Camping in a Winter Wonderland

I watch in mounting horror as Martin heads off into the mountains, leaving our tent flaccid on the ground, and Z endeavours to start a fire on a charred patch of frosty grass.

We had wanted to see snow, sure.

In fact, I had actually quite fancied camping in the snow. Confronted with the subzero reality, however, the prospect becomes less appealing by the second.

It’s a beautiful spot. But I don’t even have a measly single packet of 3-in-1 coffee to ease the pain of waking.

Camping spot in glade outside Songpan, China.

My head is beginning to ache. Whether from the altitude or caffeine withdrawal, I cannot tell, but my money’s on the caffeine.

Clearly, there is only one way forward. “Wow!” I say to Z, with as many enthusiastic exclamation marks as I can muster, my breath puffing great clouds into the frozen air. “Isn’t this an adventure?!!!”

“So we are camping,” he says.

“Well,” I say. “You did say you liked cold weather and cool climates.”

“Yes,” he says. “But that was LAST YEAR.”

“I think you need smaller sticks,” I say, changing the subject. “All this wood is damp.”

As we fanny around unconvincingly with the fire, the wind picks up a little and my lighter chooses this moment to go out in a blaze of glory, potentially leaving me nicotine-free as well as caffeine-free. I decide not to contemplate this possibility.

Z’s fingers are turning an ominous shade of purple.

“Let’s go and sit in their tent,” I say. “It might be warmer.”

Living tent outside Songpan.

It’s an eye-opener, the family tent, and no mistake. Piled against the rear wall are bales of green hay for the yaks, with patches of sacking peeking out of them. In the centre, below a gaping hole in the roof which functions as a chimney, are the remnants of a three stone fire, a kettle propped optimistically against it.

On the right hand side is a bed of branches, topped with heavy felt cloaks where guests can sit and, for that matter, sleep, and a hefty stack of pine branches for firewood. The saddles occupy much of the left hand side, along with some more sacking for folk to sit on.

The mother of the house returns and sets to work at the fire, her cheeks rubbed raw and rosy by the wind, deep wrinkles around her eyes. She’s my age, or thereabouts.

Mother of woodcutting family in Songpan.

“Hi,” I say in rubbish Chinese.

“You speak Chinese very well,” she begins. “%^*&^£$£&%$%$£&£$*%£^*”

Oh great, I think. Her accent is even thicker than Martin’s.

I establish her name, and that she has four children. She learns that I am English and Z is an only child.

After which point, conversation goes roughly like this:


“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

(Louder.) “(%^%^(&(&^$(&^$(&^(.”

“I don’t understand.”

The sticks in the fire produce quite phenomenal quantities of smoke, reminding me, not for the first time, that the three-stone cooking fire is one of the biggest dangers to women’s health worldwide after childbirth. My eyes begin to stream. She seems immune from long practice.

Her son, who’s been hacking bark from the pine trunks that lie in the clearing, comes in, coughs, starts to weep from the smoke, and retreats into the cold again.

It’s the single smokiest environment I’ve been in — even after the beehive huts in the headhunting village in Indonesia. Yet there’s not a great deal of heat. Our breath still steams in the air.

Our hostess puts the kettle on the flames. Until I came to China, I thought the British were obsessed with tea. We have nothing on the Chinese, nothing.

Up here in northern Sichuan where, with its yaks, prayer flags and the prayer wheels in the temples, the place feels quite incredibly Tibetan, they drink black tea.

Bowls come out, and chopsticks. Our hostess rummages in the hay for a sack and spoons a brownish powder into the base of our cups.

My god! I think. We’re having yak butter tea!

On the one hand, I’m totally excited by this. Nothing, and I mean nothing, says “travelling in Tibet” like yak butter tea.

On the other hand, I haven’t brought enough mineral water to last us three days and have been relying on either boiling water or drinking copious quantities of tea to hydrate us.

She pours tea on the flour, scoops out a lump of butter from a metal container and passes us the murky mixture with oil floating on the top. It’s almost dark.

Our campsite in Songpan as night draws in.

Martin returns with bundles of firewood.

“She speaks Chinese very well!” he bellows, jollily. “!%£)*%£!^*)%*^)!%£^)*!%^*)”

I manage to establish that the family have another home. They’re here for seasonal work, cutting pine trees and towing them with yak teams, and her husband will be back in a couple of days.

But I’m too cold and squinty-eyed to work with my dictionary and their accents to keep up a conversation, so I watch how they cope with the tea.

