Dudley Blauwet travelling abroad visiting Viet Nam mining regions and gem markets to evaluate rough and gemstone origin
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED...
Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1954, the oldest son of eight children, I grew up on a small farm on the South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa border.
A chance event in 1975 propelled me into the mineral world. Rooming with a geology major in college and then later meeting someone just returning from Nepal and hearing his enchanting stories, these two events converged to alter my life’s course.
In December 1982, my rented house was destroyed in a fire while I was traveling. After losing almost all my personal belongings and analytical papers that I had written, I decided that it was time for a change. After a trip to Indian Kashmir and 7 weeks of trekking around Annapurna and the Everest regions in Nepal, spending significant time between 15,000’ and 18,000’, I realized that I was very good at traveling to remote mountainous regions and absorbing the languages and cultures.
I returned to the US just in time to drive to Tucson for our first show, one of a total of four shows in Tucson at that time. Unbeknownst to us, two of the American dealers who had been importing Indian minerals had not imported any specimens from India for two years, and with a void in the market, we sold out most of our specimens in only four or five days. Less than a month later, I was on a plane back to India, where I spent 18 days going through a warehouse in Bombay, selecting from tons of specimens stored there. Luckily, one of the finest discoveries of green apophyllites ever found had been uncovered at Pashan Quarry no. 2 in Puna (Pune) near the end of 1984, and I ended up with 32 flats, which became my claim to fame in the US .
In the fall of 1985, I flew into Peshawar, Pakistan, a wild place full of Afghan Mujhadeen walking the streets with automatic weapons; it was their base for fighting the Russians in nearby Afghanistan. On my very first night there, two small bombs exploded in the alley behind my hotel room, and luckily, a third one under my own outside air-conditioner failed to detonate. To this day, if there are two beds in a hotel room, I always take the bed away from the window. I made my first journey into my beloved mountains while there, visiting Swat and its famous emerald mines.
I then journeyed to Nepal, where I trekked with my best Nepali friend to the base camp of Makalu, where we were caught in a horrendous winter snowstorm on Christmas Eve, the worst December blizzard in the Nepal Himalyans in 30 years, with some places recording 14 feet of snow. We barely survived the seven day return trek to the Arun Valley in the severe cold, over three high passes with almost no food except garlic and flour ball soup. We still had enough energy left to trek to the extremely remote and famous Hyakule and Phakuwa tourmaline mines, near Chainpur in eastern Nepal. The three and a half week near death experience left an indelible mark upon me, with a confidence that I could travel under any circumstances, no matter how harsh, anywhere in the world; and a profound respect for high mountains.
In 1986, I visited South America, where I hitch-hiked to Macchu Pichu and other Incan ruins and then went on to climb Pisco, Huascaran, the highest peak in Peru at 22,300’, as well as the Southwest Face direct of Alpamayo, a perfect triangular peak of 19,512’, named by worldwide climbers as the most beautiful mountain in the world. All were done lightweight alpine style, with minimum equipment and no tents.
By 1987, I began my journeys into East Africa, to Kenya, and Tanzania. Along the way, I contacted cerebral malaria, and if I had not been so fit, would have died there or a few days later in Kenya. I have had reoccurring bouts of that malaria for more than 25 years after the initial occurrence.
Early 1990's, my travels were the most varied: traveling to Germany, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Hong Kong and into the interior of China in about 5 weeks, and then ending in Pakistan. By the early 1990’s, I had touched base in a total of 90 countries.
Sometime thereafter I met Bill Smith, an avid mineral collector, recently retired from office chair at the NSA, and a man of unbelievable integrity. With his strict guidance and set parameters, he guided, coerced, and directed me to produce my first mineral article: Mineral Localities of the Northern Areas of Pakistan, published in the Mineralogical Record in 1996. After that, I started to write many articles for Mineral News, detailing mineral buying adventures around the world, focusing on the traveling as well as the minerals. Similarly, I co-authored or contributed on between 50 and 100 articles for Gem News International in GIA’s Gems and Gemology. I was the most mentioned name for a 20-year period due to new discoveries around the world.
