealed delight.

Donkeys here appear to be worth so little normally that they are only kept at all to entertain children as yet too small for horses and to swap for a bottle of vodka in an emergency.  The only reason they fetch slightly more right now is that there are Chinese road-building gangs dotted along the main road to Bishkek and they like to eat donkeys.  We have agreed the equivalent of US$60 S1600017each and in their heads both men are already rehearsing the vodka toasts to come. After paying $2000 for a camel we are delighted with the price but I take my time choosing.  Educated by various websites I base my decision solely on age and body condition and we have two girls, of five and seven years, both in good shape with no sign of being under-weight.  The younger one has a very sweet face and enjoys nibbling my hand while the older has heavy eyebrows that give her an expression of unwavering disapproval. Hopefully they’ll get publishable names soon enough.

At least the campsites these first two nights have made up for any animal-related woes.  Without any effort at all we’ve found poster-worthy spots that make our campsites in China look like the dungeons of hell: perfectly S1560001manicured grassy banks along a clear river twisting through trees in spring green with snow-capped mountains in the background.  Best of all, there are no police.  Instead we have herds of horses with their young.  There’s something about a riderless cantering horse that personifies freedom like no other image.  Their muscular grace makes me catch my breath.  Then I glance at at our funny little hobbit creatures and want to sob.  Although they seem to outnumber people in these parts, horses cost between US$1-2k, due in the main part to their meat being considered a delicacy.  We would still need two of them to carry our kit for 7-8hrs a day and we’d still be walking ourselves.  In any case we’ve spent the camel sale proceeds on carpets to sell in Europe to offset the cost of this trip.  As usual it’s disappointing to be poor and more so here where our poverty is mistaken for stupidity. The young herders, usually around 12 years old, for whom a horse is just one of those things in life, cannot understand why we are walking beside two donkeys and the look behind their manly handshakes is generally one of stupified pity.

Day three now and things are worse.  We’ve sorted out the younger donk.  It was just a case of letting her go; she’s happy to follow along behind.  The problem is the older of our two, Grumpy Tosca – the latter half of her new name is Spanish for obstinate.  She refuses to go at more than amble speed.  It’s the same agonising rate of progress enjoyed by the Christmas shoppers blocking pavements in November and with several hundred kilometres yet to cover I cannot handle it.  I’d love to be able to claim after all this that we did it without ever striking our animals but I’d be lying.  But we do try every alternative and many seem to work at first.  If I walk just behind Tosca with a stick swishing about in her peripheral vision, for example, she goes quite well for an hour or so, until she starts to wonder whether or not I am too wet to actually hit her with it and slows again to shopping pace.  Then I add some suitable sounding cries and she gears up again for a short while.  We swap the donks around but Tosca does not share the other’s lack of confidence and wanders off to eat.  She must know what a whip means but is happy to forget.  After a few hours I can see no way forward but to refresh her memory and am flogging her rump left and right with a short length of braided plastic cord and crying out “hup” and “drrrrrr” in the most forceful manner I can muster.  By mid afternoon I think my voice cannot last another hour but we have moved some distance.  My gaze is fixed upon the rope connecting Ayelen’s hand to Tosca’s halter.  Whenever it tightens she gets either the lash or a shout.  I try to make it a lesson so that only when she fails to react to the shout do I hit her.  It’s exhausting and demoralising and part of me wants to give up already.  I hate hitting animals and if this is to be our daily routine then I’d rather be at home.  Despite my efforts Ayelen has dragged Tosca along all day.

At least the younger one, Little Scheister, is now trouble free; she simply follows behind stopping occasionally to eat then trotting to catch up again.  She only earns her name when having fallen too far behind she canters to catch up and her loadS1580003 falls off.  Spooked by the falling bags the little scheister puts down her head and runs for all she’s worth.  Unfortunately I have wrapped her halter rope around the load so that it now grips the saddlebags rather than releasing them.   The little fool thinks she is being pursued by some bouncing savage beast, without legs but nonetheless tenacious in the chase.  Sadly I don’t think to whip out the camera.  I only join Ayelen in gawping helplessly as she gallops around and around us in a wide circle, methodically shredding our beautifully stitched saddlebags on the stony ground.  I hate donkeys at this stage and feel a powerful urge to inflict real damage upon them.  My braided cord is clearly almost completely ineffective through Tosca’s thick and coarse hair and late in the day I pick up a length of broken fan belt.  I’ll attach it to the end of my stick tomorrow and methodically flog her to death with it.

