I awoke to a layer of frost covering the inside of my tent. I saw small tendrils of snowflakes accumulating into icicles hanging here and there as I opened my eyes, fighting off the hold the sandman still had over my mind. The icicles seemed to giggle and dance threateningly as each exhale of warm breath taunted them to fall on my face, but I knew these were empty threats as I lay there marveling at their miniature beauty. As I sat up, still in my sleeping bag, my head brushed the accumulation that took me all night to create, and a small pile of snow and ice crystals fell into my lap. The warmth of my sleeping bag was intoxicating, tempting me back down into sleep. Forgetting I had slept with it, I felt my solar battery shift inside my sleeping bag as I sat up. I remembered my phone was somewhere in my sleeping bag, too. Finding it in the tangle of my liner, I stuffed it into my pocket. As i began to wake up a bit and gather my surroundings, I saw my water bladder had frozen despite its proximity to me. My tent bag and various other stuff sacks that would soon contain my tent and its contents lay haphazardly in the corner. I looked at the shoes that lay to the left of me. They had also accumulated a layer of their own frost. I sighed realizing that sleeping next to them had not done what I was hoping for. I would need to change my system if I wanted to have warm shoes to put on in the mornings and water that isn't encrusted in ice. Having warm shoes was asking too much, I knew, but shoes that were at least not frozen was my hope. I’ll try again tonight. I sat there for one more minute thinking. My thoughts seemed distant, not my own, not relevant to me or my current situation. I reigned them in. The day had come. An action was required. If not soon, then later. Why not now? I uncinched my bag and brushed away the frost from around the face opening and wriggled out. Regarding my frozen shoes a final time, I put them on knowing this was the worst part of the day. Unzipping my tent door rained icy crystals down on everything near the door and I stepped out into the bright morning and crisp air.
The morning was slow as we packed up. I did jumping jacks and ran around to fight off the chill that my feet were incapable of overcoming on their own. Between jazzercising warmth into my feet, packing everything back into our trailers, and eating a cold breakfast of muesli, banana chips, powdered milk, and a bit of water, we were visited by a shepherd. He didn’t say much as he tended his flock around us in the nearby fields that had little more than scraps left from the last harvest. He seemed curious, though, as he visited us twice, both times not saying a word, just standing, watching, eyes scanning our stuff.
The road was a jumble of dirt and rock that filled the gaps and holes of the remaining asphalt. This frontage road paralleled the brand-new highway that we’ve been following since Tianshui-- more than 1,000 kilometers ago. All day the landscape stretched to meet the horizon with nothing to stop it but a bit of haze. Two things happened today that are worth mentioning. One, our jumbled wreckage of a road met up with a newly paved section that was very welcome. The second, and vastly more interesting, happened at dusk despite being able to see it for about an hour before we arrived there. As the sun went down we entered a Mosque that was surrounded by everything and nothing. Inside the compound’s walls, we saw the tower we had been walking toward for the last hour next to a newer more modern Mosque. The people here welcomed us inside to get warm and offered us bread and meat as a simple meal. Upon asking for shelter for the night, they said they were not allowed to house us. At sundown, the Imam sang the call to prayer through a loudspeaker then they all went outside to pray, leaving us to eat and relax.
After leaving, we walked maybe 500 meters to a greenhouse complex next to the Mosque. We thought it would provide some shelter from the wind and the noise of the highway that we still paralleled. But the green houses responsible for growing most of the vegetables in the north west of China are not the kind of green house you're probably thinking of. These are long, earthen, mud-brick buildings with three sides, one long and two short, and since the short sides have no other wall to connect to, they curve from the top corner to the ground out in front. These greenhouses are all built in a grid pattern facing south. Plastic sheeting rolls down to make a curved roof, and in the winter they have thick blankets that little motors roll up and down to insulate as needed. This is what we camped between.
Tonight’s strategy for not-cold shoes in the morning: my shoes will be my pillow and I remembered I have foot warmers in my trailer.
Distance: 23 km
Total Distance: 1,620 km
End: Camping in a Mosque’s greenhouse
Written by Pat