Even More Travels on the Silk Road-Camel Trekking in the Taklimakan Desert
Our next event in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was a trip to the Taklimakan (also spelled Taklamakan, Takla Makan) Desert to ride camels out into the desert, sleep out in a tent, and ride the camels back the next day.
The Taklimakan Desert is southeast of Kashgar, and took us 6 hours of driving to get there. It is a huge desert, China’s largest, as the Gobi, while large, is mostly not in China. As the map shows, the Taklimakan is part of the Tarim Basin, the biggest basin in the world (Wikipedia).
The Taklimakan Desert “is the world’s second largest shifting sand desert (behind the Sahara) with about 85% (of it)… made up of shifting sand dunes ranking 18th in size in a ranking of the world’s largest non-polar deserts.” (Wikipedia)
We drove to Yarkand, an oasis town (like most all of the towns in Xinjiang), which was the closest town to where we would climb on board our camels.
We ate lunch there, visited the mosque, and viewed some noteworthy tombs of famous Uygurs. The tombs are interesting in that they are not buried, but placed above ground in decorated coffins of cement.
Yarkand is a large town, with a population of close to 400,000, making it larger than Kashgar. It was an important stop for caravans on the the Silk Road.
From Yarkand, we drove to the edge of the desert to meet our camels, and camel trainers/leaders.
The camels, as you can see, are Bactrian camels, or camels with two humps. They wear a frame made of two pieces of metal “rebar,” two pieces of wood, and rope tied around the camel. These frames are not really saddles, but they give you something to hang on to, as you sit between the humps on blankets. To get on a camel, the trainer makes the camel kneel down, first, front legs, then, back legs, and then, you climb on between the humps…that is for most camels…Barbara’s camel would not kneel so she had to climb up, like onto a horse…grabbing the rebar, one foot in a loop of rope, and a bit of pushing from behind!
Camels are the “ships of the desert.” as they can survive long periods without water. We did not see our camels drinking water the whole time we were gone! Their feet are wide and they are sure-footed in sand and walking along the tops of dunes.
We (Barbara & Tom) got on our camels, along with two Israeli girls who were also on the trek, one camel to carry our “stuff,” our three camel trainers, our travel guide Abdul, and headed out into the desert.
The camel trainers led our camels by rope. Some of the camels were tied to one another. Tom’s camel was last, and complained a lot. It kept stopping and making noises. It knelt down again. Tom thought maybe he was too heavy for it. His trainer tried to get it to go on, but it refused! Finally the trainer got the camel back up and headed back to the start. There he got the camel’s baby, which looked to be an almost full-grown camel, and brought the baby along! Then Tom’s camel, hereafter called “Mama,” came along, the baby at its side.
We learned a bit about riding camels for the next hour. Some of the things we learned: when your camel goes down a sharp incline, like a dune, you, as a rider, need to lean way back to the camel’s rear, so you don’t go flying over the head of your camel! Plus, add to this, when you go down the dune, the camel picks up speed and wants to run down, adding to the excitement! Another learning about camels, is that they are always hungry! So your camel is walking along, when the camel sees something to eat, so, STOP! Time to MUNCH on sagebrush, weed, whatever looks good! YUM! Until the trainer yanks the rope, GET GOING AGAIN!
Barbara was not-the-most-willing camel-rider! At the first steep dune, she told Abdul, who was walking along by her, “I can’t do this (go down the dune)! I need to get off and walk!” He told her she would be okay, he would help steady her…which he did. As Abdul ran alongside, he said, “Barbara, OPEN your eyes!” Things went okay until the camel picked up speed, started to run, stepped on Abdul’s foot, so he fell down, and was left behind! Barbara started to slide off her frame to one side (as it must have been loose), but she made it down the incline. At the bottom, Abdul caught up again and helped her straighten back up some.
After only about an hour, (which was long enough!)we reached our campsite, or “camp-dune.” We got off our camels, and Barbara ran behind a dune to use the facilities (“This is NOT glamorous!” she said.) Our two tents were set up. The Israeli girls had been in the army, so they set their tent up, and had even brought their own sleeping bags. Abdul, with Tom’s help, set up the other tent, and thick new blankets, fresh out the bag, served as our sleeping bags.
We had a fire of sagebrush that night and sat around the campfire talking. One of the camel trainers was going on and on to another camel trainer…he must have talked for ten minutes nonstop! We asked Abdul what he was talking about, and he said the trainer was talking about his camel!
We slept overnight in the desert. It was cool, but not too cold. We had bedpads, but even on sand, Tom woke because the sand was uncomfortable on his ribs, so he had to shift positions. It was not the most restful night, even being in a romantic place like the desert under the stars (it was overcast…so no stars…but at least, not cold!).
Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” did not ring true…”I’ll be your belly dancer…and you can be my sheik!” We got up the next day…luckily sunrise was at about 9 am (as we were in the far west of China), creaky and stiff, not hungry, so we were ready to get on our camels and trek back to the home base. We packed up, got on our camels…Barbara got a different camel…one of the Israeli girls told her she would switch with her…so she got a camel that knelt down…saving her from climbing/being pushed up on the camel! We were on our way! We crossed some beautiful dunes. The camels showed their sure-footedness walking along the dune-tops.
We made it back to the starting point, got off our camels and got ready for the 6 hour ride back to Kashgar. We petted our camels goodbye. These camels were sweet and gentle.
We’ve heard that camels are sometimes unfriendly and spit at you. These camels were quite docile and well-behaved. They felt soft and “Baby’s” fur was like cotton. We later looked at rugs made with camel-fur, and the camel-fur, while not as soft as wool, was an interesting texture we will not forget soon! Barbara’s parting comment. “I found the camel trek a challenge…not one I’ll be doing again soon…like NEVER! I like the camels though!”
Coming up next: Last Travels on the Silk Road: Kashgar Markets and Uygur Food