Keith Williams' Diary


Monday, June 18, 2007 Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007 Thursday, July 26, 2007
Friday, July 27, 2007 Saturday, July 28, 2007
Sunday, July 29, 2007 Monday, July 30, 2007
Tuesday, July 31, 2007 Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Thursday, August 2, 2007 Friday, August 3, 2007
Saturday, August 4, 2007 Sunday, August 5, 2007
Monday, August 6, 2007 Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Wednesday, August 8, 2007 Thursday, August 9, 2007
Friday, August 10, 2007 Saturday, August 11, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007 I am participating in the Alcoa Earthwatch fellowship program for the Inner Mongolia's Lost Water expedition.
 
My preparation for this experience began months ago. However, my excitement just went to a whole new level. I just returned from a vacation to Prince William Sound in Alaska.  By coincidence, I was in the area at the same time as an Earthwatch expedition. The pure magnificence of the geography and abundance of wildlife was astounding. However, when combined with the environmental opportunities, it really grabbed my attention.
 
To see nature at its best creates the desire to maintain it in a pristine state. The good news is that this was just the tip of an iceberg. The Gobi Desert is at the opposite end of the climate spectrum and should complement my environmental understanding.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 My first impression of China was all of the cloud cover and fog at the Beijing Airport. (Beijing’s population is 15 million.) Upon our approach to land, I kept waiting for us to break through the cloud cover so I could see the ground and the airport runway. That never occurred. Upon landing, I could only see approximately 275 meters (300 yards) before the fog engulfed the surroundings. I later discovered we did have some cloud cover, but most of the soupy mix was pollution in the form of smog. 
 
I boarded a flight for Xi’an, China, and we approached the destination with a slightly clearer atmosphere. After a 23-hour journey, I finally arrived in Xi’an from Alcoa, Tennessee, USA. (Xi’an’s population is 3.5 million) 
 
I missed the Earthwatch contact at the airport and quickly learned that almost no one at the Xi’an Airport spoke English except the lady at the information desk. I finally boarded a taxi for the hotel. This ride gave me a whole new appreciation for the driving in the United States. Even though the roads have painted lines, sporadic signs, and traffic lights, most seem to be ignored, with the will of the driver taking precedent over all else. 
 
Through heavy traffic and numerous near misses, the ride to the hotel took an hour. As we approached the metropolitan area, it was obvious the smog was gaining power. It engulfed the large city buildings as if it were a large, fluffy blanket.
 
Upon arrival, I picked up the hotel directory. One of the first items I noticed was a warning against drinking the municipal water. I thought, here I am for an environmental effort and the first things I encounter are smog and a polluted water supply.
 
After a great meal and without sleep for 29 hours, I finally went to bed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 Due to a train route and schedule change, we had a free day to be a tourist in Xi’an. My fellow Alcoa associate, Serge Martineau, and I visited the Museum of Neolithic Ruins in Banpo Village, the Qin Dynasty’s terracotta warriors and horses, and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.
 
Banpo Village was a reproduction, but the artifacts and ruins can be traced to more than six thousand years back in history. The terracotta warriors and horses date back to 200 BC during the Qin Dynasty and were buried to protect the emperor in his afterlife. These clay figures and bronze chariots are manmade works of art. This archeological gem is often termed as one of the great wonders of the world. The artistry, detail, and scale of this find are purely magnificent. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda houses religious documents and was built in 652 AD. The whole pagoda leans to one side due to settling that occurred more than one thousand years ago. On a side note, we visited a silk factory. It is simply amazing how much silk comes from a small cocoon.

Thursday, July 26, 2007 Professor Wei-Zu Gu picked Serge and I up at the hotel and took us to the train station where we first met the other seven Earthwatch volunteers. During the 23-hour train journey to Dunhuang, we witnessed some amazing geographic terrain changes and saw many National Geographic moments in regard to the local culture and lifestyles. 
 
