British Classic Mineral Specimens

The Altai Mountains of China

I moved to Perth and lived in the Hills, where I built a rambling weatherboard house. I had loads of contacts, and worked in all sorts of mining related jobs for a while - my secretary was Kevin Bloody Wilson's daughter. One day, a friend brought some aquamarine around to the house - and asked my opinion. I thought it was Russian - he said it wasnt, but close by. During the next 12 months, a relationship developed with some gem dealers in Hong Kong, and I was invited to Beijing to meet the Minister for Minerals and Energy. The aquamarine WAS Russian, but from the Chinese side of the border - in the Altai Mountains. A fter the first visit to Beijing, we agreed a Joint Venture heads of agreement, and I was taken up to Urumchi, the capital city of Xinjiang. We flew from Beijing, along the Great wall - following it for thousands of miles along the southern border of Mongolia, over the Taklimakan Desert.

Chinese airlines are some of the most antiquated in the world. The national airline, CAAC, is notorious. China Airlines Always Cancelled. I boarded with two of my fellow Directors in Beijing, and we settled into our seats rather apprehensively. The stewardesses on these planes are Very Important People - they smile and gesture.... but they don't actually do anything - as a westerner accustomed to flying, you get used to expecting a drink - to see your seatbelt checked - to having someone check that the luggage rack is shut... We are waved on board by the stewardesses, who smile, and then sit down - carefully arranging their harnesses after shutting the doors. We peer down the aisle - bags hang from overhead lockers, bundles and boxes are blocking the aisles, and it is unbearably hot. The engines are started - the plane begins to move - and after taxiing a short distance, stops. the engines roar - the plane strains agains the brakes, and... we stay grounded. The engines roar again - flaps move, more engines, we lurch forward... and stop. The stewardesses stay strapped to their little seats, blissfully unaware that anything might be amiss.. More lurching - the engines roar, and die to a murmur - and finally with a scream, after more than half an hour of lurching and whining of flaps, we take off. In the air, the heat increases - the air conditioning is not working - and within minutes burly cossacks are pulling off tunics, mopping sweaty faces and reaching for the overhead lockers. the plane lurches - more lurches - turbulence over the mountains behind Beijing... I hear a rattle from the lockers, and before long, the unmistakable stench of firewater. It begins to leak from the joints in the lockers as the cossacks search for the remaining unbroken bottles, and finding them, carefully uncork them to drink. The stewardesses finally uncoil their tiny, slim bodies, and begin to make their way down the cabin, handing out little packages. I take mine, curious to open it. Paper wrapping falls away to reveal a delicate paper fan, made with little pieces of split bamboo. I cannot begin to describe the sight of dozens of huge cossacks and mongols lining the aisles of an old Russian turbo prop aircraft, delicately fanning themselves in a completely ludicrous attempt to cool themselves down. We fly on - the Great Wall stretches away beneath us - endless swathes of waterless desert to the south, while to the north, distant mountain ranges of Mongolia. One of my western friends decides to make the precarious journey to the toilets at the rear. Chinese food never agreed with him, and he always fought a battle with his guts - this was his worst nightmare... After an eternity, there was a shriek from behind me, and Brian emerged from the rear, trousers wrapped around his ankles and clutching his bum. When he'd resumed his composure, and the cossacks had settled into their seats, rocking with helpless laughter, I gradually got the story... simple really - don't flush the bog when you're sitting on the seat - it opens a flap in the side and dumps the contents. Aircreaft tend to be pressurised, and your bum squishes nicely into the hole...poor Brian...

We finally landed in Urumchi. As we came in to land, there were crumpled remains of aircraft aligned at strategic spots on the approach... some didnt look all that old - just left where they hit. At the sides of the runway were bunkers, and in each one, were two biplanes - each with a machine gun mounted between the propellor. I looked around, half expecting to see a film crew - Raiders of the Lost Ark - Harrison Ford to suddenly appear, running across the runway pursued by hapless warriors... but no.. just more biplanes, and a grey, drab concrete building that was the terminal.. The head of Geology and mineral resources for the Region met us at the airport - a rotund, jolly fellow, whom I now knew quite well from our meetings in Beijing.. I hesitated and asked him about the biplanes... He drew himself upright, and explained seriously that it is the Xinjiang Air Force - they still fly regularly, they practise manoevres, and they are ready to repel the Western invader. At times, its hard to keep a straight face - but he was deadly serious.. Before long, we were making friends with Chinese geologists and engineers based in town. Urumchi is the capital city of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region - an area covering almost a third of China, and bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Kazakhstan. The region answers to Beijing, but governs itself. The name Xinjiang, literally translated, means 'Great Treasure Chest' - it was the stronghold of Genghis Khan, who mined gold and gems to fund his warriors, and contains some of the richest un-mined deposits of diamonds, gold, base metals, coal, oil and gems in the world. The Chinese aren't daft - they are well aware that the world's resources are fast running out, and they are in no hurry to extract deposits that will give them economic superiority in years to come.

