Camels of the Silk Road – Free Family Event! [Guest Post]

Editor’s Note: Secrets of the Silk Road opens in just two weeks! Join us opening weekend for a special, free family program: Camels of the Silk Road, from 12 – 4 pm. Camel connoisseur Doug Baum is bringing 6 camels to the Museum for a fascinating educational program. There will also be camel crafts for kids! Doug has given us a little preview of what’s to come on opening weekend in a guest post below.

Try applying for a bank loan, having to explain, “I’m a camel rancher.” Next time you’re on a flight and your seatmate makes small talk, asking about your job, answer with, “I guide camel treks in the Middle East.” Or, try convincing your father-in-law you’ll be able to take care of his daughter as you grow your camel business!

Now I’m tasked with introducing myself to you, the followers of the Houston Museum of Natural Science blog.

I’m Doug Baum, owner of Texas Camel Corps, a business (admittedly unconventional) dedicated to cultural, historical and environmental education using camels. My family will be bringing six of them to HMNS for an afternoon of programs on opening weekend of the Secrets of the Silk Road exhibition Saturday August 28, from noon to four o’clock. Programs will focus on the camel’s role in cultures along the historic paths as well as environmental adaptations the camel uses to survive in extreme climates.

This is really exciting for me, but it’s not the camels’ nor my first trip down the Silk Road. In 2002, when famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma helped organize the Smithsonian’s Annual Folklife Festival celebrating the Silk Road, I was honored to present programs on the National Mall for two weeks. Closer to home, our camels visit Texas schools, libraries, faith-based institutions and museums throughout the year.

Now I know those hardened camel men, as well as the camels working the oriental trade routes, had it tough: the varied conditions of plains, deserts and mountains are nothing to sneeze at, not to mention disease and banditry along the way. But as I plan my camels’ next journey down the Silk Road, the logistics I have to consider carry their own challenges. Hauling six camels from our farm in Central Texas to Houston may not be like going from Xi’an to the shores of the Mediterranean, but I bet my pre-trip checklist isn’t that different. Water, check. Foodstuff, check. Camels, OOPS! I should introduce my camels. They’re really the stars of the show.

Along for the ride will be Irenie, Gobi, Richard, Marianne, Ibrahim, and Xi’an (yes, really!). Gobi and Xi’an are appropriately-named Bactrian camels, the two humped variety native to Central Asia, while the other four are Arabians, the more common and numerous one-humped species found from North Africa through the Middle East and into India. I’ve decided to bring both species, as well as a variety of camel-related artifacts representative of the different societies living along the length of the Silk Road, to demonstrate just how widespread and varied the cultures along the routes were.

But back to the camels. Each has its own personality and my family and I will be happy to help you get to know them. You may hear stories from my 10-year old son, Pecos, about why Irenie is his favorite. Teenaged daughters Vanessa and Delany will likely tell you they prefer Ibrahim, our beautiful white camel, and that this is actually Ibrahim’s second trip to Houston. A few years ago, he traveled into an underground service entry, up steps, through corridors and onto a freight elevator before greeting travel convention goers outside the doors of a hotel ballroom!

Maybe those Silk Road camel men didn’t have it so tough after all.

Our family looks forward to meeting you when our humble caravan rolls into Houston. In the meantime, come visit us online, on Facebook, our blog, and our web site.

Secrets of the Silk Road: The Tarim Basin

As we prepare to host an exciting exhibit on Western China, one of the main attractions will be two mummies found in the Taklimakan desert. I anticipate that a lot of attention will be showered on the Beauty of Xiaohe and on a child mummy. In this blog I would like to talk about the Tarim Basin and the Taklimakan Desert, backdrop to the mummies and the artifacts in the exhibit.

Now, imagine a place far, far away….

Creative Commons License photo credit:Kmusser
Map of the Tarim Basin in Western China

The Tarim Basin is located in China’s far western the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and measures 400,000 km2 (150,000 sq mi). This makes it similar in size to Germany and Switzerland combined or 57 % of the size of Texas.

Taklamakan desert in Xinjiang Uyghur
Autonomous Region.
Creative Commons License photocredit:Pravit

Geography buffs will know that it borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and China-administered Tibet. It is home to the world’s third lowest point below sea level, with Lake Assal in the Afar Depression making up the second lowest) and the Dead Sea being the lowest point on Earth.

The Talkimakan (or Taklamakan) desert makes the area one of the driest in the world as well, with an annual rainfall of 0.5 inch. The Taklimakan has an arid continental climate with long cold winters and short hot summers. This is the result of its location in the interior of Asia and near enclosure of the basin by some of the highest snow-covered mountains on Earth.  The satellite image below illustrates this point well.

Among these mountain ranges we find (starting in the south and moving clockwise on the first map shown in this blog): the Kunlun Shan, the Pamir and Tien Shan Mountains. The Kunlun Shan mountain range counts four mountains higher than 7,000 m, the Pamir range counts two such mountains and the Tian Shan mountains has one. In comparison, the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountains is Mount Elbert, at 4402 m above sea level. The tallest mountain in the US, Mount McKinley, is 6193 meters high.

The basin gets its name from the Tarim River, the longest inland river in China and the second largest inland river in the world (second only to the Volga River). Fed by the melting snows from the mountains, the river never reaches any ocean, instead disgorging its waters in the Taklimakan Desert itself . About a century ago, the river reached as far as Lop Nor, now a dry lake and home to the Lop Nor salt works.

Given the remoteness of this area, Lop Nor also served as China’s nuclear weapons testing grounds. Our upcoming exhibit, Secrets of the Silk Road pre-dates the nuclear age by several millennia. In a next installment, we will tackle the topic of the Silk Road, starting with “what does Silk Road mean?”