It takes a while before I realise Alex* is lost.
I mean, I'm definitely lost. I was lost hours ago. Sarah*, the hotel marketing manager, is also lost. I know she's lost because she keeps whispering to me, with a giggle, "I'm so lost." But while our hiking guide Alex is still with us it doesn't seem a problem that we have no idea where we are or where we're going.
But then, suddenly, I realise Alex is lost too. It's the random way he seems to be casting around in the gloom, going left and going right, at one point taking us in a large circle. Even I know we've just walked in a big circle. There are only a few recognisable landmarks up here on the mountain when you can barely see 10 metres in front of you, but we passed that wooden stump not so long ago, and there it is again.
Alex is lost. The weather is closing in, dense cloud enveloping us, the steady sleet dripping down my neck and finding its way into my boots. I'm wearing pretty much every stitch of the clothing I brought with me on this trip and I'm still cold. And we're lost.
This is the worst trip I've ever been on as a travel writer. I realise this story is unlikely to elicit any sympathy. I'm aware that the worst trip for a travel writer is sometimes still a hell of a lot better than the best day for someone who actually works hard on something that's truly important.
So I share this without hope of compassion. I'm sharing it just to let you know that sometimes the life of a travel writer is amazing, sometimes it's inspiring, sometimes it's shockingly lavish – and sometimes, it sucks. On this trip, it sucked.
I'm in China. I'm staying with a fancy hotel chain that has recently opened a string of properties in the country's south. I'm not going to name the hotel, because I think it would be unfair. They've done a lot to improve their product since I went on this trip. They don't deserve to be slandered for early teething problems.
So let's just say I'm in China. My first port of call is a historic city with a beautiful old town. I'm met there by Craig*, who normally works in sales, but who has been detailed to act as my tour guide for the next couple of days because he's the only person here who speaks English.
Craig is a nice guy, but he's no tour guide, mostly because he doesn't know the city very well. Or at all. He keeps getting lost on our little walking tours. He's not sure where we should eat. He only moved here a few months ago. I eventually tell him to stay back at the hotel and let me explore solo.
One day he takes me on a side trip to a small "minority village", a set-up-for-tourists demonstration of culture that culminates in me being forced to ride a tiny, miserable horse through the deserted village in the rain.
Soon it's time to move on, to another of the hotel's properties high in the mountains. There's a major tourist site along the way, which Craig and our driver attempt to talk me out of visiting. It's a huge detour, they say. It will add hours to your trip. It's actually not very good. We won't be able to get lunch anywhere.
But most people come to this region just to see this site, so I insist we go. Turns out it's about 10 minutes off the highway, and it's spectacular. And there are multiple restaurants on-site. I have to assume Craig and the driver are just sick of going there.
Onwards to the next hotel, where I'm once again allocated an English-speaking manager. Sarah, once again, is lovely, and entirely out of her depth. Even she seems unsure how she got here.
Our main activity here is an excursion high in the mountains, a tour of a local village and a hike through impossibly beautiful high-country terrain. At least, I have to assume it's beautiful, because the day we go up there I can't see a thing. It's clouded over, steady sleet forcing our car's windscreen wipers into action as we climb higher, and higher, and higher into the mountains.
The crew obviously don't want to call it off. Not with the travel writer here. Not after they've spent so much money on this thing. And so off we go for our hike, the wind howling, the sleet hammering, the ground slippery beneath us as the snow melts and the sleet loosens the footing.
We slip, we slide, we stumble. We shiver. We squelch. And Alex gets lost. He leads us in a big circle. He consults with Sarah, who obviously doesn't know where we are either. He starts casting out in ever wider circles, hoping to intersect with a trail, to get some sort of bearing on where we are in this almost total white-out.
This all sounds fine in hindsight, I understand, but there are moments when I seriously think to myself: we could die out here. If we don't find a path, if we don't make it back to the car, if we're stuck here overnight, we could die.
Eventually, Alex gets lucky. He finds a path, such as it is. You don't need to be able to speak Mandarin to pick up the relief.
This is the worst trip I've been on as a travel writer. It's not the scariest – I came much closer to death outside a Thai resort when I was almost bitten by a king cobra. It's not the most boring – I once got taken on a tour of a saxophone factory in Taiwan. This one, however, has it all: calamity, incompetence, danger, and the knowledge that there's no way I'm ever going to be able to write about this to actually make some money when I get home.
So when people ask the question, this is my answer. A bumbling tour guide. A small horse. A cold, soggy hike that could have gone seriously awry.
Right now though, stuck at home, pining for adventure, it actually doesn't sound so bad.
Have you ever been on a disastrous trip? What's the worst holiday you've been on? Would you do it all again?
*Names have been changed