For me, exploration has always been about opening yourself up to new experiences.’ Benedict Allen.
The aim of the China 2005 Expedition was to expose the members to the experience of adventurous travel in the contrasting remote environments of Xinjiang province, western China , and to meet the rich variety of people who live there. To this end we intended to visit three challenging areas; the Taklamakan Desert , the Pamir Plateau and the Bogda Shan range of the Tian Shan Mountains . These three locations would necessitate the group dealing with very different environmental demands; we would experience arid desert conditions where temperatures would reach in excess of 40°C and then move in to mountains where temperatures were to fall well below freezing. We were also going to visit areas where the altitudes were to vary from below sea level in the Turpan Depression to over 4000 metres above sea level in the Tian Shan . This range of locations would also involve us in extensive overland travel within China and, especially, in Xinjiang. Such an expedition presents participants with a unique range of demands.
The expedition group consisted of 26 students, (22 from YSES and 4 from BEG), and 3 leaders. Several members of the Team were to be assessed for the Other Adventurous Projects element of the DoE Award whilst in Xinjiang and everyone would also be entered for the John Muir Award upon successful completion of their fieldwork project and the JMA logbook. We held 4 pre-expedition training weekends in the lead-up to the expedition; these being in the Peak District, The Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District national parks. The leadership team; Becky Colburn, Martin Wilkinson and I worked as a very effective team from the first training weekend in February 2005. I want to express my thanks to both of them, without their support the expedition would not have been possible.
The group, 29 of us, left the UK on 27 th July, arriving in Beijing early the following day. After meeting Li-Jun Li our National Guide, with whom I had worked before, we spent the morning site-seeing at Tiananmen Square and Tian Tan Park prior to our onward flight to Urumchi, which left in the early evening. Our first night was spent in a hotel in Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang Province . There we met our local guide Osman Mamtile. Osman, (aka Alip), who was one of the most enthusiastic guides that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with, gave us a wonderful insight into life in Xinjiang. I’m not too sure that he was totally happy about working with our group, particularly after his arrest and temporary imprisonment following an attempt to post a crossbow to the home address of one of the expeditioners!
Our second day in China saw us starting the overland journey to the first trek site. We drove to Turpan on the northern edge of the Tarim Basin , inspecting several ancient Silk Road sites on the way, for example the Thousand Buddha Caves at Bezeklik and the Jioche city ruins. The next few days saw us driving from Turpan to Korla, then across the Taklamakan Desert to Mingfeng and on to Hotan. The bus on which we travelled became our second home, providing us with transport, a place to sleep during the day and a DVD player that allowed us to watch an assortment of kung-fu movies and Britney videos.
From just outside Hotan we started our first trek; out into the Taklamakan with 20 or 30 camels. Over the next few days we experienced two sand storms and a rain storm whilst trekking across the sand dunes to the east of the Hotan River . I have camped in the same location at Imam Azim three times over the last eight years and it’s rained on two occasions, making me think that the rain clouds know when I’m in the vicinity.
I had worked with our Uyghur desert guides on two previous occasions, but was still impressed with their navigational abilities in the sand dunes, especially in the limited visibility during the sand storms. We travelled on foot and riding camels to complete a triangular course starting and finishing at Imam Azim, an Islamic shrine on the edge of the desert. The students were impressed by the enormity of the desert, none having set foot in such an environment before. Several expedition members were also deeply affected by the Halal slaughter and subsequent cooking of Britney, our sheep, again none having experienced such a direct connection with their food.
‘At night the sound of bells was heard, faint and hard to distinguish in the distance. Slowly it grew clearer, and its rhythm betrayed the measured step of camels. It came nearer, and when the first bell passed your tent its sound was loud and piercing. The others followed in due order, and finally we heard the last camel in the caravan. I listened, moved by the old familiar bells, the special melody of the caravan routes for a thousand years past.’ Sven Hadin
The desert gave us the first of several unforgettable quotes, the most bizarre being;
I love the desert, but I’m not too keen on all this sand. This ranked alongside the announcement in Beijing that; I went out last night and found a Chinatown and the question; You know this Great Wall, is it the Great Wall of China ? as possibly the least perceptive observations of the expedition!
