Laying half in, half out of sleep, the sound of rushing wind began to grow.
Rolling over, the tent pushed down on my face and I came fully awake. Kim stirred next to me. I flicked on the head torch; next to me the tent was a concave wall, a sail stretching and gathering wind. The air was getting heavy, filling with dust, grit and sand.
Kim was awake now, her face concerned. Outside, the wind howled, a crazed monster, shrieking louder and longer, quickly changing direction, pummeling the tent. Inside, the air thickened with sand, covering us with a reddy orange film. Kim fumbled for her glasses with one hand, and clamped a cloth over her mouth with the other.
Through the growing storm, we could hear our friends’ voices, going from tent to tent, helping each other to safety – back to the truck. “You guys okay?” we heard Lu, our trip leader, shouting from outside. “Yeah, we’re fine,” I said, shouting back. “Okay…,” came the faint reply, receding into the wind. Kim looked at me, uncertainty showing. She was worried, thinking we should get out. I was a little concerned, but felt sure the tent was secure. But, mid-debate, the front entrance collapsed, slapping into us. Reacting, we raised arms and legs, on our backs like upturned turtles, and braced our bodies against the tent and the violent wind.
It had been five days since Lhasa.
Travelling through the high Tibetan plateau, we’d camped beneath ice capped mountains, in snow and mud, and at the beautiful, glacial blue Namtso Lake, a place of pilgrims and prayer flags. Driving forty-two strong in our ‘big orange truck’, it was one of the longest spells we’d gone without a shower – or anything resembling facilities – since leaving London four months before. Smelling funky and feeling cranky, the group was in bad need of a wash and a little bit of space.
So there was delight and relief all round when we pulled off the road in Qinghai province. Next to our chosen campsite was a fast flowing stream, with clear, fresh mountain water. The sandy banks sloped down to large flat rocks, polished smooth. The girls lost no time in grabbing their wash bags and heading to this makeshift bathhouse. Hair was washed, skin cleansed and fresh clothes donned. Further down, the guys freshened up too, or mucked around in the water. Some people did a spot of laundry, others put things out to air. Back at camp, the cook group started chopping, slicing and boiling, filling the air with smells of browning onions and sizzling garlic, preparing another ‘one pot wonder’.
As usual the first thing I did, after cracking open a coldish beer, was set about the tent.
I was known among our group as a tent perfectionist – never happy till every line was taut, the fly stretched tight like a trampoline. This camp would prove to be one of my greater challenges. The flat, sandy, gravelly ground was packed hard – at times it was like hammering pegs into bare rock. Half an hour went by. Around me, everyone else was done. I opened another beer, cursing a little and got back in the fight. With an hour gone, I was done. The tent was looking, more or less, like its usual self – sleek, long, low and ground-hugging, only a few pegs bent out of shape, half in, half out. Time for dinner.
The tent – as tight and secure as I could make it in that stony ground
We had set up camp on wide, flat ground, with jagged, pastelly brown mountains rising behind us.
The air was peacefully still and the sun’s late orange glow cast its welcome warmth on us. With dinner done and bellies full, sipping beer, wine or hot tea, the mood was good. The chill and grumpiness of our recent camps was forgotten, the open space and evening sun encouraging the return of our usual camaraderie.
Chess board settled on a camp stool between us, Arthur and I began our normal game – for me, yet another attempt at that elusive victory. An hour in, the contest was even. I opened another beer, trying to calculate my next move. Arthur, inscrutable as always, sipped his water bottle and looked back across the board. At the two hour mark, with night closing in, my concentration slipped beyond the point of all usefulness and calmly, closing off my final escape route, he killed the game.
The beers are having their effect – Arthur soberly plots my downfall
Around us, the numbers were thinning out. After a few minutes of banter with the stragglers, finishing the last of our drinks, we headed for the tent.
Cooler than before, the air was still warm; the mountain ridge was ringed in fiery red. We grabbed our toothbrushes, did our teeth, and climbed in, settling in for the night.
Sleep was slow in coming, the beer and wine still running its course, but finally, we began the long drift into a deep, restful slumber…
On our backs, bodies pressed against the tent, we could feel the strength of the wind as it slammed into us, one way then the other.
Kim looked at me, eyes bright in the dim light, face coated with a layer of orange dirt, grimy wet wipe pressed to her mouth. “We need to get out.” I shook my head, “We’re fine,” I said, calmly, mostly believing it. I was more concerned about the conditions outside, and leaving the tent to the storm.
A voice from outside. It was Lu, back again. “Are you sure you guys are okay?” she cried through the howling wind. “We’re fine,” I called out. “Eh, no,” shouted Kim, “we’re not. I’d quite like to get out now!” Her stress was palpable, and with my own certainty starting to waver, I nodded. Kim clambered out, helped by Lu and a few others, as I stretched, arched and contorted my body to support the embattled tent. Wind tore in through the gap, and I choked on a lungful of fresh dirt. I struggled into my shorts and t-shirt, tossed aside no more than a hour ago, rammed on my flip flops, and barrelled out under the flap.
Outside the storm raged.
