Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

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. S1250013

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 ablS1270001e 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. S1260002

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!

We didn´t like Jalalabad.  Then it snowed and the road to Naryn was closed again.  So we retraced our steps and thanks to the wrong bus found ourselves in an amazing little grassy valley near some place called Mali Sye.  Two different goat herds found us the following day – as they inevitably do, I´ve found.  One later returned with bread and bagfuls of nuts and dried fruit, and at long last I discovered what it is that  goat herders do with all that time (main image).  He had a more precise back flip for display but this deformed cartwheel made the better shot.S1220001 (1024x576) The next day´s hitch hiking went without a hitch as we scored ride after ride without having to wait for more than a few minutes.  Despite heavy snow over the passes we were back in Bishkek in time for ´bar opening´ in the apartment of our friend Devendra Pal Singh.  Dev is an ex Indian Airforce pilot who after retiral set off around Central Asia and Russia in search of the next challenge.  He is now a co-ordinator and head teacher of English, Hindi and Sanskrit at the Manas University.  His command of the idiosyncracies of English put me to shame on more than one occasion and we have now spent a total of six very entertaining nights with him and his friends.  We met Dev through, a brilliant site that introduces instant contacts, free accommodation and potential friends in foreign countries.  If you dislike the hotel perspective of a strange land, as we do, I recommend it.

Ayelen holds the purse strings on this trip, as she does in our life together, and I am extremely happy that she does.  It´s not that I´ve ever been a spend thrift.  Any non-essential purchase of over a hundred quid has me in throes of agonising indecision; a Scottish thing perhaps but I want my money to be there for doing fun things.  I´ve never spent more than 2k on a car for example.  But while the pounds stay put the pennies seem to drop away as if through a hole and I´ve never had the patience to try to account for it all.  Ayelen is more disciplined where the pennies are concerned so, as the saying goes, the pounds look after themselves.  She also, indisputably, gets a better price where any haggling is to be done.  So I have willingly handed over those particular reins.  But it does mean I am destined to walk over these sodding mountains to get to China on the other side. S1220002 (1024x576) If my trousers in this relationship didn´t have little pink frilly bits on them we´d be hopping in a taxi and budget be damned.  Hitching has been good so far but the next bit is 200+kms over a snow swept pass of over 3500m, then a 12km no-man´s land between the borders – for which you may read mountain peaks – and then another 300kms to Kashgar.  It´ll be Baltic cold with precious little traffic but for heavy trucks whose drivers, in my male experience at least, rarely feel like a bit of extra company to break the monotony of their routine.  And there´ll be naff all in the way of shelter but for our tent when nobody does pick us up.  My God she´s stubborn and sometimes it´s just easier to go with the flow.

Two days pass and the pass draws nearer.  The scenery has been gobsmacking, when I haven´t been staring at the ground in front of my feet, weighed down by not just my load but part of hers as well. S1150002 - Copy (1024x576) We´ve had some lifts but there´s been a lot of walking too.  It´s looking like tent time again when two shifty looking dudes in a beaten up Audi pick us up and take us some 40kms and before veering off the road suddenly and across an undulating, pie-bald plain of dead grass and snow-filled hollows.  Instinctively I check the whereabouts of my puny pocket knife and try to envisage a flurry of martial arts and the valiant saving of the day.  But then we arrive at a tiny little house of mud bricks in the lee of a low hill.  As ever the mountains rear up in the background and a young man with impossibly ruddy cheeks, as if rouged, is steering the last of a very big flock of sheep and goats into a pen adjoining the house.  His name is Lorbek.  Then others arrive in another beaten up car with a trailer.  While Ayelen goes inside to make friends with Lorbek´s very pretty wife I help the men pick out the ten fattest sheep from the flock.  This is done by grabbing a likely, and already fleeing contender by a back leg, manouvering the animal between one´s legs and, once stable, feeling through the wool for the ribs.  S1160004 (1024x576)The men try to teach me the difference between those of one destined for the trailer of doom and one given a reprieve but the grass is sparse at this time of year and miles have to be covered for a nibble. To my mind, none have any meat on them.

