Permission To Enter A Nuclear Test Site

I took a deep breath and turned to look round at the impassive faces of the Chinese delegation. What were they thinking? Had they understood the paper? Were they asleep?

‘As you will have gathered,’ I began lamely, ‘the wild camel situation in Mongolia is extremely serious and a cause for great concern. Unfortunately, we have no knowledge of the current status of wild Bactrians across the border in China.’

I looked round the crowded conference hall and then turned again towards the three bespectacled, dark-suited Chinese who sat motionless with crossed arms three rows to my left.

‘I therefore appeal to our Chinese colleagues to allow me to visit the four areas of Xinjiang Province where the wild Bactrian camel is still thought to survive. If I can do this, then we can ascertain . . .’

The three Chinese applauded politely. At least they weren’t asleep, I thought as I sat down. But whether my coded appeal had been clearly understood I had not the slightest idea. After all, the Lop Nur area had been closed to foreigners since it became a nuclear testing area in 1950. Why should a foreign wild camel conservationist be allowed entry in 1994?

That evening, there was a knock on my hotel bedroom door and I was told by a young man who spoke good English that Professor Yuan Guoying would like to see me.

‘Come in, come in,’ a cheerful voice called out from behind the door of Room 34. The door was flung open and I was ushered into Professor Yuan Guoying’s bedroom. Sharp, bright eyes twinkled behind rimless spectacles. I shook his outstretched hand.

‘I liked your paper on the camel,’ he began. ‘Very interesting.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I have a great interest in the wild camel. Last year I saw one from the new oil road that is under construction in the Taklamakan desert. Unfortunately, it cuts right through their west to east migration routes.’

‘You’re very lucky,’ I said. ‘I haven’t seen one yet.’

‘Sit down, sit down,’ said the Professor propelling me towards his bed. He pulled out a tattered map of Xinjiang Province and spread it out on the bed beside me. Four circles had been drawn on the map. One of them encircled the Lop Nur nuclear testing area.

‘We believe the camels are here, here and. . . ‘ The Professor pointed at the four areas with a stubby finger.

‘Maybe 800, maybe 1000. I’m not sure. The last scientific research was carried out in the early nineteen-eighties.’

‘By Professors Gu and Gao.’

Professor Yuan’s face lit up. ‘You know them?’

‘I’ve seen their report,’ I replied.

‘Have you any idea how many there are?’

‘I’m glad that you’ve read it. Their findings will be useful to us on our expedition.’

‘Our expedition, Professor?’

Professor Yuan grinned boyishly. ‘I would like to invite you to come to Xinjiang next year to join a team of scientists from my Institute to research the status of the wild Bactrian camel in China. The invitation will include a visit to the Lop Nur area,’ he said. ‘It’s called the Gashun Gobi and the camels there are particularly interesting to us. It’s the only area in the world where they have no contact with domestic camels. They are genetically pure.’

‘Is it safe to go in there?’ I queried.

All nuclear tests are carried out underground these days, so don’t worry. But we must not let Beijing know that we are going to go in there.’

Let Professor Yuan Guoying have the last word on our incredible journeys into the nuclear test area. In 1997, he published a paper in Chinese on our discoveries at both Lou Lan and Tu-ying and our sightings of wild camel. The quaint English translation reads like a piece of prose from the 17th century, yet in its final three descriptive sentences, it captures poignantly the hazards of our momentous trek.

” Former archeological and survey teams have to start at the March bridge on the bank of the Konche Daria and walk 27km to the Lou Lan town from the west. We initiated a new eastern route and also walked 25 km to get to Lou Lan because it was too hard for automobile to travel. The rode (sic) is so rugged and rough, and so wriggling tortuous for walk, with no fresh water or food for camel and horse, that it is terriblly (sic) hard to make tour of Lou Lan town from the east for archaeology. In spite of much hazard and danger, we eventually achieve our goal.”