I woke up on my second morning in this small town in western China with a full-blown cold. There was no time to sleep off the sore throat, light-headedness, and sniffles. I had to pack my bag for Zhongwei, where three days of desert living awaited.
I thought Yinchuan was small, with its grand total of four English-speaking tour guides, but Zhongwei was truly tiny. We drove for three hours southwest to get to a place where the highway abruptly ends and the desert just as abruptly starts.
But first, let’s meet Juice. We knew we were going to miss Lisa, our amiably un-tour-guidey guide, after leaving Yinchuan. We had no idea how very much we would miss her.
After we checked out of the Yinchuan hotel Lisa took us to our lunch spot and said goodbye. We learned then that Lisa is Hui and couldn’t join us for a last meal because the restaurant was not hallal. (We also learned that Lisa had had a serious consultation with her mother about hallal eating establishments when KFC first came to town. Strangely, KFC was deemed hallal enough). As Lisa departed with her cute cartoonish grin, a darker, shorter, and decidedly more tour-guide looking girl stepped up. In a rather abrasive voice she announced,
“Hai eva-body, my nim is Juice!”
We all blinked and looked at each other blankly before one of us said, “Oh, Ruuuuth! Hi, Ruth.”
It’s beyond me why our guide had chosen for her name two of the hardest English sounds for Chinese people to pronounce, the “r” and the “th.” In any case, Juice chaperoned our ride to the edge of the Tengger Desert and barked some instructions none of us could understand. Then she promptly disappeared, leaving us to gape at our camels.
Imagine the scene, set in the middle of nowhere between highway and desert. Nine of us spanking clean “wai guo ren” stumbling out of a van to gawk at a caravan of camels and guides. We crossed the two-lane road that separated us from them and circled the animals with great curiosity. They were woolly, large, and gentle creatures, with less body odor than I had been told. This bewildered meet-and-greet between man and beast lasted about fifteen minutes. Then we became restless under the hot sun and swirling sand. What next?
We saw Juice a little ways off gesticulating with the two ragged-looking camel guides. I moved closer and could discern some of the words they were loudly exchanging, but it was a bizarrely accented Mandarin like I’ve never heard before. I asked Juice in Putonghua (standard Mandarin), “What do we do now?”
She barked at me with annoyance, “Bring yo bai ge!”
I translated Juice-English into English for my wai guo ren friends and we started to unload our heavy packs from the van. After nine large backpacks and an equal number of small portables (fanny packs, et cetera) were gingerly laid on sand-covered road, Juice continued to ignore us. We stood around some more. And then some more. Until we dared ask again, “What now?”
Juice was in no hurry to provide tour guidance to us. After a while she shouted, “Bai ge beeg. Yo ken smor bai ge!”
This time, none of us understood, not even I. She began to cross her arms and look at us as though we were a herd of dumb beasts. I intervened in Mandarin and understood that she meant to say we have too much luggage. We are being told to leave our “valuables” and things we don’t need at her travel agency, taking only small bags for the trek.
Don’t ask a group of foreigners to part with their hand-picked western comforts when setting off into a Chinese desert. You’ll be met with rage. We all began to grumble and argue with Juice at once. We hadn’t been told in advance what to bring for the desert climate! We can’t part with anything because our bags only held clothes needed to keep warm! We have food allergies 99% of Chinese have never heard of and need our BYO meals! We can’t disassemble a tent in the mornings without our instant coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and barrage of other packaged beverages!
To make matters worse Juice gave no useful information about just how much luggage was too much. Most questions we asked were met with her yelling, “Yes, yes, I know!”
In the end, we reluctantly lightened our loads and watched our spare underwear and pre-packaged foods disappear in a van. But the sadness dissipated as soon as the camel men motioned for us to climb on board. This kicked off a furious scramble to “call dibs” on the best camels. The beasts were quickly christened and we had among us an Elvis (for his comical curly lips) and a Fergie (musically inspired), and a few others. Not knowing what to look for in a camel I waited for the camel man to hoist my bag onto one before mounting.
At last we set off. The desert spread out in front of us like an endless yellow blanket. Its undulating dunes and valleys appeared soft and welcoming from afar, as though it might have the texture of sponge cake. Mounting the camel was a rocky affair (first you’re jerked back as the front legs straighten, then you’re tossed forward as the back hump comes up), the ride itself is pretty steady. The camels walk with a languorous gait, swaying side to side. Occasionally a sheer sand cliff causes one to lose its footing and sink a little, but the thickly padded feet ultimately keep them steady.
Incongruous with this exotic scenery was the factory smoke stacks on the horizon behind us. Our camel guides also chatted on their phones frequently, their Zhongwei dialect disturbing our reveries of being in the Arabian Desert. But we felt toughened by authenticity when a sandstorm briefly blew in the mid-afternoon. If we kept our eyes directed one way, we could pretend we were marching into a boundless desert in a poetically faraway place.
Shortly after the storm we stopped in a low valley sheltered on all sides by sand dunes. The camel men motioned for us to dismount and they began earnestly unpacking the camels’ loads. We gathered from Juice’s impatient glares that we were to start pitching the tents that had been thrown about. The older camel man, whom I named Uncle Liu, approached me and said, “There’s not enough tents to go around. You should share one with Ru Ru.”
I had trouble understanding his thick accent at first, but after a few rounds I realized he was asking me to sleep with Juice (whose Chinese name explains the unfortunate choice of “Ruth”). At this, all of my tiredness, hunger, worsening cold, and discontents with the travel agency’s poor planning came forth. I practically shouted, “I’m not the hired help, I paid good money to come on this trip too! Why should I be assigned to share with her?” I stormed off to complain to my friends about constantly being mistaken for a “translator” by my countrymen. Can’t we take some pride in ourselves and learn to think of each other as equals to foreigners, not service people all the time!?
My travel buddies sympathize and join me in making more complaints, but Juice quickly interrupts to loudly instruct, ”Wood! Wood!” It’s time to gather firewood. This woman is a slave driver! The next two hours we spent combing the sparse sand dunes for twigs. With each load we brought back to the camp site Juice would bark, “Mo! Mo! No in nuff!” to send us back to work.
As the sun began to dim and the sky darkened to a velvety blue we spotted our two camel guides, who had disappeared for a good part of the afternoon, riding toward us carrying large cardboard boxes. At first they appeared as tiny outlines in the distance, gradually getting bigger until they were at camp opening the boxes to pull out…styrofoam takeout containers!
I had suspected that we hadn’t really gone deeper into the desert as we seemed to have been traveling parallel to the highway. Here was proof that we were really close to civilization – they’re feeding us takeout for dinner!
Once food came into the picture everyone was jolly. The campfire was lit. Beers appeared from canvas bags strapped to camel humps. We even felt friendlier towards Juice, Uncle Liu, and Spit Man (so named for his constant throat clearing). Uncle Liu’s gregarious personality came out as he joked around using body language and Juice’s poor translation. He “told” us that American and Canadian customers are the most easygoing while French and Japanese ones are “bu hao” (“no good”) because they’re too darned picky. He also initiated a drinking game with the two men in our group. The night went off beautifully. Even though we weren’t lost in a faraway land we had enough props in a poetic enough setting to pretend.
As the temperature dropped lower we piled on layers of clothing, until finally, the biting darkness sent us to our tents for lack of anything else to do. In the end, I stuck to my guns and refused to share a tent with Juice. She was the person who would’ve given me the least comfort on a desert night spent with a raging cold. Uncle Liu, after realizing that I was a full fledged customer, also sort of apologized and magically whipped out an extra tent. All was well as we snuggled into our sleeping bags in the Tengger Desert.