The art is to mix the flour in a little with the chopsticks, then scoop at it. It forms a sort of nutty paste that is surprisingly pleasant, provided it’s paste not flour.

The yak butter, however, is a little off, so some of it forms springy chunks of mozzarella-type cheese.

I try and think of it as a cup of tea and a cheese sandwich, all in the same bowl.

I can’t, however, help noticing the absence of caffeine.

Z requests, and drinks, plain tea, while Martin prepares dinner, little hailstones fly through the ceiling and the open door and hiss off the cooking stones, and the son of the household alternates between the freezing cold of outside — he is not wearing gloves — and the smoke inhalation indoors.

“Does her minority worship fire?” Z asks.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’d avoid putting your feet anywhere near it unless someone else does, though.”

We scope out our accommodation, more by way of escaping the smoke than anything else. With sleeping bags, a felt cloak each and a quilt on top of a blanket and saddlebags for pillows it actually looks relatively cosy. Particularly compared to the option of sleeping in the cooking tent.

Z and local boy hacking wood in Songpan.

Z and the son of the house, who is also ten, play with billhooks and wood in a sort of mutually wary parallel, while Martin works on dinner and I try and fail to figure out a way of staying warm without my eyes streaming.

“Instant Sichuan food!” says Z, tiring briefly of chopping things up, as Martin extracts condiments from his saddlebags and adds them to the bubbling pot of cabbage, garlic, ginger and buckwheat noodles. “Chilli, MSG and salt.”

It’s surprisingly palatable, and very warming. And I realise that after seven hours on a horse in freezing temperatures — and did I mention the absence of coffee? — I’m genuinely tired.

God knows how my hostess must feel after chopping wood and manhandling yaks all day.

Logs lying in clearing.

We retreat to bed, where I insist that Z, who has no obvious body fat, add his reserve pair of thermals plus tracksuit bottoms over his first pair of thermals and under his jeans.

“I don’t think I needed to bother bringing pyjamas,” I say to Z. “The only question is whether we wear all our layers tonight or save some more for ice mountain tomorrow.”

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“I’m trying to work out whether I can get my bra off without unzipping my coat,” I say. “Do you reckon we should sleep in our hats and gloves?”

“Nah,” he says. “After all that cabbage we should build up a nice warm atmosphere in here.”

“There is that,” I say.

My hat has a peak, so I decide against it. We banter, merrily, about flatulence for about half an hour, snow pattering gently onto the tent, before he’s sparko.

It’s the earliest either of us have been asleep since Mount Kinabalu. And I’m honestly looking forwards to our ascent of ice mountain the next day.

There in the dark, snug and, pretty much, warm, I feel incredibly grateful both to our hosts for allowing us into their lives and this beautiful spot, and for the happenstance of being born somewhere where I can experience this slice of their life without having to live it.

*: This is, rather belatedly, the second part of our Songpan saga. You can read part 1 here.

13 Responses

  1. evelin marin says:

    You are surely a brave girl, i could do with the cold, the food, the tea, the sleeping arrangement, but surely not without coffee and sigarette!!!!
    Apart from this, well done seriously challenging experience, i belive eyeopening as well, modern life and comfort versus “other life styles”.
    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Theodora says:

      Mercifully, I found my lighter. I think I would have killed someone without the cigarettes. The coffee? Oh god. Never again…

  2. Phil says:

    Hah! “After all that cabbage we should build up a nice warm atmosphere in here.” Well done, Z.

    Great post. Such an adventure.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Phil. Flatulence was something of a theme… We worked out later that he was feeding us veggies because then the horses could eat the leftovers, which they did.

  3. BRRRR…., no thanks for winter camping. you all are BRAVE!

  4. Ainlay says:

    We are soon to go on our own three day camping safari in the desert and while it may be cold at night I don’t think it will get to quite that degree! I will have to remember to check on the coffee situation, tho in a pinch I’m sure there is always chai. I hope Z remembers he owes you for this!!

  5. Rahul says:

    Winter camping at this altitude needs a strong determination…it reminded me of Ladakh in winters….very well articulated…

  6. jalakeli says:

    I can’t tell you how much reading this makes me want to go home right now, pack up my husband and a bag or two and travel for the rest of forever, making kids to take with us along the way. One day…

    • Theodora says:

      Do it, do it, do it. You know you want to. And, also, there’s only a limited amount of time in most family cycles before the kids don’t want to know you. No pressure, obviously…

      • jalakeli says:

        I’m quite sure I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.
        Now to find a away to generate income along the way. I’m not at all convinced I have anything in my skill set that will keep us housed and fed.