Volatile and barren, yet beautiful and alluring

From wild camels to lost cities, John Hare finds much to love in the Gobi Desert

The Great Gobi Desert is one of the most inhospitable of all places. It covers 13 million square kilometers of Central Asia and is the land furthest removed from any sea or ocean. This results in a volatile climate, fierce winds and massive sandstorms. The few inhabitants of the place say that you can experience all four seasons in one day — from freezing winter to burning summer. And, as though to complete the devastation, this is where the Chinese located their nuclear testing ground.

MYSTERIES OF THE GOBI by John Hare, foreword by Matthew Parris. London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009, 238 pp., with photos and map, £17.99 (cloth)

All of this has discouraged would-be travelers and even explorers have thought twice before venturing into these wilds.

Not, however, John Hare,who has made a number of expeditions to the Gobi and to China’s remote Xinjiang Province.

He is the first foreigner to have crossed the Gobi from north to south. He founded the Wild Camel Protection Foundation, and mapped out the Lop Nur Wild Camel National Nature Reserve in China. The wild Bactrian camel is an animal more critically endangered than even the giant panda and it is the remaining numbers of these camelids that have inspired Hare in his desert adventures.

He is a man with a mission. Here he is on the beast: “This remarkable creature has sought refuge in the harshest, most hostile and hauntingly beautiful desert in China. Like one of Marco Polo’s lost souls, the enigmatic wild Bactrian camel has led our expedition into the very depths of the wilderness, into a Martian landscape that even in this age of satellite images is, in some places, unknown and undiscovered.”

Hare sights a number of the endangered animals but also encounters many others, including varieties that naturalists call “naive” because they have until now had no contact with man and are consequently unafraid. He also meets mummies thousands of years old and explores the remains of the lost cities of the Gobi.

Among these are the ruins of Loulan, fabled and abandoned city, a metropolis struck by drought, then covered by the sands of the desert. On his latest visit, Hare discovers, at the new ethnographic museum in Urumqi, that the origins of the local people dating back to 2000 B.C., the people living at Loulan and in the surrounding area for centuries, could be of Celtic stock.

Mummies examined show brown or red hair, aquiline noses and round eyes, bearing no resemblance to a Chinese person.

This evidence refutes the contemporary nationalist declarations of the Uighur people, who claim to be the indigenous people of Xinjiang, rather than the Chinese. At the same time the discovery has prompted new study of old documents who describe a people with deep-set blue eyes, long noses and red or blond hair.

DNA might answer the mystery but “Chinese scientists have been reluctant to give up the mummies for sampling because they are sensitive about nationalist Uighur claims on Xinjiang.” Consequently, the manner in which the Loulan folk got their blue eyes remains unknown.

All of this is told to the interested reader with an enthusiasm rare in scholarly writing. Matthew Parris, in his introduction, called it “story-telling, campfire tales of memorable characters, packed with thrills and spills.”

Also he advises, “don’t read this book because you want to help save the wild Bactrian camel from extinction. Read it because it is a great book. But by the time you’ve read it there will also be kindled within you a spark of enthusiasm for John Hare’s magnificent quest in a daunting but admirable cause.”

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