Life At The Edge of The Badain Jaran 巴丹吉林沙漠 Desert – A Travelogue To China (Part I)
December 30, 2007
(Live Location Report)
Somewhere in the west edge of the Badain Jaran some 2 days ride from Dunhuang – we pulled up on a small farming village. It’s not much - a few thatched roof mud huts – a few goats – a few old men. It’s being a long ride and our local guide who was supposed to see us through this leg of the expedition hightailed off because he claims to be sick – we left him in Dunhuang sneaking out of the hotel without paying the bill, so that’s fair – should have known better than to trust computer geeks who moonlight as tour guides one regular meets in the internet, but none of us are complaining. We have been on the saddle for nearly 9 hours straight. There are more pressing issues at hand, one the radiators on our bikes is leaking coolant and the manifold on the other is making strange growling noises.
This is desert country, we don’t take these things lightly. It’s no joke to be stranded in the middle in the middle of the desert.
The trail is bone dry this time of year, hot in the day and so cold at nights that even the coolant freezes up – added to that the winds billowing from the North West is relentless, it whips up everything in it’s path making it impossible to travel in single file – instead we have to ride off road abreast, that just plays havoc on man and machine, our nerves are all on edge, our machines have seen better days. We’re exhausted – all of us pretty much stopped talking yesterday and we are still not talking much today – ridding rough across sand dunes was something that we didn’t count on being so sapping. It demands every ounce of concentration, one misjudgment at 110 kmh and you’re as good as done for.
I don’t even know where we are. The maps we are relying on is outdated by 20 years (I’ve explain later while we are using old maps) and the folks around here speak a strange hoarse like dialect that none of us can understand – we try putong waoh – it’s no use. The farmer, who claims to be a certain Mr Chou Weishian, yet frequently calls himself Henei or Wen on several occasions wears a faded olive green army uniform, hiding half bodied across the door way he might be hiding a AK 47 or a cast iron skillet, we look abit like aliens in our skin tight leathers and helmets – it takes him a while to figure out the tripods we are carrying slung across our backs aren’t semi automatics. We’ve here on an experimental project sponsored by the Mercantile Guilds to test out a scaled version of a solar cooker a few of us have invented. It’s called a heliostat cooker, a parabolic dish concentrates the suns rays like a death beam to heat up a pot of water or cook something. They tell me if connected in series, it can even drive a decent sized turbine and generate enough electricity to power a whole city. I don’t really believe them. Another dumb idea if you asked me. So dumb that even the guide who was supposed to shepherd us here said, “if it’s such a clever idea we (the Chinese) would have already invented it a long time ago – didn’t you dumb Singaporeans realize we invented paper and gun powder?”
Life in these parts sucks big time, from the looks of it the sand dunes are slugging it out with the arable land. The former seems to be winning hands down.
Desertification is a major problem in Western and Northen China. According to farmer, brigand or smuggler Chou (he claims to be a farmer) who has been farming here for the last fifteen generations, the desert used to be somewhere over the crest of hills in the far distance – peering towards a sliver of dark ochre he claims the land once held it’s ground there against the encroaching sands during his grand pa’s time – we take a quick compass reading and tack off the position with Theodolite and check it off against our dodgy map. It’s a fiddly soviet find one of cheapest that we could afford with our meager funds, everything is pretty much busted up except the distance finder – that’s all we really need for this project. Finally after 10 minutes, we get the approximation – 21.6 miles SW. We took a whole lot of similar reading through out our journey from Duo hang and guess what?
There’s a big deficit between what the map shows and what we are seeing. That’s why we are using an old map to trace out the before and after image. It’s starting to piece up very nicely, the desert seems to be swallowing up everything around it like a whirlpool – what happened? Is it a natural phenomenon? Or was it man made?
One clue lies in the history of China itself in the tumultuous period just before the cultural revolution when millions of cadres flooded into the countryside in an effort to barrel China into the industrial age. The commissars set up communes to produce everything from pig iron to uranium. Result: they cut down every single tree to fuel their furnaces. Fast forward today: The Chinese government is facing an ecological disaster of it’s own making. Gone are the natural wind barriers offered by trees. Gone also are the natural retaining walls of shrubs that used to draw a line in the sand. Now nothing stands in her way, the fast-growing desert makes up more than a quarter of China’s land mass. There’s a renewed urgency to combat desertification and drought, and step up a drive to halt the ochre menace. The danger is greatest in these parts in Northern China which is battling its worst drought in a decade.
