Go West: The Night Before (Part 1)

Travel tales from western China…

After years of going further and further west from home (Europe, North America) I decided to take a different kind of westward journey: a seven-day adventure on old clunker trains and camel backs, sleeping in hard berths and flimsy tents, going through desert and grassland terrain. Ningxia Autonomous Region and Inner (Chinese) Mongolia, here I come.

I had done some backpacking before around Northern California, mostly in Yosemite National Park. But these had been trips planned by seasoned trekkers who also happened to be dating me and willing to schlep my tent and cooking ware. Never had I undertaken the task of figuring out what supplies I need, carrying it all, and being responsible for my own provisions in the “wild”.

There was little time to prepare for my westward adventure. I left on October 1, started procuring supplies on September 28, and had to also plan for the last minute arrival of E who was crazy enough to fly from New York to join me.

The gear was easy to get after I discovered that wondrous emporium, Decathlon. Branded backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags sold at Chinese factory outlet prices. I loaded up, selecting the cheapest pack I could find that was not so monstrously large as to appear to rise up from my back and swallow me whole.

I was excited about the functional straps and buckles dangling from my new backpack, my very first “hard core looking” piece of rugged luggage. But figuring out what to put into it was a series of blind stabs. The travel agency that arranged the logistics of the trip sent very few details. The limited information I did have was conveyed in patchy English devoid of punctuation. Does “take train in Yinchuan arrive in Zhongwei after breakfast drive two hours to desert” mean that I have to pack my own breakfast or that I will get to eat breakfast in town before climbing onto a camel? Reliable weather reports for the remote locales I would be visiting were also scarce. In many Google searches I came up with a day to night time temperature range of zero to thirty degrees Celsius.

To be safe, I pulled a weeks’ worth of summer clothing (tank tops and sorts) and winter clothing (parka, gloves, long underwear) each. It took many rounds of elimination and repacking before I ran out of time and was simply stuck with taking whatever permutation of flexible weather outfits were in the pack. Although hurried, I was ready to go, provided E’s flight arrived from New York on time, he brought the Trader Joe’s trail mix as I asked, and I didn’t forget to steal two rolls of toilet paper from mom’s bathroom the next morning.

Before I lay down to enjoy my last snuggle in a warm and soft bed for the week I had to work out one last kink. There was a big question mark dangling over whether I could transport myself to the train station the next morning. Starting at midnight Beijing’s thoroughfares would be closed for the government to transport 1.7 million performers to their positions for the National Day parade. This was President Hu Jintao’s time to shine (much like it was Chairman Mao’s moment of glory sixty years ago on the same day when he declared a new Chinese republic atop Tiananmen). No one bothered to tell the little people how they should route their airport or train station commutes on the big day. I confirmed my plan with a “black cab” driver I trusted to be picked up three hours before the train’s scheduled departure and driven via a very circuitous route to Beijing West station. For this special service I would pay double the regular price.

As I tucked myself in the night before the trip started I counted, instead of sheep, all the ways that it could go wrong before it even got started. Good thing I left plenty of extra time in case I would need to walk a good part of the 30 kilometers to the train!

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