The Camel’s Way
Why did camels go into the desert? The desert is unrelenting. It drains the life out of the living. Camels evolved to live in the most abandoned areas on earth, because they wanted to be in peace. They had no weapons. They had no desire to fight. They kept going away and away, into a place where no predators could attack them, and that was the desert. On the way, they adapted their bodies to the environment. No other large mammals can survive in the desert like they can. So it worked, they found peace at last. No lions to bother them in the desert.
Then we humans came along, the animals that wanted to conquer all of the Earth. Learning that we cannot survive by ourselves in the hot and dry lands, we decided to tame these desert creatures, in order to expand our frontiers. And we did. We formed communities and roamed the desert in search for water and pasture for our tamed beasts, who provided us with nourishment, transportation, and shelter. But maybe the camels were the ones that chose us as their companions, to fulfill their wish that we would learn their way–how to find peace in the deserted lands.
Wadi Rum, Jordan, Arabian Desert 1
In August 2011, I saw camels for the first time in Jordan. On the way to the city of Amman from the Airport, I marveled at the sight of these large creatures slowly walking on the side of the road. Camels always reminded me of the Chinese classic, Camel Xiangzi, about a Rickshaw puller in pre-communist China suffering poor labor conditions. The main character’s nickname is Camel, because camels also work and work without a word, even until they drop dead. Looking at the benign faces of these animals almost brought tears to my eyes for some reasons I still cannot explain.
Jordan is also the place where I saw camels’ natural habitat for the first time–the desert. Given the opportunity at that time during a one-day trip, I made an experimental attempt to shoot with a camel. It was during midday, and the sand was so scorching hot that I had to stand next to the camel in his shadow to cool my feet. The photo that was captured during this action became a seed that sparked The Camel’s Way.
Sahel, Mali, Sahara
The first trip I made on my own to seek out camels and desert culture was to Mali of West Africa, in January 2012. In the Sahel region of northern Mali, in and around the fabled city of Timbuktu, camels are still used as one of the main means of transportation, especially by those who still live in the traditional nomadic way. The main desert tribe called Tuareg is also known as the “Blue Men of the Sahara,” due to their traditional turban’s indigo dye that turns their skin literally blue. They dressed me in blue, and explained to me that the color of their costume symbolizes the sky and water, the prospect for life in the desert.
Covered from head to toe for security reasons, I traveled on a perpetually smiling white camel one night, with two Tuareg men leading the way, slept under the stars at a family camp, and set out to the rolling dunes the next day. During this trip I came to a realization that the desert itself was a reflection of my whole being, that even the shifting dunes were as alive as my own flesh.
Bayanzag, Mongolia, Gobi 1
Unlike the Sahara, the Gobi desert consists mainly of vast gravel plains and rocky outcrops. During the colder months, the lack of vegetation often renders the landscape seemingly lunar. And the temperatures are extreme, ranging from below minus thirty degree Celcius in winter to plus forty degree Celcius in summer. The Bactrian camels, which are the two-humped camels native to this region, are remarkably adapted to the extreme temperatures as well as the hard rocky ground, contrary to their one-humped cousins, dromedaries, found in Arabian and African deserts. Bactrians also have the ability to consume snow in small amounts if there is no water available. Like all camels, they can go without water for weeks.
Following these extraordinary creatures on such landscape, I felt like an alien in an otherworldly terrain trying to appeal to its inhabitants.
Bayanzag, Mongolia, Gobi 2
Roughly one third of Mongolian population still maintains the traditional nomadic pastoralism. In the Gobi region, camels are very important for the nomad families, as they offer highly nutritional milk, fur for tent materials and clothes, transportation, and dried excrement as efficient fuel for fire.
In the Bayanzag region of Gobi, known for the discovery of dinosaur eggs, I came across a middle-aged woman living in a ger with her teenage son. She would milk her she-camels with dexterity even in extreme weather conditions. The secret was her powerful voice–she would sing to her camels while handling them.
Camels are known to respond to human music. A 1909 New York Times article titled “Effects of Music Upon Animals of the Zoo” humorously notes that the camels of the Bronx Zoo apparently appreciated the music, poking their noses into the gramophone's horn, while the snakes were apathetic and the wolves were frightened.
Khongoryn Els, Mongolia, Gobi 1
In a remote area between rocky hills lie some of the highest sand dunes in Mongolia. Khongoryn Els is also known as the Singing Sands, for the eerie sounds that the sand particles create when the wind blows them over the surface of the dunes.