The locals cultivate every square inch of available space on the mountainsides with terraces. When we were near a river, the land was a contrast of green crops and bare mountain tops or arid flat lands. Early on, we were constantly passing through mountain tunnels. Later, the land became more flat and arid. Most of the locals lived in homemade clay brick and stucco houses, while some lived in caves in the side of the mountains.

Friday, July 27, 2007 We arrived in Dunhuang at 10 a.m. on the train. (Dunhuang’s population is 180,000.)  The city was created in 117 AD to protect the Silk Road for the Chinese. 
 
We walked the city and found fascinating people in the day market. The market was down several back streets where everyone was very friendly and either smiled for photos or requested them. The goods varied from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds to live carp, catfish, chickens, pigeons, and geese to butchered pigs, lambs and roasted ducks. The sellers also offered clothes and household items with many of them used. The main streets were very clean with vast bicycle and motorbike/wagon usage. 
 
Later, we visited the Mingsha Mountain/Crescent Moon Spring site and climbed a sand mountain that was 460 to 550 meters (1,500 to 1,800 feet) high. The climb was steep, with very soft sand (too hot to touch) and an extremely harsh wind. After the challenging climb, the view was astounding. The Crescent Moon Lake and the nearby pagoda were in a valley among the sand mountains and made a great photo opportunity.
 
Well into the evening, we walked the night market. This market was more oriented toward hard goods and families and had many food outlets.

Saturday, July 28, 2007 This morning, we drove to the Mogao Grottoes, which consists of 735 caves dug by Buddhist monks from 366 to 900 AD. Of the caves, 492 hold statues, and all of them have original wall and ceiling art that completely covers the clay stucco found on the entire interior. The more than 30-meter (100-foot) Buddha carved into the side of the mountain inside a cave is one of the largest Buddhas in the world. The sculptures were impressive, but the detailed art work on all surfaces was unreal.
 
After the tour, we ventured on a six-hour train ride to Jiayuguan. We arrived very late, and only four of us went out for an 11 p.m. dinner.

Sunday, July 29, 2007 We exited the hotel in Jiayuguan amidst a wedding with many, many firecrackers. We visited the Jiayuguan Pass, which is an extremely large fort that connects to the beginning stages of the Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall, which was first built in 1372 BC. Due to clouds, blowing sand, and some smog, we could not see the massive mountains behind the fort. However, we were treated to the sight of the very ornate pagodas in the fort. 
 
After we left the fort, we began an unforgettable journey affectionately known as the “The Ride from Hell.” Due to the Chinese Space Program located in the area, foreigners (us) were not allowed to take the road. Instead, we had to use a bypass through the Gobi Desert. This nine-hour ride took us approximately 280 kilometers (175 miles) across the desert without a road. Sometimes we had a trail from the mining trucks, but sometimes the drivers seemed to make up the path as they went. It was amazing to watch the driver watch the horizon and the sun to determine which direction to go. Many times the terrain all looked the same 360 degrees (lots of nothing), but the drivers always knew the proper direction. 
 
The name of this long journey was due to several challenges. The crowded vehicles, severe bumps and dips in the road, and the banging and jerking around caused several bruises and soreness. Combined with the heat, it was a human version of shake and bake. 
 
Nightfall caught us before the seven-hour mark, and we were wondering how the drivers would know the proper direction. To make matters worse, we were consumed by a large storm and a flashflood. The drivers drove through water so deep, we were concerned the engines would stall and/or we would lose all traction. However, the skilled drivers maintained their course (somehow). Because the flashflood hit so fast and we were in the middle of nowhere in the dark, the drivers did the right action. By the time we realized what was happening, we would have been sitting ducks (no pun intended…well maybe) if we had stopped. Did I mention it was dark with no road? In a perpendicular fashion, we finally reached a one-lane road and drove on to Ejina and ate dinner at 11 p.m. 
 
Regardless of the name of the journey, I’m glad I experienced “The Ride from Hell!”

Monday, July 30, 2007 Our itinerary changed due to Chinese military maneuvers in the Guai-Zi Grasslands and the flooding of the Black River. Due to this, we stayed in Ejina longer than the original plan.
 
