"Shouldn't a real live dragon be, you know, bigger?"
"Well, maybe there are different kinds."
"And some are bigger?"
"Yeah, probably. Or at least there were big ones."
"And the big ones could still be around here."
... "That's not good news is it?"
1. "I'm in, all the way in"
"Welcome to the fifth double episode of 'Extreme Real World Travel', I'm Cheryl Wise, your host for this adventure in Asia with our six amateur explorers. Today, we come to you from the Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, two thousand miles south east of Moscow, and six hundred miles north of Islamabad. In part of the world that's just about as far from an ocean as you can get. And we are still nearly two hundred miles from our jumping off point in At-Bashi for our trip into the Tian Shan Mountains on the border with China along the ancient Silk Road."
The attractive young woman with the very polished smile paused for a second, "of course, some of our viewers will recognize the name of the country as a source of sporadic trouble with certain radical elements. However, our partners from the BBC have been in contact with their leaders and have received assurances that we will be allowed safe passage through their regions," she nodded confidently. "After these messages from our sponsors, we'll meet our explorers and find out what their challenges are. And yes, in this edition, they have more than one goal to accomplish."
After the commercials there was a young black couple on the screen, the man had a prominent mustache and smiled broadly as he spoke, "We filled out the application to be on the show as a laugh. And we did laugh a lot as we answered the questions. Fortunately because of a destination wedding a couple of years ago we all had valid passports." He laughed briefly, then continued, "I never thought we'd end up here."
"That was Sean, who with Lana and the others we'll meet in a moment, filled out that application last year at home in Saint Louis for the chance to take part in the trip of a lifetime on the Extreme World Tours website."
"Since we all work together we thought it'd be great to try to get on the show together," Lana explained, "we never thought we'd make it and that they'd have to find somebody to work for us for a month."
"But make it they did. They, like all of our explorers, had no idea if they would end up in Central Africa, like last week's group, or in the high Arctic. And they didn't know if they would be searching for a lost city or a mythical treasure. So, let's find out why we're here and meet the others that work with Lana and Sean. And for that, we go to Christopher Hagal, our producer for this episode. Mister Hagal."
It appeared that Hagal hadn't smiled in years, and he wasn't going to for the camera, he was totally serious as he faced the travelers, "You are here to assist a group of geo-archeologists and paleontologists on a research expedition into a valley deep in the Tian Shan Mountains. You are there to investigate the existence of a legendary animal that may have been the basis of the Chinese Dragon, you are searching for a rumored group of caves similar to the other Caves of One Thousand Buddhas, and also to find the ruins of a mountaintop stronghold from the Scythian period of Kyrgyzstani history some fifteen hundred years ago. If you find anything, the scientists will come over from their base in another valley just to the northeast of outs and verify it. If they agree, it then it becomes official and your names will be listed as the discoverer in the scientific journals."
"Wow," one of the explorers said softly.
"While completing just one of these objectives would be a phenomenal feat for a professional explorer, we expect the six of you to accomplish all of them, however, whoever does each first, will score more points toward the prize." Hagal nodded gravely at them, "Gather your things, we leave for At-Bashi in a few minutes. There are Yurts waiting for us for the night."
"Yessir," one of the explorers said to the following silence.
Cheryl resumed her introductions. "This is Anne and Jimmy. And if my notes are correct, you didn't want to come on the trip once you found out you had to fly."
"Yes, I hate flying," Anne said, "and I still do, but I guess it is worth it for the chance to do this."
"Jimmy, what do you think of the challenges?"
"It sounds exciting, but I wish I'd brought better shoes," he gestured to the cowboy boots he was wearing, "these aren't good for mountain climbing."
"And our last couple are the only ones who are officially married as well as the oldest. Mister and Mrs. Wilson, or as they have asked to be called, Jack and Bobbi." The hostess nodded to the couple who appeared to be slightly older than the others, "So, Jack, you're the only one that doesn't work with the others, and you're real name is John, but everybody calls you Jack."
"Yes, ma'am, like JFK, his name was John too."
"And you don't work with Bobbi and the others."
"No, ma'am, I don't. I work at a home center in the materials yard."
"A lumber yard."
"No, ma'am, we have a lot more than lumber."
"I'm sure, and now, I have a question for Mister Hagal." She turned to the producer, "The Tian Shan Mountains are often described as one of the least civilized regions on Earth. How will they get in and out?"
Hagal still did not smile. "Motorized transport has been arranged well into the valley. Then there are pack animals available."
"We'll rejoin our explorers at the assembly point in the morning."
One of the couples stood in front of a Yurt and acted as enthusiastic as they could without appearing to be blithering idiots.
"Now, let's check in with Jimmy and Anne," Cheryl said to the camera.
"No water, no electricity, no cell phone signal at all, the bathroom is a tent with a bucket in it...." Jack said as soon as the camera team walked away.
"There's electricity in here, see?" Bobbi held up the end of an extension cord that came in through the window.
Jack frowned at her, "Wonderful."
In their yurt Anne was still getting over the short flight on the old Tupolev charter plane and didn't care if the camera was on or not. "This is the most uncomfortable bed in the world, but at least it isn't moving."
Jimmy was trying out his new shoes. A pair of Chinese sneakers he bought from an 'informal vendor' in the Bishkek airport. "They fit well enough. I guess they'll do."
"How do you think they'll hold up?"
"Probably better than I will."
Lana was trying to put on a brave face as they walked into their hut, "This is exactly what I expected. What do you think?"
"I think it's going to be a long night," Sean answered. "But they said there are no motels in town, so I guess this is it."
"This is it."
On the Extreme show, the crew were as much a part of the drama as the guests. Hagal frowned at the camera and muttered something about whether or not the local insects attacked at night.
Nick the lead cameraman voiced his opinion of the larger yurt that the men of the crew would be sharing by asking, "What's the point in having lights in the house that don't work?" as the sound guy pulled the strings hanging from them.
In the last yurt which was to be shared by the three women on the crew, Cheryl didn't say anything but as soon as the camera went dark, she picked up her bag and went to sleep in one of the huge old Russian trucks they'd be using in the morning, leaving Laurie, the assistant sound engineer, and Kenda the production coordinator who worked for the BBC, to make the best of it.
The night was pitch black with most of the sky covered by high thin clouds. If anybody went out without a flashlight they couldn't see anything except the few artificial lights in the town in the distance and the one slightly yellow light on a pole by the toilet tent. The only sound was the chugging diesel of the generator down the hill by some buildings that looked like a military outpost.
The morning came with a bright sun and a cold wind.
The clear light of dawn revealed something that was only partially visible the night before.
"Those are mountains. Real mountains," Sean said with wide eyes as he took in the snow capped peaks that dominated the horizon under the morning sun.
"I think that's where we're going," Lana said to him.
"I like mountains."
"Good morning explorers, each of you will draw a card to choose your vehicle for the expedition. Each has been identically outfitted with basic supplies and equipment, including tents and hiking gear, and a navigation system," Cheryl's TV smile belied the fact that she was having back spasms from sleeping on the truck seat. But she hadn't wanted to use one of the smaller four by fours that the contestants would get and take a chance on influencing the contest. "So, ladies, if you will, please pick a card," she indicated four playing card size pieces of cardboard laid out on a folding table, "and as soon as you have the card you'll know which vehicle you will be driving the first leg of the journey."
The three women hesitated for a moment, then Lana and Bobbi both stepped forward and picked up the cards on either end, Anne shrugged and took one of the remaining ones. "So, Mister Hagal and I will be following along in the..." Cheryl picked up the last card, "in the white one. Very nice."
"We get the tan one," Lana said.
"The tan what?" Sean asked.
"The tan Lada Niva," Cheryl said and pointed across the flat area toward the parked vehicles.
Next to a couple of larger trucks was a small fleet of SUV sized four wheel drive cars of various colors. It was very obvious that the Ladas had been recently repainted in something of a hurry. And by somebody that had never painted a car before in their life, so Cheryl's 'white one' was more of a coffee with cream gray than white.
The couples walked over to their respective cars and Jack noticed something about their green one. "There's somebody in it," he said as the man got out of the driver's seat.
Mister Hagal introduced the newcomer, who nodded to each of them in turn. "This is Suraj, he is a Quartermaster Havildar from the Indian Army," the producer said. "More importantly to all of us, he is a certified survival instructor for the Aviation section of their Himalayan Strike Corps."
"And he is here to make sure you have the knowledge to survive the coming ordeal."
"Good. We'll need that."
The soldier stood at parade rest in front of them. "Good morning, you may address me as Sergeant as you are Americans. Have any of you ever been to the remote high mountains before?"
A few had been on vacation to various spots, but those all seemed to involved ski resorts or other modern accommodations.
"This, will be a very different experience for all of you." The Sergeant answered. "You will have altitude sickness, you can get frost bitten even in the summer, there are some snakes that are venomous enough to make you sick that live in the valleys you'll be traveling in. I can help you avoid all of that. Shall we start?"
The next four hours was a period of very intense learning for the six explorers, as well as the crew.
Of the three couples, only Jack professed to know anything about driving a four wheel drive and he said he hadn't done it in years. Of the crew, most had never driven anything like the two trucks that had been hired to haul them and their equipment into the high country. So the Sergeant and the Kyrgyz man who had been looking at the truck he called a Shehsherik schooled them in that first.
"If you cannot drive without a road, you will never get to where you are to camp. So there is no point in learning the tenting. Correct?"
After much grinding of gears and several stalls, eventually even Bobbi and Lana got their vehicles around the makeshift driving course, none of which was a road.
Then they got to go through the supplies in the vans and practice setting up tents, purifying water for drinking, and shooting.
"Why do we need to learn to use a rifle?" Anne asked spontaneously as the soldier showed her how to hold it into her shoulder, then she had to repeat it for the camera.
"To keep a wolf or bear from eating your husband for one," the Sergeant answered. "There is also the striped wildcat here, and they can be aggressive at times. And these mountains are the historic range of the snow leopard."
"Oh, OK, I'm sorry. I'll shoot it," she answered and turned toward the target.
"Not without loading it you won't," he held out several rounds for her.
"What about Yeti?" Jimmy asked him, "are they out there?"
The Sergeant watched the woman load the gun then he turned toward Jimmy, and the camera, and wet his lips slightly before he answered. "I've been in the mountains most of my life. I've been through some things that I can't explain, and I've seen some things that I wish I hadn't. But I've never seen one of them. Even at that, I'm not going to stand here and say they are not out there. No. I won't say that."
There was a long silence.
"Fire the gun, hun," Jimmy said to his girlfriend.
Then there was a brief lesson about how to clean and cook a short eared rabbit by the Kyrgyz man who said they should know how to do just that in case their 'city food' ran out.
"You can also eat the boar, but it is very hard to kill," the sergeant added.
For her part, Cheryl turned very pale, and refused to eat the rabbit, but she didn't pass out.
"It is too late to start for the camp now," Mister Hagan said as they finished up learning how to change into dry clothes while blindfolded in case they had to do it at night or in a white-out. "We will spend one more night here, then leave at first light."
After the camera crew had gone in search of beer and something besides more shashlyk kebabs to eat, the explorers gathered around the fire in front of their yurts.
"Well, it looks like we're really in for it," Sean said staring off into the east at the line of mountains retreating into the distance.
"You thinking about pulling out?" Anne asked him.
"No, this was what I wanted to do. Maybe not the frostbite and snakes and stuff, but the adventure itself is exactly what I was hoping for."
Jimmy agreed, then looked at Anne, "Do you want to go home?"
"Honestly, yes. But if I do, I'll never forgive myself. And the idea of flying home by myself makes me sick."
"I'd come with you."
She shook her head, "And then I'd feel even worse." She looked around, "OK, like I said when we got the letter, 'I'm in, all the way in.'" She sighed, then chuckled to herself, "And then I said 'let's do it'".
"Let's do it," Several of them repeated.
"And just to be clear, whatever happens, we pool the money and split it three ways evenly," Jimmy said.
Sean and Lana both nodded but Lana answered for them, "That's what we agreed to, but, in the meantime, we're going to try like heck to win." Sean grinned and nodded enthusiastically.
Jack grinned at them, "I wouldn't want it any other way."
2. "It's vodka."