My memories of Mongolia are rich in sounds. The hum of the biting wind, the moaning of the tied-up camel calves, the calling of their mothers like foghorn in the sea, the comical sneezing of the goats, the daily drunken singing of the old nomad who had just lost his wife, and the night bird’s cry, the cry that made me shudder with fear one long pitch-black night when I was left alone in the ger, situated under rocky hills. Listening to the strange screams, I imagined wolves in the mountains, and wondered whether they would come down that night to look for dinner, especially when I had to go out and squat bare-bottomed in the freezing cold.
But in secret, I wished to see them someday. The majestic mountain creatures who once roamed freely in the desert. Now they live in fear of the guns of the wealthy who kill for sport.
Khongoryn Els, Mongolia, Gobi 2
Mongolia is one of the least populated countries on earth. The Singing Sands area is vast and seemingly empty, although it is occupied by some nomads and their cattle. My visit in April 2012 was a peculiar one–a local driver who could not speak a word of English, never mind Korean, drove me to this area, and simply dropped me off at the home of a nomad in his fifties, living alone at the time of my arrival. I found out about a week later that the nomad’s name was Byamba. He turned out to be a very kind man.
One day I explained to Byamba as best as I could that I would like a white camel if possible, one of the sand-colored camels that are quite rare. He replied that there was only one out of a hundred, and seemed to show doubts. The next morning I found him riding his auburn Bactrian bull guiding a white camel and her white baby.
The grazing animals are left to roam free, but somehow the owners can always identify them from afar. These roaming cattle must be better off oblivious, I thought, of the giant feedlots and industrial slaughterhouses, monstrous human inventions for their kind.
Khongoryn Els, Mongolia, Gobi 3
Bactrian camels are believed to be the more ancient of the two camel species. Recent studies lean towards the idea that the two million domesticated Bactrian camels and the thirteen million dromedaries are both descendants of the wild Bactrian camels, which still do exist in the Gobi desert, in a critically endangered condition: only less than one thousand individuals remain.
The camels have a long, mysterious history of evolution. The known ancestors of camels and other camelids lived in North America until 5 million years ago, and in the process of migration over the Berling land bridge to Asia then Africa, they evolved to the two camel species as we know today.
The scientists speculate that the camels’ remarkable physical adaptation to environments with extremely low precipitation, over the course of their long migration, is due to their lack of self-defense mechanisms. I wondered whether they simply preferred the peace in the desert, because in reality, they are powerful animals that can kick and bite, although they rarely do.
Wadi Rum, Jordan, Arabian Desert 2
Known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is an impressive museum of red sandstone and granite formations, which have diverse visual characteristics. During my three-week stay in the summer of 2012, I began to identify them like people with different personalities–tall and dignified, sharp and aggressive, round and gentle, small and humorous, square and austere, winding and capricious, and so forth.
The view from the top of a rock can conjure up images of a bay with many islands, the sand being flat like the sea. And in that sea, one can see ships in a row slowly moving at a constant speed. From distance, camels seem to be gliding across. This is not only because they walk at a slow pace, but also because they move front and back legs on the same side of their body at each step, unlike horses. Camels also keep their head level, like a tightrope walker, or a monk in walking meditation.
Wadi Rum, Jordan, Arabian Desert 3
Dromedaries were first domesticated in the Arabian peninsula, sometime in the Bronze Age. Then roughly about three thousand years ago, the camels became popular as pack animals in the region. They are frequently mentioned in ancient texts, such as the Bible and the Qur’an. It is generally agreed that the Arabian cultures that originate from nomadic traditions would not exist as they do now if it weren’t for the domestication of camels. The value of physiological traits of these animals became surely understood, as no other pack animals come close in terms of strength and durability for long desert journeys. Today they are not only still used for transport, but also prized for their beauty. The word for camel in Arabic shares the same root with the word for beauty, although an American may see a horse as beautiful but a camel as farcical or even ugly.
The Bedouins of Wadi Rum keep camels mainly for tourism, racing, milk, and meat. I asked for one of the safari camels for a shoot. The chosen area was mistakenly a busy area for tourists, so I shot briefly inside a rock cavity and quickly left before being seen. Only later on, I found that the photo fortuitously contained what looked like Thamudic or Nabataean petroglyphs of the dromedary.