But I never do so, for in the morning Tosca seems to have made a decision.  She walks all day without my hitting her once.  I only have to yell out occasionally.  It’s not the brisk pace we managed with our camel but it`s a speed I can get used to.  Approaching the Kyzart pass and still shadowing the road, we know from the kilometre markers that we are managing 4kmph, which is OK.  The difference it makes to our mood is enormous and I like to think the donks feel the relief also.  I can even feel content that we’ve achieved this without actually inflicting any physical pain, for in the night a male donkey wandering free comes along to roger Little Scheister senseless. She must be in season for Tosca is ignored.  After several hours of periodic rape I am worried my load carrier will get no sleep at all so attempt to beat off her admirer with an escalating range of weaponry that culminates in a large rock hurled at his ribcage.  He shows not a flicker of discomfort so I fall asleep with an easy conscience over Tosca’s rump.  Ayelen stays awake, enthralled by Little Scheister’s gameplay outside the tent, alternately provocative then defensive. In the morning all my girls are knackered but between coaxing them all along I get to listen to a fascinating hypothesis on sexual phsychology across the animal and human kingdoms.

The 2664m Kyzart pass presents no difficulties but we’re about to get higher as we cut south towards the mountain lake of Song Kul.  We try to stock up for the coming week in the village/town of Kyzyl Emyek and meet with the next of our problems.  In what is to become a recurring disappointment we find that every little shop stocks little but vodka, biscuits and a selection of cheap earrings and other trinkets.  This is presumably a winning formula forged during the Soviet years or perhaps in the economic depression that followed them: vodka for him, biscuits and sweets to keep the kids diverted while he beats up her and then jewelry to make everything better in the morning.

Between beatings she must be fairly flat out in the kitchen and garden for there is no butter, cheese, milk, yoghurt, jam or even bread for sale.  We find ourselves in buoyant mood if we’ve managed to buy a kilo of carrots and from hereonin are forced to make our own bread over an open fire, sometimes in a snowstorm.  At least shopping is rarely a dull experience; there’s a steady stream of drunken men of all ages arriving at each shop in beaten up old cars and all want to chat. There’s not much sign of employment around but nor is there of poverty, outwardly at least and excepting the rampant alcoholism.  Elaborately dressed schoolgirls wander back and forth past neat little houses and boys show off their bikes.  But almost every car, no matter how old, sports a taxi sign in the window and gangs of them prowl the streets looking for a fare.  It’s a pastoral economy and the winters are long and boring.  These people are semi nomadic and live for the moment in June when the grass at 3000m is long enough to support their flocks and they can decamp en masse to the summer pastures or jailoos. Up in the mountains under the summer sun life is good and wholesome, the yurts busy with children and laughter, and growing piles of empty vodka bottles glint in the sunlight.

But right now is a touch early for all that and whilst we’ve seen a few yurts being assembled at around the 2500m mark the men here tell us there are only fishermen up at Song Kul.  I am worried about the amount of grass there for our donks but all assure me there is plenty.  They have a peculiar signal for ‘plenty’, drawing the forefinger around the throat as in a jugular-cutting motion.  At first I take this to mean that our big-eared bag-carriers will be stuffed if we take them up there so early in the year but with a bit more probing it seems they’ll be OK if we give them a good 8hrs a day of unhindered grazing.

Kyrgyzstani, like Uighur, is a Turkic language but there are enough differences between the two for Ayelen and me to feel that we are almost starting again.  Unlike those in rural Xinjiang however, the people here are very willing to talk and will make a beeline for us straight away.  Most think we are Russian at first and that there must be a back up car and a guide somewhere near.  An old man empties his pockets of walnuts for us, a tractor driver gives us his bottle of fermented mares milk, a woman invites us to her home to stay the night.  We refuse the latter – it’s too early in the day – but revel in their support and friendship.  In a single hour there is more hospitality shown to us here than in the entire two months in China.  I cannot, right now, think of a more damning indictment of communism.

With nine out of ten people agreeing to the location of the Tuz Ashoo pass and Little Scheister freshly loaded with carrots, flour, a very passable sausage and a bottle of vodka, we head south to intersect the Kyzart river and camp.  At 3300m the Tuz Ashoo will be one of the highest obstacles in our way and we try to get away before our usual 10am start.  I want to cross with enough time in the day remaining for us to descend on the other side and find grass but it’s the donkeys, grazing freely, who thwart this plan.  Choosing instead to follow somebody’s cattle they vanish over a hill as we are cooking flatbreads on the last firewood we are likely to see for a week or more.  Later, a wrong turn leads us up the wrong valley and we have to cross a very steep spur to get back on track, losing another hour.  At least the mistake affords us the only glimpse we are to get of the rare Siberian goat; four of them sprint away above us.  We argue noisily over which way to go, both wanting to lead.  It’s the same thing wherever we go; we have never chosen the same route, whether it’s crossing a train station to a S1580004certain platform or navigating a crowded street.  One might think, therefore, that we’d be used to it by now but for some reason the annoyance felt each time is wonderfully fresh.  This time it’s Ayelen’s turn to have been obstinate, bloody-minded, useless and wrong.  She’s still getting an earful for it when a nearby boulder morphs into a well-fed shepherd wearing shades who steps forward to offer her a bunch of Edelweiss.  This lifts the mood mightily.

