Here was the plan. Pitch tent somewhere in the Taklamakan desert. Grill some meat and a potato or two. Have some wine. Lay back and see the countless stars that a desert sky provides you with. Wouldn’t that be the life?
Life, as it turns out, is more than you dream of. Even when the dream seems like your nightmare. We pitch tent alright. And even though it’s around 8PM, the sun hasn’t set. So we just walk out, to the dunes, taking photos, playing the fool, as you can see in the photo below where Birdy plays dead and Jorg has this pain-stricken agonized expression of one who is starving, thirsting for life in the desert.
Jorg runs further away, and for a while Birdy and I snap a few pictures. It’s then that I notice that the sky, which was clear blue, has darkened. Or rather, I can’t see the sky anymore.
A wind has picked up. I look at the distant horizon, and it appears blurred. The sun seems to have gone down, which is odd as we know sunset is much later. “I think there is a sandstorm brewing,” I tell Birdy. “Oh relax for once!” she says irritatedly. I shrug. Relax, I will. In a moment though, there is no time to relax at all. Screaming with the wind of ages, the Taklamakan is rising. We can’t stand anymore as dust flies into our eyes, our cameras, into every pore of my skin. “Jorg! Where’s Jorg?” I shout over the howling wind. “I don’t know, he will come, ” Birdy panted as we tried to run back to the tent. Running over shifting sands is not easy, as I realized. We reach the place where we pitched our tents. Only one is standing. The other one has blown away, but we find it soon enough, turned over in a pathetic surrender to the force of the wind. By now, it’s well impossible to see anything. Jorg comes running up and together we pitch the tent upright again. By this time, the first tent also keels over. Birdy and I get inside the tent, as that was the only way to ensure that this too wouldn’t be blown away. I keep my camera inside and run over to help Jorg. Each time I speak I am tasting sand. Our food hamper was lying outside, and we heave it back inside, trying to anchor the tent as much as possible. The wind is getting stronger and stronger – I have seen monsoon gusts – but this was unlike anything I have ever seen.
Eventually, we scramble back to the tent Birdy was in. We sit inside, stunned, but laughing at our shattered dreams. It takes two hours before the wind subsides enough. It’s now 11PM. Shouldn’t we eat? Of course, we must! We paid a lot for this, might as well eat! Despite our best efforts though, the other tent is submerged in sand. We step inside, trying to spread some of the rugs over the sand. Doesn’t matter. When I can feel sand constantly trickling down my neck and back, what matter if I sit on it? The hamper though, miraculously, is fine. We had kept most of the food instead the little fridge, and we squeal in delight at the things that John had packed for us. Loads of biscuits. A lot of bread. Fruits. Wine. Orange juice. Cans of Coke. Packed dinner. It’s a feast for 6 people at least, let alone 3-sand-soaked desert pilgrims. Problem. We try to find the plates and spoons. It lies buried outside in the sand. Umm. Well, we use a bottle of water to cleanse it and eat a fulfilling dinner, while the wind still hums outside. It’s well past midnight when we finish. Jorg is a little drunk on the beer and wine. And then, just as we were about to pack up, it starts again. In just seconds, the gentle wind has turn into a furious God. We try to peer outside – and it’s well nigh impossible as all I get is a shower of sand on my face. Worse, it starts raining sand on our head as the flap of the tent was not anchored well enough. “We cannot sleep like this!” Birdy exclaims, half panicking. “Let’s call the driver,” I suggest. The driver is apparently sleeping a little outside near a village. I try to call but I don’t get a connection. I run outside, thinking about the other tent. I take a few steps in the darkness, flashing my light. I didn’t know what darkness was till I reached the eerie womb of the desert. I peer into the distance, trying to make my way to where I thought the tent was. It’s not there. In the distance I can see the shapes of the one tent, and a few other things lying like ghosts awaiting the dead. But our tent…is no more. It’s flown away. Eventually, at 1AM, we call John, waking him up from sleep. He is cool as always. “John,” Jorg shouts. “Could you ask the driver to help us? There is a sandstorm, we have lost the other tent.” “No problem,” says Cool John. “I will send the driver.” Just before the second sandstorm hit, I had taken most of our valuables from the other tent. Things like the camera, and our bags. Don’t ask me why – it wasn’t premonition. The bags always come where we go as it has all the money and passport. And the camera was just to see the pictures. The only things that were in that other tent were sleeping bags, mats, Jorg’s fleece jacket and my own corduroy jacket that Birdy was wearing. We mourn a little over the loss – but there are isn’t time enough to mourn – the wind has reached a crescendo, and we were sitting there exposed to it.
A savior comes along. As they always do. The driver reaches, laughing at our plight. We laugh too. There is nothing much else to do when things go bad but laugh. Stepping outside into the desert, I can’t even breathe. We drag the tent with us as the driver suggests that a place near some trees would be better to wait out the storm. So much for sand dunes in the desert! So much for star gazing! We walk, each holding one end of the tent, the sand gasping from under our feet. It was an agonizing walk. There was this one instant when I let go of the tent, the others went along, and since I didn’t have a flashlight, I was immediately pitched into darkness. “Stop!” I shrieked, my voice hoarse with the grit. Immediately, a light flashed, and life was alright again. We reach a spot where some tough trees were still standing, and the driver helped pitch the tent again. The food hamper is still lying out, and Jorg is concerned about the beer that was left behind. :-). “I think we will find it tomorrow,” I say with an optimism I don’t feel. The tent for two must now sleep 3. It’s still sandy – and I lie down in the middle, Jorg on one side and Birdy on other. There aren’t enough sleeping bags, and I just make do with a mat. I rest my head against my bag, and try to sleep. Only for a little while because then it starts to rain. I wake up to the sound of little pitter patter, and I poke Birdy who is also awake. “I know,” she says, years of friendship means you don’t really have to say your thoughts. “It’s crazy. We are in the desert, and it’s raining!” I laugh. Jorg also wakes up, and we lie there together – bonded by sand, listening to the rain, which is starting to make the ground underneath me wet, and by implication, my clothes too, and we laugh. It’s been a crazy evening, but then it’s the Taklamakan. Mocking our plans. And somehow, as I lie there, I feel that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. This one evening brought us closer – and gave us an adventure to remember for a lifetime. Something that a gentle evening of wine and star-gazing just wouldn’t give.
In the morning, we wake up to a glorious sunrise.
We set out to find the other tent that had blown away. We walk miles, each in a different direction, before giving up. The skies have clouded over again, and we realize that we need to start packing before it starts to rain again. The driver arrives too, and starts to unpack the tent. We walk a little more in one last hope that we can find the tent. We give up then. The tent could have flown in any direction. It could be 100s of miles away by now. And just when you give up, life mocks you again. We hear a scream of delight from a wandering Jorg, and we rush over. And there. There is the tent!
I run over hug him, and we look inside – all our things are there. Intact. And the tent is not 100s of miles away. We had looked everywhere in the morning except the point closest to where the tent was. Look closest to you before you venture out was what the Taklamakan taught us. We didn’t care about the lesson just now. Just whoops of delight and a sandy breakfast with coffee. Umm. Life was perfect. Uh oh. Now is it starting to rain? Sigh.