The men and doomed sheep leave and Lorbeck fetches his horse.  We have to go and round up stragglers he explains, thrusting the reins into my hands and then disappearing inside.  I am a bit nervous about riding right now.  I haven´t done very much of it, the saddle looks insecure and I am as cold as the ground.  I feel as if every bone in my body will simply shatter if I come off but I don´t want him to see the pink frilly bits on my trousers so by the time he comes out in a thick coat I am mounted. As the sun sets we head straight up an adjacent hill, Lorbek at a run, but after an initial trot my steed slows to a begrudging plod and it´s clear I´m going to slow him down.  He takes over and lashing left and right with the long reins, his legs splayed out in what looks like a fertility-compromising position, bounces to the top in a few seconds.  By the time I get there he is in the middle distance: man, horse and dog working as an ancient team in this astounding place.  I feel a pang of envy and it won´t be the last of the evening.  When he returns it is with all the cattle and I help him close up for the night.  There´s one cow that´s not well and she goes under cover.  So too does a ewe with a late season lamb.  The horse and donkey get hay and the dog gets the frozen heart of whatever it was that was last slaughtered here.

Lorbeck and Samira, both 24, spend the winter here with their 2 year old son, snug in their mud home of two rooms and a hallway.  The windows are glazed with two sheets of thick plastic sheet which works surprisingly well; there´s almost no condensation despite the intense heat given off the home-made dung stove and the view into the breath-fogged sheep pen is clear.  On the whitewashed kitchen wall is a gawdy poster of a Beckham-esque style mansion and the contrast could hardly be greater.  I nod quizzically towards it and they both laugh, and as the evening progresses it becomes increasingly clear that both are wise enough to know they are better off here.  They talk animatedly of the summer decamp to pastures above 3000m where they set up their yurt by a lake.  “We have 400 sheep and goats and forty cattle.¨ Says Samira, who studied law in Bishkek for two years before returning to her childhood sweetheart.  ¨When we need to buy something we sell a few.  When we need meat we kill one. S1170002 (1024x576) We have friends around and we help one another.¨ After a supper of meat and potatoes in a spicy soup, eaten cross-legged around the low table, Samira lays out thick cotton-stuffed mats for us to sleep on and under and we drop into the sleep of the dead.  In the morning they beg us to stay longer and refuse Ayelen´s offer of some money for food and board.  We put it on the window sill.  They have a lot of livestock but it´s still a tough life and they don´t allow themselves much in the way of luxuries.

By now it´s Saturday.  After four hour´s walk uphill not a single truck has passed us and it´s becoming clear the border might be closed at the weekend and we are the only ones not to know about it.  We are  wishing we´d stayed with our gracious hosts when an old Russian army jeep grinds its way up the twisting road and stops.  Two of the three occupants fall out of the passenger side and then embrace and fumigate us in equal measure.  They are absolutely twatted.  The jeep is full of engine parts and drums of diesel with multiple leaks.  The driver is sober and looking wholly cheesed off with everything about his day so far.  He maintains a motionless silence at the wheel, staring fixedly through the cracked windscreen as we try to get ourselves and packs in without absorbing too much of the fuel swilling around the floor. Tolkonbek is repetitive when drunk and Kachyr soon turns into an aggressive drunk.  Kadyrbek the driver remains mute.  When the tarmac ends the jeep becomes airborne at times and I break my neck against the roof.  Diesel is slurping out of the drums, Tolkonbek is still repeatedly asking where we are from and Kachyr is pawing Ayelens arm and slurring at us, ¨Money, money, money!¨  But hey, a lift is a lift.

Their destination is 25kms inside a militarised buffer zone, a large wooden building surrounded by ancient snow and earth-moving machinery.  These are the men responsible for keeping the passes clear and smooth enough to avoid broken necks.  To Ayelen´s relief a woman is there and beckons us in but by her side is another man clutching another bottle of vodka and we want to press on.  The road climbs on and on though, we are at almost 3500m, it´s mid afternoon and a very chill wind threatens an ugly night, so we settle for the drunks.  S1170009 (1024x576) After more vodka, astonishingly they all move outside to try to get the only new-ish snowplough working.  Within minutes they manage to break the front grill and then decide to remove the perfectly good starter motor when the batteries are clearly flat.  Once the only decent bit of kit in their arsenal – a gift from the People of Japan, stickers all over it proclaim – has been thoroughly degraded they retire inside for a drink.  I wonder how old the rest of the machinery really is.

When a breakdown team crawls down from the pass towing a depressed looking Russian in his truck, Kachyr, the aggressive drunk hitches a lift back down the mountain and the mood inside our new lodgings lifts immediately.  When Tolkonbek falls asleep it actually becomes quite a pleasant evening and the food, as usual, is great.  I love the meat and potato variations of Kyrgyzstan.  Or maybe I´m just constantly relieved not be served a testicle in tripe.  Arslan and his wife Jamilla are grandparents looking after one of their progeny, a three year old girl who latches on to Ayelen immediately.  Jamilla initially refuses the endless Vodka shots passed her way, screwing up her face in disgust, but after a while she forgets appearances and gets stuck right in. They show us photos of themselves with children and it´s clear they´ve been in this isolated spot all their married lives.  I´d hit the bottle too.

