Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

Posts from the ‘Journey without a map’ category

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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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.

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 www.couchsurfing.com, 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.