My first introductiion to the minerals of the region was Geology headquarters - the museum there is capable of reducing even the most experienced mineral collector into stunned disbelief. Aquamarines which rival or better anything from Afghanistan and Brazil, Stibnites - 6 foot high and crystals thick as a mans leg, Tourmalines - blue cap - similar to the Himalaya mine - Topaz, Alexandrite, Gem garnets which are world class, Gold - crystals, leaves, ropes, dust dredged from rivers, tellurides - gold is everywhere up there, Orpiment and Realgar - slabs several feet across - crystals fist sized, perfect, undamaged. The cases are old, dusty, cracked. Specimens are dusty and look uncared for - labels are roughly written in beautiful sculptured Chinese characters - but the specimens themselves are beyond comprehension - I've seen the Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian, The Sorbonne - but nothing prepares you for this dusty little backwater. After a day of standing awestruck with my Chinese counterparts in the mining venture, it was time to pack up and leave Urumchi for the long drive across the desert to Altai. The road is long, flat, dusty - and skirts the Tarim Basin, which contains massive reserves of coal and oil - our little convoy of Chinese four wheel drives rattled up the road, headed towards the distant mountains. We stopped many times for photos, camped overnight, drank lots of the local fire water - a revolting concoction made from potatoes and melons, and I started to gain a huge amount of respect for these tough Cossack and Uygur guys who had been cut off from Western science and technology all of their lives - and yet, had developed their own technology in isolation - built drill rigs, laboratories, mining equipment factories - mostly just from looking at photos of western equipment. After two days of hard driving we arrived in Altai - a mountain city, home to an eclectic collection of Han, Uygur, Mongols, Cossacks and other minor tribal groups. They all live happily together - simple lives, with a huge emphasis on family, and looking after the treasured old folks. Our headquarters building was to be a solid, granite built monolith on the outskirts of town, near to our quarters - a little hotel built over the stream which flowed from the mountains. The first night I was there, I panned gold from the stream. Home to around 4 ,000 people, Altai had one telephone - in the Regional Governors office. I was to become good friends with this rebel - thoughtful, a deep thinker, businessman, family man - hard drinking, a man whom I later discovered had one of the most difficult tasks imaginable - bringing this remote, unspoiled way of life, into the 21st century and western civilisation. It was a job which tasked him dearly, and we were to have long philosphical discussions on the issue, mostly sitting in the crowded main street at night, watching the children play.

After a couple of days in Altai, organising men, equipment, and clothing (in winter the mountains can be -40 degrees!) our convoy of little 4 wheel drives set off for the high Altai mountain base of the new gem company. The drive was a rough road, which wound up the mountainous gorges, and across rich plains and grasslands - devoid of animals, huge forests, towering mountains, and rushing rivers fed by glacial meltwaters. The river Altai is huge - a roaring torrent of dark, glacial green water which pours from the mountains in cascades. Deep gorges are terrifying - the water thunders through narrow ravines in which mist hangs high in the air - wider stretches allow the flow to slow a little, and alluvial gold deposits are formed everywhere - thousands of locals make a good living from digging in these alluvials for gold, using primitive rockers and sluices. They dig deep into the alluvial gravels, sometimes holding back the raging waters with rough dams of logs cut from the forests - the pits behind the dams are over 100 feet deep in places - there was no way I was going to brave the rough ladders which reached into the watery depths - the thought of the dam breaching, and the freezing green, oily waters of the river pouring into the pit was too much. I would stand on the edge, watching hundreds of artisan miners digging away - and sometimes accompany them on panning trips to shallower deposits. The gold is quite fine, and I'm sure they lose well over half as it floats easily and can escape over the top of the rockers before it gets a chance to sink behind the riffles.

