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Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2002

Tourists take on Takla Makan aboard thirsty ships of desert


By KENZO MORIGUCHI
Staff writer

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo Pref. -- To enter the Takla Makan Desert in China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region may mean to never return.

At least, that is what the name of one of the world's largest deserts is said to mean in the Uighur language.

But in reality, the desert is not unescapable, and a group of 20 Japanese, mostly from the Kansai region, will depart this week on a 400-km tour to cross it with 80 camels.

The tour is unprecedented in terms of the number of beasts in tow as well as the course the group plans to take, said tour organizer Masatsugu Narita, 51, of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

In October 2000, Narita organized a 4,300-km rally, Silkroad International Rallying, in the Takla Makan Desert, involving 20 teams -- 16 cars and four motorcycles. To prepare for this event, he visited the area 11 times in the decade prior to the rally and drove more than 55,000 km in and around the desert.

Narita had hoped to hold a second rally last year, but it never worked out. Then a friend who had long wanted to ride in the desert asked him to organize the camel tour.

Narita, who gives refresher driving lessons, said the participants of the upcoming tour range from a 15-year-old high school student to a 76-year-old Hokkaido man, and include three women. The group will fly from Kansai International Airport on Thursday to Urumqi, the region's capital, via Beijing, then drive through Korla and Luntai before turning south via one of the region's few paved roads.

At the midpoint of the road, at latitude 40 degrees, 20 minutes north, the participants will embark on the desert crossing on camels, heading east to the settlement of Argan. No one has ever traveled this route and the number of camels to be used is unprecedented for crossing the Takla Makan, Narita claimed.

"To cross the desert, you need three camels per person, and in addition to the 20 of us, we will hire three Chinese translators," Narita said, noting the group will also be taking spare animals.

Narita said the tour would be very different from his previous visits, because the caravan cannot carry water for the camels due to the length of the course and the lack of other camels to bring water supplies along the way.

"The most difficult thing in organizing this tour was to secure enough camels, and because we'll be carrying 30-days' worth of supplies for people, we cannot carry water for the camels," he said. "We'll have to dig for their water every two to three days, and if we can't find water underground, we will head north to the Talim River."

A camel can go without water for four to five days, but needs about 20 liters of water for that period. "If we go north from our planned course, we can definitely reach the Talim River within a few days," he said.

Although night temperatures in the desert drop to minus 15 this time of year, the daytime temperature climbs to around 10 and sandstorms are less likely, making the trip less torturous than in other seasons, Narita said.

"As long as we travel 20 km a day, we should reach our goal in 20 days or so without much difficulty. And thanks to the global positioning system, we can't get lost," he said, adding that in an emergency, a satellite phone can summon help from Urumqi.

Carelessness by the travelers, rather, is a key concern, he said. "If they do not tie their bags firmly to the camels and some of the bags fall, the animals might jump in surprise. It's OK if the people are thrown off and land a bit of a distance from the animal, but if they fall at its feet, they could be stomped on."

Many in the group look forward to seeing camels walking in line in the desert. Narita said, "Walking through the desert is totally different from driving though it by car. Riding on a camel, you can climb a sand dune and watch the desert as much as you like.

"The desert's beauty, however, could also put you in trouble if, for example, you happen to wander for a bit under the moonlight and the wind blows away your footprints so you have no idea where you are."

Narita added that a desert tour tests one's mental strength. "Even if you have physical strength, you may become tired of the monotonous passage of time and the harsh climate. A desert tour will make you reflect on who you really are."



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