Yet how do you organize a first expedition? Where
do you start? With long term logistics such as equipment, permits etc… mostly
organised, the past month has been primarily a time of lists upon lists of
immediate items needed such as food, animals, tack and labour.
And most important of all was time. Time to check
the route, time to film in Kashgar and time to ensure everything is bought and
working before departure. Time has always been a luxury in my final days before
crossing Pakistan and India, and it wasn’t
going to limit me again.
Was choosing a camel driver going to be a simple
case of line the candidates up and choose one? I’d have like to think so as I
arrived at Karakul Lake with Maria on the 13th June, unprepared for touristic
sensibilities and collapsing camerawomen.
Karakul Lake is a tourist hotspot in the centre of
the Pamir Mountains at an ethereal 3500m above sea level and around 400kms from
Kashgar. Tourists from across China and overseas flock here to pray for a clear
blue sky and a picture with the might of Muztagh Ata above them and the crystal
blue waters of the lake behind.
The lake is also near to Muztagh Ata base camp and
home to the once nomadic Kyrgyz population. During the summer high season big
expensive expeditions gather in the Pamirs to attempt the Muztagh Ata and Kongur
Shan peaks. The local Kyrgyz provide the expertise and their camels give the
And yet tourist dollars bring a tourist way of mind
and this is unfortunately how many Kyrgyz think. China is the sort of place
where the sponge of bureaucracy soaks up much of the profits from big
expeditions and little money trickles down to the local populations around
With the bus loads of tourists arriving daily,
Kyrgyz see tourists as a valuable opportunity to make money which I don’t decry.
It’s the attachment of money to every little offer of help, small service or
otherwise that I don’t like. The greedy local rubbing his index finger and thumb
together at me and saying "how much" in whatever language.
Many things justify an expense, yet the kindness of
the human heart should not. There are of course exceptions, which I’ll come to
later, yet very few things in Karakul come for free and the offer of payment is
Choosing a Camel Driver
The basic offer tabled was a journey together from
Taxkorgan to Dunhuang, about halfway to Beijing and approximately 2500kms
distant. Included was a salary, food, insurance and all the equipment they would
Camels were and are alien creatures to me at
present and camel trains need camel drivers. Their safety and my own at the
start of this journey is imperative and a good camel driver’s expertise is
imperative over the first four months of the ride to Dunhuang.
I had arranged to meet two local Kyrgyz camel
drivers through a contact of Kashgar Mountaineering Adventures at the lake. Both
of these dollar hardened vets wanted more than double the local price and I even
had to hire the yurt we were meeting in!
Still, all clouds have a silver lining, and mine
emerged through Zaire and his family. As negotiations quickly collapsed, a young
man in a Kyrgyz cap and jeans came forward to offer his services along the road
to Dunhuang. Although this was not meant to be, my friendship to him, his yurt
and family was and began a series of repeat visits to Karakul that proved
exceptions do exist and that help can often come from the most surprising
A New Horse
Buying a horse is always exciting and though not
Peshawar, Kashgar’s Sunday market was an engaging place to be. After scouting
the local equine scene the week before I knew what to expect on my second visit
on June 17th.
Kashgar’s Sunday market is a huge Central Asian
affair playing host to a mix of nationalities and minorities from across the
region. Thousands of people gather to barter, buy, borrow and gossip over a huge
range of goods that spill into the streets and remind you that China is
somewhere far away.
About ten years ago the animal section of the
market was moved from central Kashgar to the outskirts to create more room for
people and establish some order to chaos (and in the process removing much of
its charm). But the animal market is still an old piece of the Silk Road even if
locked behind four walls. Mayhem and bargains rolled into one. Weathered faces,
bubbling cauldrons and thousands of bleating, baying, complaining, sheep, goats,
cows and equines being paraded and fought over.
Horses are located at the very top of the market
away from the bedlam. It’s usual in this region for a middle man to negotiate
the sale between the buyer and seller. In this case I was accompanied by Semet
Sadik, an old Asian horse hand and quite different to the veterinarians who
helped me in Pakistan and India.
As in Pakistan, it’s not about how well
disciplined or behaved your horse is, it’s about how fast it can gallop and how
strong it looks. Physical strength towers over mental ability. The most crazy
horse in the land may also be the most highly valued and one of the first one’s
I tried almost killed me.