In the late 90’s, the legendary Mogok region in northern Burma re-opened after being closed to foreigners for 35 years. I managed to get permission to visit and I had the time of my life in the market, talking to the locals in Nepali and Hindi while their Burmese counterparts stood baffled. I was overwhelmed and nearly crushed by 40- 50 Nepalis trying to show me their goods.
I always loved studying culture and languages, becoming conversant and business language fluent in Hindi, Urdu, along with some Pashtu, Nepali, Vietnamese, Thai, Sinhalese, French and Spanish.
Perhaps my most terrifying trip was one taken just a month after the 9/11 tragedy, which started in Peshawar, 25 miles from the Afghan border while the war against the Taliban was occurring. I was one of only a handful of foreigners traveling to Pakistan (the airline staff on the PIA flight from Dubia was terrified of me when they found that I was an American) and the only mineral dealer during the peak fall season. This allowed me to acquire one of the best groups of minerals from any of my trips. Enroute to the Northern Areas, I was detained by Pakistani authorities crossing the Shangla Pass from Swat to the Indus Valley, convinced someone holding an American passport and speaking Urdu and looking Pakistani was up to something. I was released and then made my way to Skardu and the Shigar valleys, followed by the long journey to Nagar where I bought a pink apatite that ended up as the cover photo of Lithograpy’s Apatite issue. I have supplied articles and photos or my specimens for Lithography’s Pakistan, Beryl, Fluorite, Garnet, and Topaz issue (which won the 2011 Friends of Mineralogy article of the year) and have just finished the Viet Nam chapter on rubellites.
Soonafter, I journeyed to Viet Nam for the first time in search of the spinel and tourmaline locations, arriving in Hanoi with only a vague location. My English speaking guide had to return to Hanoi the next day, so I was left with my Vietnamese phrase book and a quick course in useful business words, with the first being ”dat qua”, “too expensive”. In May 2009, a new tourmaline find had been discovered in a cornfield in a remote tribal area west of Luc Yen near Khai Trung, which resulted in a Rocks and Minerals article. It was most memorable, akin to a gold rush, with an uncontrolled frenzy of hundreds of people from seven-year-old girls upward to seventy year old men digging frantically, with their bare hands, for bubble gum pink tourmaline.
In May 2011, I set out from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa Province, specifically to Thanh Xuan district, on the border of Laos in search of incredibly deep blue aquamarine that had later been reported in a Gems and Gemology article. Once we found someone to guide us to some aqua mines, it was a 100F with extreme humidity, and after climbing 1700 vertical feet on jungle trails, we finally emerged unto a shoulder dotted with vertical decomposed pegmatites, and found several miners digging. I managed to buy an excellent gem aqua crystal and then continued up another 700’ to the Doi Ty mine, where the aquamarines were found in a massive quartz vein. I bought some of the day’s production from an old miner. As I descended, I was utterly ecstatic in not only finding the mines but able to purchase specimens and pinpoint their locations with a GPS- a perfect article awaited. As we rode back into the village on motorbikes from the base of the climb, we were stopped by local police and promptly hauled to jail, facing various nefarious charges. They made me open my camera, and found the photos of the old miner. He was shirtless, working in a heat index of 120F, but the police charged me with possession of photography detrimental to the image of Viet Nam. They thought that I would report that Vietnamese people were so poor that they could not afford a shirt. The reality was that miner had made more money that day from his sale than the policemen made in two years. I also faced charges of traveling in a restricted area without a permit, and the worst a terrorism charge for arriving the day before some local elections which they suspected I had come to disrupt. The day dragged on as inquisitive villagers stopped in the jail to see the “foreign devil”. But as dinner time appeared and hungry guards were getting restless, lengthy papers were produced, stamped and signed by the sole policeman on duty, and we were released and shockingly, even allowed to keep our specimens. This prompted a most entertaining article published in the French Gemmological Review.
