Yarkand, on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the Tarim Basin, once an important junction between the southern Silk Road and the trail south to Ladakh and British India is now Yarkand, China, a small city of some 800,000 mainly Uighur people. It has little to recommend it but for the Sunday farmers´market. At the moment it sits in a fog of dust so thick that visibility is at best a mile. When we arrived 5 days ago it was just a few hundred metres and many of the population were wearing dust masks. Tourism is not big here and it took us several hours to find a hotel that was allowed to have foreigners. There are mountains on one side and desert on the other but the only sight to penetrate the gloom is the sun, dulled to a 40w bulb above us. The only sound reaching our 7th floor room is of car horns; a constant, unpunctuated blare that rests only in the early hours. They must have the death penalty here for minor traffic accidents or something because even in an otherwise empty road, a driver will carpet-bomb a solitary pedestrian with sound from hundreds of metres away until he is safely past. It´s a kind of torture. Our room, so badly tar-stained that my throat constricts to an asthmatic´s wheeze the moment the door swings open, is an oasis. After a minute we can no longer smell it, the bed is comfortable, the bathroom clean and there´s internet.
Perhaps we are the first western travellers since the early 1900s to stay in Yarkand for more than one night. Certainly, if we were currently under the wing of some tour operator I would sue the sonofabitch for substantial damages. I am definitely the only westerner ever to bring his wife here on a honeymoon though and, well, a first is a first! Under a thick layer of dust somewhere lies an important mausoleum in blue and white tiles but that´s it. The only reason anyone comes here is to mount some camels and head into the desert on an organised overnight trip. I can´t even get that right.
We came here to find a camel market closer to the Kunlun Shan mountains than that of Kashgar, and further away from any sensitive areas around the Pakistan border. Under a briefly blue sky there weren´t so many camels on display at Yarkand´s wonderful Sunday market but we befriended one seller, called Mohammed, and have been trying to spend our camel budget ever since. Yarkand´s bleating, choking heart of concrete and night time neon wears a wafer thin mantle of low brick houses and then, quite suddenly, you step out into the oasis to which it owes its existence. Bearded old men in tall hats steer their donkey carts along the narrow lanes between fields of cotton, wheat and corn, beneath what must in summer be a green tunnel of poplars. The slender trees are everywhere: springing like bamboo from the banks of the irrigation network that delivers melt water from the Yarkand river, lining the fields and standing in thickets before every doorway. It must be pretty when all are in leaf but there´s the dust, you see. It´s so bad my all singing and dancing camera starts to suffer badly. These stills are all captured from what little film footage we could risk.
These last three mornings we have hitchhiked and walked the 6kms out to Mohammed´s ´barn´ and the eight camels therein. We were, until this morning, negotiating for a four year female with a wonderfully placid temperament but she doesn´t want to come with us. A successful transaction is dependent on my being able to control her and today was supposed to be my training day. It was soon clear, however, that it is she who needs lessons. She has never been trained to carry anything and lacks even the traditional nose-piercing that would allow my 65kgs a modicum of control over her 450+kgs. When even two farmhands cannot get her to kneel without lassooing her forelegs and tripping her up it´s clear she´s not what we´re looking for. We try another one, more expensive, and this time I am putting her up and down like a pro almost immediately, and even riding around on her. But Ayelen is unable to lower the price sufficiently and we are back to square one. Negotiations are cumbersome in Uighur tongue. We scan our notebooks for the right word and then mispronounce it. A young girl called Aynor, whose family run a restaurant just where blaring taxis racing past the end of a tranquil country lane signal the abrupt start of the city, is one of only three people we have met who speak any English. Behind the restaurant´s till, where she spends her days longing for permission to study in Turkey, her phone rings constantly with either Ayelen or me on the other end.
Mohammed has more camels, he says, but they are some 35kms – or is that 3.5 hrs? – out of town, towards the mountains and he doesn´t want to go there. To us it sounds ideal – our biggest headache once the cash and camel change hands is going to be getting ourselves into the hills without being stopped by police – but he is reluctant for some reason. Perhaps his other animals don´t exist. Another two contenders from somebody else will be in the barn at 8am tomorrow morning for inspection. If they are no good we´ll head for the hills anyway. We´ve got to get out of this town and into the sticks and if we end up with a couple of donkeys instead of a camel we´ll get over any disappointment quickly. We knew all this was a tall order in the first place but it´s all is taking too long and even our staying in Yarkand more than the usual 30 minutes might soon attract unwanted attention.
