Ian and I had had visions of ambling across the dunes on our camels like Lawrence of Arabia, wrapped in colourful scarves to protect us from the searing desert sun. Unfortunately, we arrived in Urumqi, the capital of the Turkic region of Xinjiang in the far northwest of China, to freezing sleet, and had to spend our first day there searching for down jackets, warm gloves and thermal underwear. It was a fitting start to a trip that was as bizarre as holidays in China usually are.
We stayed in hotels where the bathroom fittings fell off the walls as soon as you touched them, and where officious notices urged us to hand in our weapons, explosives and "isobactive materials". Our search for camels continued for most of the trip. Ian, a travel photographer, wanted to take pictures of them; I, a food writer, wanted to eat them. I'd seen a grainy photograph of a whole roasted camel in a book about local customs and was intrigued. But everyone I asked about the whereabouts of the nearest camel-roasting restaurant looked at me as if I was a lunatic, and assured me that they'd never heard of such a thing.
But, walking through the Sunday market at Khotan, an oasis city on the southern Silk Road, I nearly tripped over a camel's head that was lying in the dust beneath a butcher's stall. Its feet were standing up nearby, and above it hung strips of a meat that was conspicuously darker than the usual mutton. Yes, said the butcher, it was camel. I bought some, and persuaded a nearby kebab vendor to cook it for me. The camel kebabs, sprinkled with cumin and chilli, sizzling from the grill and served with nan bread, were delicious, and more tender than I had expected.
We headed out into the Pamirs, south of Kashgar, in our quest for camels we could photograph and ride. The villages of the oasis petered out into ash-coloured desert, and then mountains looming on either side of a barren riverbed. Snow-capped peaks rose up in the distance, but just as we were getting into the mood of the open road, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and forced to turn back. There was war in Afghanistan, and the area around the Sino-Pakistani border was closed to foreigners. As a last resort, we paid two young Uyghurs to fix us up with a camel ride near the old Silk Road town of Yarkand. It was fiercely uncomfortable, and the landscape was not the rolling yellow dunes of Ian's imagination, but a dirty grey scrubland of parched grasses and sand.
Travelling in China has always been a hassle. When I first started doing it, in the early 1990s, the country was notorious among backpackers for hotel and restaurant staff who always said "no" (or rather, mei you, "there isn't any"); for a complicated dual currency system (renminbi for the people of China, "foreign exchange certificates" for everyone else), and a transport system that made it virtually impossible to buy train tickets except on the black market. And if you couldn't secure a "hard-sleeper" ticket, you might have to face 72 hours in an unnumbered "hard-seat"carriage, where you would spend all night struggling for a few inches of room in a seething crowd of people, bundled in with their unnappied infants and squawking fowl, smoking furiously, spitting, chomping corncobs and watermelon seeds and tossing the debris on the floor.
Nonetheless, the thrill of exploring a country that was opening up after decades of Maoism was irresistible. Every brutal encounter with a hostile railway clerk was matched by the discovery of landscapes beautiful beyond my wildest dreams, and meetings with Chinese people who were touchingly curious about foreigners, and boundless in their hospitality.
By the time I went to live in China, in 1994, I spoke basic Mandarin, so the problems of moving around were eased. I could haggle with black market ticket vendors, read maps and timetables, and ask locals for their advice on where to go. But large parts of the country were officially closed to foreigners, and these were always the places that I wanted to visit. "Closed areas" were untouched by tourism, and included some of the most scenic parts of China. Within them, I crossed mountain passes where the snow gleamed pink in the evening sun, stayed in villages where I was the only foreigner to have been seen in living memory, slept on dogskins by the fire in remote farmhouses, and attended a traditional Confucian funeral.
I spent weeks roaming the Tibetan areas of western Sichuan on my own or with friends. It was illegal for us to be there, so we had to travel by our wits. I disguised myself on several occasions as a Chinese peasant, covering my light-brown hair, wearing local sunglasses to hide my green eyes, bundling my backpack into a plastic sack, and concealing my large nose in a handkerchief at key moments of encounter with policemen or officials. Usually, they rumbled me, but not before I'd visited the hilltop monastery or whatever was the mission of my trip.
Most of the closed areas are now open to foreigners, although you might need a permit. The police, last time they demanded entry to my hotel room in a remote area, were friendly and polite, and simply wanted to register rather than arrest me. But China continues to be a tricky and sometimes surreal place for the independent traveller. Often, it drives me crazy. My heart sinks when I arrive in an ancient town with an illustrious history only to find that it has been demolished and replaced with a grid of faceless high-rises, with a few "old streets" that are a pastiche of the past, a Chinese Disneyland. I can't stand the pollution, and I hate the hotels where everything falls off the walls. And the economic boom has brought new inconveniences.
At the tail end of that trip with Ian to Xinjiang he returned to England before me. Staying in the same seedily glamorous hotel in Urumqi that we'd passed through together on our way to Kashgar, he was harassed by prostitutes, including a catsuited woman who burst into his room in the middle of the night, offering all kinds of attentions. A fortnight later I stayed there myself, and was propositioned constantly by Pakistani businessmen who assumed without asking that I was a Russian prostitute. "What room number?" they would say as they approached me in the lobby. The hotel offered rooms by the hour, and the dining room at breakfast was full of single working girls. What are you supposed to write on the customer survey form of a hotel like that when they ask whether you were satisfied with the room service?
China is not the easiest place to visit, and I'm not sure I'd ever describe my trips there as "holidays". Yet the worst experiences have often been the funniest, and the magic of the best moments – whether climbing a Buddhist mountain in Guizhou, drinking tea in a Yangzhou salt merchant's mansion, or catching ducks for New Year's dinner in a village in Hunan – is incomparable.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air China (020-7744 0800; air-china.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Beijing, with onward flights to Urumqi, from £703 return.
China National Tourist Office (020-7373 0888; cnto.org). British passport holders need a visa to visit China. Contact the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, 31 Portland Place, London W1B 1QD (020-7631 1430, 2pm-4pm only; chinese-embassy. org.uk). A single-entry visa costs £30.