Upon walking the small city, we discovered we were the center of everyone’s attention. We later discovered that foreigners hadn’t been allowed here for some time, and we were a rare exception. 
 
We also visited a Tibetan lamasery, an old house of an ex-ruler of the area, and the Ejin Oasis. For dinner, we were hosted by the leaders of this region of Inner Mongolia—the director and deputy director of water conservation. These leaders were the reason for our being allowed into this area and for our later acceptance into the Black City. 
 
The dinner was very formal compared to our other meals and included many toasts and a Mongolian reception ceremony. The reception portion of the evening included two ladies in ceremonial dress singing an individual song to each of us.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007 We went north near the Mongolian border to sample the water from Lake Sogo Nur. This massive lake was very alkaline but maintained a plentiful population of small fish. We also tested two freshwater springs that help fill the lake, and this testing included water temperature, pH, electron transfer activity (EH), dissolved solids, and dissolved oxygen.
 
Upon returning to the hotel, we were discovered by China Radio International. They interviewed us regarding why we were in town. This gave Professor Gu a good platform to share his views on Earthwatch and water conservation.
 
This evening, we drove to the Black City, which was founded in 1038 AD. Along the way, we literally drove through the Black River to gain access to the ancient ruins. The magnificent architecture and sustainability of this old city was simply a sight to behold. 
 
We set up our tents in the twilight only to discover another amazing sight. The completely star-filled sky was like few of us had ever seen before. Seeing part of the form of the Milky Way and many shooting stars was also a highlight of the trip.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 We had the morning free to visit the Black City. We found well over 1,000 ancient artifacts. These consisted mainly of broken pottery, but we also found grist mill stones and other worked stones.
 
The outer city walls and main towers were still intact, but most of the inner walls had collapsed. The large size of the city and the pure mass of the outer walls was quite surprising. The walls were made of mud with horizontally placed logs within for support. Several stupas (domed-shaped religious structures) were also just outside the city. It is mind-boggling what was accomplished so many years ago with just intelligence and muscle.
 
The Black City eventually died due to a territorial dispute that caused the Water Wars. Water was more plentiful in 1200 AD, but it was still a precious commodity. Enemies rerouted the Black River to starve the Black City inhabitants. Eventually, with the Black City’s militia weakened, the city was attacked, with most people being killed. Rerouting rivers and tributaries became a powerful weapon to defeat enemies, but it was detrimental to the geography. The Black River is still many miles from the Black City. 
 
In the evening, Professor Gu taught us about the rivers and gave us more detail on the measurement instruments for water testing. I became the temperature, pH, and EH measurement specialist. He also shared how the concrete tributaries, dams, and farming irrigation systems cause further long-term water shortages. In short, the water is not allowed to saturate the ground, evaporation occurs, and the ground water is not recharged. These mass practices encourage desertification.
 
In the evening, I went back to the Black City. The rest of this is a lesson on what not to do in the desert.
 
By myself, I explored the farthest extent of the ancient city, only to get caught by a sandstorm. The storm moved fast and hastened the nighttime darkness by 30 minutes. Even with my headlamp, I was having difficulty seeing where I was going. I briefly sought the shelter of an 800-year-old mosque just outside the city.
 
Realizing I still had time before the worst part of the storm hit, I continued toward camp. I started out going straight toward camp. However, in the sand and darkness, I soon realized I could no longer see past my headlamp. I turned off my light and stood while my eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I finally saw a light from camp. I had veered off course by approximately 300 yards and was heading toward open desert.
 
When I reached camp, the others were getting ready to begin searching for me. They were happy with my return, but I was also scolded for being bad. Bad, Keith, bad! Upon entering my tent, the heart of the sandstorm found us and brought us an all-new experience. We quickly learned that high winds and sand will penetrate anything. All of the tents withstood the wind, but everything in the tents was covered with sand.

Thursday, August 2, 2007 The severe wind lasted until noon and obscured our vision due to the blowing sand.
 