Following the desert trek we travelled to Kashgar by road, staying at the Chini Bargh, the old British Consulate. We then drove northwest up the Chinese section of the Karakoram Highway onto the Pamir Plateau. Here we came across Tajik nomads living in the area around Kara Kul, (the Black Lake ), at an altitude of just over 3000 metres. Part of the group walked the full circuit of the lake. Others sharpened their bargaining skills with the local Tajiks, acquiring several exotic hats, dead animal skins and numerous grotesque items of jewellery at prices generally somewhat above the usual tourist prices.
‘From here I saw one of those sights which almost strike one dumb at first – a line of snowy peaks apparently suspended in mid-air.’ Francis Younghusband
We returned to Kashgar in time to visit the Sunday Bazaar before flying back to Urumchi to prepare for our trek into the Bogda Shan Range of the Tian Shan . Our delayed flight caused some problems on this stretch of the journey, but we managed to get to our departure point in time to meet our Kazak guides and horses. The logistics of organising a seven / eight day trek on horseback are complex and loading everything onto some 60 horses is time-consuming to say the least! The trekking over the next few days involved slow climbing through the foothills if the Bogda Shan, travelling through semi-desert into coniferous forest and upwards into alpine meadows and then into the high passes of the range where the horses had to negotiate loose glacial moraine and bare rocky tracks. I am still somewhat at a loss to explain the appearance of the largest, most complex birthday cake I’ve ever seen at a campsite in order to celebrate an expeditioner’s birthday on the 8 th of August and a magnum of champaign to help me celebrate my ’21 st’ birthday on the 12th!
Our slow ascent during this element of the trip took us from an altitude of 1000 metres to our highest camp at almost 3500 metres. Our tough little horses carried us over two 4000+ metre passes in order to reach the Bogda Feng base camp and then to commence our descent towards Tian Chi, ( Heaven Lake ). During this element of the expedition we experienced a ten hour thunderstorm and torrential rain, which caused the worst flooding for over 50 years in the foothills of the mountain range. Fortunately we were blissfully unaware of the disastrous nature of the floods and only suffered minor inconvenience due to the continuous rain. We also experienced snow and the coldest night of the trip.
‘There we saw ahead of us and a little lower down, in a gloomy valley, a caravan of horses and men, the horses still standing, but frozen to death, overcome probably by a blizzard.’ Lady Macartney
At this point it is worth mentioning that despite the good level of equipment brought to China by the participants, a serious threat to the party was the poor equipment carried by the Kazak horsemen. None had adequate warm, dry clothing and few brought tents or sleeping bags. Woollen suit jackets, the occasional PLA overcoat and plimsolls are just not up to the demands of living above 3000 metres in alpine mountain ranges, even for highlanders such as our guides. Such lack of preparation compromised the expedition and, more seriously, was a threat to the individual’s well-being – several Kazaks were suffering from mild hypothermia on the cold, wet morning of 13 th August. This is the second time in my last two visits to the area that a similar problem has developed.
Many students regarded this element of the expedition as the toughest and the most rewarding. I certainly felt that I had the best few days riding that I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the world and would recommend that this element of any subsequent trip be extended by several days.
‘Its not about going where no one’s gone before to leave your mark. Its about the opposite of that, about making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to whatever’s there and letting the place leave its mark on you.’ Benedict Allen
Our descent to Tian Chi was uneventful and we pitched camp at the quieter southern end of the lake planning to have three days rest and recuperation. Unfortunately this idyll was interrupted on the second day by the arrival of representatives of the local tourist administration and members of the police force who were concerned that we were still in the area following the aforementioned floods. We were fined and evicted from the area by ‘The Woman in White’ and her group of policemen. This necessitated an additional night in a Urumchi hotel, but I didn’t hear any complaints from the expeditioners! To their credit, despite our shabby treatment by the local authorities, the expeditioners made a significant monetary collection in order to make a contribution to the flood relief effort in the region.
From Urumchi we travelled by train to Xi’an . The 33 hour journey in hard sleeper class was an experience designed to give the expeditioners the opportunity of meeting Chinese people at close quarters. Some young people found the experience a very difficult one, but most had a wonderful time talking to other passengers, playing with the children and teaching the Chinese new card games!
We arrived in a rainy Xi’an late at night and were transferred to the most luxurious hotel that many of the students had ever stayed in. Whilst based in the city we visited the Terracotta Warriors, which most people found very impressive. We also visited the Wild Goose Pagoda an important Chinese Buddhist site and a local school where we were fed, entertained and given a range of presents by the students.
