Tuesday, 26 January 2010

the lost camels of tartary (w. john hare)

In common with most, I suspect, I was unaware that in the depths of the Gobi desert there range the last remaining wild camels in the world, threatened by gold prospectors, hunters, and the fact the region is China's preferred nuclear testing site. Neither did I know much about the Gobi itself, one of the world's true wildernesses, a place from where explorers as often as not never come back, their bodies and souls absorbed in the vastness of shifting sands and hysterical temperature changes.

Fortunately John Hare did return, though as the book describes he cut it fine upon occasion. The book documents his four visits into the region, in search of the wild Bactarian camel. Hare doesn't seem like the type of figure likely to be intimidated by the threat of the Gobi. Neither is he the model of the rugged adventurer. Pushing old age, in his tweed jacket, he's a quintessential British eccentric, engaged on the kind of foolhardy, quixotic missions for which his survival skills, his gregariousness and his diplomatic tact make him well suited.

I haven't read many of the most popular travel writers, the Theroux's, Bryson's and so on. So I don't have much to compare Hare with as a travel writer. However, the way in which he gets under the skin of this desolate part of the world, drinking with the locals, peppering his text with anecdotes from the Wild East, and bringing the most foreign of worlds to life suggests to me that he deserves a wider readership than he probably has. In addition, he's someone who actually puts something back into the places he visits, helping to establish a reserve for the camels, eating several dog legs and drinking all kinds of concoctions to help make it happen.

At a time when reading has felt like a secondary exercise, Hare's book, opening doors to the lost cities of the Silk Road, and the realities of late twentieth century Mongolia and China, has kept my reading juices flowing. Perhaps most tellingly of all, his book has made me jealous, taking the reader as it does to the kind of lost worlds which all too often seem, in our globalised modernity, to be under just as great a threat as the Bactarian camel.

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