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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.

Tragedy in the Taklamakan

Christina, John, and Kyle built a shelter to protect David from the relentless desert sun  

October 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:13 a.m. EDT (1513 GMT)

By Kyle Westgard

Three hours ago, a tragedy occurred. We're in the middle of the Taklamakan Desert, 10 hours away by camel from the nearest village. The desert is often romanticized and glorified, but we're learning the hard way that the desert is indeed a treacherous environment.

Though this desert has a reputation for its soaring temperatures, this morning we awoke to near freezing desert air. We each put on two polypropylene long-sleeve shirts, a fleece vest, two pairs of pants, a hooded parka, wool socks, boots, and stocking hats.

Asia Quest - Report: Day 10
Real 28K 80K

While we wear the latest high-tech gear, one of our four camel drivers, 76-year old Zikahl-ahoon wears simple clothes. A cylindrical, black sheep wool hat tops his head. He has a weathered brown face and a scraggly white and gray beard. He wears a wool knit sweater full of holes over white long-sleeve dress shirt colored brown by sweat and sand. His blue trousers, if cleaned and pressed, would fit well in any office setting. His feet are whitish and chapped - like the pattern of skin cells overlaid on a well-used football. When in camp, his bare feet slide comfortably into a pair of light blue canvas sneakers. Each shoe has been hand-patched six or seven times with leather patches to hold the canvas to the sole.

More on AsiaQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Week in Review
     • History Mystery
     • Mystery Sound
     • Quest Map
     • What's New

With a sharp, "Heaah!" and a jerk of the reins, he can command each of the 1100-pound (410.3-kg) beasts to kneel down in turn to prepare for loading. First, they bend at their front ankle-like joints and fall to their front "knees," then they allow their hind legs to buckle-in and fold neatly and comfortably underneath their massive bodies.

Zikahl-ahoon walked bare-footed with us almost all day, leading three camels loaded with water, food, tents, sleeping bags, a bike, and more water. A younger camel followed behind, tied to the rear of the last pack camel, so that he could be trained in the ways of the camel train- nose-to- tail, nose-to-tail, mile after mile. Listening to his voice is soothing to man and beast. He chats intermittently with Asahn-jian, our youngest camel hand. I wonder what they are talking about-the cool breeze, the shifting loads on the animals, or tales of past journeys in the desert?

Although camels look cute, as we learn in Kyle's report, they are strong animals that should be handled and approached carefully  

We stopped at about 2:00 p.m for a lunch of canned fish, crackers, peanut butter and Oreos. We continued, up over one dune after another, as the sun sunk lower in the sky. It was at about 5:30 when tragedy struck. Or shall I say kicked? David McLain, the team's photographer, got off his camel and was walking along side of us, taking pictures through the camel's legs. All of a sudden, I heard a terrible yelp and saw a puff of dust from where David had been kneeling.

We jumped off of our camels to investigate. David was at the foot of a 25-foot dune. He was limping, his face grimaced with pain.

"What happened?" Someone asked.

David straightened out. "That big nasty camel looked right at me then kicked me," He replied, in agony. I got the full force of that 1000-pound camel right behind my knee. It sent me tumbling down the hill."

We laid David down in the sand. He was sweating and breathing fast. We thought he might be slipping into shock. Christina, John and I built a shelter for him out of the tent fly to protect him from the relentless sun. Colleen had propped up his leg. David closed his eyes.

I as the team guide, needed to come up with a plan should the situation be serious. I tried to assess the situation. I spoke softly to David. Was it broken? Sprained? Did he rip a ligament? After all, these camels can carry 600-pound loads. With that kind of force, I was surprised David still had a leg.

It wasn't long before I realized that David needed to be evacuated. But how? We're 10 hours from the nearest town. And there's no way he can walk or even sit on those jolting camels. Adding to the problem is that we have limited supplies. I figure our food and water will last only two days, maybe three.

Darkness is upon us and David is sleeping. We'll act at first light.

Culture Shocked,

Kyle Westgard
CNN In-Depth Special - Visions of China

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Asia Quest
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