The final leg of our trip involved a short flight back to Beijing and more sightseeing. We, again, visited Tiananmen Square , then the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, where only two members of the group, (two leaders!), were able to complete the planned circuit of the wall in the intense humid heat. Our final act in Beijing was to buy almost every fake wristwatch in the city for potentially illegal importation into the UK .
As expedition leader my main worry throughout the trip was our group’s lack of a doctor. All three leaders completed the BEG Expedition Medicine course, but still concerns remained. Fortunately very few medical problems presented themselves during the trip. Most members had some form of stomach upset at various stages in the trip. These were treated with either ‘stoppers’ or ‘goers’, (and in one case the threat of Martin’s Magic Digit!), depending upon the nature of the problem. Several members had mild headaches as a consequence of high altitude, but nothing that gave us real cause for concern and all responded positively when we descended. A couple of individuals experienced the early signs of chest infections whilst at altitude; these were successfully treated by courses of wide spectrum antibiotics. One expedition member suffered from ‘migraine’, which was a pre-existing condition about which we had not been informed and for which he hadn’t brought any medication. We managed to obtain some western medicine at a pharmacy in Urumchi, which cleared up the problem. Another expedition member announced her allergy to horses the day after our horseback trek had started! This was treated with anti-histamine and failed to develop into anything more serious than a minor rash. The only self inflicted injury of note was as a result of an expeditioner’s inability to handle a razor sharp Uyghur knife correctly when whittling a stick, which resulted in the removal of skin from several knuckles. Betadine was liberally applied to the wounds, (probably more painful than the injury), which were then dressed. All in all, the trip was medically uneventful – thankfully!
‘A key difference between exploration and an adventure is the production of an expedition report’ Jo Sargent
An expectation of all the expeditioners was the production of an individual fieldwork project as their contribution to this report. The majority of members produced their projects, which are contained on the expedition DVD. Unfortunately, though, several people failed to deliver their projects; they are:
- Georgia Bjister
- Oliver Elias
- Natalie Holden
- Jacob Shine
- Alex Smith
As Jo Sargent goes on to say, ‘If you don’t complete and file a report, you went on a holiday, not an expedition.’
What does it take to be an explorer?
‘Physical and mental toughness determination, bloody mindedness and an adventurous spirit. It also helps to be slightly mad!’ John Hare
The expedition group were a largely enthusiastic, cooperative bunch who dealt with everything that was thrown at them with eccentric humour and patience. Many also took their post-expedition responsibilities seriously, contributing to this report and to several post-expedition presentations – they deserve medals!
In China, group dynamics were not helped by the presence of a very small number of rather selfish and immature individuals who throughout the expedition were more interested in behaving stupidly, (occasionally dangerously), and in provoking and inciting other group members. They lacked the maturity to understand their responsibilities within the expedition group. This behaviour culminated in what a less charitable expedition leader might describe as an assault on another student during the penultimate day of the expedition. Had this happened earlier in the trip, the assailant would have been placed on an early flight back to the UK . In addition other group members’ carelessness resulted in the damage to and loss of significant amounts of personal and group equipment, which could have compromised the expedition and personal comfort or safety.
On a more positive note, I would like to express my gratitude to the many people in China that helped us on our journey; they smoothed our path and made our travels throughout China both pleasurable and educational. Particular thanks go to:
- Yang Wu
- Li-Jun Li
- Osman Mamtile, (Alip)
- The several Mr Wangs
- Hassan the mountaineer
They, Becky, Martin, our drivers, our cooks, the Uyghur camel herders and a large number of Kazak horsemen made our trip unforgettable. Thank you all! I would like, also, to thank Alip for taking the trouble to package and post the two duttars for Martin and I, which I received in early November 2005.
The last word should be left to an expeditioner. This is an extract from the China 2005 expedition journal:
‘The trip has been really fantastic. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I enjoyed sleeping under the stars in the desert and riding camels. I thought that the mountains were beautiful and I loved riding the horses. It was great to experience the overnight train and I really loved Xi’an with the Terracotta Warriors. I thought that the Great Wall was brilliant and, of course, Beijing . I loved buying loads of cheap stuff and eating scorpions. The people have really been the soul of this trip, everyone has been great.’
