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Taklamakan: the tale of skiing on the sand

"Skiing from the top of the sand dunes is an unforgettable experience and a real adventure."

I have long had a desire to travel the famous Silk Road whose southern branch goes along the Karakorum Mountains where the highest peak is K2, otherwise, the second-highest in the world, where I was in 1993. I was most inspired by the story according to which our famous predecessor Marco Polo also traveled along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert on his way to China and Mongolia. So for the purpose of filming the Deserts of the World series, I went to the westernmost Chinese province of Xinjiang. I was accompanied by HRT cameraman Joško Bojić, producer Miro Mioč, friend Branko Šreparović and my late son Joško Božić. As this desert is surrounded by mountain ranges, the idea came to me, when I was already there, to try to climb one of the peaks there. So the choice fell on top of Muztagh Ata. 

We first flew from Budapest to Beijing, from where we returned by plane for almost 5 hours to the very west of China in Kashgar. The whole town was full of electric scooters. Kashgar is full of restaurants where it’s hard to find a vacancy.

The next day in Kashgar we bought some more food that we were missing and at about 1 pm we headed towards the Kunjerab saddle, a 4934-meter high mountain pass that separates China from Pakistan. After a 3 hour drive, we arrive by car at Lake Karakul near which is the village of Subashi from where towards Muztagh Ati you can walk alone. Our driver Wahad soon made arrangements with the local people for transporting expedition equipment on camels. Although it would have been better for acclimatization if we had spent the night in the village, we still decided to go immediately to the base camp, which is only a 4-hour walk away.

We soon followed a real caravan of a dozen Bactrian two-humped camels on their way to a 4,500-foot-high base camp at the foot of the mountain. There are already 5 expeditions in the base, which are mostly near the end of their stay on the mountain. Our host Akbar Qurbann greets us there and says that two days ago a Swiss man disappeared in descent from the top for a rather bizarre reason. The Swiss, following the direction in his GPS, skied straight from the top and, apparently, fell into the abyss.

In the meantime, snow fell and whitewashed the grassy hills around our tents. The terrain to the first camp was simple so the next day we hired a donkey and his guide who carried the equipment to Camp 1 at an altitude of 5,200 meters for which we paid approximately $ 3 per kilogram. Of course, we climbed to that height that day and pitched a tent.

After a few days, we cooked a little more and slowly left the tent, preparing to climb the idyllic snow-covered slopes below which 3000 meters below stretched a desert plateau adorned by the emerald lake Karakul. We climbed on skis on the sliding surface of which artificial fur was glued. The hairs on that fur allowed the skis to slide forward but when loaded in the opposite direction they get stuck and thus provide support for the next step. The skis made it easier for us to cross the suspicious glacial cracks. Everyone carries at least 20 kilograms on their backs which is why we climbed for more than 5 hours. When we arrived at the place for camp 2 at an altitude of 6,200 meters, we again, according to the well-coordinated procedure, set up a tent, filled it with the brought equipment and food, and headed back to the valley, towards the base camp. The next time, after two days of rest, we climbed again to camp 2 where we slept. A day later in Camp 3 at an altitude of 7000 meters, the weather broke down overnight so we had to give up the summit. There was no more time for another attempt as another task awaited us, crossing the Taklamakan Desert whose area is approximately 270,000 km which is like New Zealand.

Taklamakan desert, which is more than 1500 kilometers long and 500 kilometers wide, we began to cross a few kilometers before the ancient city of Niya from where it leads about 522 kilometers long "Desert Road" to the river Tarim in the north. Driving through Taklamakan, one of the most notorious, desolations in the world, seemed easy. The "Desert Road" ran in a straight line between the countless sand dunes that the breeze played with. 

I kept getting the idea to try skiing from one of the fifty-meter-high dunes. I have skis for the occasion because we skied with Muztagh Ate a few days earlier. As I walk towards a sandy peak, I discover that with the help of skis you can very easily move on the desert sand. Skiing from the top of the sand dunes is an unforgettable experience and a real adventure. But it is still very different from the real meandering through the snow. The skis go much slower on the sand and it seems that they do not slide but the sand under them moves downhill. Basically, everything looks like "slow-motion" with a significant load on the tails of the skis. When the top of the ski falls a little into the sand, it is difficult to save it from falling, but falls are not dangerous because the speeds are low. Despite a few falls, I was still looking forward to each descent.






Story by: Stipe Božić, professional mountaineer and Himalayan climber

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