The Last Chinese Campsite

Happy New Year one and all! Almost exactly a year ago today, I nervously went public with my plans to get hold of a campervan and drive around China before the end of 2012. I figured by telling you of my intentions I would be embarrassed - in moments of weakness - into following through. Thank goodness I did, because those moments of weakness were many and my willpower and tenacity were sorely tested by trying firstly to find a campervan, then by the nightmare of getting a Chinese driving licence, followed by a weekend test drive that showed us just what we were in for, before finally setting out on July 1st for the Great China Roadtrip. 

It was an epic year and an epic adventure, and today's post and the next few will continue to chronicle the last few weeks of our trip through some of the most spectacular scenery in China as we headed home to Shanghai. 

But before I tell you about our last Chinese campsite, I also remembered in that same post I made a bunch of predictions. So let's see just how many I managed to get right:

Fiona's 2012 Predictions

1. I will pass my Chinese exams next week, motivated by the desire to avoid being the first student over forty to fail and the need to speak enough Chinese to cover vehicle breakdowns and other minor emergencies.

I passed! My 6 months of university Chinese ended well after getting off to a hilariously bad start, thanks to my three brilliant teachers and a lifelong habit of extreme cramming. I did wish the textbook had a chapter on 'Replacing a Campervan Battery' rather then 'Applying for a Credit Card' because it would have been way more useful, but perhaps not for the rest of the class.

2. The ratio of Chinese:Western meals my family is willing to eat will decrease from 1:3 to 1:10 by year's end, decreasing exponentially with time spent on the road away from supermarkets full of Western food in Shanghai. I will be forced to resort to making congee for breakfast when we run out of cereal. They will hate this.

Bravo my family! After an initial unhappy month in which my two children complained non-stop about the amount of Chinese food they were having to eat, and I complained non-stop beside them about the opportunities to eat interesting new Chinese foods I was missing out on thanks to them, my very clever husband came up with a solution that suited everyone:

Lunchtime every day would be an exploration of local Chinese food. 
Dinner in the campervan would be western food, cooked by me (I got very resourceful at making western meals from Chinese village market ingredients) 
Breakfast was free choice, and would be cooked by him. Pancakes would be offered most days and occasionally french toast, pending bread availability. Congee would not be offered at any time or under any circumstances.

3. I will pass my Chinese driver's license test without having to bribe any officials, or have a Chinese stand-in named 'Fay-ah-na' sit the test on my behalf, for a pre-arranged fee.

In my greatest examination triumph to date (even greater than passing my neuro-anatomy exam in 1989, a minor miracle of mnemonic memorization), I passed my Chinese Driving Test with an unbelievable 96%. I promise that no money changed hands. And I still got the first aid question wrong.

4. We will finaly get to visit Tibet, provided there are no more monk self-immolations in 2012.

My heart sinks as I re-read this. A year ago I honestly thought the worst was over on this front. Not so - since January dozens of individuals have set themselves alight in Tibetan regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan in protest against the Chinese government's rule. These grim and violent deaths by apparently devout Buddhists including monks and nuns continue to occur. The Chinese government response has been at times laughable - installing fire fighting units inside monasteries, and tightly controlling sales of inflammables. Recently it was announced that those found to support or incite self-immolation faced prosecution.
Tibetan areas we visited in these provinces are now off-limits to foreign travellers for the time being.

5. My iphone app, the Shanghai Xiaolongbao Tour for Crimson Bamboo, despite being extremely niche, will go totally viral on release causing the entire Chinese internet to collapse and making me an overnight app millionaire.

Still not a millionaire. But wait...the Chinese internet did kind of collapse in November.....was that me?

6. The hare-brained travelling campervan scheme will take more money, wits, patience and cunning than I currently possess, but because I'm not a quitter I will make everyone's life hell as I try to source solar-powered portable water heating and a compostible travelling toilet in a country that hasn't yet heard of camping.

100% true prediction. By the time we left Shanghai on the afternoon of July 1, having taken delivery of the campervan literally an hour before, I was plain out of money, wits, patience and cunning, luckily replaced by caffeine and bravado.

The solar-powered idea? It came and went, unfulfilled. And the compostible travelling toilet idea showed me just how out of step I was with the rest of the country. Why would I waste our waste by composting it into a bacteria-free product? Farms need fertilizer! And we certainly fertilized a lot of corners of China. A lot.

7. Eighteen will be the number of times my husband will tell me we can just hire a car and sleep in hotels with actual beds instead of campervanning our way around the country.

Eighteen? Eighteen?? More like two hundred and fifty eight times. Two inches too long for the bed in the campervan, my very-tall husband endured night after night of sleeping with his head jammed into a corner, and day after day of showering in a cubicle meant for a hobbit. 

8. Eighteen will be the number of times I reply something along the lines of 'bugger off' to his very sensible suggestion. Although sometimes I will really, really want to give in.