We left for Horse Loop City, founded in 561 AD, and searched for ruins and artifacts. We found many forms of agate, earthenware, and low-fire pottery (several different colors and varieties). Most of the clay/log walls had fallen, but the outline of the city was still discernable. Our driver found a small arrowhead and a portion of a tiny statue.
 
Later, we went to a pottery kiln area active from approximately 560 AD to 1000 AD. We found thousands more pieces of pottery and a door medallion.
 
Lunch was at base camp, which consisted of a Mongolian family’s house. Their five-year-old daughter Ani adopted us and became our unofficial mascot. We also became fond of their many camels and goats and their three-legged dog.
 
We visited three Mongolian nomadic homes near base camp and sampled their wells. In addition to the tests mentioned before, we also measured the depth of each well and included basic descriptions, such as smell and color. Ani insisted on accompanying us on all of the visits. One family invited us into their humble living quarters and offered us drinking bowls filled with hot green tea.

Friday, August 3, 2007 We were lucky to have an Earthwatch employee with us on our journey. However, he was not so lucky. Tim (Mr. Earthwatch) was sick and didn’t journey with us.
 
We went to dig out an old abandoned government well. The digging was only a few minutes, but we had pulled up 100 buckets of water before we could test it. This was a messy/muddy job. 
 
Earthwatch City was our next destination. This no-name ancient area was discovered by Earthwatch volunteers, and therefore the name. We found many artifacts, including a 1078 AD copper coin.
 
Traveling by our safari wagon, we came to a spot know as the five stupas. These ancient religious ruins were in the middle of nowhere, but were very large and in good condition.
 
In the afternoon, we tested three more Mongolian families’ wells. As before, one family invited us in for green tea, but also offered goat cheese and assorted treats.
 
In the evening, Tim was escorted to the Ejina Military Hospital, compliments of Mr. Dang (leader of this region of Inner Mongolia and our host at the Mongolian reception dinner). Mr. Dang transferred them to a hotel and ensured Tim was in good care.

Saturday, August 4, 2007 Tim stayed in Ejina and was improving after three intravenous bags of hydrating fluids and antibiotics. 
 
The rest of us visited the Red City (founded in 102 BC) this morning and tested the government’s 45-meter-deep (148-feet-deep) well at the gate entrance to the Black City area. 
 
In the afternoon, we took the safari wagon and tested three more Mongolian families’ wells. The second home was very remote, and we had to create our own path through the sand much of the time. The third home was a yurt (a domed tent) that was one of the most remote locations we visited. The only trail to this yurt was made by a single motorcycle. As normal, Ani accompanied us and was very excited to see this family. We later learned it was her grandmother’s and aunt’s home. Ani’s grandmother invited us into the small circular yurt that contained two beds, a table, and a handmade oven. Hot green tea awaited us in the yurt.
 
Most of the Mongolian nomadic homes contained solar and/or windmill electric power and had dirt floors (some had clay brick floors).
 
We were in the safari wagon more than six hours today. Whew. Everyone was exhausted from the heat and the long, bumpy ride.

Sunday, August 5, 2007 Our safari wagon driver went to get Tim, so we had the morning off in the Black City. The driver also replaced part of the rear suspension of our safari wagon while he was in town. 
 
After lunch, Tim felt well enough to play a pickup game of baseball/cricket with me and two other volunteers. We utilized a shovel for a bat and the dog’s tennis ball. Tim may not appreciate this, but this created a comical moment. During one hit, Tim was going after the ball and tripped on dried camel dung. He claimed he didn’t know why he fell, but I assure you it belonged to a camel. Tim must have felt better, because it was 44° Celsius (112° Fahrenheit) today in the sun and 38° Celsius (100° Fahrenheit) in the shade).
 
Over three hours this afternoon, we tested three long-distance wells. The shallow wells smell of strong sulfur.
 
The last of our base camp chickens disappeared today. Guess what was for dinner? After dinner, the Mongolian ladies of base camp played a game similar to jacks, but with four goat knee bones.
 