A village, clinging to a mountainside, is the halfway point for the trip - we stop to eat rice, These people are very simple - but there is an overbearing element of happiness - they always smile - laugh - joke - there's a non-stop flow of humour amongst the crew. the restaurant is wallpapered with newspapers. In the village, every house has a tiny veg plot which stretches dodwn to the river - they are all carefully tended -little wooden posts holding a variety of vines, fruits and veg. More bowlsful of rice, and yet more steamed buns - followed by char - streaming glasses of the inevitable green tea - a tiny pinch of leaves infused in a flask of hot water, and poured after a long while into glasses. Its very weak, but surprisingly refreshing, and everyone drinks gallons of it. Replenished, we head for the vehicles - curious locals crowd the street to see the foreign gweilo with his entourage - I was one of the first westerners to be allowed into what was still a closed military zone - it had taken over a year of negotiations with various government departments and regional chiefs, for me to be allowed into the area. They were still very suspicious of anyone from the outside - why did I want to be there? We travelled on.. The road now became a track - much travelled, but little more than a packhorse trail - the mountains are full of such roads - barely maintained, frequently flooded and washed out, yet somehow, they stay open and barely passable. We bumped up steeper and steeper inclines - the river beginning to disappear into a rocky gorge - one side of the track always cut into a rock face - fantastic formations in the gneisses revealing the tortuous metamorphic birth of this incrdible scenery. We would stop frequently to move boulders, sometimes building across ravines washed out of the track - the crew running franatically like startled ants, levering, shouting, shrieking with laughter, and quickly jumping back into the vehicles as they started to move.. Trees start to line the mountainsides - tall pines, massive trunks, many venerable years old - these are not forests that are farmed. We climb higher, and the road tops a rise that gives way to an incredible vista - a plateau, rolling mountains stretching into the distance around its edges - the plateau itself formed of rolling, gently undulating hills, as green as I have ever seen grass. There is not a sign of life for mile after mile - millions of acres of some of the best pasture I have ever seen in the world - and not a single animal to be seen. We drive for hour after hour, past rolling hills, huge granite bosses, through a huge thrust zone - shattered rocks climbing over the gneissic pavement - huge boulders rolling down the slopes from the thrust which is visible for mile after mile. Towards the evening, the scenery begins to change again - and the crew stop by a river, near a crossing point where battered old chinese trucks loaded with iron ore have bogged hopelessly - dragged into the muddy slopes approaching the river. Local Mongols are shovelling the iron ore out of the trucks in vain attempts to extricate them - the rear ends have disappeared into the mire, leaving only the cab and front wheels pointing to the sky. We set up camp half a mile away, and settle down for the evening while the camp cook coaxes a fire out of a folorn pile of firewood. A big cast iron pot is soon full of simmering rice - topped up with a sackful of prawn shells for flavour and protein... More steamed buns appear, and we settle down around a camp fire to share stories of mines - big diggers, bulldozers.. I'm amazed at their thirst for knowledge - they know we have big machines - they've never seen them, but they know all about them.. we sit around the fire, and I tell stories of the big opencuts, 200 ton haulpacs, D12 bulldozers with blades higher than a mans head. They are enthralled... a young geologist moves closer to me, and introduces himself. He smiles, and mutters his name - shogun. He watches every word I speak, listens intently, mouthing some of the words as I talk. I smile, and we begin to exchange more words - pointing, swapping language.. Shogun rapidly became my shadow - always at my side, carrying my bag, compass, camera - helping with explosives, machinery - and learning intently as I described geology and mineralogy to him. Darkness fell, and conversation slowed - cossacks drifted to their bed rolls, and soon we retired to our tents - exhausted after a long day on the road, and intense concentration of the verbal exchanges. Sometimes there can be a 4 way translation - Han chinese to cossack, to uygur, and possibly Kazakh, before turning around and coming back to us.

