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 it’s 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.


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  • The Silk and Song slideshow is here, and I’m going through it a slide or two at a time, with commentary, most Tuesdays here.
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