Sleeping bag, down jacket, snacks, medicines, toothbrush and tissues... I checked all these things one by one and then put them carefully into the brand-new 45-litre traveling bag.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon of February 3 in Nanjing, the capital city of East China's Jiangsu Province. I set out from home, putting on my traveling jacket and carrying my traveling bag, to the railway station, heading to a small village - Guoliang Village in the suburbs of Xinxiang City, Central China's Henan Province.
I rushed to the railway station to meet my 10 companions. However, I was a little bit ashamed to see their traveling bags were twice as large as mine. Walking in the sea of people, we seemed so different from the common run.
I expected the trip to be exciting. "I am sure you will have a very unforgettable time there," said Sun Yuchao, the team leader, who was also the initiator of the trip.
Sun, whose nickname is "monkey" in the online chat room, is a committed fan of camping and budget traveling. He and his friends have shared travel tips online, and arranged trips to different places in the country, most of which remain unknown to people.
There are increasing numbers of people in China who have begun to enjoy budget traveling in recent years. They call themselves "donkeys," which has two meanings. First, the Chinese characters of travel and donkey have the same pronunciation. And second, they always carry huge and heavy traveling bags, just like donkeys.
After reading the story about Guoliang Village online I decided to go with them.
On the wheels
The train left Nanjing at about 4 pm and arrived in Xinxiang of north Henan at 3 am. The mini bus we booked took us to Huixian County, where we could not find any public transport to the village.
After some noodles, we jumped into a very shabby three-wheeled motorcar.
It was still dark and much colder than Nanjing. No one talked, lest the little warmth that existed would disappear. When I stepped down from the motorcar, my hands and feet were as cold as ice.
After taking a crowded bus, then a small van, we eventually found ourselves close to our destination - Guoliang Village.
"I have never taken so many vehicles in one day!" said Shao Huimin, 30, whose nickname was Mountain.
According to the travelogues on the Internet, there are two ways to get to the village. One is to climb the Tianti, a stairway cut into the rocky mountain, while another is to travel through the Guoliang Tunnel.
We chose the tunnel. Sitting by the elderly driver I was lucky to hear the story about the tunnel.
Before 1972, the path chiseled into the rock used to be the only access linking the village with the outside world. Then the villagers decided to dig a tunnel through the rocky cliff.
Led by Shen Mingxin, head of the village, they sold goats and herbs to buy hammers and steel tools. Thirteen strong villagers began the project.
It took them five years to finish the 1,200-metre-long tunnel which is about 5 meters high and 4 meters wide. Some of the villagers even gave their lives to it. On May 1, 1977, the tunnel was opened to traffic.
When I was mulling over what the tunnel looked like, the van started a very steep ascent.
I looked up and could not move my eyes away - it was so beautiful!
All of us were excited. We found ourselves in extremely gorgeous surroundings - against the blue sky, with a path frighteningly narrow, and the cliffs piercing the sky.
All of my fellow "donkeys" stopped talking; some were busy taking photos, some were just dumbfounded.
The golden sun shone upon the ground and through the air vents in the rocky wall of the tunnel. We were sometimes in the dark and sometimes in the light.
I was deeply moved and even wanted to cry, for the sacred Guoliang Tunnel and for what the villagers have done - to triumph over nature.
In about an hour, the small van slowly took us to the unsophisticated village surrounded by the towering mountains. The village, more than 1,200 meters above the sea level, seemed as if it had retreated from the world.
Everything there was made of stone: the village gate, roads, bridges, houses, tables, stools, bowls and chop sticks.
It is said the village originated from Guo Liang, a peasant army leader who used to fight there in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). There are currently about 83 households in the village with 329 people.
Red lanterns hung above every gate and red spring festival scrolls were pasted on all the doors.
Since it was less than -10 C, we decided to stay in the villagers' homes, giving up the old plan of camping outdoors.
Sun Yuchao, our team leader, soon found a suitable indoor "camping site" on the second floor of a two-storey stone house - a 30-square-metre room with 10 beds.
"This room is just for travellers like you," said the host, a villager in his 50s.
A woman quickly made some steamed bread, pickles and porridge for us. The bread was made of coarse food grain, like maize, sorghum and millet, and the porridge was made of maize.
Devouring these like a wolf, I suddenly realized the simple food was the most delicious meal I've ever had. After the meal, we set out to search for the main scenic spot near the village - the Yellow Dragon Cave.
The cave was deep and muddy, full of strange shaped stalactites and grotesque stones.
I was quickly covered in dirt. Looking at my friends, they were also dirty from head to foot.
Laughter resounded in the cave all the time and momentarily we forgot everything. It does not matter what kind of unhappiness we feel, life remains so interesting.
We returned to the village at dusk. A sumptuous "feast" had already been made: various wild herbs like the leaves of sesame and Chinese toon, salted potatoes, bean curd, dried turnip. The vegetarian dishes gave us a real taste of nature compared with the greasy food in the city.
After supper, we sat around the stove downstairs, chattering. "I feel like a fairy now," said Gao Hua, a young woman nicknamed Little Pig.
Firing firecrackers was somehow the climax of our trip. All of us were excited because we hadn't had the opportunity to indulge ourselves like this for a long time since it is forbidden in cities.
The whole village reverberated with cheers and firecrackers. The sky was full of shining stars and the blooming flowers of exploding fireworks.
At about 11 pm, we returned to the house.
Laying our sleeping bags on the 10 beds which were arranged together like a giant camping pad, we slept in a line. I was so excited that I found it hard to fall asleep.
However, I rose early the next morning, as did the others.
The villagers told us there was a very special spring in the mountains. When you shouted loudly, its water would flow quickly. For this reason it had earned the name Shouting Spring.
On the way to Shouting Spring, there were so many frozen waterfalls shining under the sunshine.
We mistook many places for the Shouting Spring until we found it. In front of us was a world of blue ice, with only a little water dripping from it.
But when we shouted in unison, a stream of water rushed from the spring, as if to give us a warm welcome.
With the sun shining directly above our heads, we left the village reluctantly.
The two-day trip was somehow too short. But as the say in the West, "A change is as good as a rest."
(China Daily March 7, 2003)