Uighur people in the ancient market town of Kashgar, China
Uighur people in the ancient market town of Kashgar, China (Mike Libecki)

Getting Worked

Uighur people in the ancient market town of Kashgar, China

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Uighur people in the ancient market town of Kashgar, China Uighur people in the ancient market town of Kashgar, China

October 23, 2001 The plan was relatively simple.

Every few weeks during his 60-day, 870-mile walk across China’s formidable Taklimakan desert, 28-year-old Mike Libecki was supposed fire-up a laptop computer and satellite phone, and e-mail us a batch of digital photos. Despite the litany of challenges involved in an expedition of this scope—camel tending, scorching heat, wicked sand storms, and the ever-unpredictable Chinese bureaucracy, to name just a few—Mike, who had sent dispatches to Outside Online last summer while climbing in the nearby Kok Shal Tau range (see “Reaching the Untouched Wall”) without a hitch, figured keeping us in touch would be simple.

But that was before the U.S.-led military strikes in Afghanistan began in early October. Now it appears that there is an extreme congestion of satellite communications in the region, and so far, Libecki has been able to send only a few photos.

But technical frustrations are the least of his problems. In voice mail messages and a single e-mail that somehow made it through the satellite slow-down, Libecki reports that his latest effort at finding “true adventure” has been successful in ways he could hardly have imagined.

After deciding to proceed with the expedition following the attacks of September 11, Libecki boarded a plane for Los Angeles, where he was to meet his partner and head onward to China. After searching LAX and making a phone call, he learned that his partner had backed out at the last moment.

On the ground in China, working along with three hired Uighur people—one translator and two camel drivers—Libecki packed for the trip, purchased 20 camels, and prepared to set off into the desert. On the evening before they were to begin, a supporting team member spilled a liter of boiling water on Libecki’s foot, melting an eight-by three-inch patch of skin and forcing Libecki to call back to the U.S. for a medical consultation. After convincing his doctor and Chinese officials that he was fit to go on, the team embarked across the Taklimakan —with a grumbling Libecki seated atop a camel until he healed enough to walk.

“Talk about a sore ass,” he wrote. “It sucks.”

At the end of the first day of the crossing—a day in which the temperature crested at 120 degrees Fahrenheit—Libecki got sick. Very sick. “I start shitting slime five to eight times a day, with a severe headache and nausea. I’m almost passing out.”

A treatment of antibiotics eventually cleared up whatever bug was plaguing him, and as of October 20, Libecki says the team is making steady progress at about 15 miles a day.

His summation of the trip so far? “I’m getting worked.”

Photos from Libecki’s expedition across the Taklimakan will be posted at outsidemag.com/adventure as soon as the satellite lines open up or he reaches a landline.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021
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Lead Photo: Mike Libecki