Free-range camels on the Silk Road.

I went to China in 2005 to research Silk and Song, specifically to western China or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. It’s a very large place, Xinjiang, and we would frequently be tarryhooting off in the middle of nowhere, with no facilities.

One day, I think it was outside Kuche, or maybe Kashgar, we called for a pitstop. Our driver pulled over at the side of this dry riverbed and we all got out and looked for a convenient boulder.

There is not a lot of wildlife in China, mainly I think because they’ve eaten it all. (That’s what seemed most glaring by its absence, wildlife. And small planes.)

So I’d given up expecting to encounter any wildlife. But that day, I was crouched behind a boulder on the edge of this dry river bed, trying not to pee on my pants, when movement caught the corner of my eye. I looked up, and this herd of camels strolled by.

free-range camels

As it happens, camels are pretty much responsible for central Asian trade routes developed in 8th century B.C. The wheel had been long in evidence by then, of course, but there were no roads to support wheeled vehicles. Behold the camel, specifically the Bactrian or two-humped camel. Its thick coat insulated it from extreme temperatures, it could go forever on a pint of water, and it was sure-footed on unmaintained trails in mountain and desert.

It could also haul a hell of a load. A single Bactrian camel, according to S. Frederick Starr in Lost Enlightenment, can carry up to 500 pounds. A caravan of a thousand camels, not an extraordinary size (read Mark Kurlansky’s Salt for the story about the salt caravans of 40,000 camels each that used to regularly cross northern Africa), could carry about 500,000 pounds of trade goods.

By comparison, a freight container, the rectangular metal boxes piled on ships I see daily passing by on Cook Inlet on their way to take the milk to Anchorage, can each carry 50,000 pounds.

Camels spit pretty good, too. I would back any day a Bactrian camel’s spitting distance against a bald eagle’s projectile pooping capabilities.

HoZ Silk and Song final.jpg

Which I will be signing at 2pm on December 2nd

at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Click here to pre-order.


Dana View All →

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2 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Re: Camels
    Dana, have I recommended Paul Martin’s “Twilight of the Mammoths” to you yet? — which I need to finish, maybe later today…. Amazing book, exemplary pop-science.

    Anyway, what’s pertinent here is, as you may know, we had feral camels here in the SW for some years. After Lt. Beale’s experiment with camel-freight ended during the Civil War, they were turned loose, and some survived near Camp Verde, AZ almost to the 20th century. What you may not know is, pretty close relatives to the Arabian camels lived here until the end of the ice ages, until they were (per Martin) killed and eaten by Clovis people, along with most of the other Ice Age megafauna. He thinks we should bring them back…. OK, not the mammoths! Probably not even the elephants…..

    Martin also points out the misguided burro-killing Park Service at Grand Canyon, as the burros also had even closer relatives until extirpated by those hungry Clovis guys. As were all the horses! IF you ever want to do an alt-hist of the SW (or pass it along at your writers camp) –imagine if the Incas and Aztecs had had cavalry forces to fight the small Spanish invasion. Might have changed history!

    It is surprising that no Clovis people figured out horses, before thy ate them all — as it didn’t take the Sioux, Cheyenne, etc etc any time at all to tame the wild Spanish horses they captured — which multiplied quiclkly, as they too were re-occupying a vacant eco-niche from their near-present local extirpation maybe 11,000 years earlier. So these were genuine wild animals, albeit previously selected for taming long before. But, still — they were tamed in the Old World from unselected stock….

    Looking forward to reading the new book. Hope the launch & tour go well. Are you touring Calif to promote it?

  2. Re: spitting camels, eagle poop

    In “Desert Gardens”, author Lyons relates the story of a cactus garden he planted for the Los Angeles Zoo, next to Sampson the elephant’s cage: “He never missed an opportunity to hit a moving target (and was a good shot) with chunks of flying feces… An unforgettable experience.”

    And I can’t imagine the Gobi deserts lacks Prickly pears:
    When asked about cacti, an old Mojave prospector told Lyons “I know every one of ’em. There’s the ‘Full of Stickers,’ ‘Stick and Stay In,’ ‘Stick ’em Alive,’ ‘Stick ’em Dead,’ ‘Stick and Fester,’ ‘Rattlesnake Fang’…” “I could probably add to the list,” notes Lyons.

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