It’s past four when the switchback dirt track we are following disappears under snow just a hundred metres shy of the summit.  Someone’s already been over on a horse and there’s a narrow path of compressed snow and ice to follow.  However, for some reason best known to them and their annoying species the donks won’t stay on it.  Donkeys’ hooves are very small and while Ayelen and I can walk on the crust they sink straight in up to their bellies, shed their loads then refuse to co-operate at all.  There’s no way around and we’re not turning back.  I’m reminded of those old adventure films where a pack animal or two is inevitably lost into the river far below, and of the 19th Century expeditions through these parts where literally thousands of animals did actually perish in sudden onsets of winter.  We’re not facing such ruination but it’s cold, clouds are gathering and there’s nothing for them to eat at this altitude, nor any flat ground on which to put a tent.  As if to highlight the situation there’s a brief flurry of snow and I get out my donkey communicator, unused for days, to read them the riot act.

S1580008I don’t know why but I hadn’t once considered that the lake of Song Kul would still be frozen over.  As we crest Tuz Ashoo I am completely taken aback at the scene ahead.  Several miles still ahead of us and 300m lower down lies this enormous flat plain of dazzling white surrounded by mountains. At it’s narrowest point the lake is about 18kms or 11 miles across, a monster.  I try to take a picture but the camera can’t cope with it all.

In fact it’s one of the last photographs our camera takes. Presumably due to the dust of Xinjiang it’s little fan has been sucking in for several months pretty much all functionality has now been lost: focus (both manual and auto at anything other than infinity, so I cannot zoom), white balance, stills capture from movie (which means few photos for this blog), playback, a host of other less important features and now stills as well.  In modern parlance, it’s fecked, but it’s still shooting film and recording sound.  I find myself talking to it, begging it to live just a little longer.  I think I need to go home.

We pitch camp in a hailstorm and cook bread the next morning in a snowstorm.  A man passing on a horse laden with fish stops to say hello and following the shoreline later on we pass several yurts.  Some have 4x4s S1590007parked nearby.  Everyone is out on the ice, little specks wandering from one fishing hole to the next.  We want to go out there and see what they’re up to but they are using boats to navigate the 3-4m of open water between the shore and the melting ice and we can’t tell if they’re also using snow shoes or something to spread the load.  The thought of a plunge puts us off and we keep going.

It’s an extrordinary day of wandering snowstorms.  Appearing as great columns of mist, they seem to be waltzing around the lake and miraculously we weave among them unscathed.  Just in front one drops it’s load and the ground turns white.  By the time we get there the sun is out, the ochre grass is returning already and the column of falling snow is off to our right, but there’s another one coming in from the left and one behind too.  The conditions veer S1590012from freezing, biting wind to warm sunshine in less than a minute and we go from hoods and balaclavas to shirt sleeves and back several times every hour.  I think it’s the first time I’ve had a hot sun on my face and snowflakes settling on my hair at the same time.  Eventually, of course, our luck runs out and we get properly dumped on.  The donkeys soon have white hats and the fat flakes melt into our worn-out waterproofs as soon as they settle.  As if in payback for our earlier luck this storm sticks to us and follows.

Without difficulty I can sense the misery of my three girls and scour the barren landscape for shelter.  We are about to enter a huge, flat plain at the western edge of the lake and I want to stay put behind the last available ridge.  But Ayelen reckons she spotted a hut several miles in front before the snow started so we press on hoping for a warm welcome and a dung-burning stove.  The brain’s inability to discern accurate dimensions when faced with more space than it’s used to seeing, or ice chrystals in the air, or the two together, is a phenomenon I’ve come across before.  Forty days into mushing dogs across Greenland once, my friends and I could see what looked like quite large buildings way up ahead, with people milling about them.  Despite the improbability of this I became almost convinced that we were approaching a hotel.  When we got there it was a small bird dead in the snow, nothing more, simply the only dark object apart from ourselves in a vast white space without discernable boundaries.   As we get closer to it, Ayelen’s hut, so full of similar promise, turns into a wooden toilet, a cludgie.  Somewhere beneath the snow around it will be the circular mark left by a summer yurt and somewhere else the ubiquitous pile of empty vodka bottles.  It’s a bitter disappointment.  We keep walking.  Later she spots another hut.  She says it has wheels but all I can see is another cludgie.  This time, however, she’s redeemed: it’s one of the converted railway carriages that litter the former Soviet Union (main picture), dragged here years ago and used only in the S1590009summertime.  The door’s locked but just as we’re about to set up the tent in it’s lee a 4×4 rolls up with two men and a woman inside and great sackfuls of fish.  They smash the padlock and insist we stay inside then give us six fish and drive off to the west where there’s another pass.  The evening sun melts the snow, the donkeys get their grass and we retire inside to fry fish.  We’re really loving our Kyrgyzstani camping scene.