"As you saw before the break, the adventure for our explorers has already begun, but this morning, we take it on the road." Cheryl smiled broadly at her own joke, then continued, "and we take it beyond where the roads ends to the first camp where the explorers will be set off on their first challenge."
To see them off the Sergeant was dressed in dress uniform and the Kyrgyz man was in his finest tribal costume complete with a tall but rounded white hat. They waved and saluted and watched as the convoy headed out and up the road that led through the small cluster of buildings and then off to the east.
Once the camera crew turned off their equipment and boarded their truck to follow the Kyrgyz man turned to the Sergeant and frowned, "How many of them do you think will die?"
"I don't think any of them will be killed, but they may not enjoy the living."
The man in the white hat thought about it, "Yes, you may be right."
True to what the crew had told them, it only took about an hour for the explorers to get used to the cameras that were mounted in the vehicles watching their every move and the wireless microphones they'd been given to record what they said.
They drove along the road that soon became a gravel track in spite of the line on the GPS system saying it was the same road. After less than an hour of steady driving the gravel track turned right toward the Torugart Pass, but then in a couple of miles their instructions had them turn left onto what became more of a well-meaning idea than anything people from a major US city would call a road.
And so they entered a valley with several snowcapped peaks off to their right with what appeared to be a slightly less spectacular range off to their left. Both of which gradually closed in on them as they drove. The only vegetation around was clustered along the stream bank, but that was limited to several different types of small scrub bushes, thick clumps of grass, and the occasional scrawny tree.
"Well, that's enough of that," Sean said and turned off the radio after he'd searched through the available selection of local stations, none of which were broadcasting anything they wanted to listen to.
"Thank you," Lana answered. "This is the right way isn't it?"
"You're doing good, just take it easy and stay on the path. It says go this way another ten miles or so. And it looks like we cross the creek again up here someplace."
"Stay on what path?" She answered and then added "ooohffff" as the car lurched through a large rut.
In the second car Jack had also been playing with the GPS unit to see what other information it could give them about what they were doing. "You know how back home every creek and hill have names?"
"Yes," Bobbi said staring intently at the rough tracks along a small stream that appeared and then disappeared.
"It's a little different here."
"A lot of things are."
"This valley doesn't have a name that I can find. A couple of miles back it said that was the Ak-Say river, but now it doesn't list a name. I tried to zoom in on where we were and it said 'map not available'."
"So how can we stay out of China unless we know where we're at?"
"I don't know. Maybe there's a border fence or something. We'll just have to do our best."
The car bounced and jostled suddenly as the wheels found one of the few big rocks that the leader had missed.
The blue Lada was finding rocks and ruts of its own.
"Ouch," Jimmy said as his shoulder bounced off the door.
"Sorry," Anne said. The car shook again, "Sorry about that one too. How much further is the camp?"
"I don't know. I tried to change the setting to miles instead of kilometers, and now everything is in Russian."
"What is it in kilometers?"
"Thirteen, I think."
"That's about eight miles."
"That's not too bad," he was saying just as the car shuddered over another rough spot. "Well, it's not too bad."
In trailing off-white four wheel drive, Mister Hagal was driving because Cheryl said she absolutely could not drive a stick shift and had neglected to go through the Sergeant's course. "They're making better time than I thought they would," he said between bumps in the road.
Cheryl was looking at the scenery and fretting about the dust that was getting into the car and all over her outfit and hair. "How will they know when we reach the camp site?"
"It's programed into the GPS."
"Do you see that?"
"See what?" She asked.
"We're almost up to ten thousand feet."
Cheryl looked at the display but the numbers that were getting larger by the minute meant very little to her.
Behind the white-ish car was the two trucks used by the film crew.
Both were Russian built civilian versions of army trucks and, as such, were much less interesting to drive across the countryside.
The local connection they had leased them from called them a Gorky Shehsherik and the smaller one a UAZ bukhanka, or 'loaf truck'. Both were some nameless shade of green, and both had been heavily modified over the years since they came out of the factory to serve in the mountainous country, and both had limited comfort and safety options. But whereas the Lada's careened and jostled over and around the ruts and rocks, the trucks barely noticed them and the crew was having a good time making fun of the explorers.
"Hey! She's ON the road!"
"It didn't last," Andrew from the BBC said as he held the steering wheel steady over the same series of bumps that had sent the car off to one side.
"Nope, and there goes the other one."
Nick was driving the smaller truck and bringing up the rear with his crew.
"Didn't they put springs on this thing?" Laurie asked him.
Nick didn't answer, instead he spent his time trying to keep his teeth from banging together.
"No," Charlie the crew's general assistant and gopher said.
Finally they reached their first wilderness camp and stopped in a semi-circle.
The site was spectacular. The camp was located on a low ridge that extended east-west parallel to the line of mountains that formed a southern wall beyond a valley that the path that brought them here passed through. On the other side, the hill dropped dramatically down toward the narrow river far below.
Other than some low bushes and a couple of small trees in spots along the waterway, there was very little vegetation anywhere around.
During the drive Mister Hagal thought that maybe the altered schedule would make good TV after all and once they were all out of their vehicles he made a little speech. "Since we were supposed to be here just before dark last night, we have some time to do other things that we were going to do later. We'll tape an interview with each couple, and you can become more familiar with your supplies and equipment before the challenge tomorrow."
"What is the challenge?"
Hagal thought about it for a second, then he gave them a hint, "It involves climbing, those," he gestured to the peaks south of the campsite.
"Which of the objectives are we going up there for?" Jimmy asked as a follow-up, but Hagal didn't say any more and walked away.
The interviews were fairly brief and consisted of the same questions to each couple.
"Well," Jack said with a sideways look at Bobbi, "I think it could bring us closer together, I'd like to think it will."
"I know it will, we like adventures, but usually our adventures consist of going to a game in Chicago or something."
Anne answered the second question for her and Jimmy, "I think this is what we were hoping for, we'd never do anything like this by ourselves."
"Not if we have to fly."
"I'm sorry, I just don't like that."
Cheryl asked her a direct question, "But you've flown twice now."
"And I still don't like it. If I could get home another way I would, but I don't think I can."
"No, probably not."
Sean and Lana looked at each other for a long minute before either answered.
"Well, I want to win, I mean, it is a competition and all, but I don't want to lose any of the others as friends over it. I don't think any of us are super competitive, but I do like to win."
"He loves to win," Lana added, "but we both like having friends more than winning."
Now the couples had a choice to make. They could either almost completely unload the cars and put their supplies in the tent they'd been given to protect it and sleep in the car, or leave most of the junk in the car, put up the tent, and sleep in it.
Jimmy looked at the well packed car and voiced what the others were thinking, "I know if I take all of that stuff out, I'll never get it all back in," he gestured with the rifle he had pulled from its special spot along the windows on one side, "it may not go back where it came from now."
"Did you see this thing?" Jimmy asked Jack as they unpacked what they had to and just looked at the other supplies they'd been given.
"Yeah," he answered and kicked at the plastic box he'd set on the ground.
"Do you know what it is?" He gestured with his own identical unit.
"It's our toilet," he answered and opened the top to reveal a cast plastic toilet seat that was part of the unit, then he turned it over. "The legs unfold like this and you clip a bag onto there."
Sean looked at his own contraption and laughed at it. "Well, if you've got to go, I guess it'll do."
In a few minutes Jack stopped to pant for a minute and catch his breath with his hands on his knees.
"We are at almost eleven thousand feet," Bobbi said to him, "you need to take it easy. You heard what the Sergeant said about altitude sickness."
As Jack took deep breaths Jimmy looked over at him and came to the same conclusion, "Break time."
"What have we got to drink?" Sean asked them while he fiddled with one of the two way radios each couple had been issued to stay in touch with each other and the base camp.
"I don't know, let's go find out," Jack said softly.
The women had had their own meeting and decided to pool their resources and cook a communal meal.
"Good, because I don't even know what that used to be," Lana said looking at a bag of meat in a dark red liquid from their storage box. As there was no chance of replenishing an ice chest, everything besides things like whole potatoes was either preserved in some sort of pickling agent like the meat, or dried.
"Koza? Kosa?" Bobbi tried to read the word on the bag, "I have no idea. But I'm betting it's supper. With this rice, and onions. We've got lots of onions. And carrots." She held up a bunch of the orange vegetables.
"Maybe I'm better off not knowing what the meat is because I'm starving," Anne added, "here's a big skillet for it."
"Arak," Andrew said, "It's vodka. At least that's what I'm told it was." He looked in the cup, "doesn't taste like vodka."
Jack tried it and didn't seem to be impressed, "It'll do. Might help us get used to the altitude."
Sean made a face after he took a sip, but then he finished his without comment.
Jimmy was already looking for a refill, "how much of it do we have."
Bud the sound man stood up and opened the wooden crate he was sitting on. "Enough."
Once again, the night was deeply dark, but now there was no artificial light anywhere besides in their camp. The sky was absolutely full of stars with the gleaming river of light of the Milky Way sweeping across in an arch.
As soon as the sun went behind the western mountains the temperature dropped to where you could see your breath in less than an hour. And then a chill wind began blowing along the valley and it got even colder.
"Tomorrow night, we put the tents between the cars to block the wind," Jimmy said as they all turned in for the night.
3. "We're not moving, the hill is"
The morning brought the fact that now they were into the meat of the show, and once they'd had breakfast and jammed the tents and sleeping pads and bags into the cars they were faced with two envelopes, one clearly labeled 'Good News' the other 'Bad News'.
"Which do we open first?" Bobbi asked looking at the two envelopes Mister Hagal had handed her.
"Go with the bad one first?" Anne answered with a question.
"Sure," Sean said when nobody else voiced an opinion.
Bobbi cleared her throat as she opened the back of the envelope and took out a printed page. "The Bad News is that these hills are the border with China. There are no signs, no markings, no fence or other indication of the border, and if you cross it, you may be arrested or you may be shot by military patrols. In fact, in most of this region, the exact border is even now under dispute and by some reckonings, you may in fact already be in China. However, the national boundary is usually thought of as a line connecting the summits of the range to your immediate south where several ancient forts might be located."
"Oh, terrific," Jack said as Bobbi turned the page over to see if there was anything on the back.
"What's the good news?" Anne asked her and she opened the other envelope.
"The Good News is that the peaks to your south are part of the western spur of the Tian Shan Mountains with several well over nineteen thousand feet. This is also one of the routes of the Silk Road and the border of the realms of the ancient Scythian and Yuezhi peoples. As such, this area has been occupied for many thousands of years, and many of the outlying peaks of the mountains were used as watchtowers and guard posts to defend both the various kingdoms and their trade routes. Your challenge is to find and document the previously undiscovered ruins of one of these outposts."
"And that's the good news," Jimmy muttered.
"We wanted a challenge. We got it." Sean said, then he looked at the others, and suddenly became aware of the cameras. "Well, I'm excited about it! When do we start? Which mountain do you want to climb first? Or do we each pick one and go see what's there?"
The others noticed that he was playing for the camera and joined in, "If I was going to build an ancient fort, I'd put it on that one." Jimmy pointed to a ridge that jutted out into the valley just to the right of their camp.
"Then we'll go that way," Jack pointed to its sister hill not fall down the valley.
Sean looked from one to the other, then he looked at Lana, "then we'll take the big one," he looked up at the peak which the two lower ridged turned into. "To the top and meet back here I guess?"
"How do we do it?" Jimmy asked, "Drive as far as we can and then hike to the top?"
"I saw that on TV one time," Jimmy added, "don't go so far that you get stuck or punch a hole in your oil pan or something."
Sean looked back at him and the camera caught his face as he realized what that would mean, "Yeah, that would be a bad thing to do."
"Who wrote that on there?" Cheryl asked Sean and Lana as they got in their car.
"One of them last night after we'd had some more of the vodka," Sean answered, then he got in and they all drove away.
The camera zoomed in on the dusty back of their four wheel drive, "LANA's LADA" was written in the dirt in block letters.
Now it was up to the camera crew to catch up with them.
Mister Hagal and Cheryl followed Jimmy and Anne in the dirty white Lada with some camera gear. Andrew and his crew was in the lumbering Shehsherik keeping a discrete distance behind Jack and Bobbi, while Nick and the rest came along in Sean and Lana's tire tracks and they fanned out moving slowly and carefully toward their chosen destinations.