A new day dawned - the sun rises early in summer in these northern climes - and by 4.30am we were up and eating - more rice, more buns - cups of fresh green leaf tea... excited chatter from the crew, tents being bundled into the back of the vehicles... We were soon on the road again - we would be reaching the mines before nightfall - hopefully earlier if the road allowed. The track wound ever higher - the mountains beginning to flatten - long, winding ridges starting to appear. In the distance, the occasional cossack family group - a scattering of goats, yurts gaily painted on the pastel green landscape, a thin wisp of smoke trailing into the still skies.. We stopped occasionally, water and tea was handed out, more steamed buns, and an outcrop of rock was inspected on the roadside - fantastic crystals, biotite micas large as your hand, creamy feldspars, smoky coloured quartrz... pegmatite country. We wound on, into a shallow valley with sparsely wooded sides, crystal clear waters cascading over flattened rocks in the stream bed. The little convoy started to slow - on a mountainside to our left was a scree slope, sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. We stopped, looks were exchanged, and I took out my Estwing hammer and slipped it into my holster. I walked across to the bottom of the slope - my eyes slowly adjusting to the rubbish scattered across the slope. Broken glass lay everywhere - splintered shards - it looked like there had been a competition - throw the bottle and see how small it will shatter. I scrunched across the scree, and my eyes slowly started to register that this was no glass - mica was strewn amongst lumps of smoky quartz, little pieces of whiter quartz holding pale blue crystals. I picked up some of the glass - it had fracture, little lines of impurities - shades of pale blue - aquamarine blue. As I walked, I collected a handful of rocky lumps - little pale blue crystals sticking out of quartz, the occasional piece of darker green and almost lime green. I reached the outcrop - a long line of pegmatite snaked into the distance, skirts of scree falling away on either side, shards of quartz and aquamarine glittering everywhere. At the outcrop, aquamarine crystals criss-crossed the rock, some only tiny - glass clear, deep blue where they were protected from the intense light of the cloudless skies devoid of pollution. I stood, speechless - the core of the pegmatite was exposed along the ridge, gems spilling into the scree... I walked slowly along, tapping the rocks, levering little pieces free - collecting handfuls of gems with ease.. Shogun walked alongside me - taking my specimens and stuffing them into his sample bag.. He never took his eyes off what I was doing - watching, recording - I smiled and handed him my estwing and gestured to a large aquamarine that poked out of a lump of silvery, metallic material in the core. He took the estwing, his eyes shining - almost reverence as he held the shiny new hammer. Two of the other young geological assistants walked closely behind, and we sat down to remove the aquamarine. As Shogun gently worked away around the base, using my little chisels and the hammer, I looked at the silvery material with interest. It was a pinkish tinge - I picked up a lump and examined it more closely - Bismuth. The whole core of the pegmatite was shot through with bismuth metal - the aquamarine embedded in it. After an hour, we had extracted a 7 inch aqua, about 4 inches across - a big crystal - cloudy, but with clear, facetable areas scattered throughout its length. This was my introduction to the Altai - it was commonplace to walk up to a pegmatite and see gem crystals sticking out of it - cavities abounded, and it soon became apparent that for the venture to succeed, we would need considerable organisation, restraint (the Chinese miners only had rudimentary explosives which shattered everything to a fine powder) and a refined system of cataloguing and ranking the pegmatites for production capability. It was immediately clear that this was a gem region - we had negotiated a license which covered 400 square miles of the Altai Mountains, with complete control over the production of all gem and mineral specimens, and with first right of option over production of gold and base metals.

Now, only now, did I begin to understand the legend of Gengis Khan...

Base camp was soon established at the foot of one of the huge pegmatite exposures. It was sheltered - in the lee of a massive rib of pegmatite, huge granite boulders providing cover from the driving wind and rain that sometimes swept across the valleys and mountains of the Altai. Below the camp ran a sparkling stream which served a multitude of purposes - the ablution block was a group of trees downstream - you hid behind a trunk and pulled your trousers down, only to find another cossack hiding behind a tree three yards further down the stream - sheepish grins, shaken heads - and you got on with it. The water was clear, icy cold all year round, but tasted of heaven - the cleanest water I have ever drunk. You went down in the early morning and jumped in - it was icy - but washing soon woke you up... We even panned gems from the gravels - lovely clear, rolled beryl, topaz, chrysoberyl. After a few days, the 4 wheel drives disappeared, to be replaced with ponies. Only one vehicle remained - mine. I was gweilo - westerner - not to ride horses - we dont know how. So I had a driver, and was driven everywhere we could - but most of the mines were way, way beyond the range of any vehicle - hours of trekking up steep mountain slopes and wandering valleys, in wonderful hidden bowls amongst the ribbons of pegmatite. One morning, the head man's son was having problems saddling and riding his pony. He put the heavily decorated wooden saddle onto the pony and leapt on board. The pony promptly bolted and threw him off. Again, he tried, leaping on and riding off to the accompaniment of bucking and rearing until he fell sprawled in the wet grass by the stream. The pony wandered off unconcerned. A knot of cossacks had formed, watching the proceedings with amused interest. The boy tried again, and landed in the wet grass a third time, before the pony trotted across to me, unconcerned, but clearly fed up with the whole proceedings. I caught him, and took the saddle off - gently running a hand down his back - a slight flinch told me there was something rubbing his back, and feeling the lining of the saddle, I quickly found the cause - a loose nail, holding the lining in place, had slipped out and was sticking into the pony's back. I quietly removed it, and replaced the saddle - I couldnt resist the urge to mount, and slinging my leg over, rode off across the meadow and back to the now silent knot of cossacks. The boys father grinned broadly and pointed - 'hey - gweilo can ride... NOW we can have fun....!' - His son was red with embarrassment, but I relented and showed him the nail.. Head man took me across the paddock and said 'take your pick, gweilo - whichever you want - is your horse.' I saw one, sturdy, stocky little chap who was beautiful - strong back, lovely soft head, and a gorgeous long, silky mane.. I pointed, and said 'That one please' The old man sighed - 'My best horse... he's yours...!' So from then on I rode the mountains, and took part in races with these wonderful guys - so happy, such humour - so wise in many ways - they started to teach me about the local wildlife - about tracking, about animals, and about the legends of Gengis Khan... In the late evenings, we would sit and talk, after the days labours were over - watching the sun slowly dip below the mountain peaks. We sat on the grass, gaily coloured cossack rugs casually thrown on the ground. Around us were little holes in the ground - and after a few days the local inhabitants began to realise we would not hurt them, and we were soon treated to the sight of families of marmots emerging from their burrows and standing, yards from us, their big rounded eyes bright and watchful, whilst the young ones played and frolicked in the warm grass. Snow hares appeared - pure white, with long, floppy ears, and would wander into the camp - completely unconcerned at the invasion of humans - they would slowly hop onto the rugs, and we would feed them lettuce and stroke them, until they wandered away, quietly nibbling as they went. One evening, there was a commotion in the camp - one of the young miners came tearing down the mountainside, breathless, and ran up to our tent. He babbled to Shogun and pointed to the skyline, tugging at my arm as he did so. Shogun grabbed a pair of binoculars and said 'cat - big cat... of the snow...' We ran up the first slope, to where there was a view along the long ridge of pegmatites that ran across the top of the valley - and I caught a fleeting glimpse of an animal slowly and deliberately walking the ridge. We stalked along it, following the footsteps, until we reached a huge outcrop of granite at the summit. Our hearts were pounding as we slowly peered around the outcrop, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever it was - and no more than 20 or 30 yards away, standing looking directly at us, was a snow leopard. I've never seen such a magnificent animal - the sheer power, grace, the intelligent face - the absolute freedom of that creature was a joy to behold. We were spellbound - we could not move a muscle - we just lay frozen to the spot whilst he slowly moved away down the slope - his movement almost fluid, until he melted amongst the rocks, almost invisible, and was gone.