The lack of renewable resources is the No.1 reason accounting for desertification. It’s such a big problem the government has even installed communal methane gas facilities that use animal dung and human waste to produce energy so the people no longer need to chop down trees. This is the reason why we on this expedition, to show case our new solar invention and hopefully go one stage towards redressing the need to use precious natural resources. We need to test it first and gather empirical data for our home team to research on further – our mission is critical.
To hold back the desert, the Forestry department has planted shrubs, they look like the hardy variety. According to the locals, the roots go deep and hold the ground firm – Mr Chou tells us that his donkeys like to munch on them when it gets really hot – the government has since warned the farmers not to allow their livestock to stray into these anti-desertification measures. It doesn’t seem to be working – we see a few goats munching on them indolently. From where we stand the dunes look menacing. Peering at us through leather worn faces, a group of elders brew tea with a dash of aniseed oil, we trade cigarettes for petrol, they’re getting a better deal judging from the poor quality of the fuel but we don’t have a choice – our tanks are nearly dry. I consult one of boys and there’s a possibility we may have to abandon one of the bikes here and proceed on only 3 remaining vehicles, the leak on the radiator needs a spot of welding and the nearest village is a good 3 days ride from here – I decide to put off the decision and turn my mind inwards sitting around a camp fire, listening to the old men as they take turns to look at 1:15 scaled parabolic dish holding it up towards the setting sun. “This looks like something we could use in the kitchen” Says one, the others burst out laughing, their tobacco stain teeth mirroring the splendor of the coopery sun – they spit so do we. Everybody learns to spit in china, even the donkeys spit and those who don’t just choke and die on the sand. Miss Manners will die in China.
In these parts the farmers grow mainly cotton and condiments – it’s not the high grade variety because there isn’t enough water to irrigate the land properly – the government has built a pipe line, but the farmers lament that the pump station breaks down all the time. Long before that according to one of the elders pointing to a rusty Soviet anti aircraft gun some distance from the moat during Mao era. The farmers were trained to fire off silver iodide rounds skywards to facilitate condensation in moisture-laden clouds. In the beginning, the idea worked like a charm to ease the drought. It was so successful that it was even used to control sandstorms and avert famines. These days as one of the elders lamented “the kids use it as a play ground.” Some looks up at the steely cloudless lapis sky to punctuate the statement, he spits and we all do the same.
I look around, the women folk are looking at us through thatched screens. A few of them are giggling. One of the elders nudges me, “I think she likes you?” Another adds in, “Who, the donkey or the goat?” Another round of rapturous laughter breaks out followed by another spitting fest. As night approaches, we slip the old some money and trade him a 12 volt motorcycle battery – I tell him, it’s foreign, it will last forever, he looks at it suspiciously and throws it to another elder, who nods agreeably – that’s sorted out.
I am reminded even in this remote outpost at the edge of the Badain Jaran desert capitalism has scissored it’s way cutting across values and cultures, people in China these days only get off their butt for one thing – money. It highlights the constant struggle against trying to eek out a living in an environment of acute scarcity – here in these parts the encroaching desert is the nemesis. During the days of Kublai Khan and army fully armored even marched against an ochre sandstorm historians document as the “Rah-Mat-there” – this is what life is like for most farmers in situated at the Northen provinces. It’s a hard land and inhospitable land where live hangs perpetually in the balance – it wasn’t always like this, 2 days ride from where we are about 300 kilometers straight across the delta that over the lip of a salt lake used to be one watering holes along China’s famed ancient silk road. We passed it three days ago and although the sand dunes had engulfed the once prosperous trading outpost, there was plenty of evidence to suggest a lake even once existed there.
These days, only old men and slivers of land is all that stands against the path of the menacing desert.
I better save some batteries on my Nokia Communicator. I may need it tomorrow, just in case. Just in case.
(Nacramanga / Memphisto / Atomic Monkey / Keith Ho – travelogue – The Brotherhood Press 2007 – This Post Has Been Brought To You Live By Aurora your trusted Interspacing Logistics Teamster – Your Trusted Com-Sat Provider)
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