In the Lada that was painted an odd shade of gray Mister Hagal looked at the camera mounted on the dash that was focused on the driver and explained the challenge. "There is no guarantee that any of them will find any ruins. In fact, there is no surety that any of the challenges can be successfully completed, and this one is the easiest of the three. But, as was stated in the application, it is the journey that is the challenge." He was interrupted as the car encountered the crumbling edge of a small dried stream bed. "Yes, that is the challenge."
"Didn't they have a plane fly over and photograph this area from the air?" Cheryl asked him as she braced herself in the passenger seat for yet another series of jolting bumps.
"Yes, and the photographs didn't show anything that we could see."
"But the challenge is sending them up there anyway."
It may have been a trick of the camera angle and the ambient light in the bouncing car, but on the tape it looked like Hagal may have smiled for a second, but whatever he said was lost in the noise as the car rattled across some loose rocks.
One of the cameras caught several hares that scattered in all directions from in and amongst a thicket of grass that was poking through the rocks. Another filmed a small group of mountain goats that hurried away in a tight pack and climbed the steep hillside like it was a flight of stairs.
"I think something's wrong back there," Bobbi said as they rocked and bounced up the hill they'd picked.
"OK, I can stop up here."
In a minute Jack stopped their car and carefully set the hand brake and left it in gear as he shut the engine off, then they got out to see what was happening.
"We're not moving, the hill is," the sound guy said leaning out the window and looking at the wheels as they threw small rocks and sand back the way they'd come.
"OK, I'm going to try to rock it," Andrew said.
He shifted into reverse and then back into the lowest forward gear without noticeable effect either way.
A hundred yards or so down the hill from Jack and Bobbi the massive Shehsherik was spinning its wheels and making all sorts of noise while its stack bellowed diesel smoke into the air.
"Yeah, I think something's wrong back there," Jack said.
Finally Andrew opened the driver's door and they could hear his "aww bloody hell" clearly without the benefit of the radios.
"I can back up and brace it and we can use your winch to pull you up," Jack shouted to him.
"I'm not sure I want to take it up."
"It's got to go one way or the other, which way do you think is easier?"
The BBC man stood and looked at the truck. "I don't know," he said as the rest of his crew filmed the scene for him. Finally he looked up at Jack and Bobbi, "OK, we'll try up."
At over twelve thousand feet above sea level, nothing was easy or routine. Never mind the fact that in places the side of the hill was nothing more than a collection of loose gravel and assorted bigger stones mixed with sand and the occasional piece of an amazingly sharp type of rock. None of which made walking or driving a lot of fun.
They had to dig out around the wheels, and put good stone under the wheels. At one point, they had to jack the front corner of the truck up a foot or so because of the hole the tires had dug. While Andrew and Jack took a break and drank up a good bit of the water they had available, Bobbi and the others worked at it.
After over an hour of work, they were finally ready to try to pull the machine from Gorky loose.
The plan was for them to winch it up to a relatively stable piece of ground not far from where Jack had parked their Lada, then they'd unhook it and leave it there until they were on their way back down after they looked for the ruins on top.
Andrew would stay with the truck while one of the others of the crew rode with the explorers to record the summit.
Jimmy and Anne walked slowly along the spine of their ridge. Besides a spectacular view, they found some relics of previous explorers on the ridge, but they didn't think that ancient warriors on guard duty used Italian cigarette holders and Danish beer cans. In short, they found everything but an ancient fort. Mister Hagal and Cheryl offered insightful, but meaningless, commentary. Finally, after a couple of hours walking back and forth along the crest of the hill, they gave up and headed back to camp.
The last crew of explorers found a fire ring, several tenting sites, and a walkway between them outlined with stones. Then in the midst of their excitement about finding the Holy Grail of ancient encampments they found a garbage pit with all the indications that the area had been used routinely by the same group on and off since World War Two by an international youth group.
They even found evidence that the original fire ring had been built inside the metal wheel off an old tractor.
Sean kicked some dirt back into the hole they'd dug in the fire pit, "Then I guess we can go back to camp," he said as much to the camera as Lana.
Nick shrugged and nodded to the crew to head back to the truck.
They had driven a long way up, then walked even further. Maybe there had been something up there at one time, but if there had, it hadn't been made of anything that left substantial evidence of their passing that way.
Jack was tired enough not to care who drove back down the hill so Bobbi got into the driver's seat and set off in low gear back the way they had come.
"There it is," Jack said after they'd descended some distance. "Stop here and I'll check on them."
Bobbi stopped and put the brake on, "OK. But they did give us this to use." She held up the small two way.
Jack ignored her and opened the door and shouted over at the Shehsherik, "Can you get it down?"
"One way to find out!"
"I meant in one piece and you alive."
"Well, that might be a bit tricky. But I'll give it a go."
"You OK with following us?"
Bobbi took it easy but kept moving and found a way down beyond where the other truck had gotten stuck, from there on it was a comparatively easy run back to the camp.
Mister Hagal had the explorers assemble around the central fire as Cheryl smiled at the camera.
"Our explorers have returned to the base camp from the first challenge where they were to find evidence of Scythian or other ancient military outposts that may be as much as two thousand years old. Now let's join them and our producer around the campfire as they reveal the results of their expeditions."
"We didn't find nothing," Jack said.
"Nothing?" Mister Hagal asked.
Bobbi shook her head, "Nothing at all. It didn't look like anybody had ever been there. Ever."
Lana shook her head. Sean answered for them, "We found some interesting stuff, but not what we were looking for."
The man turned to the last couple.
Jimmy and Anne exchanged looks then Anne answered his unasked question, "We found where some others had, you know, had a party."
"A party?" The producer said with raised eyebrows.
"We found enough beer cans to keep a recycler happy for a week," Jimmy said with a grin.
"That could be an ancient outpost."
"Only if the soldiers drank Carl's beer," Jimmy said as he tossed Jack a partially smashed can that was so corroded to be almost unreadable.
"Maybe not," Jack said holding the can up for the camera.
After a few more moments of discussion, Mister Hagal asked them if they wanted to check out three more high spots tomorrow, or move on to the second challenge.
"If we move on, and then later find some ruins, will it count?" Sean asked.
"Yes," Hagal answered even though he hadn't thought of that, "the challenges are open from the time you get them until we wrap up and head back to the airport."
"Then we should move on to the next, right?" Sean turned to the others.
The others agreed.
Mister Hagal seemed please, "Very well, in the morning, you'll get your next challenge. Good night."
Cheryl was facing the camera now, "Stay tuned for our post challenge interviews and predictions for the second half of our special episode coming to you from deep in the mountains of Central Asia."
"She's really good at that," Jimmy whispered to the others.
"From what I've seen, that's all she's good at," Anne muttered with a disapproving frown.
"I'd bet that she's good at a couple of other things," Jack added with a smirk.
"Well, yeah." Anne answered.
Fortunately, Cheryl was doing another segment to tie the episodes together and didn't hear any of the exchange at the time.
Once again, the evening meal was a combined effort from the supplies for the explorers, and sort of a do it yourself pot luck affair for the crew, which, when you came down to it, wasn't as popular as it could have been.
"It's got canned beans in it," Laurie said.
"With onions," Kenda answered, "we did our best with what we had and that meat in the bag."
Nick and Andrew exchanged looks, "Arak first?"
Then Bud noticed something on the Explorer's side of the camp and pointed it out to the others, "They've got bread with theirs."
Andrew zoomed his camera in on the folding table where Bobbi was cutting a round loaf of still steaming-hot dark bread into wedges and taking them out of the Dutch oven she'd baked it in. "I see that."
Nick was looking at the monitor, "And it looks good."
"I see that too."
Cheryl didn't know if she wanted to sleep in the truck again, or take her chances in the "girl's tent". It had been cold, lonely, uncomfortable and very dark both nights she'd spent in the truck.
"Come on, we don't bite," Kenda said to her, "at least not on the first date."
"I've got a spare air mattress you can use," Nick told her. "No charge."
She finally gave in, "OK, I'll try it, for tonight."
It was still cold. And dark. But it wasn't as uncomfortable and she wasn't lonely.
4. "Today is canceled."
"I think I'm getting used to this," Jimmy said as he sipped some coffee.
Sean and Jack just looked at him.
"I didn't wake up and wonder why in the hell I'm here instead of at home with indoor plumbing and all that."
"Altitude sickness?" Sean asked Jack.
"Good Morning Explorers," Cheryl said to them. She was still trying to be bright and cheerful, but her innate perkiness was starting to run down. "Are you ready for today's challenge?"
"Sure," Bobbi said as Hagal handed Anne the envelopes.
"Good news and Bad news," Anne held them up.
"We went with the Bad first yesterday and that didn't turn out so good," Lana said, "But. You pick."
She held the envelopes up and raised her eyebrows at the men.
"You pick," Jimmy said, the others shrugged.
"I want to do the bad news first. OK?"
"We've got to hear both of them, so why not."
Anne opened the envelope and looked at it, then read it. "The Bad News is that the Valleys where you will be searching are the favorite habitat of several species of animals that are not friendly to humans including Asian Black Widow and Yellow Sac spiders which can make you very, very sick if you are bitten. As well as venomous snakes and scorpions. You should locate the First Aid kits in your vehicles before you set off. If you have to be airlifted out for medical attention, you will forfeit your chance at the grand prize. Also, you should remember that some valleys to the south may cross into China."
"Spiders and scorpions," Anne repeated after she finished, then she took a deep breath.
"I know where our first aid kit is. You?" Jack asked Sean and Jimmy.
"I saw ours, I'll put it in my pack."
"Good idea, I'll do that too."
Anne held up the other envelope, "Ready?"
"The Good News is that you have the chance to make scientific history. There are rumors of a previously undiscovered caves in these mountains that may be the local editions of the famous Caves of a Thousand Buddhas that are located throughout Asia all the way to South Korea. If you find one and document its location and take pictures of it, you will be regarded as having added to the cultural heritage of the world."
"Well, that's nice," Bobbi said, "when do we start?" She asked Mister Hagal.
"As soon as you are ready."
As they cleaned up from breakfast and Jimmy put his exploring shoes on, Kenda walked up to Mister Hagal holding a satellite phone out.
"What is it?" He asked her as he looked at the animated photo on the screen.
"A storm," she glanced off to the west, "that storm" she pointed at a long row of clouds that were dark blue in the morning sun. "And it is coming right toward us up the valley."
"How long do we have before it hits?"
"Maybe a hour, this last image is about ten minutes old."
Whatever else he may be, Mister Hagal was not indecisive. "We'd better stay put and wait it out. I've heard about their storms up here, it could get nasty very quickly."
"OK. Charlie, tell the crew to dig in, I'll tell them," he turned toward the explorers. "Excuse me, may I have your attention please? We're liable to be in for some bad weather and we need to get ready for it." He gestured toward the weather front.
"Ooo, that don't look good," Jimmy said appraising the clouds.
"It looks even worse on the satellite image, there is no radar here," Mister Hagal said. "You should get ready."
"Then will we do the challenge later today or in the morning?"
"Let's wait it out, then we'll see."
They spent some time anchoring the tents with big rocks and extra stakes, then they moved the cars and trucks to a spot that looked reasonably stable and out of the way of any drainage from the higher areas.
Then all they could do was wait as the clouds billowed up and the wind started.
"That's beautiful," Anne said as they watched a massive updraft from further down the valley push one of the thunderheads far into the stratosphere, producing a classic anvil shape that gleamed bright white far above them.
"Beautiful, and deadly," Nick said as he videotaped it.
"That is adding a lot of energy to that storm. If that hits us, we won't be going to look for caves today, there'll be too much water running out of the highlands. We don't want anybody getting caught in a flash flood."
Within seconds the entire right hand side of the enormous cloud lit up with multiple flashes of lightning.
Hagal scowled at the storm. "Agreed. Today, is canceled. Let's batten it down and wait it out."
Then multiple claps of thunder reverberated through the valley.
"That was about three seconds. That's half a mile," Nick said. "I used to work for a weather network. I learned some stuff."
"Then you're in charge," Jack said to him, "what do we do?"
"Let's get under cover. Don't get in the cars, up here they may attract lightning."
The rain started with large cold drops, followed in short order by some meaningful wind. And then, almost as if it had been cued by the TV crew, a sharp flash of lightning and an almost immediate roar of thunder that meant it was a lot closer than half a mile.