In the morning Kadyrbek drives us and a gearbox to the final Kyrgyz checkpoint and the small hamlet of Torugart.  TS1180006 (1024x576)he latter is a row of trailer huts and two of these are operated as a sort of guesthouse by Sarabay – a solidly built man whose head is so vast he reminds me, appropriately enough, of Jabba the Hut – and his wife, whose name I fail to get the first time and whose expression of utter disinterest discourages me from ever asking again.  We walk a few hours to the frozen lake of Chatryr Kul and film mountains before returning to meat and potatoes.  Trucks have been stacking up against the border post all afternoon and two drivers join us for the meal while outside a ferocious wind sets in for the night.  It´s our last in Kyrgyzstan and apparently must be spent in an oven.  Stopping just short of physical violence I cannot deter Jabba from loading up the enormous coal burner in our tiny room.  We are forced by the heat to join the truckers in their room and watch episode after episode of a Russian mini series until the hero finally and tediously exacts his revenge and our room becomes tolerable.

S1030009 (1024x576)Early British visitors to Central Asia were often made to wait for weeks at a time before receiving permission to cross over the frontier of some Khanate or other.  Meanwhile the encumbent despot would be holed up in his fortress several days march away, pondering his options and the importance of this earnest, round-eyed individual bearing gifts and letters from a distant king.  A mere minion clearly, a vassal only; was the absence of this king in person a slur that could be ignored?  But what if this King of England was as powerful as was rumoured?  How many canon did he have?  More than five?  Perhaps this man should be honoured and a useful ally gained?  Or perhaps he should have his eyes gouged out and be thrown into the pit.  This might appease the Russians whose army was quite close now and rather large.  And the neighbouring Emir – God grant him death – how cosy was he with those Russians?  Perhaps if I procrastinate a few more months this man in his tent will just freeze to death.  And so on and so on.

It must have been somewhat frustrating and not entirely dissimilar to entering the cavernous consular hall of the Chinese Emabassy in Bishkek.  Three windows of power to decide the fortunes of only fifty or so people, but no discernable movement after an hour and no physical barriers to discourage fresh-faced newcomers from mingling freely with the already despondent.  It is all over the internet forums that you must memorise who is in front and who is behind and stand your ground.  And there is mention also of the subsequent round-robin through the frozen streets of Bishkek.  We are nobodies but letters of introduction are still required and I can promise you there is none of that edge, that thrill of excitement that my early 19th century predecessors must have felt and even relished, as they waited, pistols cocked, for either that crucial stamp of approval or the unthinkable alternative.S1060021

Awaiting the Consul´s ruling we have been holed up in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan, skiing and generally exploring.  Issyk-Kul is the world´s second largest mountain lake, after Titicaca in Peru.  It´s big, taking about 5-6hrs to drive around, extremely blue and has very big 3000-5000m mountains almost all the way around it.  The name means hot lake, which is misleading for it´s definitely not, but there is something going on because it doesn´t freeze.  A beach we camped on for a few nights froze solid almost as soon as the sun was off it and rocks and sticks splashed by waves at its edge were lumps of shining ice in the morning, but the water that stayed in the lake remained unfrozen.  It hasn´t been the perfect camping temperature.

S1030007Now, after another round of visa games in Bishkek we on the other side of another set of mountains.  A woman who sold me a pie in Bishkek told us we must see the ´relic nut forest´  of Arkit so we are on our way.  We hitched a 6hr lift yesterday with a man whose car was stuffed with smoked fish in crates.  I remarked to Ayelen that the smell reminded me of an Arbroath Smokey and then discovered that´s exactly what they were, albeit from Norway.  Caressed by the wonderful smell of the smokeys we drove for hundreds of miles through the most amazing mountain-scape.  93% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous and they are everywhere you look, stretching off to the left and right, towering walls of snow and rock rising abruptly from the valley floors with barely a foothill by way of warning.  In the winter many roads simply do not exist.  To drive to their capital the inhabitants of Talas, one of the largest towns in the country, currently have to go through Kazakhstan.  Ayelen has to have a letter of introduction to enter Kazakhstan so Talas is right out.  Arkit needs no letter but I´m not sure there´s a road to it at the moment.  We are probably not the only tourists in Kyrgyzstan right now but we´ve only met one other in the last ten days, a Japanese man, and I am very certain that nobody else is trying to get to Arkit at this time of year. Everybody thinks we are loonies.S1060044 (1024x576)

So we camp in somebodys field and are thankful it´s a bit warmer in this valley than we´ve previously experienced.  Then it rains, all night.  And now, after another day of hitch-hiking and bus we´ve made it and are in Arkit, staying with Osian, the driver who brought us the final leg.   Arkit is a sea of mud and soggy snow, thronged by cattle and wild looking youths charging one another on shaggy horses.  All around are mountains and further down the valley its like driving through Yosemite National Park in the States.  Massive, bulbous rock formations buttress the mountains above and beneath it all a meandering river with glacial green water cuts through. The usual tatty yet quaint mud and wood houses dot the valley floor amidst towering poplars and it´s not hard to imagine a spectacularly beautiful scene in the summer when all these brown slopes are grass and flowers.  There are beehives everywhere.