Actually, I gave in a lot. Turns out camping seven days a week is fine for some families, but ours needed a place with bigger beds and more space, constant electricity and hot water about once a week for reasons of family harmony. Usually all four of us crammed into a twin single room and felt like kings - the single beds were way bigger than what we were sleeping in and you could stand up in the shower!

9. China will finally get high-speed internet just as I leave the country, and I'll be really pissed off because I never got to experience the thrill of uploading a photo in under ten minutes.

Ha! If actual fact, the internet turned badder than bad at the time of the 18th Communist Party Congress in October, leaving everyone pulling their hair out and forcing our VPN provider to come up with extremely creative software solutions to get over, under and around the increasingly impenetrable Great Firewall. The situation is expected to worsen in 2013 with the commencement of new internet laws in China.

10. After six months of travelling rough crammed into a home-made campervan my children will probably hate me, but when they're forty-five they'll tell their kids it was the best holiday they ever had. I hope. 

My children amazed me with their resilience, patience and resourcefulness over six long months of things very frequently not going to plan. And they say they don't hate me for putting through it. I never imagined they were so capable and so flexible, but they were. It was one of the best things to come out of our whole trip.
But as to whether it was the best holiday they ever had? I think it will take them a couple more decades to get to that point. As the youngest said: "Mum, a holiday is where you lie on the beach and totally relax. This isn't a holiday. It's travelling, and that's not the same thing".

SCORE CARD: 5/10 (no better than chance, really)

The Last Chinese Campsite

In the end, actually, all the girls really wanted from our trip was not to see one more temple or climb one more mountain or visit one more village market. It was simply to be able to camp in one place for two whole days, so they could explore and play. Not much to ask, and surprisingly difficult to deliver.

Which is how we ended up in a secluded dead end road in Fujian Province the week before Christmas, overlooking a bamboo forest and a small stream, with a promise to stay for two whole days, despite our driving schedule being well behind. It was our very last chance to camp because we wouldn't be permitted to road camp at our final two stops - Wuyi Shan and Huang Shan.  

This, finally, was how I imagined our whole trip, many many months ago. Long lazy days spent reading, writing and cooking in quiet places full of natural beauty. Beside streams, in the shadow of mountains, near bamboo forests.

Those were the camping sites of my imagination, in a time before the less lovely reality of camping in China kicked in. Of stopping beside highways, in rubbish dumps, near towns, and occasionally in carparks. Of crowds of visitors. 

Our campsites sometimes came close, but always lacked one of the magic ingredients on the tick box checklist of perfect campsite attributes - solitude, quietness, natural beauty, trees for hammocks. Or had other ingredients cruelly added - unusual bad smells, livestock passing through, biting insects that descended in swarms at dusk, tourists that descended from nearby tour bus rest stops.

Camping nirvana had only happened twice in our recollection - early on, in Inner Mongolia (foolishly we had only stayed a single night - if only we knew that would be the bar by which all other campsites were measured!) and again outside Beijing. Not often for a country the size of China.

But here we were, tucked away off the road in a place that was quiet, was unseen from the road, and looked out over a rushing rocky stream. The late autumn sunshine shone warm through the tops of the bamboo and maple trees. We were staying put for two whole days and nights.

They were wonderful slow, sunny, lazy days. I sat still for long enough to notice the feathered trail in the sky left by an unseen aircraft. We threw rocks in the stream with the girls. And I wrote, undistracted for several hours, a rare gift in our six months of non-stop movement and frequent exhaustion.

The girls waded up the creek in the warm sun. It was hard to believe snow was falling in other parts of China when here the days were still warm and pleasant. My older daughter soaked two pairs of trousers after twice falling in the creek, but they loved rock-hopping up and down the stream and were having a ball doing what kids do best - playing. 

We ate a a picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with the last of our precious supplies of cheese (from Bakery 88 in Dali) and Scottish oatcakes (tucked away in a box until now) with dried fruit from Kashgar.  

Matt and the girls walked to a nearby village after lunch to buy drinking water, and I stayed behind to make yogurt and explore. There had been a flood through here at some point in the near past - shreds of cloth hung high in the bushes, and an old zipper curled around a branch like a black snake. I found a cache of old liquor bottles buried under dirt and moss, and an old umbrella.

But mostly I enjoyed the quietness, so hard to come by in such a populous place. I soaked the quietness in and fixed it in my memory.

When the rest of the family returned we cooked dinner together, laughing, our spirits buoyed by a whole day of rest and by the feeling we would soon be home. Home. Six months is a long time to be away from your home and we missed it enormously. 

The girls decorated the van with tinsel we had bought in Yongding, near the tulou, and a tiny tree frosted with white polystyrene beads that shed white bits that stuck to our hair and our clothes and eventually had to be put outside. We pooled the last of our sweets and chocolates into a dish and declared we were having a Movie Night complete with cinema snacks, and watched a movie together sitting huddled up, all four of us, on our tiny cramped bed in the back of the van. 

It was the perfect memory for our very last day of camping in China. 

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