"Everybody get in your tents, turn on your walkie-talkie in case somebody needs help."
"He's right, wait it out in the tents," Jimmy said as the wind kicked up. "I'll get some vodka."
"I was just going to say that," Jack said, "let's go."
When the rain and wind let up slightly they would peak out of their tents, then close them up again and pick up where they left off with whatever story or game they were passing the time with.
Jimmy and Anne were playing cards. Sean and Lana were staring furiously at a small chess board. Jack was resting and drinking while Bobbi knitted and listened to the storm.
Laurie and Kenda watched the satellite phone update, then zoomed in on the image of their storm. Andrew spent his time taking one of the battery chargers apart and cleaning the contacts in it. The others of the crew divided their time between listening to Nick's short wave that was jabbering about sports in India between crackles of lightning interference and playing their own card game and drinking Arak.
Mister Hagal sat in the door to the larger tent and frowned at the storm and fretted about losing the second day on his carefully planned schedule. Then he realized that if they didn't get to do their challenges tomorrow and the day after, somebody was going to have to drive back to town for more food and fuel, his two day's supply of extras were already gone.
The network's scouting report for the location said that mountain thunderstorms lasted for an hour on average. If that were true, then this was an above average storm as it was now into its second hour.
"We've been watching the satellite picture. It's stuck on the mountains," Kenda told them over the radio. "There may be a weather system over the desert blocking it or something. It is moving, but it has slowed way down and I think it has intensified some."
"It's letting up," Jack said.
Then there was a tapping on the front of their tent, "Jack? Bobbi? We got a problem." They heard Sean say. Then he walked away and they heard him repeat the statement to Jimmy and Anne.
Jack crawled out and had to pause when he stood up, more from the Arak than the storm, although he'd never admit it.
"Over there," Sean pointed.
"Oh, yeah, well, that's like what happened to Andy yesterday, we'll get it out with the tow strap. I'll go get it."
Sean and Jimmy looked at each other. "What happened to Andrew yesterday?"
Jack grinned broadly and wiped rain off his face then put his cap on, "he got the Sheesh-truck stuck in some loose gravel."
"I didn't know that."
"Me either, but that's great!"
"They got it on tape to use on the show."
Jimmy chuckled, "Good." Then he walked around the front of the car and looked at where some of the ground had washed out under the front wheels of the blue Lada.
While one camera crew videotaped the men digging the car out, the other filmed Cheryl interviewing the three Explorer Women.
"So what is the one thing that you wished you had brought with you that you miss the most?"
"A hot shower," Lana answered with a laugh.
Cheryl laughed as well, "that you could have brought with you, I mean."
The cameraman got a good close up of Lana's face as she thought about it.
But it was Bobbi that answered, "A big woolly sweater."
So the camera switched to her, just in time for Anne to agree and add, "and thick socks."
And when the camera had Anne in the shot, Lana said "And maybe a good raincoat."
At that point, the cameraman decided to just leave all three in the shot for the next question.
After some digging and farting around with the winch on the old Gorky, they gave up and decided the best course of action was the more direct approach.
"OK," Sean shouted, "pull."
For some reason Jack had ended up using the antique white Lada in its lowest gear to pull the blue one out of its predicament. He put it in gear and tightened the strap, then when Sean yelled again, he gunned it.
"Pulling!" Jack shouted.
Between the two cars they managed to spray a good bit of the area with small rocks and sand, but it came free.
Then they made sure that everything else would move of its own accord, and scattered some of the supplies around that had been in the back of the larger truck and had gotten wet through a gap in the roof.
By the time they'd gotten everything in order it was late in the day and there was no doubt that any further exploring would have to wait until the next day.
Bobbi and Lana stood shoulder to shoulder with their arms crossed. Anne shook her head and went about her business in the camp kitchen.
"You want us to prepare your dinner as well as ours?" Lana said to the crew.
"Please. If you don't, we may starve to death," Andrew answered meekly.
Kenda added her voice to the plea, "I'm nobody's idea of a camp cook. I can hold my own at home, but here, it doesn't work. And so far, nobody else has managed anything better."
The Explorers exchanged knowing looks, "we'll need your supplies."
"You can have them, anything you need."
"We'll even help."
"Just give us the supplies, we'll call you when it's done."
"Yes, ma'am. And thank you very much."
5. "OK, we're here, how do we get out?"
By mutual agreement they all got up as soon as the sky began to lighten and got ready to go.
The men checked the vehicles and topped off the gas tanks from the cans in the truck, then they packed up whatever things they'd need and checked the batteries in the radios and flashlights. On the other side of camp, the television crew was doing the same thing.
Then they all descended on the breakfast the three women who knew how to cook had prepared for everybody.
"You know, this is nice," Laurie said, "I like it."
"You mean sitting around eating powdered eggs and, God knows what sort of sausage, in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of total strangers?" Jimmy asked her.
"We're not strangers anymore," Cheryl said, "I've gotten to know everybody pretty well."
"That's your job," Nick said.
Mister Hagal sat back and watched the interaction of the group. They had totally forgotten about the two cameras sitting on tripods recording the scene and were sharing a pleasant moment together as people going through a common experience will no matter what their background. And Hagal approved of the development.
"More coffee?" Anne asked him.
"Huh? Oh, yes, please."
"This isn't quite the way you'd planned the show to go is it?"
"No, not hardly. But I think it's working out. Do you?"
"Yes, and it's a lot more fun than just going out and doing the challenges and then going home."
Hagal nodded and thanked her for the coffee. Then he thought of something else, "So, if you don't like traveling, why did you choose to do this?"
She gestured with the small camp coffee pot toward the others, "I wanted to do this. I'm not interested in the prize, or even finding the caves, I like to do things with my friends."
"Good for you. Thank you."
As she walked back to the camp kitchen Hagal glanced at the camera that was closest to him and hoped that it had recorded the entire exchange.
Once the breakfast pans were cleaned up and the paper plates burned in the fire they were ready to go.
They had agreed to drive further up the valley and find branches that went off to the left, more or less to the north and away from China, and then search along the sides until they either found a cavern or ran out of valley. Once again, they agreed to split up and see who could complete the challenge.
Sean and Lana were in the first car, followed by the Bukhanka. Even though the truck that looked like a loaf of bread was higher and narrower than the giant Gorky Shehsherik it was also about half the weight even when fully loaded, and Nick had far fewer problems following the Lada when they picked a likely looking gully and drove carefully into it.
A mile or so further on Jimmy slowed down and pointed at a fissure in the mountainside then he parked in front of it.
"It's too narrow to drive into, but I want to check it out."
Anne seemed doubtful but she finally agreed and picked up her backpack.
"So we foot it," Andrew said to his crew and shut the big truck down.
Mister Hagal and Cheryl were following Jack and Bobbi this time, and offering commentary as they went along.
Jack slowed down at the next side channel after Jimmy had stopped, but he didn't like it and drove on.
At the next opportunity he stopped and got out of the car and stared at the gap in the nearly vertical cliff for a few moments. "What do you think?" He asked Bobbi.
"Good enough for me," he nodded to the Producer in the not quite cream colored Lada and then got back in their green one and drove carefully into the canyon.
"And our last Explorer has made their commitment as to where they will begin their search for a mountain shrine," Cheryl said to the mounted camera. "We'll check on the others after these messages."
Anne walked carefully along between boulders and the occasional low scraggly thorn bush at the base of the rock face. "What are we looking for again?" she asked Jimmy who was searching the other side of the steep ravine.
"A cave full of carvings of Buddha."
"Like this one?"
In their canyon Sean motioned for the TV crew to come check something out. "It's not exactly a thousand of them, but it's a start."
Nick braced himself against the side of the cliff and turned on the camera's light, then he focused on what was indeed a relief carving of a Buddah seated in the traditional lotus position. The carving was weathered and didn't look like it had been done with great precision and talent, but it was there.
"You get it?" Charlie asked him trying to steady him while his hands were busy.
"Yeah, coming down."
"There's another one right here," Lana said a little further up the gully, "But it's not as big as that one."
Jack saw it first, "There's our boy!"
"That's not how you're supposed to refer to Buddha," Bobbi said.
"Well, sorry. Then how about, 'there's their god', I don't know, what are you supposed to call him?"
Jack frowned and climbed up to the niche in the rock. "There's two of them in there, one on each side," he said pressing his head up against the cliff wall to see inside.
Mister Hagal wasn't as skilled of a cameraman as the others on the crew, and the narrow opening was barely large enough to see into, but as he focused the video camera on the carving he felt chills run up and down his spine. "That is astonishing," he said softly.
In spite of a few minor injuries, such as a twisted ankle and some thorn marks, the mood in the base camp was jubilant. "We All Succeeded!" They kept saying.
"Who found a cave with the most carvings?" Mister Hagal asked them.
"There were like four or five in one of the caves I found. Standing side by side," Jimmy gestured with his hands indicating the figures that were lined up inside the crack in the rock.
"The most we found was three," Jack said.
Lana nodded, "Most of ours had one or two, but there was one that was pretty eroded that might have had more when it was new."
Mister Hagal nodded, "this is very unexpected, but I will relay the information and our GPS coordinates to Doctor Franklin and tell them they need to come check it out."
"So who won?"
Hagal paused, "nobody found a cave with anything like a 'thousand Buddhas' in it, but, if they find more when they do their survey, there may very well be a thousand of them all told, so I guess that fits the description well enough." He laughed to himself for a moment. "I guess you all did."
"We all lost yesterday, I mean, the other day, and we all won today." Sean smiled broadly.
"Tomorrow's the tie breaker," Jimmy summarized.
Mister Hagal glanced over at Jimmy, "So, tell us about getting lost in the canyon."
Jimmy sighed and Anne laughed, but then they both shrugged and took turns telling the story.
"We kept finding those tiny caves with statues in them. Some of the openings looked like they were natural, and others had been chiseled out of the mountain by hand. We kept finding them, and Andrew and them would get a shot of them, and we kept going," Jimmy began. "Then the valley branched."
Anne nodded, "It branched off once, and that's where we found the cave with the five statues in it, but then it branched again."
"A couple of times," Jimmy added.
"And," Anne continued, "then we think it doubled back on itself and we really got turned around. And Andrew's phone didn't even know where we were."
Nick pointed his camera at the British cameraman.
"The radios wouldn't carry out. I couldn't get any GPS signal on the phone. Nothing," Andrew said, "the phone couldn't even tell me which way was north. And we couldn't see the sun in there either, we thought of that, but it didn't help," he looked over at Jimmy.
"My compass didn't even work in there, it didn't spin around like they do in the movies, it just sat there and pointed whichever way you held it."
Anne picked it back up, "We couldn't even tell with way was downhill because the valley went up and down and everything. It was kinda scary for a while."
"We'd walked quite a ways, and got tired, so we sat down and took a break and thought about it."
"And that's when Miss Anne gave me the idea," Andrew said, "She looked at us and said 'OK, we're here, how do we get out so we can show the others the video?'"
Jimmy patted his girlfriend's back, "she saved us with that."
Mister Hagal didn't understand.
"Tell him," Jimmy said to her.
"They'd been taking pictures of every statue we'd found. So he played the tape back and we'd find the cave with that statue in it. They're all different in some way, so it was like a trail of breadcrumbs. It took a long time to backtrack like that, but we made it out."
"So, Buddha saved you."
"Yeah. I guess."
Jack grinned at Bobbi, "Buddha saves," he said to her, "inside joke, never mind."
After the excitement of the day, they still had to tend to the vehicles, and cook dinner, and see if the tire on the dirty snow colored Lada was just low on air or had something wrong with it and so on.
Finally, after a full and very exciting day, they sat around the campfire and passed around some more Arak that had gotten to taste better over the last couple of days, and just relax.
"I'm done with this," Nick said to fill a silence. "from now on, if motel doesn't have cable TV and A/C, I don't want to go there."
"Even for a paycheck?"
"I can get paid taking video of a garbage strike in New Jersey and not end up with a scorpion in my camera case."
"Are you really going to keep that thing?" Jack asked him referring to the stowaway now floating in a plastic bag full of vodka.
"Why not?" Nick held his cup out for more preserving liquid, "how about you? You going to do this again?" he asked the Bud the sound guy that was acting as bartender for the night.
"I don't know. I might. It is an adventure, and I'm getting paid." He poured some for Cheryl as well, "how about you Miss Lady?"