Another blizzard the following day covers over the track I know we should follow to get out of this mountainous bowl and in the whiteout we find and follow another.  I haven’t jotted down enough detail in my notebook to know yet how far we’ve gone wrong, I’m only happy to lose some altitude.  Arriving suddenly in a stunning little valley full of grass that’s longer and greener than they’ve seen since last year, the donks mutiny.  My wife’s on the point of mutiny too so I maintain control by announcing that we’ll camp.  There’s even a cave that I can tie the animals up in for the night.

It’s unusual to find such long grass in this country.  Over-grazing is a huge problem in Kyrgyzstan.  S1600022The amount of livestock the land has to support has more than quadrupled in the last century, driving out the native fauna and their predators and causing widespread erosion.  Flocks of over a thousand animals move over the landscape like locusts, trimming every blade to the ground, over and over again.

Long grass can only mean one thing at this time of year: that there’s limited access to this valley from below.  I don’t realise this at the time, of course, and instead congratulate myself for getting us lost and thus finding this little paradise.  In the morning we decide not to follow the stream downhill as it vanishes into a precipitous looking gorge.  Following animal trails we climb over a few spurs instead and descend again, entering another postcard perfect valley, this time trimmed with huge fir trees and wild flowers.  It’s all too beautiful and there’s not a soul to be seen anywhere, nor even a goat.  I just keep on missing those telltale signs, but at last one of them registers.

While Ayelen knocks up a cabbage, carrot and sardine salad I walk ahead to scout the rather ominous pile of house-sized boulders blocking the lower end of the valley.  I find one of those geographical anomalies that might be described as a stupendous upheaval.  Rather than glacier-carved this particular valley looks to have been rent apart, the resulting gorge too unstable for gravity and still crumbling thousands of years later. It’s a mess, as if God has been making all this in Lego and was called away to lunch.  The donks won’t so much break their legs amongst the boulders as disappear altogether.  To keep descending there’s only one other possibility and that’s another animal trail disappearing into the trees halfway up the valley.  I follow this for a kilometre or so, contouring around steep grassy slopes between outcrops of fir until arriving on a ledge from which all becomes clear.  Oh dear, very pretty but the girls are not going to like this!  But it is possible, even if Ayelen and I have to ferry the loads down ourselves.  The livestock trail switchbacks down a very, very steep and rocky slope sandwiched between cliffs and the scree of an active rockfall.  Even as I arrive there are boulders performing a kind of Dambusters bounce down into the trees below, the accompanying sound like sporadic artillery fire. Beyond that, some 800m beneath my feet I can see the roofs of two converted railway carriages painted bright green amongst the trees.  I’ve seen little evidence so far that Kyrgyz are into maintenance activities such as painting; these look official, like park ranger huts.  At any rate there must be a track from there out of the mountains.  On the way back I pick flowers with which to break the news of the toil to come.

It takes us the rest of the day to get down and at the bottom we are just in time to catch some men who unlock one of the huts for us before leaving.  They express surprise that wolves haven’t attacked us.  Inside is a woodstove and we are properly warm for the first time in weeks.  Unwittingly we have ended up in Karatal Japaryk Reserve, which centres on this outstandingly beautiful and impressive valley.  There are signs that this is one of those reserves where the proleteriat are kept out so that the well-heeled can come and shoot the protected animals, but looking up at the cliffs and the trees clinging to them I feel I can almost see a snow leopard or brown bear still clinging on.

Getting lost is almost an old fashioned concept in these days of GPS but it still serves Ayelen and me very well.  Not having a map in a strange land is an interesting experience. In many ways it’s life, is it not?  Technically, having no map, we are lost all the time on this trip, except for those moments when we arrive in a village and can name our position.  We do know where we are trying to get to but it’s only the journey that’s of real interest to us.  The journey is the goal.  Our destination in this case, Tash Rabat, is just an old building and the end point it represents to us. I’ve made relatively detailed notes on how to get to it but only as much as we need in order to ask non-leading questions of the shepherds we meet along the way.  “What’s the name of that river over there?”  “Where is the horse trail to Orto Syrt?”  We are reliant upon such titbits of information to reach our destination in the time allotted but we don’t need them to reach our goal.  To reach that, we are better served by getting lost.  It’s a fact: dealing with the unexpected is simply more challenging and interesting.  We can feel as if we’re exploring rather than just travelling.