Paul McGreavy (November 2005)
Deputy Leader’s Report
During the expedition I took lots of photographs each of which represented a brief ‘snap shot’ of the China 2005 Expedition. What follows are a selection of verbal snap shots that, I hope, will give a flavour of what the expedition was like for me.
It was 3am . in the morning and I was experiencing one of those moments when your mind goes into freefall and imagines all kinds of catastrophe. A couple of days earlier I had looked up YSES on the web in an attempt to obtain more information on the expedition that Paul had invited me take part in as Deputy Leader. When I clicked onto the site the full naivety of my position hit me – WE WERE TO BE RESPOSIBLE FOR A GROUP OF YOUNG PEOPLE!!!!!!! Paul had not thought to mention it and up to this point I thought I was taking part in an all adult expedition.
The cool of the evening had arrived and was a welcomed relief from the 50 degrees centigrade temperatures of the day. We had suggested to the expeditioners that they might like to move away from our camp in the Takla Makan Desert , find a solitary spot and experience the solitude of a desert sunset. From where I was sitting on the top of a sand dune I could see individual dots of expeditioners scattered around and was aware of a peace and quiet that I had never experienced anywhere else in the world. On returning to camp with my headlight guiding me I enjoyed sitting with small groups of expeditioners as they shared, and in some cases tried to make sense, of the desert experience. It came as a revelation to me to realise that people much younger than myself and only just at the start of their adult life were articulating the same thoughts and emotions that I myself had been experiencing. Sharing in this moment helped me to find further meaning in my own experiences and finally cemented the realisation that having the shared responsibility for 26 young people was actually enhancing the experience for me.
Being responsible for safety presented me with conflicting emotions. Coming, as I do, from an educational background that gives every indication of becoming totally paralysed by one form of legislation or another the general advice to me was that I would be unwise to even contemplate running a day out walking in the hills. I had looked at various risk assessments (I even saw one for ‘pond dipping’!) and Paul and I had talked to the staff at the Whitehall Centre in Derbyshire. But the fact still remained, How do you write a risk assessment for four weeks in some of the most remote parts of the world?
Well, between us we finally managed it and I have to say that I enjoyed a smug sense of self satisfaction in the realisation that we had considered every eventuality.
- What to do when a group of expeditioners arrive back at the hotel on the back of a donkey cart, having enjoyed an evening of karaoke with a Chinese transvestite and now were suffering from the effects of a little too much local beer?
- What to do when it is time to leave, the bus is waiting and one of the expeditioners has just disappeared over the horizon on a camel?
- What to do when half the group desperately need the toilet and we are being preventing from accessing them by several Chinese soldiers who speak no English?
- What are the health and safety (and mental health!) considerations for eating a freshly prepared meal that has been walking alongside of you on a rope for the last two days?
- The total impossibility of preparing a risk assessment for travelling overnight on a Chinese train without having first experienced it. And, finally
- Chinese toilets!
On emerging from the desert we were tired, very hot and had just learned that instead of the expected night in a hotel with hot showers we had to camp in an olive grove and then face a ten hour coach journey smelling of camel! Several of the expeditioners were understandably disappointed by this and a group of them asked if they could try to find a shop to buy sweets and soft drinks. They returned about two hours later uncharacteristically quiet. After walking for about twenty minutes they had chanced upon a small Uighr settlement of people who were clearly living hand to mouth. They had indicated by sign language that they were looking for a shop and the lady they spoke to had invited them in, sat them down at the family table and shared out their evening meal with them. The expeditioners had offered money which was politely but firmly refused and they left to return to the camp. For most of the group this was their first experience of Moslem hospitality and one that offers a very different view of the religion to the Islamic fundamentalism that is most frequently on offer in the western media. It caused them to re examine their thinking and questions assumptions and beliefs that may have developed in the past with challenge. We had many similar experiences to this but I have selected this one to illustrate the potential benefit of foreign travel as a means of sharing and understanding other cultures in order to develop a more balanced and tolerant view of the world and it events.
I have returned from this expedition with many special memories (and several sets of Terracotta Warriors!) and it has not been possible for me to pick out a ‘best moment’. However, the satisfaction of taking a group of young adults and watching them change over the past year has been one of great satisfaction, as has the trust and friendship I developed with Paul and Becky. I do not believe that any of us returned from China untouched and, for many of our expeditioners , the experience was potentially life changing.
Martin Wilkinson (December 2005)