In the fall of 2009, Pakistan’s security had deteriorated to record lows and my passport was at the Pakistan embassy in DC for a week, with promises of a business visa being issued each day, but it was finally denied at the last minute and my passport was returned two hours before departure out of the U.S. I had my travel agent change my ticket while at the O’Hare airport and rerouted from a Dubai- Peshawar flight to Dubai-Doha-Kathmandu, where I managed to get a Pakistani visa at the embassy there. As I was boarding the flight to Karachi, a CNN channel at the airport announced 129 people had just died in a massive bombing in Peshawar at the Khyber Bazaar, barely more than a quarter mile from the mineral market and feet from the site of a hotel where I had stayed for years. Bombings continued almost on a daily basis after I arrived in Peshawar, but to add to it all a violent earthquake of about 6.5 magnitude struck, shaking the house where I was staying so severely that I had trouble staying upright scrambling for the door. My trip to the newly renamed Gilgit-Baltistan was nothing but trouble, marred by a car accident, intense security on the KKH, unusually cold and snowy weather in the Shigar Valley but rewarding in being present in Skardu for the first elections in the newly name province, and arriving within a week of the first electricity provided in Dassu in the Braldu Valley. I returned to Peshawar a day after a military intelligence office was bombed right next to the track where I did my daily morning runs while in Peshawar. The details of that trip were written up in the The Absolute, Truly Ultimate Trip from Hell published in Minerals News, and it was awarded The Friends of Mineralogy 2011 Best Article in Mineral News.
In May 2010, I decided to go trekking to Lo Mantang, the lost and forbidden city in north central Nepal jutting into Tibet. We stopped at a village at 12,600’ and walked into a guest house to find a 4 year old Tibetan girl teaching herself English from a book. I thought that it was such a shame for a mind to go to waste in this tiny village and contacted my sister, a heart specialist at the Mayo clinic. She agreed to help educate the girl, so we had her family move her to Kathmandu to stay with her aunt, and had her and her older brother enrolled in the best Tibetan-Nepali-English school in Kathmandu where she has been an outstanding student. At four, she said that she wanted to be a doctor like my sister, and when we visited her at her top new middle school in December of 2018 in the mountains on the rim of the Kathmandu Valley she again stated that her goal was to become a doctor. My sister and I are setting up a foundation, Educate Nepali Children, as we accumulate more kids to educate.
All of the while on my trips, I kept up my daily running schedule, often running 70 to 80 miles per week in India, Vietnam, Burma, Nepal, and Pakistan, with me once covering 96 miles in a week.. I raced triathlons in my 30’s and 40’s, converting to long course duathlons of half ironman length or longer and raced for Team USA in the 50-54 division in three world championship for long course duathlon. After two bad bike accidents in 2007, I retired my racing bike and concentrated on running, some road, but mostly trails and ultras, eventually winning the Road Runners of American Colorado Senior Grand Master marathon Championship in 2016, and in 2018 finally won my first national championship, the 60-64 USA Track and Field 30km trail championships held on Pike’s Peak in Colorado. I was single until I was 60, having difficulty with relationships when I was traveling 9 months of the year. In 2014, I married Darunee (Muy) Pisutadamongkol, a Thai women whom I had met in Bangkok in 2011. She shared my interests in extremely healthy nutrition, yoga, and other interests. She is fluent in 6 languages, and stays in Bangkok to be with her large family while I am traveling in dangerous areas. She is also an avid runner, and won the women’s senior grandmaster half marathon Colorado state championships in 2016, and in 2018 was second in the women’s 60-64 US national 30 km mountain trail championships.
I feel that I am the luckiest man in the world, doing something that I really love, which allows me to travel to the greatest mountain ranges and remote villages of the world multiple times a year for what for most people would be a trip of a lifetime. That same luck has kept me alive for all of these years. I do owe appreciation and recognition to my employees who have held down the home fort while I have spent decades of my life traveling overseas, my faithful customers who provided me with funds from sales to keep traveling on a whim, and all of those who guided and encouraged me to write about my adventures. And, I cannot forget all my foreign friends and contacts who helped me out of difficult and dangerous situations. Throughout all this time, my experience in climbing at high altitudes, hardship with travel, and acquired language skills, embedded me with local people allowing me to travel to areas where few mineral or colored gemstone dealers had ever set foot.