My notes therefore only need to contain enough detail to help us recognise the good titbits from the bad and sometimes we don’t need them at all.  Sometimes the countenance of the fellow before us says it all.  We goS1610012 wrong again a few days later, having crossed the Naryn Valley.  Ahead is another range of mountains to cross and we think we’ve missed the right path and have come too far to the east.  Facing a long walk back down the mountainside I have only just said to Ayelen that we must ask our guardian angels to provide a really useful shepherd when a gangly, gap-toothed youth in his late teens appears astride a heavily pregnant donkey.  Ayelen and I roll our eyes at each other; they’ve provided the very opposite.  His younger brother, astride a baby donkey whose behind has been whipped raw, is as little help.  Amidst their excited gabble – they won’t shut up – we decide on our own to go back and search again for a path, but then encounter their father on a horse.  He’s drunk but at least points out the gorge we must enter.  He says that it’s very steep in there and leaps off his mount to start re-doing Little Scheister’s load.  A scuffle ensues.  He is hard to deter but I don’t care how many donkey’s he’s packed; I‘m not about to take a lesson in loading from a man who allows his sons to so maltreat their own animals.

In the end the gorge he suggests does indeed get us over the mountains but we realise later that it was still the wrong one.   It delivers us to the other side almost a day’s walk too far to the east, yet again lengthening the time it will take to reach our destination.  But we’ve camped in another wild valley, melting snow for water over a spluttering fire in the lee of a large boulder while watching the gameplay between a pair of eagles and the marmots whose holes stud the hillside.  And the delay also means that we reach spectacular Orto Syrt in the evening rather than morning and so can accept the offer of hospitality from the family that lives there.  Getting lost works.

There’s just one more pass to go and it’s snowing again.  Perhaps sensing the end is near the donks set a blistering pace for much of the day.  We are now operating a new order of march, for in the Naryn valley Little Scheister suddenly went weird on us, repeatedly galloping off until she’d shed her load, which after a week without resupply was almost nothing.  She became so unmanageable that at one point I ended up wrestling her to the ground in a headlock and we stayed there until she stopped struggling and I felt that she knew who was boss.  We can no longer trust her to follow behind – the much-repaired saddlebags won’t take any more punishment – so have to experiment again.  This upsets Tosca who also becomes difficult. As we coax them through the little towns of Jangy Talap and then Ak-Tal it’s as if we are back at day one again. As well as having Ayelen in front to lead Tosca, both donks now need someone behind them, yet if am not immediately behind Tosca she slows down. I cannot be immediately behind them both unless Little Scheister is neck and neck with Tosca but this upsets the latter who veers off to one side, etc., etc., and on, and on.  To cap it all, that night I am stung on the hand by a scorpion.  Damn this donkey phsychology!  I want my camel back!  In the end we work it out but essentially it’s fair to say that driving donkeys requires every bit as much concentration as does driving a car.  But it still beats carrying your own clobber.

A shepherd gives us tea, bread and jam in his hut near the pass and then we are over the last hurdle.  Tash Rabat is almost in sight but first we want to visit Lorbek and Samira (below), the herdsman and his wife who hosted us 3 months ago when hitch-hiking towards China.  It’s still a month before they will set up their yurt near the border so they ought to be at home.  It entails a punishing day and we arrive in the dark and soaked to the S1170001skin.  I have promised the donkeys some of Lorbek’s hay and a space in his barn but it’s his bewildered parents who step outside to investigate what’s set their dogs barking.  Our furry porters get a miserable spot next to a cow, fully exposed to the driving sleet and with nothing whatsoever to eat.  The men of Lorbek’s family, we learn, take it in turn with their spouses to man this remote spot.  The old couple are kind enough to be enthralled by our exploits but with all our soggy kit clogging their tiny home and my rapacious appetite for their bread and cheese we are quite an imposition and don’t hang around in the morning.  There’s not even a blade of grass for the donks in any case; their 400 sheep have stripped it down to mud for almost as far as the eye can see.

