Camels, "flinging frothy green spit from big, loose lips," as David McLain said, replaced bikes as the AsiaQuest team (retracing Marco Polo's route along a portion of China's "Silk Road") lumbered 60 solitary kilometers into the Takla Makan Desert to Rawak, the site of an ancient, deserted Buddhist monastery.
And McLain, the team photographer, is the first to tell you he'll take a bike over a camel any day. Traveling across "an endless dune like frozen, rippled waves, I decided to dismount and photograph the long shadows of people and camels cast up and down the huge dunes," McLain said.
"We had been warned about one nasty camel who had broken a woman's neck earlier in the year, a camel so mean he wore a huge, cast-iron warning bell."
As McLain, camera in hand, stood on the sharp crest of a dune, he heard the bell too late. "The camel took one look at me, and a split second later karate-chopped me with one swift side kick backed by 1,200 pounds of weight."
"David's entire body flew up into the air like a rag doll," said team biologist Christina Allen, "and he tumbled 30 feet to the back side of the dune." Partly in shock, McLain was evacuated--by camel--to a hotel in Hotan, China, to recover.
In Rawak, the AsiaQuest team entered "a Buddhist temple standing in the midst of a once grand courtyard, desert sands spilling over its walls, ready to consume it once and for all," said archaeologist John Fox. So forlorn and unvisited is this site that ancient coins and 1,000-year-old pottery remnants still litter the monastery floor.
"Bitter, treacherous and cold at night, and sand kicked up by even the tiniest breeze into mini-hurricanes whipped like hot needles against our skin," team technologist Jerome Thelia said.
Back at Southwood Elementary School in Enumclaw, Wash., students in a dozen classrooms, along with a couple of million other kids around the world, follow this drama intensely, and plan the team's next move. "Taking direction from the online audience gives the kids a level of involvement, ownership and accomplishment that they can't get anywhere else," said Dave Kirby, AsiaQuest project director. The kids are sending the team overland next, across the desert to Turpan.
You and your kids can follow AsiaQuest by first going to http://classroomconnect.com. The "Gross and Disgusting" feature this week--the digestive system of camels--is rated a 5 out of 10 on the gross scale by kids.
Remar Sutton will be reporting on AsiaQuest over the coming weeks.
CAPTION: Up close--and a bit too personal?--with a camel.
CAPTION: The AsiaQuest caravan snakes through the dunes of the Takla Makan Desert.