S1110014 (1024x576)It´s a huge contrast up here to the first twenty or so miles this morning when the road ducked and dived around a moonscape of rolling grassy hills and mounds of slag.  The two were rendered so close in colour by the dirty snow all around that it was hard to tell them apart and harder to envisage the machinery capable of such destruction.  Then we passed one, a behemoth digger, a building on tracks, stripped and rusting, it´s scoop the size of a small truck.  Coal lies very close to the surface here and is excavated by such machines and on a smaller scale by desperate men who tunnel for it.  Wherever the road builders had cut into a hillside these miners had exploited the earthmoving already done and had left regularly spaced, door-sized entranceways into the grimy dark.

In our first stop, the village of Ok Jol, there was a women in full purdah, her face completely veiled.  There´s been little sign of Islamic sharia in our wanderings so far, rarely even a headscarf in view, but a few people in Bishkek have remarked disconsolately that it is only a matter of time.  Money is pouring in from Saudi Arabia apparently, every village sports a shiny new mosque and the whispy goatee is on the march.  S1080011

The ´relic nut forest´ we were sent to discover is one of walnuts and the gnarled old trees are everywhere.  Sitting cross-legged around the evening meal in Osian and his wife, Jamila´s overheated kitchen we ate some for dessert while he had his two sons, 3 and 6 years old, demonstrate their fighting prowess.  Snow was falling heavily outside and we were glad not to be in our tent.  We should pay him whatever we felt in our hearts, Osian had pronounced upon showing us our room.  And during supper, when the lively, if manual, conversation arrived inevitably at our relative earnings we lowered ours to avoid any unrealistic expectations on his part.  Since revealing that we had no children and throwing in the usual ´Insh´allah´ (God willing) in place of the an explanation we had not the language to convey, I had sensed a look of pity in Osian´s eyes whenever he looked my way.  Now I sensed scorn.  Not only was I possibly impotent but I also earned less than he and, to cap it all, I sent my wife out to make a living as well!  Perhaps this pity for Ayelen, saddled with her non-man, went on to develop new ideas in his head, for later, as he proudly took us on a tour of his brand new house, soon to be a guest house, he furtively attempted to grope my wife´s breast.  She slapped the offending hand away and the hitherto jolly atmosphere was immediately adjusted.  Also adjusted was the figure we had had in our hearts to give him.

Our proposed campsite for the next evening, a beautiful grassy valley between bizarre sandstone spires over 20m tall that we´d spotted on the way up the valley was a washout in the morning.  Shortly another minibus taxi came along.  ¨Where are you going?¨  ¨Jalalabad.¨  ¨Whatever.¨ And in we climbed.

Bishkek main square at 4.36pm

Bishkek, immediately referred to as ´fishcake´by all those who have just come across the name for the first time, seems a city confused.  The Kyrgyz, or at least those we are staying with, are hibernating  while outside the window a squirrel with exagerrated pointy red ears who ought, surely, to be curled up with his or her nuts in the hollow of a tree is frolicking around in the snow. We´ve been here two days now and still haven´t met one of our two hosts, a 21 year old student.  She´s here, but in bed, emerging very infrequently only to flit across the hallway to the bathroom and back.  Clearly she has a good stock of nuts.  Our other host, Almaz, 42, a very affable freelance trader and bassist in a local band has now been asleep for 22 hours and counting.  Had he performed last night to a packed stadium and then enjoyed some groupies I´d understand but instead he strutted his stuff in a cafe empty except for Ayelen, me and a very young and bored waiter.  The band played a few covers – very well in fact – and a few rock numbers of their own and then gave up and we went to a pie kiosk.  There were quite a few people at the pie kiosk, stocking up for another long sleep, I suspect.?????????????

