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Thoughts on Camping

June 23, 2015 5 Comments

We are camping again tonight. We weren’t supposed to, but everyone enjoyed last night’s experience so much they want to repeat it. Let me tell you as accurately as I can about last night and see if you understand the reasoning behind the decision.

Yak in Camping Spot in China

Nothing quite like camping in yak shit!

We drove about 95km from a really nice town (where we were supposed to stay tonight). We went through the most horrific thunderstorm I’ve seen in my travels in Asia. We did drive through it but it left me feeling wary of what was possible in this area. We arrived at a sacred lake situated amongst spectacular snow covered mountains. It is a beautiful place, situated at 4200 metres altitude. We parked on a field that is a yak grazing paddock (for the third time this trip!). Every square metre of the pasture is covered in yak shit. We parked next to a beautiful, fast-flowing stream that is too cold to put your hand in.

It was f…ing freezing. There is simply no other way to describe it. It was probably about 10 degrees Celsius when we set up camp and just got progressively colder each hour. It snowed on the mountains to about 200 metres above us and drizzled rain all night on the camp.

We didn’t have a fire because the wood was too expensive to purchase. Everyone sat around small tables and chairs in the open, dressed in full ski gear. Alan even had his ski gloves on.

A cursory diner was made and people decided to play mahjong. Imagine having your closest friends over for dinner on the coldest night of the year then setting up your table in the open in your backyard. That might give you some idea of what that mahjong game was like. I couldn’t stand the cold or the stupidity of being in it any longer and walked about 100 metres across the yak shit to a Tibetan family home. They were sort of the gatekeepers for the park and I basically invited myself in. It’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s a common custom to invite strangers in, as explained to me by the guide.

I spent a lovely two hours sitting by their fire, having a great conversation with my two words of Tibetan and five words of Chinese. It was fascinating to watch a 40-year-old Tibetan lady swing her prayer wheel in one hand and use her mobile phone in the other (but I digress).

I was feeling sorry for Green, our guide, who was too polite to walk away from the group. I went back to get her and they were still playing bloody mahjong in about two degrees. I felt Green’s face and she was chilled to the bone, so I took her back to the home to warm up by the fire, silently hoping the others all caught pneumonia.

Luckily Green and I didn’t have to pitch tents on the ground last night. I suspect it would have been the most miserable night of my life. The park had some very primitive bungalows with single beds in them, with the biggest, most luxurious blankets I have ever seen. I used two of them and still felt cold. I was a bit pissed when I woke in the mornings and saw the bed had an electric blanket. It will be used tonight.

Naturally I was thrilled to bits to when I was told everyone wanted to stay another night.

You either like camping or you don’t. I can safely say I don’t, but I accept it without complaint, fuss, or bother to make the trip as smooth and comfortable as I can for everyone.

One of the first questions I asked Alan when joining this trip was “will there be much camping?” to which he replied “probably not. We will have a Chinese guide and he/she probably won’t want to camp”. Great I thought, I can do this.

Every word of that reply was true except for the words “not” and “won’t “. The guide was a camping enthusiast and she brought her own gear. What was even worse was that she brought a tent for me too. Oh well!

So I was sleeping on the ground in the open in a banana plantation in Laos before the guide arrived. My last thoughts of that night in Laos were that the biggest snake in the world, the reticulated python, lives in these jungles. They can swallow a deer whole, so a human is no challenge to them. Now I admit the chances of encountering such a creature in that banana plantation was remote BUT it definitely wasn’t ZERO!

Since being in China I’ve slept in a very thin tent on stony ground (admittedly overlooking the entrance to Tiger Leaping gorge) and three yak paddocks with varying degrees of interesting scenery and soft surfaces.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what campers get out of it. I’m still struggling to understand the mindset, judging by my complete inability to understand how four seemingly normal people were happy to sit in the open in the freezing cold last night playing a Chinese board game. I can sort of understand camping could be a pleasant experience in warm, benign conditions but I have yet to experience that.

To me camping totally flies in the face of a million years of human evolution, the main purpose of which has been to find safe, warm, comfortable places to live in. Even under the best of conditions camping is rarely comfortable. Sleeping on the ground no matter how much padding you put down will never substitute for a bed – even the rock-hard mattresses of cheap Chinese hotels. It’s seriously compounded for the worse when you weigh 115ks!