One morning, I went down to the stream for a wash as usual, and as I was splashing away, slowly became aware of a presence. I looked around me, and standing just upstream in the middle of the water, was a large brown bear. I froze to the spot - our eyes met and I looked him up and down. Shaggy, long brown hair - thick, quite fine and silky - the long nose constantly scenting, dark brown eyes set deep into the fur on his face. He stood erect, and I wondered what those huge claws would do if they got hold of me. I had no time to be frightened - I just dropped my head a little in the way I always do when I'm training horses and want to show that I'm giving ground to them. He snuffled, seemed to hesitate a little, and then ambled off into the woods - scarcely making a sound - his huge bulk just melting into the trees like a ghost. One of the miners had seen him retreating, and a little knot of them ran into the woods shouting and beating sticks - but I doubt he was worried - I think he'd faced greater adversaries in his time. I found a little knot of brown hair caught on the end of a twig where he'd walked off - I kept it in case people didnt believe my story. I think this bear would have been quite annoyed with us, because a few days later, one of the miners found a bees nest in a tree, and brought a cloth wrapped bundle of honey into the camp. We still lived on a staple diet of steamed buns and rice, sometimes interspersed with dried vegetables from sacks - but it had to be said that food was terrible. To this day, I've avoided rice. Seizing the honey, I smeared some on a steamed bun, and gulped it hungrily. Then an idea formed - cut it in half and toast it - so I went over to where the cook was preparing the day's treat, and begged some buns. They toasted beautifully, and I smeared honey over them and gave some to the miners. They loved them, and promptly started toasting buns and smearing honey - then wrapping them and putting them into their bags to take up the mountain to the mine. After that, everyone toasted their buns. So if you meet a cossack who eats toast, it was I who introduced them to this Western vice... You can probably thank a brown bear...

