Golden Week, eh? What possesses the central government to let 1.3 billion people all take their holidays at the same time (as they do, also, in the Lunar New Year week)? Each year on October 1 it's chaos as the multitudes storm the Great Wall and every other monument in the country, large or small.
Golden week, then, is the one time I stay away from the mainland - for even before it was established, in 2000, and Chinese domestic tourism took off, I always did my best to avoid crowded tourist traps. I visited Xian seven times before dragging myself to see the terracotta warriors, for example, and, as predicted, I would have been better staying at home and looking at photos of them. The guides screaming into megaphones, the overpriced trinkets and the visual barrage of orange baseball caps; hell hath greater charms.
I cannot resist camels, however. Nothing can keep me away from them, no matter how many tourists are swarming around. Camels are the coolest dudes of the animal kingdom. They are masculine but sensitive, laconic but kindly. They walk with a lateral gait. They understand human nature, then spit on it. It's not for nothing that their image is used to flog cigarettes.
Even before going there, my friends E, K and I knew the Singing Sand Dunes of Dunhuang, a fabled Buddhist trading post on the Silk Road, would be an unbearable tourist hellhole. From our hotel window we could see that the yellow dunes were covered in hordes, with hundreds of tour buses parked nearby. But the beautiful camels standing around looking cooler than jazz musicians were impossible to ignore.
It was still dark when we reached the dunes in the morning, K still so drugged with sleep he had difficulties holding the cup of freshly ground coffee he'd brought with him from Hong Kong. We had thought that at 5.30am we would have had the place to ourselves - sadly 3,000 other people had had the same idea. Oh well, the saddle beckoned.
Once up and swaying between my mighty beast's humps, its muscles working beneath the saddle as it shuffled through the sand, I felt a kind of spiritual delight surge through me, growing as the sun rose pinkly over the endless sand dunes, which billowed like waves. Suddenly I understood history, the universe and everything.
Or I would have done, if the 20 or so teenagers riding behind me hadn't been screaming into their phones and blaring pop music.
I asked the staff when things would be less busy but apparently every week is Golden Week in Dunhuang. Still, for camels I'll do anything - except smoke them.