Long Drives and Desert Camping

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October 5th 2010
Published: February 21st 2012
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After a last shower for four days, we set off towards our first stop through the Taklamaken desert. Bush camping for me, is what the overlanding experience is all about, it's a very communal, basic and sociable way to travel. Once we find a good spot to set up camp, everyone attends to their previously assigned tasks to unpack everything you need to cook, wash up and camp comfortably. You're also assigned a partner for cookgroup duty, which rotates daily, when you need to buy food, and cook lunch, dinner and breakfast for everybody.

After things are vaguely set up, most people drag a tent off to a spot they like and set up for the night, we'd sit in t-shirts until food is ready, then eat and pile on sweaters after another beautiful sunset, playing music from the truck speakers while waiting patiently for all the stars to appear in the sky, the milky way so big and clear striped down the darkness, constellations everywhere, drinking cold beer into the night until people gradually all filter off to their tents for some shuteye. I'd crawl into the warmth of my sleeping bag, layering on clothes in preparation for the cold night ahead, and stare out of the netting in my tent at the stars above me, wishing on the tons of shooting stars I saw, before sleep took hold and I dozed off.

I didn't sleep particularly well, having the netting free in the tent without the extra canvas you're meant to zip over the top when it's cold, means I forfeited warmth for the view, and I often woke up shivering in the cold, wriggling my numb feet and folding my legs in, pulling my sleeping bag up around my ears with my hot breath warming my cheeks. I slept with all the layers I owned on my body, and with the sleeping bag chords pulled tight over my head, it could sometimes feel like a coffin in a crypt, my sleeping bag done up so tight, leaving just a tiny space near my mouth to breath through... When I (inevitably) woke up in the night, and tried to turn my body, I would loose my breathing hole and quickly have to run my hands along the inside to find the little tunnel to oxygen in the pitch black. But it was worth it to be able to see those stars, and all that wide open space.

It was an effort to roll over with so many layers, my arms & hands would fall asleep before I could when I folded them under my chest & tried to sleep on my stomach- my blood stopped by the layers of clothing hugging my elbows; and was more effort still to persuade myself to leave my warm nest in the mornings to pack up my tent & rush over to the gas stove to warm my insides with hot instant coffee... I still loved it, & running up the scree of a rocky hill to watch the sun rise & see breakfast being prepared by a (from there) tiny truck down below, it was a good way to warm up my cold bones.

In the morning, I would awake groggy but happy, peering out towards the truck, scratching away the sleep frozen in the corners of my eyes, watching head torches floating about in the dark- the cook group pair, preparing breakfast to be ready at sunrise, it was like watching ants marching around, working away in the gloom while stars faded and the sky turned from black,

to dark blue, to orange. We'd eat as the sun rose, watching the big orange ball creep up from the horizon while we washed up and packed everything away, leaving nothing but buried left overs in the earth, before setting off for another long day driving.

Mainly, it's lots and lots of driving. One of the most frustrating things can be riding in the truck after we set off, spending hours wishing for the sun to make enough warmth to stop my feet hurting so much from the cold, even under three layers of socks & sheepskin lined shoes, until midday, when all of a sudden it would get super hot & I'd have to tear off three-to-five layers of thermals & tights & thick socks down to thin jeans & t-shirt, so I didn't feel like I was boiling up in my own skin. I've always been a fan of long road trips, I read a lot, looking up every half hour or so to see how the scenery had slowly changed. Sometimes, after staring out the window for a while, I'd suddenly realise how incredible what I was looking at was, and turn to check if anybody else

had noticed, but we rarely did. When every view is breathtaking, you become complacent, we'd all become too used to it, people sat reading guidebooks and novels, sleeping heads rolling about, forehead against the chair in front completing a book of suduko. We passed endless rocky mountain sides, wide expanses of sand dunes, sunshine pouring over what looks like soft suede, broken up with nets of dry short straw, just dips, hills, and those exquisite wind carved patterns they have, sand and rock for miles and miles and miles in every direction. It was a humbling sight.

Usually on long stretches someone would interrupt my line of thought by suggesting a game of Yahtzee, or Yum, as our set was called. And even if I was busy reading & didn't feel like playing (which was pretty rare), it was nice to hear the rattle of the dice, the sounds of cheering and the chant of 'YUM! YUM! YUM!' in support of the roller. It was a fairly sociable group, & bathroom breaks were more about getting out our football for a kick about than braving rest stop toilets, which was fun, and essential to work off horribly processed, preservative filled junk food from gas station shops. If there's no time to stop to prepare lunch, or no tiny towns to get a bowl of noodles, it's a gamble to find edible snacks to keep us going, and the first ten minutes after a stop involves people handing around tasters of what they have, memorising the packets of those not unbearable, pretty much all crisps, cakes & sweets, unless you're willing to brave a bag of dog meat, or vacuum packed chicken feet and pig trotters.

It was lovely to feel nomandic again, although sometimes it didn't feel like we had quite enough time, and I'm not a big fan of the tour bus mentality you almost had to conform to in China, which I'm pretty sure would be the same even if you were travelling completely independently, because a lot of things they just wont let you do as an individual. For instance, you can't just check into any old hotel in China- they have to have a particular license for it, and fewer still have a license to take advanced bookings, which is why, again, overlanding is often preferable here than trying to go at it alone... Go

communism. But it was great to be back on a truck, and I especially loved being back in the tent, back in the same clothes for days on end, back to no mirror, no creature comforts, back to just living day to day, and having that communal closeness to the people you travel with. I loved being able to walk out every day and not recognise anything around me- everything was new and exciting, I love new places.

En route through the desert to Turpan, we visited little towns, where we ate tasty basic noodles in cheap little local restaurants every day, biting off chunks of raw garlic with each mouthful, like the locals do. We also visited a silk factory, where we watched the silk worm cocoons being unravelled into thin strands by a woman crouching beside a big bowl of water, sifting through the white balls with a crooked stick before attaching the stands to a spool being spun by what I assume was the woman's daughter. Apparently one cocoon can be made up of a length of silk thread that can stretch for 7km, crazy hey? It seems funny, especially when you watch it up

close, that such a refined and expensive material really just comes from the excretions of funny little grubs. Even something that at first seems ugly & dirty can be woven to make such beautiful things.Sometimes, when sucking up a bowl of noodles, or lugging heavy plastic shopping bags full of veg and soy bean sauce through the markets when we're on cook group duty, I look around at the people rushing past on motorised rickshaws, the tons of bicycles, people playing cards at fruit stalls, occasional camels trotting down the street, and all of a sudden it's as if I'm seeing everything for the first time, and I kind of go "Whoa. I'm in China... Cool"

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23rd February 2012

"I love new places..."
So do I...you'll love China...the Silk Road that you appear to be travelling...looking forward to hearing where you go...and how much you embrace the culture and the people.

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