The last stretch: following sheep trails over a grassy spur we drop into a narrow valley that in the days of theTash rabat 3 Silk Road was a key route into China.  When conditions allowed travellers over the precipitous pass at its head this valley cut almost a week off the normal journey time to Kashgar and beyond.  We only follow its winding course for fifteen kilometres and for the most part walk into driving snow and sleet.  It settles into our clothes and the wind bites through.  We are almost at the end and all four of us just put our heads down and march.  I imagine my own cries of encouragement are those of the Silk Road camel and mule drivers and that we are just a tiny fragment in a long, winding baggage train of weary animals and men.  Relieved on the Mediterranean shore of their loads of silk and jade the donks would be carrying woollen goods and glass back to China.  Those men must have been unbelievably tough, making that journey again and again, fighting off Turcoman slavers and other marauders while dealing with the monstrous logistics of keeping hundreds of animals fed over thousands of miles of desert and high mountains.  As they slogged up this valley, the cliffs echoing their shouts and the cracking whips, they must have had a song in their hearts though, for just around a few more corners they would know the caravanserai of Tash Rabat was waiting for them.  I know this, because my own heart is singing pretty loudly at this point!  It’s shadowy and labyrinthine interior would flicker with the light escaping the low T_R main hallpassageways into it’s 30 domed rooms, each having a fire in the middle.  Men would be shown their quarters for the night before making their way into the great hall where another central fire, this one huge, would illuminate the throng of travellers seated beneath the ornate plastered alcoves and dome above.  Built around 500 years ago it’s an extraordinary building, appearing to grow from the hillside like an outcrop of dark granite; it’s seemingly meagre exterior dimensions diguising a tardis-like complex within.  Alone, we explore it for an hour before the cold drives us back to a yurt guesthouse outside.

Place it next to St Peter’s in Venice, or a similar monument to the 1500s, and Tash Rabat wouldn’t amount to much, yet to me it resonates with it’s past more noisily than any other building I can remember. tash rabat 5 Perhaps this is because I can now so easily place myself within its walls in the dying years of the Silk Road five hundred years ago, swapping tales and news with friends and strangers plying the same route.  Somehow, not despite the setbacks in China but because of them, Ayelen and I have achieved a closer approximation of what it must have been like to journey through these parts a century or more ago than I ever imagined possible.  We’ve walked somewhat less than the 2000kms envisaged – around 1200, we think – but the barriers thrown in our way by local peoples and authorities are really no different to those imposed by the Khans and Emirs of the past.  Just as those players of the Great Game I read about as a boy were forced to, we have ducked, dived, dodged and weaved our way elatedly around those barriers or we have waited, bored and frustrated, to learn our fate.  Unfortunately we are not to return home with our pockets stuffed with precious jade and silks, but nor have we been beheaded beforeS1610006 an indifferent crowd.

The film I have been trying to make along the way is tentatively entitled, ‘Getting My Wife to Settle Down.’  With so little interaction with the Uighur people recorded, whether or not we have enough interesting footage for a 50-minute film remains to be seen but at least the title subject has been achieved.  Ayelen – here having a bad hair month – is as keen to get home as I am and at last there is talk of children.

Postscript:  The Donks

We no longer have the time to walk the 65kms to At Bashi to sell the donks so stop at every homestead on the way back down the valley to see if anyone will take them.  Nobody is interested but for the Chinese road workers at the bottom so we walk on almost until dark to get as far away from these donkey-munchers as possible. Then we set Grumpy Tosca and Little Scheister free in a grassy valley and set about thumbing a lift back to reality.  There’s little traffic on this lonely road so we have plenty of time to watch them drift slowly away from us, grazing contentedly.  I have hated them at times, these two little characters, but they have carried my bags and for that I love them.  Of course they are completely unaware of the momentous event that has just befallen them and will probably allow themselves to be re-enslaved by the first shepherd who comes along.  I only hope he doesn’t sell them to the Chinese.

(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 S1410003shepherd 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.S1500001

“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, S1430015 (1024x576)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 areS1400002 (1024x576) 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 inS1420001 (1024x576) 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 S1420009 (1024x576)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 S1460086 (1024x576)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 S1490001couldn´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.S1480013 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 goatsS1500007 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 S1450004and 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. S1450006 (1024x576)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.

S1460039 (1024x576)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 contactsS1500014 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 S1510001 (1024x576)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.

I can be quite negative at times, it´s in my character.  But I´m an optimist at heart so it´s never for very long, unless there are extenuating circumstances.  Like now, for example.

