Journeys Without a Map

Projects and Expeditions… Any Which Way

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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This dude has some beetle carapaces danging from his beard.

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

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And the mechanics of this 4cm long beetle.

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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



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


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


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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Bishkek main square at 4.36pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dome inside

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