The wind pulled and tugged and shoved, its gritty load an unexpected exfoliant. I couldn’t see beyond a few metres. Kim was already gone, back to the truck. Lu and Jeff were holding the tent. Crouching low, we worked at the pegs, trying to pull them loose. Some came out easily enough, others resisted – the hour of bloody-minded hammering had done its job. Through the wind, I just made out a sickening, snapping sound, a pole, as we fought to get the tent loose. Soon, it was free, bundled up, heavy and limp – a dead weight. “Over there!” Lu shouted, a foot away. Nodding, we followed her lead – tent, bags, and random crap hanging between us.
The truck rose in front of us, a dark, blurry shadow. Reaching the door, I had time to look around as Jeff wrenched it open. The wind whipped by. My clothes flapped furiously, snapping like flags on a pole, and hairs streamed out from my arms and legs. I squinted my eyes against the dust; with safety at my back, I stared into the storm, grinning, blood pumping, in the moment.
The door open, we scrambled on, pushing ourselves up the narrow stairs.
Piled at the front was a tangled mess: tents and sleeping bags, poles sticking out randomly like twigs from a bird’s nest. Our stuff was thrown on top, added to the pile. Behind us the truck was full, a sea of faces, dirty and stained. Clothes, clean just an hour ago, were grubby and reddy brown. Most were still dressed for bed and a few guys were just in their boxers. “You’re the last,” said Lu. I nodded, and maneuvered up the aisle to find Kim.
She was a few rows back, worried, but glad to be on the truck. “There you are,” she said, relieved. “Yeah, the pegs were a nightmare to get out… and,” wincing, “I’m pretty sure a pole snapped.” Something hard crunched between my teeth; my tongue was dry as a desert. “Any water?” “Eh, yeah.” She tossed me the bottle. Taking a slug, I rinsed the taste of dirt from my mouth. Around us, the air was buzzing as people swapped stories. Claire’s tent had disappeared into the night, and sharing a tent, Chris and Owen had flipped right over, lifted by the wind and tossed like tumbleweed. Chris was dazed and dull eyed, a huge lump on his head.
Outside, the wind seemed to grow stronger again.
The truck, a substantial beast, shook hard with the force, rocking slightly. Everyone looked at each other, nervous energy high. Surely we’d be alright in here? Suddenly, the sound of breaking glass, a scream. What the…? Heads turned. One of the windows was gone, the glass shattered, lying in pieces. “Someone’s outside!” one girl shouted, panicky, the night’s drama taking its toll. “Someone just threw a rock at the window!” But it was only the wind.
Some heavy duty cardboard was dug out and the window quickly boarded up. The glass was swept up too, and no one was hurt. Settling down, everybody waited for the sandstorm to pass. Within half an hour, the wind was calming down. After an hour, it was all but over, gone as quickly as it had arrived. Soon, we began to venture outside.
A decent breeze was still blowing, but the air was clearing in front of us, and the stars were beginning to show, helping us see. We opened the side hatches and grabbed a few camp stools. People began to relax, talking over the last two hours. We were tired and awake at the same time, unable to find sleep. There was talk of laying mats on the ground, and in the end, a few people climbed on the roof, sleeping out under the stars. Most of us went back inside, curled up in our seats and slept as best we could.
Not so many hours later, with day breaking, we unwound our cramped, grimy bodies and shuffled wearily outside.
The morning was calm. The early sun’s warmth felt good; last night’s chaos a fading memory. Time to sort out the mess, heaped at the front of the truck. As the cook group set up for breakfast, the rest of us got stuck into the task of extricating our tangled possessions. Brought down and piled outside, it took the best part of an hour to sort our gear, gingerly fishing out a pole here, a peg or random item there, trying not to damage anything else. There were rips, tears and lost items a plenty; the toilet tent had disappeared into the night, missing in action; and yes, my pole was in two – some repairs would be needed before setting up again that night.
By nine o’clock, with breakfast done and our things repacked, we were on the road again. A mere twelve hours before, we had sat in the warm evening, clean and refreshed, enjoying life and good company. Now, we were tired and dirty once again.
Pulling onto the road with the windows open, we were in good spirits.
The night’s excitement had deepened the bonds of our shared experience, and with no lasting harm done, we all had a story to tell. Driving down the road, the truck rang with laughter as we stopped once, and then again and again, one eagle eyed spotter after another shouting out, “There’s a sleeping bag!”, “Something’s in that bush!”. In the end, we recovered an unexpected amount, but some things were gone forever.
Before long, we were underway for good. Weariness caught up with us, and one by one, we drifted off to sleep, napping in fits and starts, heads lolling so far before jerking back like puppets on a string. The day and the truck trundled on, and in late afternoon, with the low sun’s golden light glowing from a clear blue sky, we drove through a wide open gate into a field of lush green grass.
We were hoping for a restful night and a chance to fix our gear – it was the perfect place to make camp. But as we looked for the best spot, men on motorbikes appeared, angry faces and raised voices telling us we’d come to the wrong place. As we tried to leave, they blocked our way.
In the end, far from a peaceful night in our own tents, we were invited to be guests at the local police station – for our own safety of course. But that’s a story for another time.