AsiaQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For
five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will take a journey of
discovery, following Marco Polo's footsteps along China's Silk Road. Follow
along here for daily reports on the Quest.
Sailing the Desert Seas
With the help of 15 camels hauling a thousand pounds (454 kg) of equipment, the AsiaQuest team sets off into the Taklamakan
October 14, 1999
Web posted at: 12:25 p.m. EDT (1625 GMT)
By Christina Allen
Like a sailor perched in the bow of a rowboat, I scanned the seas. Thirty-foot waves stretched into the horizon. My eyes burned, my throat was parched and I had absolutely no sense of direction, neither where we were going nor how to get back. Still, I felt inspired!
After long months of planning, looking at maps, reading books, and talking to experts, we're finally here, riding camelback through the famous Taklamakan Desert. The name translates literally as "You go in and you never come back." But from where I sit atop this 1000 pound (454 kg) beast, rocking back and forth in the warm sun, it looks gentle and welcoming. It looks like waves of icing on a huge golden cake. There isn't much vegetation here, that's for sure. As we lurch to the camel rhythm past dune after dune, only an occasional tiny green shrub or clump of dune grass breaks up the otherwise uniformly tan and cleanly rippled horizon.
Asia Quest - Report: Day 9
Our guide, Ali, who speaks poor English, is hard to understand. Because of a mistake last night, we're not sure if we have enough water. He was counting in liters, which we struggled to translate into gallons. In the end, we threw up our hands and went with our own estimate. But what do we know? We certainly won't be bathing for the next four days.
Our trek into the desert started out under a clear, blue sky at high noon. The temperature was a comfortable 75¡ F (24¡ C). A half-hour into our journey, a relentless sun threatened us with sunburn and overexposure. We wear huge scarves to protect our heads and faces, but still our eyes are red and irritated and our lips and noses are chapped. Everywhere I look, I see sand dunes, dunes as high as office buildings.
Dunes are formed in areas where there is a lot of sand, enough wind to move the sand grains and very little vegetation. To get their start, objects of some kind, like rocks, small shrubs, fence posts, even ant hills start blocking sand grains blowing in the wind. The direction and speed of wind, in addition to the amount, type and grain size of the sand, determines the shape and size of dunes. The wind moves individual grains up the dune until they reach the crest and cascade down the steep leeward side or "slip face," piling up at the base and slowly encroaching on new territory, like the many hundreds of towns that have been engulfed by the Taklamakan.
Planning this adventure into the Taklamakan took months of organizing and researching. In this photo the team meets to discuss last-minute details over tea.
But this region hasn't always been this dry. It used to sustain elaborate cities, complex farming systems and wild animals like wolves and wild boars. It's been getting drier here for the past few thousand years. Since the end of the Ice Age, glaciers in the mountains have been shrinking and the glacier-fed towns and cities below receive less and less water. Many ancient cities dried up completely and were buried in the desert sands, waiting to be discovered someday as ruins, just like the one we hope to see tomorrow!
The people who remain in this region have adapted remarkably in order to survive. Ingenious irrigation systems that channel water from mountain streams past fields throughout town make it possible to farm everything from rice and corn to plums, apples and grapes. What a surprise to see rice paddies in the desert! In fact, humans have been almost too clever; in some places, with the help of irrigation, barren desert has been turned into cattle pasture! Grazing livestock, cutting trees for fuel wood, and trampling fragile desert plants is contributing to the expansion of deserts all over the world, known as "desertification". In China alone, deserts are expanding by 2,570 square miles (4136 square km) each year.
It's now almost midnight. The faint crescent moon illuminating our tents was just replaced by clouds and the clap of thunder, yikes! Rain would be a disaster we didn't expect. Hope our tents don't become boats in the night. More desert adventure coming up!
Your Desert Sailor,
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