My first night in the desert was not as devastatingly cold as I expected, even in a flimsy tent and sleeping bag with broken zippers. It wasn’t all that easy either. I woke up once to pull on socks and an extra fleece. Shortly after I huddled close to my tent mate for a long time forcing myself back to sleep before admitting I needed to go outside for a pee break.
By morning, after less than twenty-four hours in the Tengger Desert, we were all complaining of sand in our hair / shoes / bags / food and longing for a toilet that doesn’t blow sand into your underwear. At breakfast, resourceful Uncle Liu boiled water over the campfire for hot drinks. We watched with some jealousy as Spit Man made instant noodles in his tin lunch box and loudly slurp them up. The ramen was staff food; “wai guo ren” customers were fed spongy bread and fruit jam.
After packing up the gear we set off again on camel back. It became clear that we were taking large lateral laps around the desert to pass the three days. We didn’t really mind for even on this circuitous desert exploration the scenery was breathtaking and ever changing.
I was at the head of the pack again, my camel being personally led by Uncle Liu. Despite the language barrier and his rough country manners I could sense how much Uncle Liu enjoyed being with his animals. Through the long walks he would often bend down to pick a sprig of deep green grass to hand feed the camels. When I asked him about it he said with a hearty chuckle, “When they’re busy they don’t get to eat! This grass is particularly tender, it’s their favorite.” The camels were obedient, rarely straying from the march to munch on a bush, and clearly deserved the Favorite Grass treat.
Uncle Liu is a native of Zhongwei and a farmer by birth. He started buying camels years ago (for 4000-5000 RMB each), amassing a team of ten. The animals make him 20,000 RMB a year in revenue, more lucrative than the farm. During a break, Uncle Liu lovingly cradled the head of his favorite camel, the oldest of the pack, in his lap. He laughed when we cooed at his affection and said, “Yes, I like my camel. He makes me good money! We get along very well!”
We spent the entire second day of the trek roaming the desert, stopping once for a lunch and a nap in the sand. Under the umbrellas Uncle Liu pitched (while humming along to “Eh, eh, eh” from Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) it was like being on a dry beach, strange but pleasant. The midday grub was “shao bing” (salted large bread buns) with mystery sausage and packaged pickles. For dessert we had assorted fresh fruit (yes!), including large tomatoes eaten raw (a Chinese favorite).
In the evening we settled in another sheltered valley. Everything went more smoothly this time because we knew the routine: pitch tent, gather wood, eat takeout dinner, and steer clear of asking Juice questions. We had a wonderful time sitting around the campfire drinking beer, playing games. I even taught my companions the quintessential Chinese love song, “The Moon Represents My Heart” (a Teresa Teng tune). This would later come in handy, when we would serenade curious farmers who gather around to stare and entertain an airplane full of travelers who had been delayed. Singing a native tune really endears “wai guo ren” to Chinese and brings a smile to everyone’s face.
We predicted from the clear skies that it would be a cold night, and sure enough it was. My tent mate and I insulated our broken tent by draping heavy wool blankets over the holes. Even so, I woke up at 2am feeling a freezing bracelet around the strip of bare skin between where my socks ended and where my tights began. I piled on extra clothes and tried to while the cold away. Soon, I could hear whisperings of misery coming from other tents. Everyone was waiting for morning to come.
Sunrise on our last day in the desert brought us warmth and high spirits. We survived a brutally cold night and looked forward to a hot shower (arranged with some difficulty through Juice). That afternoon we would board a train for Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia. (Outer Mongolia is the nation, whereas Inner Mongolia is a province in China). As our faithful camels carried us closer to the edge of the desert we could see signs of civilization growing bigger and bigger. Smoke stacks, buildings, trees, water, and finally, the highway. We bid goodbye to Uncle Liu and Spit Man.
Reunited with the party van, we started sanitizing ourselves to the best of our ability. Off came the sand-crusted scarves, gloves, and hats. Moist towelettes and scented gels were vigorously rubbed on hands. I tried to comb my hair but found it caked into shape from days of wind and dirt.
Hot showers were waiting for us at an hourly hotel. We paired off in two’s and three’s to share rooms for thirty kuai an hour. This was unabashedly a love motel. The bathroom counters displayed an array of protective and lubricating products alongside standard hotel toiletries. The shower was less than luxurious, a plastic spout annoyingly close to the toilet bowl. The bathroom wall was made entirely of frosted glass, a fact I didn’t discover until I turned around in the shower. There wasn’t time for modesty — I was only allotted twenty minutes for my shower.
My roommates took turns getting clean and we all repacked our bags in the cramped space between bed and table. No matter how many times we shook things, sand continued to fall out. At the end of the hour we had left a mini desert in the hotel room.
After the showers we all gathered in the lobby, cleaner and better looking versions of ourselves. Our train was leaving mid-afternoon, so we had a few hours for lunch and unsupervised exploration. Before we set off we had our favorite Juice episode. We asked her to purchase a case of bottled water so we could board the train well-supplied. In her habitually impatient tone she barked, “Yes, yes, yes, ok!” I wasn’t sure she was truly “ok” so I translated in Mandarin, “They want a case, 12 bottles.” To which she practically jumped with surprise, “What? A case!?” Clearly, she hadn’t understood all along, perhaps not more than a few words in the three days we’d sent together!
I tried to explore Zhongwei “city” but quickly found that it was little more than a shopping center flanked by small businesses. I stopped in the mall to revel in consumerism. Afterwards I roamed the two blocks between the mall and the hotel. I found mom and pop shops selling Goji berries (also known as wolfberries), a local produce, in oil barrel-sized vats. These small red berries are so expensive that they are usually only served as a sprinkling in Eight Treasures Tea or soup. Here, they were twenty-two kuai per kilo. I had to buy some.
At last we made our way to the Zhongwei train station. It was so small that only one arriving or departing train could be accommodated at a time. We waited in the crowded lounge as people came up to stare. Our guide Juice was now joined by a nicer woman who was the guan xi (“relationship”) in purchasing our train tickets. Because so few people depart from Zhongwei the tickets issued out of this stop are hard to come by. So, our “guan xi” lady had bought us nine tickets issued from three different surrounding train stations. She would accompany us onto the train, armed with a pack of cigarettes to bribe the train conductor, and get off after our tickets had been inspected.
As the much delayed train was finally announced for boarding, we squeezed through the narrow doors along with the rest of the traveling herds. As I walked closer to the platform I saw with some dread that this was a green paint train. Another night on an old clunker, and if the rule applies then this would be even worse than the red paint train to Yinchuan!