There were pegmatites everywhere. At night, we would sort through aquamarine - piles and piles of it, mostly splintered pieces and small crystals which the miners were bringing down the mountain in increasing quantities. One day, I'd had enough of this wanton destruction. I called the Director over, and we discussed technology for the thousandth time - and finally, I started to get through to them. The next day, the miners were kept out of the mines - and I went up with them to one locality. There, we sat, whilst I sketched out my plan - and soon they were watching whilst I carefully slotted chisels into drillholes that would have been charged with explosives. Great blocks of pegmatite broke free, and I started them breaking them up, not with the big sledgehammers they were used to using, but with small hammers and chisels - carefully prepping the rocks until they could expose entire crystals. Soon, a stream of lumps of rock started to appear at my side, and I sat with Shogun, carefully trimming them down until the aquamarine crystals jumped free. At last, we were starting to extract bigger crystals, without stress fracturing from explosives. I spent day, after day sitting in the opencuts with the miners, teaching them to trim the rocks down, to stop the indescriminate use of explosives, and at night, the piles grew bigger, the fragments turned into crystals, and our production values grew exponentially. All the material was sent down to Altai in the remaining 4 wheel drive, where two of the other Australian directors were running the cutting workshops, and laboratory. The aqua from these mountains is extraordinarily varied. Colours range from pale, almost colourless, pale blue, deep aqua blue, pale yellow, deeper yellow, pale green through to intense deep green, pinkinsh hues. The greens always turn into blue with heat treatment. One of our team was a nuclear physicist, born and bred in China, and he developed technology for assessing the aqua before treating it - he would do fluid inclusion studies, work out the ambient temperature and pressure at which the aqua was formed, and only then, would he start processing the gem rough, creating similar conditions in the heating chamber. The success rate was much higher than normal, and we produced some magnificent gems - beasts of over 50 carats regularly appeared from the cutting workshops. We didnt just introduce treatment technology. Over a period of two years, I was able to introduce quarrying technology, drilling holes a little larger, and then using water activated splitting compounds to avoid any blast shattering. We tried to use hydraulic saws, but in such a remote place, with minimal technology, anything that needed spares and maintenance just didnt hack it, so eventually we went back to good old drillholes and splitters - cobbing the remaining rocks to get the crystals out. It worked, it was labour intensive, it was simple. The miners were a happy bunch - mostly young, untrained in anything - but totally dedicated to their jobs, and willing to do anything - to work any hours, to achieve our aims. They were gentle, funny, loveable really - I never had a cross word with any of them, never saw the sorts of things you see in western workplaces - abject stupidity, laziness, unwillingness - such attitudes just dont seem to exist up there. Maybe its the mountain air - maybe its the way they are brought up - I can't put a finger on it, but these are some of the most desirable people you'd ever want to employ. The simple things in life always amused them - I remember the fist time they saw the video camera - the whole camp turned out to see me hoist this enormous great lump of archaic technology onto my shoulder and point it in their direction. You'd have thought they were 6 year olds - running around in front of it, pulling faces, running up to look in the lens... They didnt see the video for a while - eventually we organised a generator and took a little TV screen up to the camp. The first night, I decided to run some of the videos - we set the TV up on a rock, near the camp fire, and cranked the generator into life. After a bit of fiddling with leads and wires, I managed to get it to playback from the camera, and the guys crowded round the screen in a tight half-circle. The first images flickered across the screen and squeals of delight began to erupt from the watchers - smiles, giggles, lots of back slapping - rib poking and pointing in abundance. They loved it.

I'd spend time in Altai - down from the mountains - in the headquarters building. There wasn't a huge social life up there - you had tea - and went for a walk in the village. Its only really a couple of streets - a road runs alongside the river, and another one parallels it further back - and this is lines with shops and commercial buildings. The houses are a bit further back, and in alleyways off the main street. I'd walk over the bridge from the hotel, into town - usually with a camera over my shoulder, and by the time I got to the main street, a throng of curious youngsters would surround me. The main street at night was impassable - it would be full of pool tables that appeared from nowhere. Old men and women would sit on the streets in armchairs, carried outside by their children. Some of these old folks must have been over 100, and still fit and healthy - drinking gallons of green tea - sagely surveying the goings on, and usually with a little knot of small, adoring children at their feet. Parents had their own chairs - sturdy little kitchen chairs for the most part - and would sit with the oldies. The youngsters played pool and ran in the streets, playing with wooden hoops pushed with sticks. I would sometimes stop and have a game of pool - they were good - I didnt often get a chance to win. One evening I happened upon the Regional Governor - Wang - sitting with some of his family. He beckoned me over to join them, and we sat in silence for a while, watching the goings on. He poured me a glass of green tea, and we sipped - relaxed - lost in our thoughts. After a while we began to talk - slowly, his English wasn't good, and my Mandarin even worse. We talked of the world - of what was happening, about culture, about the money that westerners had to spend on our aquamarine, about refrigerators, televisions.... I hesitated for a bit, and told him about my fears for the region - how the joint venture would bring millions to the area - pay the miners more than they ever dreamed of earning - give them western delights like tv's and videos. I gestured at the families sitting on the street - could this peaceful scene carry on? What would happen when the locals got hold of money? What would happen when they went to Germany for training in gem cutting, or Hong Kong to sell parcels of gems, or attend conferences? Could this peace, this tranquil way of life survive? I rambled on for a bit - talking slowly, haltingly - trying to explain the indecision that had taken hold of me since I'd been there. I'd arrived full of western desire to make millions - to be the biggest coloured gem miner in the world - to be rich and famous. Now, I was happy just sitting in the street with a glass of green tea - happy never to see the west again. I turned to Wang - his face was half hidden by the shadow of an awning, but I could see the unmistakable glint of tears on his face. He sat in silence for a while, before turning and looking squarely at me. 'I didnt think a gweilo would ever understand my dilemma' ... his shoulders hunched... 'I have to bring these people into the 21st Century - but how? Should I? They want all the things you westerners have - but do they want what goes with them... are they ready for that.. I think not. I have to be the architect of their unhappiness.' He touched me on the arm, and nodded his head a little. Then he poured us another glass of green tea, and we sat in companiable silence for a while more, while the sun slowly set, and the children gradually fell asleep.