This evening, we had a sandstorm worse than the prior one. Even after learning from the first storm, we still couldn’t stop the sand. I wrapped my head in a military sand scarf and attempted to sleep. The good news was this storm lasted only about five hours, but everything was buried with sand inside and out.

Monday, August 6, 2007 We went back to the government well at the Black City area gate entrance. This water testing included a carbon test to later determine the age of this deep aquifer.
 
When we returned to camp, the Mongolian ladies of base camp played a puzzle with a goat leg bone, a string, and a polished stone threaded by the string. Lesson—make the most of what you have.
 
After dinner, we sampled more nomadic wells and had more green tea in a Mongolian home.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 Today was very hot—45° Celsius (113° Fahrenheit).
 
We had the morning off and went swimming in a tributary of the Black River. One of the volunteers found a 1923 silver coin unearthed when the flood waters subsided. 
 
In the afternoon, we tested more Mongolian wells and discovered a baby white camel at one of the locations.
 
Signs of wild animal and reptile life were visible from the tracks in the sand during the day. However, the actual wildlife was mostly encountered at night.
 
My favorite animal was a species of jerboa. The jerboa are mice-like with kangaroo-type hind legs, large ears as if from a rabbit, and a long tail with a pompom on the end of it. They varied in size, but one was rather large and seemed to enjoy jumping from me while I attempted to film him. 
 
Even thought I didn’t fully appreciate what I found at the time, a species of zokor was apparently my most rare find. I have not been able to find a photo or sketch of this particular creature on the Internet or anywhere else. However, from my description, a professor from Miami University (who is a Mongolian mammal expert) helped me identify the species. I was doing a different kind of business during this discovery and didn’t have my camera. 
 
The plate-tailed gecko was the most common wildlife seen, but it also had a most unusual feature. Its large eyes would reflect any light from a long distance. Upon my first encounter, the eye shine was so bright, I was a little concerned about approaching a possibly large and dangerous animal. I had to chuckle when I discovered the reflection was coming from a 20-centimeter (eight-inch) gecko. The only other nocturnal animal I saw was a desert fox, which actually ran across the path of our vehicle during the nine-hour detour across the desert many days earlier.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 We tested more wells today, while the temperature reached 47° Celsius (116° Fahrenheit).
 
We said our last goodbyes to our courteous base camp family. Little Ani began to cry when her mother explained to her we were leaving for the last time.

Thursday, August 9, 2007 We packed up to leave the Black City at 6:30 a.m. We drove to Ejina on a makeshift sand road and boarded a 21-passenger bus for Alxa Zuoqi. After eight hours of desert driving (but on road), the landscape began to gradually turn green, but not before we blew out a tire and later had the bus overheat.
 
During the tire change, I walked around the desert and found an arrowhead. We were also stopped at a gate and had our visas checked. After a total of 10 hours on the road, we reached our destination. The city of Alxa Zuoqi was in total decoration for Inner Mongolia’s 60th birthday.
 
We ate a late dinner and were approached by several locals wanting to toast to friendship. As normal, the locals treated us very nicely. 

Friday, August 10, 2007 We visited a large lamasery and then went shopping. After lunch, we drove toward Yinchuan. We stopped and saw a portion of the Great Wall from 221 to 207 BC. We also saw the royal tombs of the Xi-Xia Dynasty at the base of Helan Mountain.
 
Shortly after we arrived, we ate a hot pot style dinner. As in most of the cities, the nightlife was geared toward food, retail venders, families, and decorative lights.
 
Due to the many government restrictions, the expedition ended early.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 We enjoyed Yinchuan today.
 
In conclusion, the trip was better than I ever imagined. I learned so many things on so many different levels. I gained a whole new appreciation for the Chinese, Mongolians, the environment, science, and history. I also learned the substance of myself and to be more appreciative of my blessings.
 
A smile crosses my face every time I think back on my new friends and the experience.
 
Even though each person is like a speck of sand in the scheme of life, each can make a difference by respecting others and the resources of the Earth, one decision at a time.

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Inner Mongolia's Lost Water


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