"Maybe not something like this, but I want to keep hosting. If there's another season and they want me. I might do it." She looked over at Laurie, "your turn."
She shook her head, "I'm just here to pad my resume, if this comes out OK, I don't have to do it again. I'll go back to studio work. Ken?"
Kenda had been thinking about it, "It does look good, but I want to get back to news. Once my sabbatical is over, I want to go back to the news division."
"Back to London?" Andrew asked her.
"No, not if I can help it. But maybe New York or LA." She raised an eyebrow at Mister Hagal who had been listening intently.
"I do enjoy the adventure aspect, and working with new people," he nodded at the crew, "and our Explorers. But there is something to be said for being closer to civilization. Perhaps I will come back out on one of these journeys, but maybe not for some time." He paused then glanced at Charlie, "You're the only one left. You going to re-enlist?"
"I might. I might not. I dunno, I guess it depends on the deal."
Hagal looked at him thoughtfully, "That's pretty much how I feel about it as well."
"That's the last of the firewood we brought," Nick pointed to a small pile of sticks and a couple of logs, "just enough for a fire tomorrow night."
Jack looked down at the dying flames, "well, then I guess it's bedtime."
"Some of us are already asleep," Andrew said with a grin at Cheryl who was out like a light in her chair. "The Arak got to her."
"It gets to me too," Jack answered as he stood up. "I've got to remember that." He took a deep breath and blew it out with some force. "Last challenge tomorrow?"
Everybody looked at Mister Hagal, "Yes, if we don't complete it, we'll have to make a decision about going back for more supplies or not. The weather forecast looks clear, we've still got plenty of fuel, and if we need to, we can have an impromptu hunting challenge."
The Explorers stood together and exchanged long looks, "let's hope tomorrow is good."
6. "There's dragons in them thar hills... I mean, mountains"
"We've still got plenty of powdered eggs," Bobbi said looking through the combined supplies.
"Well. We're OK on the white cheese, but the other is almost gone." She held up a large plastic bag that contained several other plastic bags of meat and whatever liquid it was stored in. "And we've got a lot of whatever it is. Spicy, and," she held up a slightly smaller collection, "not so spicy."
Anne was looking in another box, "And we've still got a lot of onions and carrots, more of them than anything else."
"At least we won't starve," Lana concluded.
Mister Hagal walked up to them with the two envelopes and handed them to Lana.
"You haven't done it yet," Bobbi said to her.
"Well, OK. Bad first?"
"That's how we do it," Anne answered.
Lana opened the envelope, "Here it is." She held the paper like she was reading a royal proclamation. "The Bad News is an amalgamation of all of the other Bad News you've had. Today's expedition takes you the closest you've been to the Chinese border, the area further up the valley has even more hostile animals, and the terrain is far rougher than any you've encountered to this point. If you do not stick together and take care of each other, you may not come back at all. And, one last thing, beware of avalanches." She put the paper down slowly and looked unsure of doing it.
"Can we put it up for a vote?" Jack asked.
"It'll probably be forfeit everything or do it together," Bobbi said.
"Probably," Sean said, "read the good news."
She opened the envelope and assumed the pose and read aloud, "The Good News is that this is your chance to discover a previously undocumented species of reptile which may or may not have given rise to the Chinese Dragon. You will venture further east, up the valley you are in and, as a group, search the area around the lake you'll find there for the cryptid while filming your adventure with handhelds."
"How will that break the tie?" Sean asked him.
"Depends on who finds the animal," Mister Hagal said seriously. "We will film you from a distance as a group, but the close ups and point of view shots are up to you. You'll find the handheld cameras in your cars, there is one for each of you. Are you ready to go?"
Sean's smile was as broad and eager as ever, "Sure! Let's do it!"
"I like these," Bobbi said as she tried out one of the video cameras they were to use today. "When we get home we'll have to get one."
Jack shrugged, "I plan on keeping those."
"They may not let you," she said as she taped him driving.
"How far to the lake? Did it say?" Sean asked Lana as he followed the green car up the valley.
"No, I read everything it said. I guess we just drive until we find it."
"Look at that!" Sean pointed over to one side.
Lana followed his point with the camera and got an action shot of a very hairy wild boar trotting away from the track they were using.
"I've got the first aid kit right here," Anne said as she put it on the console between the seats.
"Good, that way we won't need it." The blue car hit a large rut that the others had avoided and jarred its occupants and contents violently. "Sorry about that."
Anne pointed the camera back at him, "it'll make good TV."
"It's an action adventure show, right?"
The light gray Lada was just ahead of the two trucks.
Mister Hagal was staying far enough behind the Explorers that the dust of their passing had almost settled in front of him.
Cheryl was giving the background to the mission as they went, "Our explorers may be some of the first Westerners to see Lake Elu. The name of the seasonal lake means it is about fifty kilometers from the mouth of the valley, and that is the only name we've been able to find for it. But, it should be just ahead of where they are now, which means when we come back, we'll join their search from their point of view."
Bobbi pointed with her free hand while she aimed the camera that way, "There it is!" She said excitedly, "I can see water over there."
"On our way."
The path crossed the stream and went through the brush and weeds. Then Jack parked in a clearing next to the small lake and the others joined them.
"We're supposed to stay together, and film each other looking in the bushes for reptiles," Anne said. "Right?"
"That's what I thought," Jimmy confirmed.
"Well, OK. Let's take a break and get what we need together and do it," Sean said.
"Sounds like a plan," Jimmy agreed.
A mile or so away the crew had Nick standing on top of the larger truck with his camera on a tripod zoomed in on the Explorers.
After some short commentary by Cheryl about the mission and another commercial, Mister Hagal sent Andrew's crew in the smaller UAZ truck around to the right. That way if the Explorers went south they could be ahead of them while he and Cheryl went the other way to film them from that side. The Gorky would follow them at a distance and shoot as they could. But for this part of the show, Mister Hagal was hoping the Explorers got enough of their own footage for him to work with. Which was one reason he sent six cameras with them.
"So, which way do we go?" Jack asked the others as they closed up the cars and shouldered their packs.
"I didn't see any dragons on the way up here, so, follow the stream?" Sean said.
"But we did see a pig," Lana added.
"Not the same," Jack laughed.
"Let's get going," Jimmy said.
They walked for some distance as the small stream wound through the rocks. Again, as it had been all along, the view around them was distracting as sharp peaks stabbed up from the ground to end in bright white summits. But they focused on the challenge and got to work.
"Rabbits, pig tracks. There's some more goats over there."
They had a picnic lunch back at the cars, then checked another small stream that fed into the lake on the other side of the valley.
"There's some funny looking lizards over here."
Several of the Explorers managed to get some video of two of the reptiles that seemed to prefer basking in the line just between where the sun was hitting the rocks and the shade. But other than a slight frill around the backs of their heads, the foot long animals were wholly unremarkable dull colored creatures that looked to be designed to blend into the background and pass without notice.
"Shouldn't a real live dragon be, you know, bigger?" Sean asked as they watched one of the critters crawl to a new spot in the sun.
"Well, maybe there are different kinds."
"And some are bigger?"
"Yeah, probably. Or at least there were big ones back in the olden days."
"And the big ones could still be around here. And hungry." Sean looked up at the cliffs above them.
Jack nodded, then thought about it. "That's not good news is it?"
Jimmy and Lana were still filming the lizards, "I don't think we've got a lot to worry about. Let's keep going," he said.
Once they knew what they were looking for, they saw several more, but the largest was less than two feet long. It did not have wings, nor did it breathe fire. Instead, when they got too close, it lumbered back into the crack in the rock that it called home.
"Stop There. You are arrested."
"How do you say 'oh, shit' in Chinese?" Jimmy said as he raised his hands.
"O gou shi," the Chinese officer in a dark green uniform replied. As he did so, four of his younger companions in slightly lighter colored uniforms surrounded the Explorers with leveled machine guns while another relieved them of their cameras and radios.
"I wasn't asking you," Jimmy said softly.
The officer looked from one to the other of the Explorers still holding his pistol aimed at them, "And you will remain silent as well."
"You speak very good English." Bobbi said with a smile trying to defuse the situation.
"I went to your UC of LA when I was young man. I know of your ways and times. And now, be silent. Follow."
A mile or so away Mister Hagal was watching the TV monitor, "Oh, My, God," he said in disbelief. Then he sprang into action, "Get out of here, head back to town, don't stop until you get there," he said to Nick. Then he called Andrew on the radio and said the same thing, but there was no answer from him. "Crap." He said sharply as he got into the dingy white Lada.
"What's wrong?" Cheryl asked as she hurriedly closed the car door as he started the motor and turned around.
"Everything," then he sped off after the truck still trying to raise the other crew on the radio. "Kenda, can you get through to them?"
"We'll try," the production assistant answered. "Laurie, Andrew, Bud, answer please."
The silence was more disturbing than any answer would have been.
7. "I worked for the spy service, but I'm not a spy."
The walked up through the valley and then down to a row of aging army trucks that looked like cousins of the Shehsherik that had been part of their expedition.
"Please, men in that one, women in the other," the officer said to them.
It was then that Sean and the others noticed Andrew sitting in the truck, in handcuffs and leg chains. Next to him, the sound guy Bud was unshackled but just as sullen.
"Do you know him?" The officer asked them.
"Yes, he's the cameraman from the BBC that was working on the show," Jimmy said after a he realized there was no point in denying it.
"He is a British spy from MySix."
The Explorers didn't say anything else and got into the trucks.
It was a long bumpy ride in the trucks. At one point they stopped, and there was much shouting in Chinese that made the guards that were in the back of the truck with them laugh and smile and say a few words to each other about what was going on, but as they spoke less English than the Explorers did Chinese, they never found out what was going on.
Then after several stops and turns that led them to believe that they were coming into either a military base or a town they stopped and several more guards opened the back of the truck and they could see where they were, and the sight wasn't comforting. It looked like an old army base.
As they looked around the they could see the mountains off to the north, but there was nothing at all to tell them more about where they were. Only several rows of block buildings and an opposing row of wood frame buildings, all painted the same shade of green that had been used on the truck.
One of the guards gestured for them to get out and said several commanding words in Chinese that could only mean that was what they were to do. Since Andrew could barely move in his restraints, the guard nodded for the Explorers to help him down.
The officer waited until they were all together then he spoke to them again. "Welcome to the People's Liberation Army Base in Kashgar. Xinjiang Region, in the People's Republic of China. Now, I will tell you we have been watching you for some time. You knew the border was here."
"They were looking for the dragons and we didn't know how close we were to the line," Laurie answered.
"Others have looked for them as well, some died," he pushed his lower lip up into his upper lip for a moment in something between a pout and a frown, then he continued. "But, now you are here. I am Zhongwei Liao, you would say I am First Lieutenant Liao. The rest of you have not been charged with more than an unapproved border crossing. Once the matter is settled between your country and mine, you will be released. However, the spy is charged with attempted espionage and he will be held dutifully."
Andrew spoke up in his own defense. "I used to work for Joint Intelligence as a cameraman, before I got on at BBC 2, but I'm not a spy."
"So you admit you are MySix."
"They are called M. I. Six. I never worked for them directly."
"Thank you for correcting my misstatement. I do appreciate it. As for the rest. We shall see."
Laurie indicated that she had a question and the Lieutenant nodded to her. "Can we call the Embassy or somebody like that?"
"I assure you, there is no Embassy in Kashgar, however, we will be in touch with the one in Chengdu and advise them that you are here as, our guests." He bowed slightly to them, then spoke to the guards in Chinese, then he turned back to the others, "they will show you to your room. Please do not try to escape, it would sadden me to have heard you were shot."
"What are you going to do with Andrew?"
"He will be placed in a cell for now. If you object, you will all be taken to the cells."
Andrew shook his head, "It's OK, they'll sort it out. Look after them."
"Yeah. I'll be all right. Get a message through to somebody when you can."
Laurie wasn't happy about it but she nodded to Lieutenant Liao, "We'll cooperate."
There was one advantage to the large bunkroom they were taken to, behind a wooden privacy screen they found the dormitory's bathroom facilities, including running water in a corner shower that could be called warm. Even though they didn't have any soap, and only had some rough brown paper towels to wash and dry with, they took turns and made the best of it.