Those warm, balmy evenings - high in the Altai Mountains - it truly was the last frontier. I hope it still is. I can't begin to describe the feelings - the sheer intensity of living - the total freedom, the closeness you feel with nature, with the mountains themselves and the animals that live around you - its an unforgettable experience. I have questioned the meaning of our western existence ever since. When I think of my days in England - the corrupt government, taxes, politicians, the sheer duplicity of every government official - rules, regulations, taxes, fines, laws made by idiots, legal system gone mad, health and safety gone mad, pressure, stress... We call this Civilisation. We see ourselves as a 'Developed Nation'... I beg to differ. I think my friends in the Altai have got it sorted - simple, uncomplicated, few rules, and a moral system built on a rock solid family foundation, where the family unit is the core of everything. I was never so happy as when I was there - I've never met so many happy, fit, healthy people who are so obviously deeply content with their lives. I'm sure they have problems - I know they do - but in three years living and working with them, I never once heard a groan or a moan, never once met anyone who was curt, or arrogant, or just plain uninterested. Every person you met had an effect on you - and it was always positive. They want to learn - they are like mobile sponges - they soak up every little bit of information you can give them - they feast on your words and advice - they chew on it and come up with more questions - and some of their solutions are amazing. They don't just think - they go away and do things, and then ask your opinion. I'll give you an example:... They wanted to core drill some of the pegmatites. Now these guys had heard about core drilling - but had only managed to make some pretty rudimentary rigs that produced a lot of chippings, not always even in order. So I sat down and drew up a pretty good sketch of a Longyear 44. I went through all the bits and bobs with them - told them about the core barrel, and how it worked, how the little components, like the rings worked. Showed them how we designed the core bits, and how they could be stepped or impregnated. We talked about masts, steel wire, drilling mud - all those things you need to know to shove a diamond hole in the ground. A few months afterwards, I was in Altai, and one of the engineers asked if I could go out with him to look at a prospect they were working on. From about 5 miles out, you could see what looked like an old Russian oilwell - big derrick, covered in tarpaulins. When we got to the site, he proudly took me inside the structure, to where a newly built Longyear 44 was thudding away. The geologists excitedly showed me their first core recovery - not brilliant - but hey - better than a handful of chippings. We looked at the bits - terrible - but nothing a bit of modification couldnt fix. These guys had done it from my sketches - and it worked. How could any westerner be arrogant enough to think these guys aren't one day going to rule the world. With an attitude like that, there's nothing you cant do.

It wasn't always good. One one occasion we sent a parcel of gems to Hong Kong with one of the gem company employees. He was quite an intelligent guy - had often come to my hotel room in Altai with crystals which he said the local cossacks wanted to sell. I always sent him to the company office and told him to sell them to the company - and not me personally (despite the fact that some specimens were staggering - I didnt want to wind up in a local gaol) He went to Hong Kong with probably about £25,000 worth of aqua, cut and grade into cut stones, calibrated. I managed to get through to the dealer in Hong Kong who dealt with our stones, and found out roughly what they'd fetched. When our guy returned a week or so later, his story didnt tally. He gave a lesser per carat figure, and it was quite obviouos that he was trying to 'skim' himself a profit on the deal. I was at the company office at the time, and mentioned the whole affair to one of the Chinese Joint Venture officials. He frowned, and sent for the man. Another employee was dispatched at the same time, a furious exchange of words sending the man in a flurry out of the door. The miscreant finally turned up, and was asked for his version of the story - just as two armed People's Army soldiers walked into the room behind him. I took no notice of them - they were everywhere - part of the scenery. Another furious exchange took place, before the soldiers roughly bundled him out of the door. I followed, still not sure what I was going to do with this guy - he'd worked for us since the company started. They walked around the corner into the yard at the back of the building - a sort of courtyard, with buildings and store rooms which ran off it. One of the soldiers pulled a gun out of his holster, put it against the mans head and pulled the trigger. The body slumped to the ground - his head a mess of blood and bits. I guess that's why they dont have overcrowded prisons in China. Two days later the mans son came to my room - he wanted to sell me some big aquamarine crystals he'd found in the mountains....

