Monday, September 6, 2010

Days 7-8: Taklamakan Desert - An Ocean of Sand

The Taklamakan Desert was about 30 minutes from Yarkand. We'd be staying overnight with our guide, two camels and a camel handler. I had hyped this part of the trip up since Layla and I decided to come to Xinjiang. I'd never been in, or even near, a desert before, let alone go on a desert trek on camelback.

The desert is one of the largest shifting sand dune deserts in the world. Trekking from east to west takes about 92 days. But a night and a day in the desert was more than enough for me.

But from the get go, our trip turned to dust in the wind. When we arrived at the edge of the desert, we were greeted by a large group of camels, and an equally large group of German tourists. Soon enough, the camels were all "rented" and we had to wait while our guide went to a neighboring village to get two more camels. An hour later, our guide returned.

When the camels arrived, I thought we'd be good to go, but the one camel decided to be stubborn, so we had to wait while the camel handlers got it under control. An hour later, our camels were saddled up and we were ready to go.

My camel was still upset about something (maybe he had been sleeping and awoken from a dream by our guide) and didn't want to obey the handler, but I was just glad to be heading off into the desert as the sun started to go down. That lasted for about five minutes, because after that all I wanted to do was get off the camel -- the inside of my legs had started to hurt as the camel bobbed up and down crossing the sand dunes.

Even that didn't last long -- the sun was going down so we needed to make camp, just 30 minutes into our journey. And at that point, we had only traveled about a quarter mile since camels travel a bit slower than I'd imagined and our pair needed to stop every three feet to munch on something lying around on the ground. The village and farms we'd left being at the camel camp could still be heard in the background.

The next big disappointment was the sand dunes themselves -- they were covered in shrubs. A few bottles and trash was even lying around. I had pictured our 2-day trek as being like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, but alas, it was more like riding a camel at a carnival, with a bit more sand. Our guide explained that if you wanted to see the real sand dunes, you needed to trek three days out into the desert, then three days back.

So there we were, within smelling distance of a farm and in range of a few visible lights from the main camp. The camp fire we were promised we was too small to cook anything with, so dinner consisted of bread and a few granola bars.

To top it all off, at night it rained three times.

The next morning, having slept on the desert floor and not wanting to spend another minute around the sand, we called it early and headed back to the camp. Our camels had wandered off in the night, so our guide and handler had to go find them. And my legs still hurt from the day before, so I wasn't looking forward to getting back on my S.O.B. camel, who was still angry about something. At one point the guide and handler couldn't get the camels to move and started yelling and hitting them with sticks while we were still on them. Eventually, my camel spit up whatever it was chewing all over Layla. And I'm also pretty sure Layla's camel farted, on numerous occasions, in my general direction.

At last we reached the main camp, after taking the long way back, and headed back to Kashgar.

Ultimately, the trek was a total bust. But I was glad to have been done it, because when was I ever going to have this opportunity again. Maybe next time, I'll walk alongside the camels, or take that weeklong trip to the real part of the desert. I'll check the weather ahead of time too, although, in my defense, I had thought we'd be out a bit further in the desert where i didn't rain.

EAGER TRAVELER: Camel riding is overrated -- camels smell, they're slow and they're very touchy animals

ATTA BOY: Layla's camel was slightly more well behaved than mine, although he had to stop every three seconds to eat or go to the bathroom

DESERT SUNSET: We were lucky that an overcast blocked out the sun for most of our trek. Temperatures in the desert, even our part, sometimes reach 110 degrees we were told

DESERT HEROES: Two bickering camels, three rain showers and a thunderstorm later, we had survived our desert "adventure"

CHILLING: Sitting on the hardwood swinging chair was only a bit more comfortable than sleeping on sand. But the view was stunning

DESERT HOME: Somehow, our tent managed to stay in place during the rains the night before. But in the morning, the camels had run away, leaving us stranded for an hour

SITTING ON THE SAND DUNES: There's something about the desert that's just inspiring. Maybe it's the unscathed landscape or the rolling hills of sand concealing hidden treasures from the past. It was just fun to look out and see nothing in the distance but sand, sand, sand

DESERT BEAUTY: Layla sits on top of a sand dune. On wrong step and you could tumble down a hill of sand and rock -- which would have been a lot of fun compared to putting up with those damn camels

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