Books of the week

The Lost Camels of Tartary (Little, Brown and Co, pounds 18.99), by John Hare.

John Hare admits that he is not fond of camels - they are obstinate and they spit. He does, however, claim to admire their ability to survive better than the most sophisticated four-wheel drive vehicles in near-impossible conditions.

This admiration shifts to an interest in conservation when he meets a scientist working with the Russian Academy of Sciences, who tells him about the plight of the wild Bactrian camel.

The double-humped Bactrian camel is one of the world's rarest animals. With fewer than a thousand left in the wild, the camels have been driven deep into the Gobi desert by oil prospectors and nuclear testing.

Hare documents his experiences on four expeditions with a team of academics and drivers to the Mongolian and Chinese Gobi. During their second journey to the Gashun Gobi, after travelling more than 2,000km without seeing a wild camel, the team finally locates a female Bactrian camel who has just given birth.

A snag with the book is that it is split into the four separate excursions, and the aims of each expedition are different, so the book loses a sense of continuity. For instance, their 1996 expedition group, while studying the migration route of the camels, also becomes the first group since the 1930s to explore Tu-ying, the ancient outpost of Lou Lan. We learn plenty about their exploits as explorers, but the reader ends up fairly unilluminated about the plight of the camel.

Hare mentions in an afterword that, following the fourth expedition, the group succeeded in persuading the Chinese authorities to convert a former nuclear-testing area into the Lop Nur Nature sanctuary to protect the remaining camels. At the time of publishing, Hare was struggling to raise the $900,000 necessary to start the sanctuary by setting up the Wild Camel Protection Foundation. But in the end, the conservation aspect of the book was just that - an afterword.

Off the Map (Hale, pounds 9.99, paperback), by Mark Jenkins.

Siberia spans eight time zones and is five times the size of Europe. Its vast size, combined with a still-Soviet bureaucracy hostile to foreign tourists, meant that Mark Jenkins and his team were the first to bicycle across Siberia in 1989. Jenkins was part of a group organised by Carl Jones, a documentary film-maker, to travel the 7,500-mile, five-month journey from Vladivostok to the then city of Leningrad.

First published in 1992, this new paperback is in many ways already dated, but it does give a view of the Soviet Union from the inside just before its collapse. Jenkins's descriptions of the group having to wheel their bikes after the road had run out, until they hit a decaying village with an old Soviet opera house showing Arabic movies dubbed into Russian, provides a telling glimpse into Soviet life.

The writing often lapses into stream-of-consciousness, making it a chore to read. But Jenkins does have a knack for describing people and places, and this is a book that was hard to put down.

Suzanne Fisher

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