“The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places” by William Atkins


William Atkins has done extensive and presumably rather expensive research for The Immeasurable World. He writes from first hand experience of visiting eight deserts as diverse as the empty quarter of Oman and the famous Burning Man Festival in the United States. Each gets an extended essay with similar components. So, no rides for days on end with just a camel for a friend, but Atkins, to his credit, does manage at each of the deserts he visits to get some sand in his shoes and some camel hair in his oatmeal porridge.

Atkins is very strong on the history, and provides a useful bibliography for each desert featuring 19th-century explorers who wrote about it in English. He seems to have visited the Dunhuang oasis primarily because Mildred Cable and her companion Francesca French wrote about it a century ago. He of course describes the geography of each desert today, most of it featuring water bottle litter. As he says of the Aral Sea,


kitchen waste, construction waste, broken furniture, clothes, bones, the ubiquitous, uncountable vodka bottles of Central Asia. It was the town’s tip, and of course it was where the desert began—the desert that itself was viewed as one giant tip.


He talks about his own experiences, but the main focus of each essay is on the life of the people living there today. Atkins travels primarily by SUV, and the drivers he hires are his introduction to local society. At the Aral Sea, his driver is an English-speaking employee of an NGO retraining local fisherman. The chap helps him meet (and drink vodka with) a whole range of local fishermen, most of whom fish no more. That’s pretty typical.  Deserts are, by their nature, not very productive places.


The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places, William Atkins (Penguin RandomHouse, Faber & Faber, June 2018)
The Immeasurable World:
Journeys in Desert Places
, William Atkins (Penguin RandomHouse, Faber & Faber, June 2018)

The tales of his seven trips (one took in both the Taklamakan and the Gobi in China) are presented as independent essays. There seem to be no useful generalizations. Taken together, Atkins’s essays present desert environments on four continents with a great deal in common but each distinct.  He does not, for example, find all the deserts immeasurable. His adventures in Oman are circumscribed by the lack of a Saudi visa. He reports on the surveillance state in western China. And the desert hosting the Burning Man Festival is the most regulated of all.

Regrettably, rather than straight reportage, Atkins’s style can be choppy. He cuts from one of these treatments to another in the middle of a story and then returns later to take up the narrative. We read about what Wilfred Thesiger said about the area, then suddenly Atkins is trudging through the sand, then we hear about Atkins’s interactions with people in the area today, more trudging, then more history, and so on.

The publisher evidently lavished a bit of cash on maps illustrating each of Atkins’s deserts. However, while the cartography is good, the cartographer apparently wasn’t given access to the text. The maps show all sorts of curious features but omit most of the places Atkins mentions and so are not very helpful in helping follow the journeys  The map of the Aral Sea is intended to show its extent 30 years ago and its extent today, but in black and white, it’s just a set of closed curves and quite inscrutable.

That said, this is a very recommendable book. Atkins makes some perceptive comments about deserts you’re unlikely to read about anywhere else. Give it a try.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.