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.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Journey to Badain Jaran Desert

Our mission was simple: ride a camel across a China desert (Badain Jaran). "This desert is home to the tallest stationary dunes on Earth. Some of the dunes reach a height of 500 meters (1,600 ft.)" (Wikipedia).

We booked a "soft-sleeper" for four on the 29-hour train from Cheng Du to Yinchuan, departing at 10 p.m. Once on the train, we had a beer, spoke excitedly about what unpredictable experiences awaited us, and went to sleep.

The train ride, for being the longest train ride I had ever encountered, went more smoothly than I anticipated (not counting having to use a squat toilet on a constantly rocking train). The first many hours we slept. After waking, we had breakfast, played more cards (Gunther was "shithead" for a long time on this trip), had a few beers, and interacted with an overly-energetic Chinese girl who kept running up and down the aisle of our car. She couldn't have been more than 10 years old and it was later discovered, by Thomas, that her parents were feeding her watered-down beer. Although this came as quite a shock to the lot of us, it went quickly ignored and Thomas mysteriously disappeared from the cabin.

Thirty minutes later, Thomas returned saying that he had ventured a few cars down and found a group of university choir students that were eager to practice their English. So, we packed up (beer and cards) and went to socialize with the locals.

They were a merry bunch: constantly singing songs (with the natural performers' usual and unequaled hunger for attention), flirting with us, and giving an endless supply of high fives and compliments. I was quite impressed that they sang in so many languages. Some of the men knew Italian arias. About six of them got all of the way through "Arirang" (a traditional Korean song). Although their education was fascinating to me, the high-level of energy proved too much for me to endure on the narrow and constricting train. I said good-bye as politely as possible and returned to my sleeper for an afternoon nap. Shortly after I left, Gunther was beaten in an arm-wrestling match with one of the seemingly pre-pubescent young choir boys. This was a source for much taunting throughout the duration of our travels together and I promised to include the fact here.

After another night of sleep, the train reached Yinchuan at four in the morning.

Upon arrival in Yinchuan, we had arrived at a decision as to which hotel we wanted to stay at (based on the options given in the Lonely Planet). It was not difficult to get a taxi at the station.


However, I must regress here for a moment to lament some truths about the current taxi driving situation in China. First of all, a Chinese taxi driver will have no problem picking you up and driving you even if he has no idea where you are going. Secondly, taxi drivers often are not familiar with the towns in which they are driving (and presumably living!). Thirdly, they expect payment based on their time, not on whether or not they get you to your requested destination. On more than one occasion, I sat in a taxi for up to five-ten minutes before realizing that the driver had no clue where he was or where he was going. Drivers would often stop to ask other drivers where certain locations were to be found. More than once, a driver would stop the car and get out to go and talk to men and women standing on street corners. There were even instances when I had a local map, in Chinese!, and was able to point where I wanted to go....confusion was still victorious. And, sometimes, after any of number of minutes of driving, the driver would sometimes give up, drop you off on a corner where YOU had no idea where you were and still have the gumption to demand payment. Such moments were always welcome to vent some pent-up traveler steam.

This was the experience on that very early morning upon entering Yinchuan. Three taxis, four hotels (all mysteriously booked in a town that looked empty), and well over forty minutes of sitting on the sidewalk (while a slew of drivers confusedly ranted at one another) later, we finally found a driver who seemed to take a little pride in his work. We got a room and crashed hard.

Yinchuan was about as happening a city as we were to see for many a moon. It had a fairly-good-size outdoor mall, tree-lined streets, and even a visiting American, semi-pro basketball team traveling through town. They were treated like celebrities; their height was impressive, especially in Yinchuan. Every Chinese person on the street stopped them to take a picture on their cell phones (I witnessed this for a good thirty minutes).

The town of our final destination for camel-trekking is called Alashan Youqi. For the better part of the afternoon, we spent an eternity traveling from bus station to train station, back to bus station and then back to train station and then propositioning taxi drivers and private cars, in an attempt to get to where we wanted to go. Thomas was convinced we could hire a private car for 200 yuan. Anything higher than that, in his guesstimation, was highway robbery (this was later discovered to be a major error on our part, Alashan Youqi being over 700 km away). So, we continued to hustle the shit out of the locals. The haggling that ensued, in retrospect, is insanely comical. They must have thought us to be mildly, if not completely, mentally impaired.

At one point, we had a female driver who piled all of us and our bags into her car and started down the road. After she got out, twice, to ask others where this place was that we wanted to go, she nicely told us that it wasn't possible (by a negatively-inspired flailing of her hands).

Our hopes of getting to Alashan Youqi that evening were shattered. We decided to stay another night in Yinchuan. The next day we would take a bus to Alashan Douqi (not Alashan Youqi), from there it would be another night stay because the next bus from Douqi to Youqi only leaves at 7 a.m. The journey from Douqi to Youqi is 500 km (a fact unbeknownst to us at the time, as previously stated).

In Alashan Douqi, NOTHING DOES EXIST. Sartre would have loved it. The streets were barren. The tallest building in sight was two stories. A layer of dust covered everything as though movement was scarce. The few people sitting on the sidewalk (all smiling with missing teeth) looked as if they'd been sitting there for years.

We ate a massive plate of mutton (Gunther pictured above in his normal/primal state) and spicy noodle soup with dumplings. The food was amazing, but we were all very excited to leave Alashan Douqi as quickly as possible.

The bus the next morning was brutal. It was over-packed and sweaty sweaty hot. Sweaty sweaty highway travel in China is very similar to sweaty sweaty highway travel in the Western United States, actually.

Just as it seemed that we would never arrive (10-hour, cramped bus journey later), the bus pulled into Alashan Youqi. Everyone rejoice!!!!! The bus station was a closed building with eight people standing outside. In every direction, sand as far as the eye could see.

As soon as we stepped from the bus, a girl handed me a flyer for a desert jeep tour and Tom set to work. Through an impressive, and lengthy, performance, Tom was able to communicate that we wanted a camel tour instead of a jeep tour. That was the easy part, then, as always, came the issue of price. This is where Tom really likes to shine; the man should have been born in a Turkish silk bazaar. Every time he gets a chance to haggle, he gets as giddy as a boy with a toy. By the time he was finished, he had a crowd around him (some cheering/some jeering).

Anyway, we found a room and booked our camel trip for the following day. It was agreed that we would take an hour car ride out to the desert, from there we would have a three-hour camel ride to a campsite, stay the night, and return the following day in the same manner as we arrived.

This promised to be a lot of fun.