Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Badain Jaran Desert (Inner Mongolia)

The morning began with an hour-long jeep ride to where the dunes begin. It was nine in the morning, but still quite dark. We drove through a massive parking lot in the middle of nowhere; a few dozen desert-blazing jeeps were preparing to go out for the day. They were each fully-equipped with roll bars and a pair of "oh-shit" straps for every seat. Our jeep dropped us off at a lone tent two hundred yards out into the sand where our guide apparently set up the night before for us and had to camp out in wait. Once he saw us pile out of the jeep, he emerged from the tent and began to load up four, massive, beautiful-looking camels with the gear we would be needing for the journey.

About a hundred yards behind the tent was a 100 foot sand dune that blocked our view of the desert, so we hiked to the top of it while the guide finished preparing the camels. The view from the other side was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was a veritable ocean of sand. As far as the eye could see there were rolling dunes with sporadic patches of small green shrubs. The shrubs are able to flourish due to what I was told was a series of underground rivers (this also makes it possible for there to exist multiple little fresh and salt water pools in random areas of the desert).

Each of us picked the camel we wanted to ride and proceeded to give them names. I thought it was only natural to give them feminine names; however, Tom named his "Lumpy." Mine was "Gertrude."

We climbed onto our camels and were on our way. Camels are supposedly more difficult to control than horses, so each of our camels had a lead rope attached to the camel in front, with our guide in the lead (on foot!).

The first hour was difficult to say the least. Our guide stuck near to the jeep path and every time a desert jeep caming roaring past, it spooked our entire fleet. Every time the camels would stick their heads in the air and sidestep nervously about 15 feet. The dunes were soft and steep and we went straight over them. Camels ae amazing creatures.

The giddy feeling initially felt upon climbing atop a camel ends quickly, however. After about forty minutes, I could no longer feel my ass or legs. Constantly shifting in between two hairy humps doesn't help either; it was impossible to get comfortable. I motioned to the guide that I would like to get off and walk (he didn't speak any English). He understood and very simply motioned for me to dismount with a wave of his hand. Dismounting from a seven foot high seat with packs tied on both sides of the animal is not the easiest thing I have done. On my first attempt, I landed hard on all fours in the sand...but, overall, walking across the sand dunes was enjoyable.

We all got off our camels and trekked across the sea of sand dunes. We all got to laughing about our guide who seemed to be inhuman. He maintained a slow, steady gait and blankly stared at the shifting horizon. His inital nickname became "Terminator."

After a few hours of walking, Tom began to question where we might be camping for the night. Every time we asked the guide, he would just nod and point straight at the horizon. The agreement with the tour agency had been for a three hour camel journey into the desert, camp for the night, and return the following morning. This was not what the guide had heard and he was committed to a full day of hiking.

After seven hours of hiking deep into the dunes of the Badain Jaran Desert, we finally reached our destination. It was five in the evening and we were all exhausted. We had about forty minutes until pitch dark. We pitched our tent and collected bushes for a fire in record time.

We spent the night beside a salt pond and underneath the stars. I think we were all asleep by nine.

The next morning our guide was up with the sun and ready for another seven hour hike. I was freshly rested, newly motivated and ready for it.

The views were breathtaking, but the journey felt like an enternity.

Yong Ha spent the entire day on the back of a camel. That is a feat which I cannot explain. Myself, I hiked the whole way with the guide, whose nickname changed from "Terminator" to "Terminator X" to "T. Rex." He was unstoppable and most impressive.

All said, the journey into the desert was well worth doing, but two whole days of hiking Chinese sand dunes spells disaster for undertrained calves and feet used to comfortable shoes. I believe I lost two kilos in those two days. And, sadly, foot massages in China do not compare, even remotely in terms of quality, to those in Thailand.

It dawned on me as we returned that we were the only ones in the entire desert on camels; everyone else took jeeps.

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