To me last night was sheer madness, but people I usually respect want to repeat it, although I have just found out that we will have a fire tonight. Hurray.

Let’s talk about fires. The first night we camped in China was in a wet yak field. It was raining and cold. Trying to get damp wood to ignite and stay alight is an exercise in frustration, misery, sore eyes and smoke inhalation. When it did light after an hour of intense fanning it was so cold you wanted to get so close to it that I was worried my nylon socks were going to melt onto my legs. The temperature gradient of a campfire is bizarre. My front was sweltering my ass was freezing. As I said it’s rare to be comfortable when you camp.

So what are the positives of camping?

This is the best I can come up with: It’s cheap. Or is it?

For about $30 Aus you can get a nice hotel room with fresh sheets and clean towels, air con, a western toilet, a truly hot shower, a door you can lock, free wi-fi and a dozen other conveniences I could list if I had the space.

For zero dollars campers get a shit filled yak field (three times so far on this trip), a frigid running stream, a lot of fresh air, complete exposure to sometimes intimidating elements, either a shovel to dig a hole or a concrete hole in the ground to crap in, if they are lucky, and a magnificent view if you are in the right place.

For about $10 Aus there are literally thousands of restaurants that will provide you with magnificent Chinese cuisine in enormous proportions that nobody except Green, our 42kg 151cm guide can finish (and she is usually looking for more, but that is another blog!)

You don’t have to buy the food, you don’t have to prepare it, cook it or clean either the plates or cooking utensils to a satisfactory standard of hygiene afterwards.

You have to do all of those things when you camp. It’s time-consuming, tedious work that I find a pain in the ass, but as there is little else to do in the yak field it becomes the most important part of your day in camp.

I cooked a frittata the other night. It was really basic bachelor survival food. Everyone loved it, saying you couldn’t get this in a restaurant. My only thought was bullshit!

While we are on hygiene, let’s talk about toilets. We are lucky tonight to have the concrete pit. It is actually a better toilet than some public WCs we have encountered. Usually you just have a shovel in hand. Now anyone who thinks that trudging into the bush shovel in hand, digging a hole, squatting over it to crap and then filling it in again is in any way a life affirming experience needs to book at least a dozen sessions with my mate Craig the psychologist. It is a grim, grizzly business with significant potential to go wrong. As I keep finding out, you are rarely comfortable when you camp.

By the way I’m back at the Tibetan lady’s house as the temp has just plummeted again.

Camping to my mind does have two significant advantages over other forms of accommodation:

The camaraderie in a camp is without peer. It’s a thousand times more sociable than staying in a hotel. I understand this is what keeps campers committed to the cause and at normal temperatures I would enjoy that as much as the next bloke.

Second, I accept there is something primally pleasing about getting back to nature that probably defies adequate explanation. I get it a little, but just not at zero degrees Celsius.

I fully expect to cop a lot of flack from my travelling colleagues about this blog. So be it. I just hope one of them has the ability to construct a considered defence of their passion. Now there’s a challenge!

You may gather from all this that I don’t really get camping. The only thing I get less is the look of semi-evangelical religious ecstasy that crosses a committed camper’s face whenever someone says “let’s camp tonight”.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Jim says:

    At last the reality sets in but an enjoyable read, The latest pics are truly worthwhile showing a good few smiles and relaxed faces albeit cold ones. Happy Birthday Al

  2. Christinw says:

    Hi Alan. Happy birthday to my baby brother. Hope you have a great day and can keep warm. I have sent your birthday present to Mr Alan Taylor C/- China. It should arrive in the next couple of days.

  3. Christine says:

    That should’ve been Christine.

  4. Vic Watts says:

    Well done Hendo
    I can find no joy in crapping in a hole, shovel in hand.
    Someone has to say that the empower has no clothes. You’ve done it well my friend!

  5. Vic Watts says:

    Well done Hendo
    I can find no joy in crapping in a hole, shovel in hand.
    Someone has to say that the emperor has no clothes. You’ve done it well my friend!

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