What a hole this part of the world is.  I should have left it in those books I used to read. Why did I have to try  to replicate some of the experiences of those men, who journeyed here all those years ago?  They were better men than I.  They must have been to have coped with this.S1360001  We haven´t been able to see for more than a few miles for almost 3 weeks, even in the hills.  The sun is like a feeble, energy-saving bulb until 10am and after 4pm.  Everything and everywhere is the colour of dust. It´s underfoot and foot deep, like walking through flour.  It´s in and on everything.  You don´t realise how thick it is in the air until you switch a torch on at night.  And just as thick around us are the local authorities.  We are feted by some then hounded and impounded by the next.  Even in small rural communities there are flash cameras mounted on gantries above the road.  We escape notice only until our second night.  The local populace stands in gangs about us in every village and town, not unfriendly but not welcoming either, simply non-plussed.  One or two will invariably call the police as if it´s all they know to do.  Not more than one in several hundred will venture a ´hello´ until we do; they are content to stare silently, or snigger nervously. And even in those serene moments when we are miles from anybody we seem to fight more over a single choice of route than we have done in four years of marriage.  Then when we have to make it to a big town with a hotel we must show a marriage certificate to the dismissive A-hole at the front desk to have even a twin room together. Unless you relish hard travel just for the sake of it I will unhesitatingly recommend anywhere else in the world to go to – except Chad which I´ve heard is horrendous – rather than the modern day incarnation of the southern Silk Road.

S1380002And yet these two days we have been fighting to have more time here.  It´s visa extension time and we are in Khotan to try our luck.  At moments, my resolve wobbling, I have wondered why we should persevere?  Physical barriers are one of the attractions of an expedition; human barriers are no fun at all.  Then I remember what we are trying to do and that it´s difficult simply because it´s not done.  Every day brings the unexpected so we must live on our wits and that was what we were after from then start.  We are achieving something unique and the experience is only lacking the visual feast that normally serves to counter-balance the discomforts of such a venture, and a more complete freedom to do what we want.   And regarding the latter it seems things may henceforth get better.  We are now fully visible to the police but have found a sympathetic, high-ranking Han Chinese officer who speaks English and likes us to call him Jackson.  He wasn´t at first sympathetic when we walked from the mountains into his prefecture and had us held in Khalia police station for a night.  Upon meeting him the next day, however, he proved a little more malleable.  Not entirely so, however, for whilst not closing us down completely as at first was threatened he ordered us to change our route and not stray far from the larger towns and oasises further north.

“It´s for your own safety.” He intoned, glancing wistfully and for the hundredth time at the dust on his previouslyS1380005 impeccable city shoes.  We had to break the trip around now to get our visa extension in Khotan in any case so were happy to comply for a while, show willing to relax his gaze, but then he had us tailed to the extent that we must have appeared as criminals to the local populace.  After two long and dusty days marching into a strong wind, back out of the hills and into the desert we then found that all our attempts to find someone to look after our camel for a few days were scuppered by the immediate arrival of up to ten vacant looking officers all chewing sunflower seeds and doing little else but gawp. We called Jackson repeatedly to complain and finally persuaded him to drive his precious new 4×4 out of his urban comfort zone in Pishan for a second meeting, 40kms to his south in a town called Koshtaga.  There, in a pavement eatery, with the light blotted out by half the town´s menfolk gathered around we S1380008 (1024x576)fought for our trip as I tucked into a local speciality called Soghman which has poisoned me for four days now.  We flatly refused to travel on the roads and were theatrically surprised he could even think of putting us in so much danger.  On his map we pinpointed the villages we wanted to visit, each chosen only for it´s being at the top of a valley.  “But there are no roads between these!” He whined.  “It´s too dangerous!”  “Of course there are roads, just not asphalt ones.” We could now respond confidently after feeling our way for four days and over four passes between the villages of Usheke-Pech and Khalia, guided only by shepherds helping us to scratch impromptu maps into the ground.  “How do you think people used to get between these places before motorbikes came along and made it easier to go around?”  He looked to the local police chief on my left for support but when our English was translated into Uighur there was a murmur of approval around the crowd.  The older ones knew there were routes there: yol eshek (donkey trails).  Jackson was wavering when Ayelen, thankfully only toying with her bowl of botulism, her hair plastered with two week´s worth of airborne particulate and sticking up at odd angles like an eighties punk just out of bed, played her trump.  Jackson looked down at the table sheepS1380006ishly and I pushed the bacteria around my plate uneasily as she laid into him at length for wrecking her honeymoon.  I hadn´t agreed with her that this was going to be a winning argument but perhaps it was after all, for at this point Jackson folded.

He has now granted us permission to follow our chosen route through the foothills of the Kunlun Shan but we still, until just moments ago, couldn´t be certain that he wasn´t simply keeping us sweet while all the time making sure our visa extension would be refused.  One of his henchmen was here in Khotan to observe us getting off the bus yesterday and this morning any hopes we had that police and immigration aren´t very good at communicating with one another were dashed when it was immediately clear that the Officer for Foreign Affairs was very much expecting us.   But to our surprise we have just been granted another month to play with and rather than the usual five day turn around it´s taken just one.  I am flabbergasted, frankly.  I was certain our only chance of success lay in having as low a profile as possible where police in the main towns were concerned.  The moment we were impounded by police in Khalia and I first heard Jackson´s voice on the phone telling me we must come to Pishan at once and check into a hotel like good tourists, I considered the game all but up.  Well somehow it´s not and it´s just as well;  we can´t stop now, there´s one very important reason waiting for us 190kms away in Koshtaga.

