Backs of Bactrians: Camel Trek from Zhongwei, Ningxia into Inner Mongolia

Lao Zi, the old and wise one of the bunch

I stayed up way too late the night before leaving for the trek after falling into a rabbit hole of camel facts and history online. I knew the beasts were a strange breed, but I had no idea to what extent. With some newly acquired knowledge of the legendary camel I packed up at around 2am and went to sleep with high expectations of the upcoming 5 days in the desert.

China’s development is endlessly enveloping. Even in the far off sand dunes, where human activity seems to be unnatural and momentary, the Chinese are going to town with construction crews. The project is a large national agenda to attempt to stall the invasive sands of the northwest that creep closer and closer to Beijing each year. The anti-desertification model in this area is to plant large plots of trees in the dunes.  However strange the projects that one may run into in the rural landscape, the very existence of development attempts is bewildering and impressive.

Camel Fact Highlights:

There are two main divisions of camels the one humped Dromedary or Arabian and the two humped Bactrian Camel.

Arabian camels are domesticated, but there are still about 1,000 wild Bactrian camels living in and around the Gobi Desert.

Camels are believed to have been domesticated around 5,000 years ago.

Australia has a population of over 1 million feral camels. The camels are being eradicated by the government, usually being shot from helicopters. This is due to the destruction caused by the camel herds as they search for food and water, breaking down fences, sheds, and even uprooting toilets. The camels are causing problems in aboriginal regions, which adds some sensitivity to the situation.

Camel meat is growing in popularity, especially in the west due to its lack of cholesterol and low fat content.

Camel heels and hump are considered delicacies.

Camel milk and urine are used in the Middle East for their medicinal properties.

Camel racing is a very popular competition and in the past the jockeys were mostly children. The poor treatment of child jockeys led to movements against the use of child jockeys, and today most camels are raced with the use of small remote controlled robotic jockeys that are human like appearance.

Turkey is in to camel wrestling.

Camels are the only animal to hold the honor of replacing the wheel.

Superior Steeds

Camels are the only mammal with oval red blood cells, allowing for quality flow of the blood even during dehydration. The blood cells can also expand very quickly as a camel can drink up 100-150 liters at a time.

Camels handle extreme temperature changes that would kill most other creatures,  from cold desert nights to scorching hot days. A camel can handle heat of 41C or 106F before breaking a sweat.

Nostrils retain and trap water vapor due to their shape, and can be closed during extreme conditions.

Camel fur reflects sunlight while insulating them from heat radiating off of the ground. Camels’ long legs keep them a fair distance from the sand, another adaptation to protect them from radiating heat. Camels have large flat, heavily padded feet, which is also heat resistant and keeps them from sinking in the sand.

Long eyelashes, an additional eyelid, ear hair, and nostril design protect against sand storms.

Camels have an unusually heavy chain of antibodies that is believed to give them an exceptionally resilient immune system.

Our group seemed startled to discover that the arid desert actually receives some vicious rain storms. Our timing was impeccable, after our first day of wonderful sunshine, attempting to hide our skin from the relentless rays that attacked from both above and below through the sand’s radiation, we ended up dealing with some down pours.

The camel trekking outfit that we were using was obviously not accustomed to the extended trip in the dunes that we were looking for, and I don’t think many Chinese tourists choose to stay out in the elements overnight, especially if the tail end of the monsoon season was threatening. The gear that we were packing was obviously inadequate, the tents intended for fair weather days at best. The tent company was called Mobi Garden, a real tribute to the quality of domestic products over here. The running joke became, “Buy stock in Mobi Garden”.

The constant griping over the Mobi Gardens was mostly due to the tents absolute inability to perform any of the expected goals. Most zippers failed, and the rain fly only went about a fifth of the way down the tent body. The rains moved in suddenly and you could feel the pressure fall out, the added bonus of the rains was that they were usually accompanied by high winds that sent sprays of sand bellowing off of the dune tops, several stories high. The Mobi Gardens allowed for not only rain, but also sand to enter the tiny sagging shelter. I awoke with the tent door slapping me in the face, the wind had separated the zipper, leaving the door gaping open at around 3 am. Everything inside was caked with moist sand, and half of the tent floor was holding a small pool of sandy water. Others had actually sewn themselves inside their tent, using shoe laces to conduct a haphazard suchering of the door. Curses of rainy deserts could be heard from the tents starting at around 5 am, when going back to sleep did not seem like a viable option in the cursed little shanty shacks that appeared more like the floor of a beach area public shower, then a legitimate sleeping space.

We survived a couple days of sand storms and down pours, getting to the point where everything was coated with sand, the insides of ears, pockets, bags, and most importantly the crunchy grind that accompanied every bite of food. Sand is still being discovered and removed from various travel items a month later. The desert was abrasive, but the camels were omnipresent beasts, whom I would choose over a good stallion any day. To Camels.