Charles Blackmore: The Worst Desert on Earth

August 3, 2017

I’ve read quite a few accounts of travelling through and around the Taklamakan (the name apparently means you can go in, but you won’t come out) desert, most notably by Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming, who skirted it in the 1930s as they escaped war-torn China, and Sven Hedin, who explored parts of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It seems to vie with the notorious ‘Empty Quarter‘ of Saudi Arabia for the title of the most inhospitable and empty area of the planet, and is perhaps the more inaccessible because it lies on the edge of a very sensitive area of the People’s Republic of China: an area inhabited by Uighurs who seek autonomy, and the Lop Nor desert where the Chinese test their nuclear weapons…

So, no-one had attempted to walk through the middle of this desert before, until Charles Blackmore, and army major, got the idea and contrived to set up a joint Anglo-Chinese expedition to do it. It was another of those semi-bonkers ‘because it was there’ ideas that get people doing insane things. Blackmore and his team enjoy considerable advantages as privileged army and ex-Army folk with contacts with moneyed people in the City; nonetheless the setting up and finding sponsorship for the expedition was not that straightforward. It was certainly useful having people with army logistics experience.

The expedition – which took place in the mid-1990s – was successful, and this is Blackmore’s account of it. On the ground, in the worst desert on earth, privilege, money and experience count for almost nothing, and it was a very gruelling exploit, touch and go due to illness, lack of water and friction between the British and Chinese. From what felt – from his account – like a typically old-fashioned British gung-ho approach to preparation and organisation, almost as if it were a spot of Munro-bagging, we move to serious slow trekking through extremely difficult terrain without any real maps: in spite of modern technology, almost nothing is known or recorded about a huge area, the edges of which were explored by men like Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin a century previously.

There was a decent map in the book, which enabled me to work with my collection of maps and atlases to follow the journey in more detail. What I never really got a true feel for was the visual aspect of the terrain; description isn’t one of Blackmore’s strongpoints, and he’s much more interested in the interactions between people and the psychological effects of the task and the place on the expedition members (not that these aspects aren’t interesting). Apart from the vastness of the terrain, the endless dunes and the sand, that was about it, apart from the one moment when they came across ruins of a settlement some seventeen hundred years old which had been mentioned by one of the previous explorers: then I got the sense of how the desert heat and dryness can preserve remains for vast lengths of time…

It was worth a read, and clearly was an astonishing achievement, although in the end the book wasn’t quite the account I had been looking forwards to.


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