24 June 2004

Camel Train: Fueling Up, Heading Out

John DeFrancis describes crossing the Gobi by camel in 1935.
Our first day on the road turned out to be fairly typical of the routine we followed in more than two months of travel by camel. After breakfast [Cameleer] Zhou took the five camels out to pasture. The rest of us busied ourselves with various chores for the rest of the morning. At noon Zhou brought the camels back from pasture. We had dinner (this was always our biggest meal of the day) and then got everything ready for loading the camels. We had previously decided what we wanted to have access to on the march, such as windbreakers in case the weather turned cold, what would be needed when we made camp, and what would not be needed for several days or even weeks. When we ended our march for the day it would be night-time, too late to search for fuel for our camp fire, so we would have to carry some with us. Martin and I took a small basket reserved for this purpose and went scouting for the only sure fuel in camel country.

The Mongols call it argol. It consists of camel droppings about the size of the briquets popular in American outdoor barbecuing. One needs only a squishy mistake or two to learn to distinguish between fresh droppings and sun-baked ones. Well-seasoned "camel briquets" burn a little more slowly, and with a little less heat, than charcoal briquets, but they serve quite well in the absence of better fuel. After filling the basket with enough argol, we hung it on one of the camels along with a few other things that needed to be readily available.

The men brought each of the loaded camels to its feet by giving a tug on the cord attached to the peg thrust through the cartilage of its nose--gently at first, not so gently if the beast tried to ignore the summons to rise. Then they tied the cord of one camel to the load of a preceding camel so that all five of them were joined together in a string.

In larger caravans a string consists of ten or a dozen camels led by a man known as the camel puller. The last camel in his string has a bell attached to its neck so that, if no longer hearing the clanging sound behind him, the camel puller would be alerted to the fact that one or more of the camels had broken loose. Zhou went to the head of the string and took hold of the cord of the lead camel, since he had been designated to have the first stint as camel puller. We were to take turns at the task of leading the camels.
SOURCE: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, by John DeFrancis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1993), pp. 82-83

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