After about a couple of hours one of the armed guards opened the door and two young women in army uniforms came in with boxes that had bowls of food in them.
"Rice, and some veggies and...." Laurie said looking at the few pieces of meat that were in the bowl.
"I don't care what it is at this point, I'm starving, give me one of them," Jimmy said.
"What do we have to drink?" Bud asked as he took a bowl.
Laurie took a stack of paper cups out of the other box, "I guess water from the sink. Can you use chopsticks?"
It was dark the next time they saw anybody. A young woman in a very well-tailored uniform came in and stood at attention, then she spoke to them in clear but closely clipped English. "Your names and situation have been relayed to the American and British Consulates and to the Red Cross Society. A representative is on their way and should be here in the morning. Your vehicles are outside. The men will be escorted to them to retrieve your personal items. The women will accompany me and be presented with sleeping materials." She then bowed to them and turned around as if she expected them to comply immediately.
After several of them exchanged long looks, they did what she told them to do.
Lana took the two bedrolls and thin towel she was given without saying anything, Bobbi and Laurie thanked them for the items, and then Anne bowed slightly to them. Then they silently walked back to the dorm.
Once inside the woman faced the four women and asked them if they had any questions.
"Andrew works for my American production company. I don't know anything about his other activities, but I feel responsible for him. May I go see him?"
"No. Any other questions?"
"Is he all right?" Bobbi asked her.
They exchanged meaningful glances, "I guess that's all for now." Laurie said.
"I will see what is keeping the men," she said and walked out.
Whoever had driven their cars there over the mountain hadn't been gentle about it. The tan Lada was now missing the front bumper and the skid plate under the front end was hanging loose. The green one had a cracked windshield and a dent in the door, while the blue one had a tow chain hanging from the front end.
"I guess it was a rough trip," Jimmy said.
"To say the least," Jack agreed.
"Are they unlocked?" Sean asked the guard who didn't answer but just gestured toward the cars with his gun. "Yeah, OK."
Bud looked around, "The truck's not here."
"I wouldn't ask about it, we've got some extra stuff, we'll hook you up."
"Thanks. I think."
"What about the rifle?"
"I would leave it right where it is and pretend you never saw it before in your life."
"That sounds like good advice."
They got their traveling bags and packs from the cars, then Jack had an idea and slipped a bottle of Arak that he'd put aside for emergencies in his carry on.
On their way back inside the guard just glanced in the bags and waved them through.
"I'm surprised they didn't search us," Sean said.
"I'm not, they don't look like the real gung ho types, but if we'd taken that rifle out of the car I've no doubt at all that they would have shot all three of us, and then probably the women too."
The woman came back in in a few minutes.
"You may be here for some time. You should make yourselves comfortable," she said, then she nodded to them, "good night."
And they were alone.
They picked which of the three tier bunk beds they would use and got ready for the night.
"Nightcap?" Jack asked.
"More of the vodka stuff?" Lana asked from the other side of the room.
"It's all we had."
Then some soft jazz music broke the silence.
"I thought it might help us sleep," Sean said holding up a digital music player with small external speakers.
In a few minutes they were all getting in bed and Anne noticed something, "I don't know how to turn off the lights."
They looked up at the old incandescent bulbs that were working. Then they looked around for a switch.
"I don't see one."
"I'm so tired I don't think it's going to make any difference," Laurie said from her corner by the door, "good night."
Sometime later, all the lights except one in the bathroom area went off at once.
"It's a dorm, and it's 'lights out'." Jack said to the darkness.
"I feel like I'm back at camp," one of the women replied.
"I'm not singing," Jack answered.
"Me either." Jimmy added.
To the sounds of Sean's soft jazz they finally fell asleep.
8. "... smarter than a fish."
The only time Mister Hagal in the light ash colored Lada stopped was when it ran out of fuel. He hurriedly poured what was in one of the gas cans in the big truck into it and then they sped on.
By the time they reached At-Bashi Mister Hagal was very nearly frantic. During the race down the valley he'd thought through it, backward and forward, until he had very nearly convinced himself that he'd be held responsible for their being shot at dawn.
Once they were a mile or so from town, Hagal's regular cell phone had enough signal to work, but the operator only spoke one of the local languages and he got nowhere with her. Finally he screeched to a stop in front of the district office and got out and started asking about where he could get in touch with the US Embassy.
After some false starts and some botched translations, somebody gave him the number and he dialed it with shaking fingers.
It took all the patience Hagal had developed from working in television production for twenty years to hold onto the phone while his call was transferred to somebody with an aristocratic accent who said they could get a message to "Madam Ambassador".
"I have your number, someone will be in touch with you shortly," the fancy voice said.
And Hagal was left standing there holding his phone staring at Cheryl with wide eyes.
Slowly he walked outside and got the same sort of report from Kenda who had called the number listed for Kyrgyzstan, got a recorded message about the Central Asia Consular Network, and so she called London. "Somebody will ring me back."
Nick held up his hands, "so what do we do while we wait?"
"We'll find someplace to get a room, and wait."
"And get cleaned up," Cheryl said.
'Getting a room' in At-Bashi wasn't impossible, but it might as well have been.
They hired part of a house, and then set up a tent next to it to have enough space to be comfortable in.
In almost exactly an hour, while Nick and Charlie the crew 'gopher' were still putting their cots together Mister Hagal's phone rang and he began a quite lengthy conversation with whoever he was speaking to.
Mister Hagal paused for a long moment, "I'm sorry, what is your title again?"
"I am the Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Mission."
"That's what I thought you said, may I please speak to the Ambassador?"
"Not right now, she is on the phone to the State Department in Washington, and the Deputy, my boss, is on the phone to the Embassy in Beijing. We are working on the problem. I need the names, ages and sexes, and the US residences of all of the people who crossed the border illegally."
"They were not in China when they were arrested."
"They are in China now. That is all that matters. Do you have their names?"
"Yes, give me a second, I'll get my production roster. It is all there."
Kenda was surprised to learn that her government didn't have an embassy or even a consulate in the country. The best the person she talked to could do was to tell her that if she could get Andrew to either the German or Norwegian embassy, or the American one in a pinch, that they would help them get home.
"I believe he is in Chinese Custody," she told them.
"Right now, we can't confirm that. We do know they have the Americans from the TV show in Kashgar. But they haven't said a word about Andrew."
"Why wouldn't they admit they have him?"
"Do not repeat this, but he used to work for Intelligence a few years ago. Nothing covert, he made training videos for them. But they might not see things that way."
Kenda nodded with the phone to her ear, "I understand."
Later they sat in front of the tent while some kebabs cooked over a small fire and evaluated what they should do next.
"I want to go back up there by that lake. Just in case they come back that way."
"They said they'd taken them to Kashgar, they won't come back that way."
"If Bud or somebody got away they might head back to the cars."
"True," Mister Hagal nodded.
"We could stay here and work the phones," Kenda said to him.
"Agreed, in the morning you guys can take the truck and go back up there. But Do Not go anywhere near the border."
"I don't like Chinese food that much," the gopher said.
Sometime in the middle of the night Mister Hagal got a call from somebody in the State Department in Washington DC who didn't realize the time difference.
He forced himself awake enough to hold an intelligent conversation that, when he was done, he summarized with the phrase: "He just wanted to verify that what he'd been told was accurate, the Chinese will confirm whether or not they have somebody if we give them the name. He wanted to make sure he had them all."
"Did he?" Nick asked him.
"Then, goodnight. Again."
In the morning Kenda told them about a message she'd gotten relayed through London.
"The Chinese have admitted that they did arrest Andrew, but they have not said what he's charged with or even where he's being held."
"Well, at least they've said they have him in custody," Hagal said.
Kenda looked over at Nick, "We know they've got everybody. So you still going back up there?"
"Yeah. I wanna do something instead of sit here and wait on a phone call." He glanced over at his assistant, "You?"
"You bet," Charlie answered immediately.
Mister Hagal nodded, "You want to take the Lada? It's a little less conspicuous."
"That might be a good idea. I'll put our stuff in it and we'll call you when we get there."
"Good, thank you."
Nick drove quickly but carefully back to Fifty Kilometer Lake, then parked where the Explorer's had left their cars.
"Where did they go?" Charlie asked the obvious as the dust of their arrival settled.
Nick shook his head as he got out, "Look, they went that way," he pointed east.
Charlie was trying to figure out the confused set of vehicle tracks, "These aren't from their cars, this was a truck. With duals."
"An army truck, and it towed one of them. See? This is where it turned around."
"So the Chinese took them," Charlie guessed."
"That's what it looks like."
"What about our other truck? The one Andrew and them were in?"
Nick pointed to the south, "they went over there, let's go see if it's there. We'll just be careful."
They went back to where the crew had split up, then tracked the Bukhanka back and found it right where Andrew, Bud, and Laurie had left it.
"Let's take it back with us," Charlie said.
"I wanted to wait around a little, you know, in case somebody stayed clear."
He shrugged, "Well, OK, what do we do? Camp by the lake and holler for them once an hour?"
Nick laughed, but then thought about it, "Yeah, I think that's exactly what we should do." He motioned to the faded white Lada, "I'll drive that, and once we're there I'll call Hagal and let him know what we found."
Charlie thought about it for a minute, "then why didn't he call the embassy on the satellite phone yesterday."
"Can't use it on the move like that inside the car, and he didn't want to stick around here and wait on the Chinese towing crew, did you?"
"No, not really."
To make sure they didn't run into anybody they didn't want to they camped some distance away from where the Explorers had parked, but still roughly within sight of it.
Charlie found the sat-phone set in the Lada and handed it to Nick, "You do know how to use that thing, right?"
He took it and looked at it, "I think so, one way to find out."
"I'll set up camp," he said and opened a bottle of the Arak that had been in the UAZ, he took a belt then handed it to Nick.
Nick pushed a button and stared at the blank screen, "Yeah. OK," he had a swig of the liquor then examined the multiple buttons on the phone. "Here we go."
Charlie didn't appear to have a lot of confidence, "I'll set up camp."
Later, Charlie went off to do a bit of exploring and made a discovery of his own, which he then figured out a way to exploit to their good advantage. Then he built a small fire.
Nick walked over and picked up the bottle that was sitting on the fender of the truck.
"I heard you got the phone to work, had they heard anything?"
Nick shook his head. "The Chinese said they'd be released, but didn't say when."
"How about Andrew?"
"Nothing since they admitted that he was there." Then Nick noticed the foil package sitting at the edge of the fire. "Kebabs?"
"No, fresh fish. You can have the other if you want it."
"Where did you get the fish?"
"In the creek, they're some sort of trout. I caught five of them big enough to eat."
"By being smarter than a fish. They're roasting with some onions. While they're cooking, you wanna go see if we can find anybody?"
They walked toward the lake as the late afternoon sun made the peaks around them glow.
"So how did you know those fish are edible?" Nick asked.
"The Russians stocked them in the big lake and the rivers and stuff. I read about it on the plane. I like fishing and thought if we had a couple of days off I'd get a chance to go."
"Except I didn't catch them with the pole, I used the net."
"You still caught fish."
"Not very sporting, but yeah."
They stopped at the edge of the lake near the clearing.
"Bud! Jack! Bobbi! Anybody?"
The silence returned with the sound of gurgling water and the rustle of leaves.
Then they walked back to their camp.
In his At-Bashi headquarters Mister Hagal had taken the news that the three Ladas had been impounded by the Chinese in stride.
After he hung up the phone he shook his head at Laurie and Cheryl, "not only did they take them, they took their cars. They found the truck and they'll bring it back tomorrow."
"Did they go up to where they were arrested?"
"No, Nick said they stayed close to the lake."
During the day, while Hagal fretted and kept checking to make sure his phone had signal and the battery was charged Cheryl had walked down to the market and gotten some basic supplies, like some stuff to use to wash dirt out of her hair and something else to eat besides preserved meat out of a bag.
The matron of the family that they'd rented the room from talked and talked in whatever language she spoke that nobody on the crew did and stirred the potato chunks with spices and onions and then dropped meat into it.
Cheryl smiled and nodded, "It smells good," the TV hostess said, then she noticed that Kenda was filming the cooking scene. "Why?"
"We still have a show to do, and we don't know how it's going to come out. So, why not?"
And so Cheryl went back into host mode, "She's preparing our dinner with the fresh goat that I bought in the market, with the oil and tomato paste that she had, and, of course, potatoes and onions."
