This is a cross-post from the website of Richard Graham, MP for Gloucester and APPCG Chair, and was also distributed in the Tuesday 20 October 2015 Times Red Box.
As part of the government’s new strategic partnership with China, this week Xi Jinping becomes the first Chinese President to address parliamentarians in the House of Lords. There will be many keen to criticise a relationship where the two countries have such different values. But success with China often comes against the odds.
In the autumn of 1993 I was one of five Brits and an American who, after extensive (and expensive) negotiations with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, set out to cross the 800 mile Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, Western China, by foot. We were accompanied by equal numbers of Chinese and Uyghurs, and camels carrying food and water. No-one had ever crossed the world’s second largest desert before, and the only previous attempt, by Sven Hedin 90 years earlier, ended in complete disaster.
The Chinese assumed we had serious motives: that we were researching gold or oil or their nuclear testing. The idea that anyone would try and do this for the sake of it was clearly lunacy.
As we set out from the village of Markit, blessed by imams, the streets were lined with Uyghurs. The assumption was that we would not be seen again – the desert translates as you go in but you don’t come out – and women wailed loudly in sympathy for Carolyn, the expedition’s sole female.
The Uyghurs, said to be expert camel handlers, were in fact mostly PLA mechanics. One of the camels fell before we started, and put both itself and the water container out of action.
The three different parts of the team had never met before, spoke different languages and had different ideas of what should be done. And the camels showed their views by throwing up on those loading them in the early morning.
We needed to walk about 20 miles a day and managed eight with difficulty on day one. We needed to find water every three days for the camels and hadn’t found any by day four. We expected to find eight lines of sand mountains and found 24. And our early satellite telephone’s umbrella soon gave up in the sand, leaving us without any comms.
My own preparation for this extreme test – several months of sitting in taxis and meetings trying to set up an office in Shanghai – was not ideal. The strain of tugging camels over sand mountains, feet sinking with every step, took its toll. I caught amoebic dysentery, and would have died without Carolyn and powerful antibiotics. Walking long distances in heat unable to sustain food was a challenge. Others struggled in different ways.
But, despite all of this, this disparate bunch of untrained desert bashers persevered and did cross the Taklamakan. The Queen sent a telegram of congratulations and the Chinese issued special stamp. It is still the only successful west to east crossing and apparently a museum of the expedition is now being built in Markit.
I’ve been involved in other innovative partnerships with China, including the first listing of a Chinese company on the London Stock Exchange, re-founding the Shanghai Cricket Club and starting the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. My wife Anthea and I helped Robert Glover create the only UKChina joint venture charity, Care4Children, that has introduced foster care to China and hundreds of thousands of orphans – mostly small girls.
None of these partnerships have been easy, but that is the way with trying something new. It is always easy to snipe at what isn’t perfect. But I believe in engagement and not giving up. If the Taklamakan Desert can be crossed together then anything is possible.
– Richard Graham MP