Black Desert, Egypt, Sahara
In the Western Desert of Egypt, lies an ancient settlement called Bahariya Oasis, known for the recent discovery of a large Greco-Roman necropolis. Surrounding this oasis are barren pyramidal hills covered in black volcanic rocks, remains from the lava that flowed many tens of millions of years ago.
In my mind, the Black Desert had merely been a place one must pass through when traveling between the White Desert and Bahariya. I was driving by those black hills one evening, after having spent a considerable amount of time and energy with the local bedouins in a fruitless search for a white camel to shoot in the White Desert. Minutes after sunset, when the full moon rose above the distinguished black summits, misty blues and pinks spread over the sky. This scenery was so mystic and captivating, like the landscapes of Mi Fu (Song Dynasty), that I shouted on the spot, “Forget about the white camel, we need three black camels. Black like the Black Desert!”
White Desert, Egypt, Sahara 1
I had read in a book that the old Cairo was built according to the convenience of working camels. Romans had brought horse carts, but they soon became obsolete, because the camels were more efficient than the wheeled carts, for which large boulevards must be built. Apparently, that is why the city consisted of small winding streets that were left unpaved for the camel’s feet, until the introduction of modern vehicles. Ever since I knew this about the capital of Egypt, it was on my list of destinations, and I finally made up my mind in September 2012, when I stumbled across some images of the White Desert. About a week later, I was on my way from the Cairo airport straight to Bahariya Oasis, skipping the city all together.
My first visit luckily coincided with the full moon. The brightness of the moon in the desert is something a city dweller cannot imagine. The sun had already set, when I arrived to a field of small round sandstone formations. Walking in the moonlight between those white mounds, which were sometimes set in a perfect row, I was swiftly transported to an unknown planet. I slept that night bewildered, feeling like a lost astronaut.
When I woke up in the morning sun, the sky turning orange to blue, I saw that it was Earth, and waiting for me were two benevolent animal companions for the journey ahead.
White Desert, Egypt, Sahara 2
The White Desert was formed under water before and during the Eocene epoch (roughly 60 to 30 million years ago). Strewn over the snow-white calcite deposits are many remnant of the ancient marine life–shells, fossils of small crustaceans, and shark teeth. I imagined as I stood on a chalky slope, a spread of vision under the sea, teeming with creatures that occupied Earth for hundreds of millions of years before humans even came to existence. Also found on the ancient sea bottom are small ferrous mineral nodules that come in various forms, which the locals call desert roses, referring to the distinct starburst shapes. Some also look like mini dumbbells, octagonal spheres, and round cones.
Scanning for these remarkable minute sculptures of nature and picking at them, I went back to childhood, when I used to spend hours alone in the mountains observing different plants. For moments I would be completely unaware of where I was, the vast expanse of nothing but what appear to be snowy peaks glaring in the burning rays.
White Desert, Egypt, Sahara 3
Tens of millions years ago, when the ocean dried up in the middle and northern part of what is now Egypt, the White Desert was a thick layer of sedimentary rocks, mainly chalk and sandstone. Over the countless years of natural erosions, surreal shapes of bright white stones, some as large as a three-story building, emerged in the arid climate. Many look like mushrooms due to the wind picking up sand grains, which erode the bases more than the tops. The locals had named many of these large rocks, to which they habitually attribute animal forms–rabbits, chickens, camels, ducks and so on.
It seems only natural that humans desire to animate inanimate objects. After all, even the things that appear lifeless move and change forms, although it may be invisible to humans in their sense of time.
White Desert, Egypt, Sahara 4
One night in the White Desert, walking alone for a distance without a light, a flash of thought overwhelmed me, a death wish. If I were to die someday, from old age or anything else, why not in that desert under the stars, where I can forget about everything in the past? If every piece of memory were erased, so that I didn’t even know why I was there, I would just stare at the sublime scenery, and happily become a part of it. But right then, as I lay alone in the sand, absorbed in thoughts, I heard a call from distance, probably meant for me. I wasn’t ready to die at that time, so I slowly walked back and shouted that I was fine.
Walking alone in the desert is dangerous for mysterious reasons. Many get lost, not only because of the uniform landscape, but because of the unpredictable impacts that the vast expanse of emptiness can have on human psyche. Individuals may have different responses depending on their mental state, when left alone in the middle of the desert, especially at night, even for a brief period of time.
The familiar term Desert Fathers come from monks that were living in the Egyptian desert in the third century AD. After experiencing the potent aura of the region’s landscapes, I began to understand why much of the monotheistic spiritualism emerged from that land, although I cannot conjecture the psychological state of each hermit.