After nearly three years of travelling up and down to China - the Altai, and meetings with bankers and lawyers in Hong Kong and London, we were given the green light by Central Government in Beijing. We had passed the test. They trusted us. My time in the mountains had established a trust with not only the locals, but central government officials - who officially still only met in big rooms with attendants at their sides, but unofficially would ring and come for a drink at the hotel, or invite us for a meal at a restaurant in Beijing at their expense. They even organised 'showings' of mineral specimens for me, and the Minister for Geology and Mineral Resources presented me with a stibnite, stibiconite, and wonderful cinnabar specimens which I still have to this day - world class, each and every one of them. We needed the banks to put in the final $2 million US Dollars to complete the investment in the project, and we then had a first term of 15 years. I travelled down to Beijing one day to meet at the gology dept of the Bureau of mineral resources. There was something going on. When I got into Beijing, traffic was snarled, there were troops everywhere.... this was not the place I knew and loved. At the ministry, the story unrolled, and we went to look at what was going on. The Ministry buildings weren't far from Tiananmen. Some of our geologists went with me - we walked down to the square and mingled with the crowds to see what was going on. News photographers lined the street nearest the Forbidden City, near the entrance. We stood in a little row of cameramen and reporters, under the shade of a row of trees, when the first shooting started. I dont think anyone realised what was happening for a bit - there was just a lot of movement - tanks and armoured vehicles driving around - and then people started to fall down. It was only when the cameraman next to me hit the ground in a pool of blood, most of the back of his head was missing, that I realised that this was no show of force. Chinese troops were butchering their own people - unarmed, mostly young students - including our geologists. Bullets flew completely randomly. The shooting was erratic, in all directions - they didnt care who they hit, they were just under orders to fire indiscriminately and disperse the crowd. We hit the ground - and took cover behind trees - running from tree to tree until we were able to hop over a wall and watch from the relative shelter behind the wall. Dozens of young chinese were just lying in the road in pools of blood - I never counted - you don't. Your head takes over - you go into a sort of suspended state of calmness that either sees you killed or survive - most of our little crowd got out. Two didnt - they were shot. Just happy young geologists, gone to Tiananmen to see what was happening. You try to help - but there's nothing you can do - with wounds like these, you're either dead, or you survive - you can't believe how much blood there is in a human body until you see someone lying in the street, with a gaping hole in their stomach, and blood pumping out by the pint. I spoke to the Xinjiang Governor afterwards. He'd been asked to supply troops - and refused. Apparently the unit that was sent in the end, after numerous semi autonomous regions and provinces had refused, was the Tibetan regiment. They are brainwashed - the most feared of all Chinese troops. They'll kill their own friends and family if told to do so - and are the only ones in the country who were prepared to kill their own people.

Most westerners left Beijing over the next days - it wan't a very pleasant place to be. Everywhere was the debris of carnage. It took some time for them to clean up. There was a feeling of disbelief amongst the people. In Xinjiang and the far provinces, nobody knew it had happened. The only Chinese who DID really know were those who were there. In Hong Kong, they just shrugged their shoulders - it couldnt happen, they said. I had a meeting with the banks shortly after. Our $US 2 million evaporated overnight - sorry chaps - too unstable - can't make the investment. 3 years of hard work, planning, a lot of personal money - all up the spout. I did go back to Australia with a lot of fine mineral specimens - stibnites a foot high, cinnabar, the first of the really good scheelites, and a collection of aquamarine that would make your mouth water. It wasn't the same as running a gem venture in the mountains though. We did go back - but they'd lost that trust - it just wasn't the same. The price of investment had gone up - they weren't really that bothered any more - Tiananmen had changed a lot of attitudes. It's funny - I heard recently that now - in 2009/10 - there is a project running in the Altai, involving several mining companies, and a major museum, to study the granites of the Altai. Funny - we did it in 1987, and its taken the rest of the western world till 2009 to get a foot in the door over there.

Returning to Ozzie was hard - I had put heart and soul into China - and now I had to do something else. I soon got involved in the mining game in Oz again - this time, helping to market mining equipment - I still knew a lot of people, so it wasnt hard. After a while, I got bored, but had some good fun. We were selling mining machinery - drilling equipment mainly - and I had rigs and drill bits operating in most of the big mines. It was always a good excuse to go underground - so that started a phase of my life when I was very actively collecting. I was supplying the Lennard Shelf lead / zinc mines, even developing special drillbits that could claw their way back out of the hole when they hit cavities. I spent weeks on site, testing drilling equipment, and amassing container loads of specimens - calcite, sphalerite, galena, marcasite - superb specimens which could rival anything from northern England or the USA. They never really got to the mineral market internationally - I still have a lot of them - but at shows there is never any interest, so I dont bother taking them any more. They'll go back to Oz one day.