This journey being, amongst other things, our honeymoon, I might have been expected to throw economic caution to the wind on the first day and have my princess installed in Kyrgyzstan´s most fabled hotel. Luckily for the camel fund however, she controls the purse strings and instead, two days ago and upon our 3am arrival at Manas Airport, Fishcake, we were headed for our new friend Almaz, the introductions having been made on  We thought it a bit early to phone him so decided to wait a few hours first, but a gang of taxi drivers, ignored by our fellow passengers, closed in. Stocky, broad-faced individuals with the appearance of bouncers at the court of Genghis Khan, they were experts in the arts of sleep deprivation and relentless persuasion.  “Almaz you say?  He must be Kyrgyz and it is winter.  He will appreciate to be waked up!  Look, I have phone!”  And thus they duly gained control of Ayelen´s notebook of numbers. Almaz´s first number went straight to answer phone.  Almaz´s mother was the owner, it emerged later, of his second number and she took 5 calls before answering shortly after 4am.  She joined the barrage of calls to his number and eventually the drivers had their address.  Once safely ushered into the warmth of Almaz´s apartment we chatted for an hour and then all fell asleep.  Later Ayelen and I got up and tip-toed out to explore and find a battery charger my funky camera gear was still missing.  We walked for some 6 hrs, bouncing from one cyrillic street sign to another, from one non-existant shop to the next, watched by squirrels from the occasional parks. We knew we must get home before Almaz went out to play because he´d had no extra keys to give us, but when we did return at 6pm he had already left.  Unbeknownst to him his lodger, normally asleep, had then left shortly afterwards.  We were locked out.

The temperature dropped steadily as we reitred to a cafe to call Almaz repeatedly, getting only voicemail. Meanwhile he was calling us also but for some reason both our phones do not take incoming calls in Kyrgyzstan.  In fact they “do not exist”.  I cannot even call Ayelen, nor she me.  And the number we were calling was the phone he´d lent to his mother.  The hours dragged by in a series of empty bars and cafes.  We ate and drank the equivalent of a night in a decent hotel, occasionally calling his mother again.  I wasn´t dressed for the evening and froze the moment we hit the streets after midnight to actually find a hotel.  Things were looking bleak. DCIM100GOPRO

Neither of us had seen a single hotel in a full day´s walking around and it must have been around minus 10C already.  As early stages of hypothermia set in I asked two young lads if they knew of one.  They were aware only of the Hyat (3 camels per night) but had another suggestion.

And so it was that on the first night of our honeymoon we bedded down in the backroom of a Baptist church.  Thank you, Nariq, Pastor Joseph and the wonderful Duishenova family who all showed us such amazing hospitality and warmth.

Shortly after we returned to Almaz´s flat in the morning his mother, 72, presumably angry and bewildered at the number of phone calls directed towards her son at all hours of every night and at what kind of life he must be living, returned the phone he had lent her in a child´s woolly sock.

Worn out by general exertions, Almaz has gone back to bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind Way!!

With Love from Russia!!


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Aurel Stein and his men, somewhere near Lop Nor

Sir Aurel Stein and his men, somewhere near Lop Nor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Shields on the cusp of completing his first brick dome at The Serai.  He offered a helping hand and I grabbed it and promptly inserted tools.  But in truth, I knew he was a handy fellow and also that I would have him for only ten days, so I had prepared something unusual he could really get stuck into.  Not many domes are built these days using fired earth bricks and lime but it’s all there on the web if you dig enough.

I toyed with various techniques until finding some ancient sketches from India showing a man using an L-shaped stick.Dome stick  Much easier than trying to get a sand ‘form’ to stay there in our strong winds and I modified the principle by welding a 10cm length of angle iron to the end of the stick in place of the ‘L’.  This gives you the correct angle, both lengthways and sideways, at which to set each brick.  A second, identical stick allows you to get on with the next brick while the last one placed remains supported until the mortar has made its ‘grab’.  The height of the fulcrum and length of the stick determine the shape of the finished structure.  A central fulcrum will create a spherical dome; if it’s offset a Mughal style results.  Some care is needed in the calculations as only a centimetre’s difference in either stick length or fulcrum height will have a surprisingly large effect on the final form.

The wine and beer bottles ( 2 x bottom halves taped together) we thought might be a bit naff but actually they work beautifully (below) and the other main advantage of this stick technique is apparent here too: old bricks look fantastic on their own.  You just have to brush the mortar as you go.  If you were to build this on top of a sand form, once the sand was removed it’d look a right old mess on the inside and you’d have to plaster it. We finished off these ones with a steel reinforced white concrete render over the outside.  Overkill I think, but I always have a tendency to over-engineer stuff. These domes are 2m diameter; Will built the first in 3 days and the 2nd in just two.  And he’s looking rightly pleased with himself.  Thanks Will.

Dome inside

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