When we were planning our trip we knew we would be climbing over some high mountains which meant we would be sleeping up high as well. We expected our stretch from Shangri-la to Kangding to bring the highest, and therefore coldest, camping spots. But boy were we wrong!
Don’t get me wrong, we did have some cold nights, woke up to -6 C when sleeping at 3600 meters on that stretch. But that stretch didn’t hold a candle to our stretch from Xinning to Zhangye. We decided in Xinning to take a different road than originally planned. We wanted back roads and to stay off the beaten path so we chose the S, or secondary road, over the G, or main road. We knew it was going to take us over some amazing mountains but we had no idea the cold it would bring!
This leg of our trip took us seven days and six nights, all but one of those nights were spent in a tent and four of the five nights we woke up to below zero temps (below zero Celsius if you haven’t yet figured out that I’ve converted to the metric system). Since we had planned for cold sleeping and riding we had the gear to stay warm but warm gear can only do so much. I was sleeping in 3 layers on both top and bottom, had my sleeping bag pulled as tight as it would go, had a hat and socks on, and most mornings I would wake up around 5am to put on my down jacket for extra warmth. We also had our tarp up every night to keep it just a little bit warmer.
The coldest morning we experienced was -10C (14F)! That was cold! We had to get dressed in our sleeping bags, which is harder than it sounds especially when two people are trying to do it. We had our rain jackets on over our down jackets for extra warmth. I was wearing two hats and most mornings had to to jumping jacks to keep the feeling in my toes, which never really worked and wouldn’t feel my toes until about 11am.
All the water in our drink bottles and water bags was completely frozen, along with my fingers, toes, and face. The cold made breaking camp a slow process since we had to stop every 5 minutes to warm our hands back up. The most painful part was washing the breakfast dishes and not just because we don’t like doing dishes. The water on our hands would turn from hot to frozen in .02 seconds and turn them into icicles. It made packing up a painfully slow process.
Eventually we would get on the road, which was the best part because it meant our blood would be pumping and we could be warm again. Though that was always short lived because as sure as the sun coming up, the wind would pick up and cool us right down again. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, I couldn’t feel my hands for feet for a good part of the day but the views were more than worth it.
Without even knowing we had picked the road that went through the Qilian mountain range. The mountains reach over 5,000 meters and in early May, were still covered with snow. Both of us agree that this leg of our trip rivals the beauty we saw in the Yunnan and Tibet. The cold was cold, but the beauty was unforgettable.