"It looks like djarkope," Mister Hagal added to the commentary.
The woman nodded and repeated the word, then talked some more while the pot simmered.
Their dinner was interrupted by a ringing telephone.
"Mine," Kenda said and picked it up. "Hello, this is.... Yes."
She did more listening then talking for several minutes. Then she hung up.
"That was chargé d'affaires in," she paused, "I forgot where she said she was, anyway. Somebody from the Red Cross has seen Andrew in person, and spoke to him for a few minutes, and they said that he's OK and has been moved to a better holding cell than where he spent the first night."
"Are the Chinese going to release him?" Mister Hagal asked.
"They didn't say."
"How about the others?"
"The Red Cross people spoke to them too. Everybody is OK and they're all together. Only Andrew is being held separate."
"Well, that's something."
"It's good news," Cheryl said, "It really is."
"Yeah, it is."
9. "It was almost two minutes early."
Their second day in custody passed as the first. Breakfast was almost identical to what they had had for dinner the day before, and then lunch was more of the same. The only difference was the brief visit by the Red Cross officials. They were allowed to give the officials messages, and assured that they had seen Andrew and that he was well, and then they were gone and the door was locked behind them.
Later in the evening when their dinner arrived there was a young man with the two women who was somewhat unusual in that he was wearing a smartly tailored suit that anywhere else would have indicated he was with a Delta Blues tribute band.
He spoke to the uniformed woman who had been their chief caretaker in Chinese and she translated for them.
"This is Mister Sun, he is with the People's Scientific Board. He would like to know about your findings across the border. He said he has reviewed the photos and video you took and would like to know about the Buddha cave and the dragons. I will translate. But please, you may eat while we discuss."
They looked at each other, then Laurie nodded, "We'll tell him anything he wants to know."
Mister Sun spoke to the woman who still hadn't identified herself and she phrased the question to the Explorers. "Who found the cave with the carvings of the Lord Buddha?"
"We all did," Jimmy answered, "I think we all found some of them."
"All find? Many?" Mister Sun said in very thickly accented English, then, obviously uncomfortable in the language, he restated it in Chinese to the woman.
"He said there were only some pictures on a few of the still cameras."
"Yeah, I forgot to take my own pictures," Jack said, "I was having too much fun searching for them."
The woman translated it back to Mister Sun, he smiled and nodded, then asked another question.
"Where did you find the caves?"
They looked at each other, then Sean tried to answer, "Up the valley from where we camped, which, I guess, is down the valley from where you found us."
Mister Sun listened to the translation and nodded thoughtfully, then spoke softly.
"He has always suspected the ancient monastery north of here used those valleys for such a purpose."
He added something to it, then waited.
"But it ceased to be long ago. How long would you say those carvings had been there?"
Jack and the others exchanged helpless glances, then Bobbi answered for them, "We have no idea, but I can tell you this, the ones I saw had been there a very, very, long time."
Mister Sun didn't need that translated.
They finished their dinner while Mister Sun explained what subspecies of mountain lizard they had found, and that while they weren't real Chinese Dragons, they may be a descendant of the model for the legendary beast.
Then he thanked them for allowing him to keep copies of their photos and video, and left with the translator woman and the two others who had brought their dinner and some fresh towels.
And they were alone again.
In the morning, Lieutenant Liao accompanied their breakfast bowls. He stood at attention and made an announcement. "You will be released. Soon. The releasal is being processed."
"Thank you," several of them said.
"When will we be allowed to go?"
The Explorers applauded and thanked him for the news.
Then Laurie asked about Andrew.
"That matter is still being addressed."
"May I go see him?"
The Lieutenant considered it for a moment, "You, and you alone. Come with me."
The guard unlocked the door and they walked down a narrow hallway. Then the Lieutenant stopped and opened another door. Inside they could hear a radio playing a Chinese song. The first cell had a Chinese man in it who glowered at them when they walked by. The next cell was empty. Then...
"Oh, God it's good to see you," Andrew said when he saw Laurie and the Lieutenant. "Both of you. Nobody else speaks English."
"I am sorry about that, I'll see what can be done," the Lieutenant said to him. Then he turned to Laurie and bowed slightly, "Be brief," he said and walked away.
"What's going on?" Andrew asked her, "I haven't been told anything since the Red Cross guy was here and they brought me over here from the other cell. And all he said was that they'd let my people know I was safe. That was it."
"They said we'd be released tomorrow. Or soon at any rate. They haven't said anything about you."
"If they do any checking at all they'll find out I wasn't a spy."
"I know, but that may take time to get through all the channels." She looked at him, "I can tell them I don't want to be released unless I can take you with me."
"No, don't do that, go with the others when they let you go. It may just take some time, but they have to let me out."
She looked around his cell, "You know, for a cell, that's not too bad. I think I like it better than where they've got us."
"Yeah, it reminds me of my room at university. And it's not much smaller. They bring me plenty to eat, but the only thing the radio gets is two Chinese stations."
"How about the magazines?" She nodded to a stack of printed material.
"All Chinese, but some of them have good pictures in them."
"So, do you need anything? I'll try to have them send it over."
"No, I think I'm good. I even washed my clothes and they gave me this to wear while they dry." He tugged at a jumpsuit that was almost too small for him to wear and gestured to his underwear and pants hanging on a homemade clothesline of short pieces of string tied together.
"So you are doing better than us," she chuckled, "in some ways."
They heard the Lieutenant come back in so they stopped talking until he got there.
"Somebody who speaks your language will check on you once a day from now on," the officer said. "That is reasonable."
Laurie agreed, "Yes, thank you."
"Can you take this letter with you when you go?" Andrew said. "You know, just in case." He reached over and picked up a couple of hand written pages and handed them through the bars.
The Lieutenant took the letter and looked at it briefly, then he handed it to Laurie, "Your mother will see you soon. But I cannot say as to when."
"I know, thanks anyway."
"Now, we must go."
Laurie smiled and held Andrew's hand for a moment, "I'll see you soon. Before we leave?" She asked the Lieutenant.
"OK, say hi to the others for me."
On the way out of the cellblock Laurie thanked the Lieutenant.
"It was pleasant for me as well," he answered. "Now, unfortunately, I must take you back." He paused, "if I had known you previously I would ask you to go to dine with me. But now, it is not allowed."
She knew it was a compliment, but wasn't sure how to respond other than to say, "Thank you," and smile.
"He's got a chair and a small desk on the wall, and he can turn his own light on and off, and he's washed his clothes."
The Explorers couldn't believe the difference in the accommodations.
"I think I'd rather be over there," Jimmy said.
"But he is alone and nobody there spoke English. Lieutenant Liao said he'd have somebody that spoke English check on him every day."
"Now I know I'd rather be over there." He saw the look in Anne's eyes and grinned, "I was kidding."
Once again they all got ready for bed and then waited for the lights to go out.
"How about that?" Sean said in the sudden darkness.
"What?" One of the women asked.
"It was almost two minutes early."
"You tell them." A man answered.
Sean smiled but nobody could see it, "I will in the morning. Good night, Jack."
They started waking up, as usual, when precisely at five thirty in the morning, the lights came on.
Their routine was that the men would occupy the bathroom space first, then the women got to do their thing. Shortly afterward, while whoever was interested in looking out the window could watch several platoons of soldiers march by presumably on their way to breakfast, their meals would be delivered.
They had hoped that either Lieutenant Liao or the lady that spoke English would come and tell them to pack up and get ready to go. However, the female soldiers simply delivered the boxes with their bowls of rice and meat with some spices mixes in, a new stack of disposable cups, five new towels, and left.
"Oh, look," Anne said and held up a Chinese language newspaper.
"Wonderful," Jimmy said.
"Well, it's something different," she answered as she passed out the food.
"I wish the food was different," Bud shook his bowl and walked away.
As they ate Jimmy looked through the paper, then he stopped and held it up, "That's one of your pictures," he said to Sean and Lana.
They couldn't read a word of the story, but the picture was one of the ones they had taken of a carved Buddha in one of the caves they found.
"Is there a picture in there of the dragon lizards?"
"I'm looking," he said as he turned the pages, finally as he got to the sports section he started shaking his head, "No, I don't see one."
Later, lunch arrived.
In between they passed the time as they could, they played a couple of games, washed some clothes, then Sean coached a couple of them that doing some calisthenics, and they all took turns looking at the paper or out the windows.
In a few hours, their dinner arrived, with another newspaper.
"I know, that was the morning paper, this is the evening edition," Bud said.
"Sunshine here," Bobbi said holding up the original.
"And stars and the moon here," Bud showed her the banner on the new arrival.
"And I bet it's got our lizard in it."
"Let me look," Bud said. He took a bite of the rice dish and flipped through the paper. On about the fifth page he nodded and held up the page.
"Well, that's nice."
"I wonder what it says."
"Keep it and we'll have it translated when we get home."
They'd settled in for the night and the lights went off.
Then, in about an hour, the lights came back on and Lieutenant Liao walked in.
"I have good news. You are free. If I may, I would suggest you wait until morning to leave as the road to the pass is not good at night. Especially when you are not friendly to it."
They cheered and shook his hand and thanked him several times. Then he held up his hands.
"It has been a great pleasure to know you. And before you ask, I have no news about Mister Andrew. His case is under review by the Military Commission Security Office."
"So we can just leave in the morning?"
"Yes. We will go see Mister Andrew and then you can go. And if you please, I would enjoy providing you with a breakfast, not what you have been getting. The food they have given you here is a shame to my people."
Laurie nodded to him, "I think we'd like that."
"That is good. You will be given your cameras and I will show you my city," he smiled broadly, "It, will make, good TeeVee, as they say, and we will put gas-o-line petrol in your cars, and then, a friend of mine will guide you to the pass."
"We'd appreciate that."
The Lieutenant bowed to them and left. In a few moments, the lights went back out.
"Well, what do you think?" Bud asked the dark.
"I think tomorrow is going to be a long interesting day."
Then Anne chimed in, "I'm like a kid now, I'm too excited to sleep."
And so they chatted far into the night.
10. "Oh, that would be a problem."
"Where are you going?" Cheryl asked as the others began packing the trucks.
"Up to the pass. It's a long way around to get there." Mister Hagal answered.
"But they didn't say when they'd be released, just they they would be," she objected.
"She said sometime soon, and that it may be tomorrow. So we're going." Hagal checked his cell phone's charge, "You can stay here if you want."
Cheryl surrendered and went to get her things out of the room.
"We'll need fuel, and food, and the camping stuff," Nick was thinking out loud while he was loading the truck. "Just in case it isn't tomorrow."
Charlie nodded, "We'll get it on the way. We'll hit that market that she likes and stock up."
Mister Hagal came out with a tote box full of papers and maps, "There's nothing down there, we were going to do our staging in Torugart, but it wouldn't have worked out."
"It looks like we're going anyway," Nick took the box and slid it into the back of the Lada that was the color of burnt charcoal.
Kenda came out with her bag and put it in the smaller of the two trucks, "I'll ride in this one."
"We should do a shot to camera to explain all this," Hagal said when he remembered why they'd come there to begin with.
"I got some tape of the bugout," Nick answered, "If you want to say a piece give me a sec."
Mister Hagal spoke dramatically. "We're heading up to the Torugart Pass, some twelve thousand feet above sea level, on part of the old Silk Road, to await the release of the Explorers and the crew members that were arrested with them, and witness their return to freedom from their stint of captivity in the People's Republic."
Then Cheryl added her piece, "But there are very few places to get any supplies or even drinkable water at the Pass, so before we drive down there, we are going to stop at the market here in At-Bashi to get what we, and presumably, they, will need once they cross the border."
"Got it," Nick said once she stopped.
Neither of them had mentioned Andrew to the camera.
The presence of the Western TV crew caused quite the stir in the market and they were given all sorts of things to try and take. Mister Hagal found the best way to get the things he knew they'd need was to send Cheryl and the camera crew in one direction, then he went the other way to make their purchases.
In about an hour, they had what they needed, and all the footage of an open air market in central Asia that they would ever want, and they were back on the road.
"No, we'll go the other way, it's faster, and on a better road," Nick said when Mister Hagal told them he was going to go east then south.
"But that way is further from the border."
"We're going to the same place," Charlie said, "Why not have a race?"