China likes her visitors to be nicely visible. Ideally you should enter obediantly at the main hubs of Beijing, Hong Kong, etc and henceforth be carted from one state-sanctioned hotel to the next by a registered tour operator. Very few hotels outside these main centres have a licence to accommodate foreigners, you need special permits to go to many places, Facebook is illegal, so too is Twitter, YouTube and even this website, my own blog. This last problem can be circumvented by paying for and downloading a proxy server but, as if to further control the populace, internet speed is never fast and regularly plunges to nothing. You can´t hire a car without a driver and wouldn´t be allowed to drive it if you could. Staying with any local is technically illegal – as it is in Morocco incidentally, although not enforced – and camping, well, you can camp in the grounds of those hotels if you realy want to. And in this part of the country, Xinjiang, everything is further exacerbated by the authorities distrust of the indigenous, and occasionally rebellious, Uighur population. Why would anybody wish to stay more than 10 minutes in Yarkand unless they are up to some mischief?
Thus on first, second and third sights Xinjiang is absolutely the last place anyone would come to buy a camel and attempt a journey through the country side, staying with locals wherever possible. But foreign cyclists are not uncommon here and they do seem to get away with camping along the wayside so clearly the rules are not unbendable. Our contact in Kashgar, a tour operator no less, reckons what we want to do is possible as long as, ironically, we do not take a guide with us. A guide will only be a target for police angst and will get into a lot of trouble. If we are on our own the police simply won´t know what to do with us and will let us go. And if we follow the Southern Silk Road that skirts around the bottom of the Taklamakan we oughtn´t to have too much police contact in any case. Conversely, the Northern Silk Road has too many restricted areas and is much more developed. But how far we´ll get, nobody will hazard a guess. To visit the famous Kashgar Sunday market and practice haggling for a camel is recommended by every guidebook but nobody has heard of any foreigners actually buying one. In fact though, I now know of an Englishman who bought some near the Pakistan border not so long ago and, with a camel guide, set off for Beijing. After just a hundred or so kilometres he became embroiled in a local uprising right here in Yarkand and was forced by the authorities to sell them and get out.
Most people who wish to really head into one of the many deserts or outback regions in this part of the world choose the Outer Mongolian part of the Gobi or the endless steppe to its north. Outer Mongolia was part of the Soviet Union and is as such now free. John Hare crossed the Gashun Gobi in China in the 1990s but as part of a Chinese state-sanctioned expedition to survey and protect the last surviving wild Bactrian camels. And foreigners have crossed the Taklamakan on camels since then, but I believe all have engaged a local tour operator to organise the logistics and facilitate the paperwork and all have employed a local guide. We don´t want to cross anything. We haven´t the money to fund the requisite number of animals, guide to find water holes, permits and the profit margins of others. We simply want to get right off the beaten track, we have only these months to do it in and this place has always had my interest. There have been times when I´ve wondered why we couldn´t have just gone to Mongolia like everybody else but Ayelen soon sets me right again.
Through all this I marvel at my good fortune, not just for the childhood and myriad freedoms thereafter available to me – in contrast to people living here – but for my wife. Ayelen takes everything in her stride and has unfailing faith in our Guardian Angels´ ability to deliver from all this dust a fantastic and beautiful journey. There have been a few moments recently where my own conviction in this has wavered. If I were here on my own it wouldn´t be the case, but now of course I feel a responsibility. This destination was my idea and this is our honeymoon. I feel a pressure to deliver what I promised, the weeks are slipping by and we need an animal soon. We cannot make this walk without one. But Ayelen is the perfect travelling companion, strong where I am weak and boundlessly optimistic. The only thing she struggles with is the state of every bathroom here, as in Kyrgyzstan. I don´t want to describe them. You simply have to try to imagine the worst possible scenario and then have a dozen more people come in and shit all over it. If somebody has the affrontery to charge her a fee for the pleasure they either get an earful or have to dig her coin out of a turd.
Tomorrow we´ll head for the hills, with ot without a camel and I´ll have no internet for a few weeks. I have a feeling we can just find everything we need in a small rural community and then simply set off into the distance. At any rate we´ll be out of this dust…or perhaps not!