Kashi – the ancient name for Kashgar – is a five year old Bactrian camel and is the most amazing animal I have ever owned.  This is not remarkable in itself as in fact she´s the only animal I´ve ever owned.  She carries our 80-100kgs of baggage, food and water uncomplainingly over pretty much any terrain and makes no noise as she does so on her cushioned pads.  She eats bushes covered in thorns that would put a hole in your welly and picks up her bowlS1360002 and looks at us when it´s time for the good stuff.  She has a third eyelid to eject dust and sand and the most ridiculously thick woolly coat complete with knicker-bockers, beard and a quiff.  She loves a good hug in the morning and now makes a peculiar sound to show her appreciation.  She can be obstinate when faced with an unfamiliar obstacle and has even galloped all the way back down a 1000m hillside, dispensing our kit along the way, apparently on a sudden whim to be with some other camels she´d met at the bottom.   Otherwise she is as sweet natured and compliant as we could have wished for.  I´ve wanted to travel again with an animal ever since dog-sledding in Greenland and it´s every bit as rewarding an experience again. But part of that reward, of course, comes from the fact that she herself is an extra challenge to be overcome, bringing the weight of responsibility towards a team member whose capabilities, and needs, are still a somewhat grey area to us.  We have been in two situations already where a wrong turn has left us at altitude uncomfortably late in the day and the route to the valley floor below is unclear.  It´s never been a danger for Ayelen and me for we know we could, if need be, pick our way down the stony slopes.  Kashi, though, is no goat and finding the right spur to take her all the way to the bottom and not into some fatal cul-de-sac between impassable ravines has at times caused stress levels to soar.  More often than not I find myself worrying about her food, water and general well-being but this is lessening as I become more familiar with her needs and abilities.  She is quite simply remarkable and when we are alone with her in some unihabited valley, camped next to a river, dry or otherwise, and happily eating our respective suppers by the fire this trip is almost as I dared imagine it.  Even Ayelen, with so much more of a robust attitude to the animal kingdom than I, has found a bond with Kashi.  If, along with an end to police harrassment, we can only find a bit of colour to the landscape and some clear air around us we´ll be in an expedition paradise.

Clear air has been the driving force behind us trying to head as deep as possible into the Kunlun Shan and not only for our sanity but for our film as well. S1330008 (1024x576)At the moment every sequence is brown and certain bits of the camera packed up on day one.  We had a taste of what might be on the drive from the Kyrgyz border to Kashgar weeks ago: outrageously beautiful ochre valleys topped by snow-capped peaks and dotted with the adobe winter homesteads of the Uighurs.  But we were still at around 2000m when we drove into the wall of dust.  I couldn´t take any photographs as it was a military zone for 140kms and we sped through without stopping.  Still, we thought that altitude must surely be our saviour here also.    It took us four days to walk from Yarkand to the start of the hills we knew lay to the south and almost from the start we were potentially in trouble.  When the poplar-lined, powdery lanes of the oasis eventually petered out on day two there was nothing but a flat stony desert ahead, stretching into the earthy murk.  Here we blundered past indechipherable red signs straight into a military zone.  I had thought the distant machines sprouting vast clouds of dust were earth-movers until Ayelen exclaimed, “Look!  Isn´t that a tank?”  Almost simultaneously there was a rattle of machine gun fire from just ahead and we executed a neat ´About turn!´. Later, amidst more habitation, we began to learn of the intricacies of getting a camel along the banks of an oasis lined river, across the inummerable irrigation ditches and between the arrow straight poplar trunks spaced as little as 50cms apart.  Our second experience of locals just calling the cops on us led to a slap up lunch of pilau, albeit eaten alone and outside in the dirt while every one of our hosts retired inside the police station to eat theirs.  The law against entertaining foreigners mustn’t be broken!  Further south Ayelen jumped on a bus to get to a market up ahead because Kashi and I were taking too long to cover the miles and in her absence I was hi-jacked by a wedding.  They put me in a corner of the kitchen and made me eat a bucketful of rice while all the guests filed in to stare.  I knew the southern branch of the ancient Silk Road is by far the least visited these days.  A guide book in the hostel we stayed at in Kashgar stated that to travel here is to enter the Uighur heartland.  It was talking only about jumping between the larger towns along the main arterial road that skirts the Taklamakan but I still wasn´t really expecting the reception we have had in these wayside towns.  Everyone has a TV now so it´s not as if they haven´t seen our like before but what in the name of Allah are we doing here??  And it´s a not a bad question.