"Sure. It'd be good for the show," Hagal said, "we'll top off the tanks and then go."
"OK, but which way are you going?" Nick asked the man who was going to drive the big truck.
Charlie turned around and looked at the giant Gorky Shehsherik, "I'm tempted to say that I'd head straight south over them," he jerked his head at the jagged mountains between them and the road to the pass. "But I think I'll follow him in case that thing breaks down again," he said meaning Mister Hagal and the Lada.
"You just want to rescue Cheryl again."
"Something wrong with that?"
"No," Nick admitted, "OK, gas station, fill all the cans, and then go."
"When I honk, we go," Mister Hagal said once he'd paid for the fuel. "The winner is the first one to the border crossing in one piece."
Nick started the Bukhanka and nodded to Kenda who told the producer they were ready on the radio.
"He's moving," Nick said when he glanced in the mirror, then from some distance away, they heard the Lada's horn. "Figures," he said and threw the loaf truck into gear and roared off down the road.
The only thing the journey proved was that while Mister Hagal was an award winning and reasonably successful television producer, he wasn't a world class map reader. If he were, he would have gone the other way.
Nick beat him to the pass by three hours, set up their camp for the night, and was trading stories with some of the Kyrgyz guards when the steaming Lada that was painted the same shade as light mud chugged into the waiting area followed shortly by the big truck.
"Ahh, Chris, didn't you have some blonde chick with you when you left town?" Nick asked when he noticed that Hagal was alone in the Lada.
"She didn't like the ride," he answered and nodded back to the truck. "two of the shocks came off."
"Oh, that would be a problem."
"This, my friends, is the city of Kashgar," Lieutenant Liao said to the now freed group after they convoyed out of the military post through the city and then finally stopped near a large plaza next to a man-made lake.
There had been a bit of drama as they had to suddenly find room for two more passengers, but it was muted and sad because they all knew they would rather have been finding room for three.
Stuff was shuffled and some of it was abandoned, much to the amusement of the Chinese soldiers who stood in silent ranks and watched as the first Westerners most of them have ever seen got ready to leave.
Finally Laurie rejoined them from visiting with Andrew with a stack of envelopes labeled for each other them in both English and Chinese that contained their exit permits for the pass as well as their passports.
"How is he?" Bud asked her as she passed out the envelopes.
"He says he's fine and that he'll be out of here soon."
They looked from one to the other, but there was nothing else to say.
Lieutenant Liao motioned for them to follow him and the woman that spoke English in a dark colored sedan with a young soldier driving and they mounted up and drove slowly out of the camp and into the city.
"Kashgar began as an oasis on the edge of the desert, a village on the ancient trade route, as you can see, it has grown," the Lieutenant said.
For about an hour, they were tourists in a large city, then they had a good meal of local delicacies, then, the Lieutenant introduced his friend Chin who, as it turned out, was the manager at a local metal works factory that made all sorts of things. He presented them with small boxes of samples of their wears and said he knew the road well because he used to drive an export van to the crossing a couple of times a week.
It turned out the woman was going with them to translate and would ride with Chin, but she didn't look too happy about it.
"So, as you see, I leave you in capable hands," Lieutenant Liao said with a bow. "And I give you my word as an officer, I will see that Mister Andrew is well treated until he leaves."
"Thank you," Laurie answered for them.
Mister Chin explained where they were going and how best to stay together, and the woman translated. Then he motioned them to get back into their cars.
"Well, we're on our way," Jimmy said as the explorers followed Chin's aging vehicle out of town.
"It was a slight detour, but it is a story we can tell for year and years," Bud said from the back seat.
"I'll wait to start telling it once we're over the border," Anne answered.
"Yeah, now that you mention it, that's a good point."
The city turned into farmland, then they began climbing into the mountains.
For an important crossing to the West, the road to the Torugart Pass wasn't what they expected as it deteriorated into a rough gravel and dirt road that was surprisingly busy as it wound further into the mountains.
And the road was still going up.
Chin made a couple of stops, mainly to get them out from behind a series of slow moving buses and a trio of heavily loaded old flatbed trucks, but to also give them a chance to stretch their legs and breathe something besides dust.
"This is the last stop, we'll be there next, make sure your papers and all are ready. We will not cross the border with you."
The production crew was sharing their lunch with the guards when one of them that had already eaten walked over with a message from their command post, "They just heard from a checkpoint on the road up the Chinese side, they are on their way. They'll be here in about half an hour."
"Good, thank you," Kenda answered. "You two should do a bit to camera. Do a promo for the episode about how it didn't go as to plan, and an update, then, some fill in case we need it." She nodded to Cheryl, "you can do the 'next week' promo."
Mister Hagal nodded, "OK, that's a good idea, give me a minute... I think we should have the gate in the background."
Nick looked around and checked the sun and the angles, "Sure, that'll work."
Cheryl brushed some of the dust out of her hair, but it was hopeless, as was her makeup when she checked herself in the truck's mirror.
"Don't worry, you look great, it's part of the episode."
"Like the sand in my shorts?" Charlie said as he gathered his equipment.
"No, that's normal for you."
"Well," he chuckled, "OK, I'm good here, give me a sound check."
11. "We'll leave that out of the show."
"Coming soon, an unbelievable episode of 'Extreme Real World Travel', our explorers from Saint Louis end up taking a detour through Communist China, check your schedule for the date and time." Mister Hagal said dramatically with the historic crossing in the background.
Then it was Cheryl's turn.
"Next week our team of explorers take a slight misstep and become guests of the People's Republic of China. Something that was not on the itinerary."
"One more, expand it," Kenda said. "Then we'll do yours again from over there."
The cameras were pointed at the Chinese side of the crossing and recorded the careful inspection of everybody's papers by the guards, and a long explanation by the escort. After what felt like an age, but was in reality only an hour or so, the three Lada's of the expedition team were allowed across one by one.
"No Andrew," Kenda said as they all got out of the cars to enter Kyrgyzstan and she realized who was missing.
"OK, let's get out of here."
"It's already getting late, where are we going to stop for the night?"
"At-Bashi, where we were," Hagal answered, then he nodded at Nick, "You lead, fast, we'll follow."
A quick check of the explorers and their vehicles assured the producer that they were good to go, and then with a few quick handshakes to the Kyrgyz guards and some waves to the audience on the Chinese side, they were on their way down the mountain in a cloud of dust.
The two way radios were alive with the details of their detour as they filled in Hagal and the others. But the subject of Andrew kept coming up, and nobody had any answers other than he was still OK and in a better holding cell than they had been.
"He did complain that the Chinese porno that they gave him with the sports and farming magazines were really strange," Laurie said with a laugh.
After the chuckling through the radios stopped somebody asked her what she meant by 'strange'.
"That's all he said, that the 'ChiComs' as he put it, have really strange taste in porn."
"We'll leave that out of the show," Hagal said shaking his head as they barreled along.
It was after dark when they got to town, but everybody was too fired up to sleep. There were more stories to be told, and they had to explain what happened to the Ladas, and how they'd ended up with large boxes of Chinese multi-tools and all.
Finally, the night was old and they were all exhausted and the last of the arak was gone.
Some of them elected to sleep in their cars, others pitched tents and made the best of it.
Kenda heard her phone being a ring and managed to grab it before it stopped.
She listened intently as somebody somewhere explained what was happening. Her smile needed no explanation, but the others wanted the details. "I'll tell everybody at once," she said.
Some of them had indulged in more arak than others, but they all managed to become vertical and coherent enough to listen.
"Andrew is on his way to Beijing. Once there, he'll board a British commercial flight that, I believe is non-stop to London."
The others just stood and stared at her.
"That's it?" Bud asked, "after all that, that's it?"
"Yes," she nodded, "the Chinese security authorities agreed that he wasn't a spy, but they wanted to make sure he left the country on their terms. But he is leaving."
Now they cheered, and then they went back to sleep.
An hour or so later Mister Hagal's phone rang.
"It's Andrew," he said after he answered it, then he relayed the message as he went. "He's at the airport with a Johnny somebody from the Embassy, on his phone. They're waiting for his boarding call for the flight out."
And they cheered again.
"No, let's drive to the airport," Jimmy said. "I mean, with everything that's happened, I'd like a bit of a break before being locked up for another day or more."
"On the airplane, right?" Jack asked him and Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, I agree. Let's just drive up there, take our time, camp on the way, and just relax."
Hagal took his shooting script and tossed it in the now almost colorless Lada. "You know, I agree with you." He looked over at the rest of the crew, "shoot, stuff, we'll make it work. Let's go. It's ahhh, north of here, I think."
Cheryl was smiling into the camera, "And in the final segment of our special episode, the now freed Explorers take a cruise on the inland sea of Issyk-Kul and we take a dip in some amazing thermal springs and we have our BBC cameraman's side of his detention inside China. All that and more coming up on 'Extreme Real World Travel', the Adventure in Kyrgyzstan. After these messages."
"Thank you," she said, but her smile was gone. "Can I go wash my hair now?"
She ran her fingers through it, "Maybe about four times."
Mister Hagal nodded at the group as they all sat around a dining table for the first time since they'd left the States. "Well, Andrew's home. Our visas are about to expire, and our flight leaves in a couple of days. Wanna head that way?"
Sean hesitated, then he answered, "Yeah, I think we're ready to go back."
"Yes." Lana confirmed.
"I know we are," Jack answered as he held Bobbi's hand, "you two?" he said to Jimmy and Anne.
"I wish we could drive home instead of fly. But," Anne looked at Jimmy, "Yeah, it's time to go."
In the morning they reluctantly checked out of the tourist hotel on the shores of the lake and drove toward the capital. But Mister Hagal had one more twist up his sleeve that he had arranged during their 'vacation on the lake'.
As they drove through the city, they turned south instead of north where the airport was and headed back out of the downtown.
The radio lit up with questions as it became clear that they weren't heading toward either a restaurant or a hotel.
"Just follow us," Hagal answered.
Then the producer stopped in front of a fairly new looking building.
"That's the US embassy," Jack said proving once again that he could read a sign.
His wife was not amused, "I am not dressed to go to an embassy."
Jack put the car in park, "You tell him."
They were allowed to freshen up before they had lunch with the Ambassador, who listened to the story with a politely amused expression on her face. Then she summarized the entire event with one statement, which Nick recorded.
"I bet it will make a very entertaining television show."
They all shook hands with her and her ranking staff then they walked back out to their cars.
"Well, any more humiliation in store for us today?" Jimmy asked Mister Hagal.
"I thought you'd like to meet the ambassador."
"Maybe after I'd had a shower and at least put on a clean shirt. Not after driving a hundred miles on a gravel road with no air conditioning."
"But then it wouldn't have been 'reality TV'."
Jimmy didn't answer.
"Where to now?" Sean said with his best diplomatic smile.
Hagal patted Jimmy's shoulder, "the network thought they'd upgrade our hotel for our last two nights in country. We're going up to the Dragon Hotel."
"I'm done with dragons, the last time we tried to find one we got arrested."
"This one has a spa on the property, the hotel had four stars on the booking page and the chef has one of his own."
Sean glanced at the others, "I guess we'll try it."
"... and that's a wrap."
"Welcome back. Now we have our explorers in the studio, and Mister Andrew is safe at the studio in London and is coming to us on a live link. So, final impressions of your trip? Who's first? Jack? You look like you've got something to say."
"He's always got something to say," Jimmy quipped.
Jack ignored him, "I'm glad we did it. But I'm real glad it's over."
Mister Hagal looked over at Sean and Lana, "and you?"
Sean shrugged, "that's exactly how I feel. It was wonderful to do it, but I'm very glad to be home."
Lana nodded, "I wouldn't have wanted to do it with anybody else, but I feel the same way."
"I've never been so glad to go through customs in my life as I was when I got to Heathrow."
"Is it true you're looking for another job?"
"I found one."
"Oh, what are you doing?"
"I'm working for a company that locates parts for Russian cars."
Mister Hagal didn't even try to dampen the resulting laughter from the former Explorers.
"And with that, we close this episode. Stay tuned for scenes from next week's edition when a new team of explorers maps a river in the Amazon. Thank you, and good night."
[NOTE: No Chinese Spies, or dragons, were harmed in the writing of this story. All characters are FICTIONAL. Overall this Piece Is A FICTIONAL STORY, enjoy it as such.
Thank You the Author. ]
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