"Bullet" was all crimped mane and fancy tail and
the most expensive horse on the lot. Yet almost as soon as I boarded the phantom
brained brute, he bolted, stringing me along somewhere after his tail and
leaving me plastered against the far brick wall.
It was only a bruised ego I suffered and after him
there was only three other horses worth considering. There were around 25 horses
gathered and Semet Sadik had already been over them with a keen eye. He told me
he could tell the age and type of horse from his eyes and of the three only one
showed any promise.
Not only did the final horse look strong, he was
the only one who allowed me to walk and trot him around the upper paddock. To
me, he had more brains than the other three combined and after some protracted
negotiations Semet helped seal the deal at around £230 which fit my budget
As a finale, we sealed the deal with a touch of the
seller’s hand to the ground to show solidarity and finality in the earth and we
soon had the horse on a truck to Karakul. With the buying of the horse there was
no turning back and stabling the horse in Karakul would help acclimatise the
animal to high altitude and get him accustomed to the camels - whom horses
Why do I Care, I’m a Camel
The horse arrived several hours before we did at
the white washed walls of Zaire’s brother’s yurt in Karakul. Night time is cold
at 3500m and with the words "and you can stay with us for free", we didn’t
linger very long outside after the stallion was unloaded and put out to graze
Zaire’s brother Manas lived by the lake with his
wife Ayesha and their three year old son Mustaffa. They made a living selling
bric-a-brac items from Kashgar to tourists at the lake. Like most Kyrgyz
dentistry was an unaffordable luxury and Manas?toothless grin was one of the
highlights of my stays there.
Both Manas and Ayesha lived in a one of the newer
concrete yurts abundant by the lake. Many Kyrgyz today live in village house in
the winter and a summer yurt like this one in the summer. Traditional camel hide
yurts are still more popular but the concrete ones are inherently more
We arrived back in Karakul to visit a ‘Monday camel
market’ follow-up to Kashgar’s animal market the day before, yet what we
perceived was something far different.
It was simply a fact that every day camels and
their owners gather by the lake to give rides to tourists and not an ancient
camel market as I’d been led to believe. Nevertheless, it was nice to believe so
to some extent. To me camels are one of the most alien creatures on Earth, their
cries of protest reflecting another world far away and a direct reminder of the
alien lifestyle I’m about to embark on.
Make no mistake that this final section of the
journey is a completely different story to India
or Pakistan. Experience from these latter
two countries will only get me so far and finishing this journey in one piece
and accomplishing everything else is the challenge now.
What had begun as a beautiful morning quickly
turned into a day of intermittent squalls and gusts. Between 30 and 40 camels
were huddled by the lake giving reluctant rides to occasional Chinese tourists.
Most were in various stages of molting with huge clumps of fur hanging off to
create some rather amusing new hair styles.
I needed two camels to carry the expedition’s
luggage for the next four months to Dunhuang (where I can exchange or buy more).
A medium camel can carry around 100kgs of equipment, food and water per day
without hassle over a long distance. On offer were various sizes, the only
problem was choosing one.
As far as camels go, I know little and though Zaire
was present, he was mainly a yes-man and only occasionally offered an opinion.
However, this was a good place to choose one. Many camels had straight humps,
broad chests and strong legs from a life of rich grazing and carting tourists
several hundred metres up and down the lake.
Sealing the Deal
By lining the beasts up next to the lake it was
possible to see which was bigger (although as soon as one was lined up, another
was being towed away for another tourist to ride!). Riding them showed their
temperament and good old gut instinct settled my mind on the first one. The
owner was brought forward and the deal struck.
The second camel was harder to find. Many of the
camels were being taken home early due to the wintry gusts blasting us all
morning and only small and furless ones seemed to be left. Although I was
assured otherwise, I didn’t feel comfortable taking a completely molted camel
into the icy cold of the Kunlun Shan.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a shaggy monster loomed
over the crowd. This brute could carry a small truck and was perfect for the
journey. The owner on the other hand was unwilling to sell. Yet patience is a
buyer’s reward and a seller’s frustration and his price came down to a more
Zaire agreed to keep both camels and the horse with
Manas and we were soon on the road back to Kashgar to buy food, sort out
finalities and decide on a camel driver for the next four