The Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

This weekend Lukas, Jerry, David and I absconded with our bodies to enjoy a weekend Great Khan-style in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia (a province of China, not the independent country where I turned down the opportunity to help expand AIESEC).

First we took the Friday evening overnight K263 train to Hohhot, the capital of Nèi Měnggǔ province.  Though not the first “hard sleeper” train I had ever taken (that honor goes to the Qingzang Railway), The K263 was the first sleeper train I had taken which did not have compartments for the groupings of six beds, three in a stack.  There were only walls between every other stack of beds, allowing the feet of abnormally tall people like myself to obstruct the train car’s walkway.  After a few beers and a couple of swigs of the Scottish Collie whisky Lukas brought along, we climbed into bed just in time for the 22:00 lights out.  The nightcap protected my slumber from the rumblings of the K263, even when we stopped in heavily polluted Datong at the unholy hour of about 02:00.

The train pulled into Hohhot at 05:00 the next morning, and we stumbled out into the city which is the butt of many jokes by both laowai and Chinese for its conjured image as a rough industrial splotch on the remote Mongolian frontier.  In the dark of the morning, it seemed to be mostly correct.  Hohhot was not our final destination; we were headed to the grasslands tourism hub of Xilamuren, but the first bus did not leave until 07:00.  Dico’s, the Chinese fast-food chicken chain, was the only establishment open for breakfast near the train and bus stations.  After a terrible breakfast there we purchased our bus tickets to Xilamuren, about 21 kuai for a two-hour bus ride.  In and around the bus station, touts claimed that in Xilamuren the grass was dead because it “had not rained in over a month” and that only their spot had any tall grass.  We ignored their lies; Lukas’ friend had been caught in an Inner Mongolian downpour within the past week.

When the bus platform opened we climbed in the back and watched the drunken or senile (or both) antics of an old bald Inner Mongolian man.  We could not understand his stuttering mixture of what must have been Chinese and Mongolian.  The local bus riders watched him with amusement.  It emerged that he had not purchased a ticket but still expected to ride the bus, and no amount of pleading by the bus driver and the passenger whom he had slighted could get him to move.  The bus pulled out with one too many passengers, but as it reached the gate pavilion a police woman stepped onto the bus and demanded that he get off the bus and buy a ticket for another bus.  He still would not move.  Physically removing him would have been far too embarrassing and a huge no-no in the Chinese concept of “face,” but the driver and police woman found a particularly Chinese solution.  The bus driver announced that there were problems with the bus and so we would have to swap buses.  He pulled back around to the bus platform and ushered everyone off, taking care to get the old man’s scarf off the bus seat where he left it.  Someone then escorted the man back into the bus station while the bus pulled up to the road and the driver instructed us to run after it, and we all jumped on and the door shut with the proper dues-paying passengers safely aboard.  Before the bus could leave the station altogether, the old man came running and yelling along the side and stood in front of the bus, decrying the injustice meted on his head.  I could not see what happened next, but I guess someone physically held him back while the bus entered the streets and drove away.

Hohhot is at the southern base of the Great Blue Mountains which rise to form the grasslands plateau.  The bus ride from the relatively polluted city into the mountains grants the rider with beautiful views of striking green grassy hills and a sky as blue as any Alabama has to offer.   By the time we reached Xilamuren, pollution was a totally forgotten phenomenon.  The wind was brisk and ever-present, like the outlet of a great oxygen factory.  This made us smile; when you live in Beijing, this sort of thing is a pleasure even if you just sit still for hours.

The bus dropped us off in a large tourist settlement full of concrete “yurts,” so we decided to walk up the road to find a car that could take us to a smaller collection of yurts.  Less than five minutes after walking up the main drag of Xilamuren, a woman on a motorcycle asked us where we were going to which we replied “Ulan Bator.”  She offered us a stay in one of her yurts, which she promised were much fewer in number than the large settlement and were suitably far away from this agglomeration at seven kilometers up the road.  After haggling the transport price down to 50 kuai for all of us and 100 kuai total for the yurt she agreed to our conditions.  We waited for about thirty minutes before her older sister took us up to the yurt settlement, which was an arrangement of about twenty yurts of differing amenity levels around a common courtyard.  It was small and nice, surrounded by nothing but grasslands and a few similarly-sized yurt settlements hundreds of meters to kilometers away.

It was only 10:00 so we dropped our bags in the yurt and ordered some goat or horse milk tea, I am not sure which.  The yurt boasted a picture of Kublai Khan at the back and a small table in the middle of the raised platform, which was our sleeping surface.  We relaxed with the tea and enjoyed the view of the grasslands, though the sky was rather cloudy and the air a bit chilly.  After a couple of hours and a few bites for lunch we were ready to ride horses.

Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices
Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices

I have ridden horses only thrice, the last time over ten years ago.  Each time I rode a horse that was unruly and would run off from the rest of the group, frightening the hell out of me, especially when one almost knocked my head off by nearly running me into a tree limb.  I told myself that now I am no longer a boy and I should be able to deal with it.  We paid for five hours of horse riding at 20 kuai per person per hour.  The first bad sign came when the guide angrily yelled and cursed at the manager that he had been riding all week and did not want to ride today.  He had a sour and angry look on his face the whole ride and would curse randomly.  Having an unhappy guide is not a desirable thing.

Within thirty minutes, after the horses began to trot and gallop, I was moaning in pain.  My horse’s stirrups were far too short.  Even once I figured out the sort of rhythmic rise and fall to avoid being jostled like a jackhammer by the horse’s trotting, my knees quickly gave out since I could not stretch them into a resting position.  It was like I was squatting the whole time, so I was unable to keep up the proper riding stance.  Plus, I received a terribly painful blister next to my tailbone from rubbing against the saddle.  After two hours of this, I knew I would never make it for three more, even though I felt bad for being the spoilsport to the others’ fun.  David was an experienced rider and Lukas handled his horse well enough, and while Jerry had a tough time of it he was clearly not in the same sad shape as me.  I started screaming with frustration and pain halfway through the ride, to which the guide paid no heed.  Thankfully, we stopped at a hut to relax and enjoy some tea, but every movement was painful.  From that point forward, we rode the horses at a walk back to the camp and everyone was sore.  Even right now, forty-eight hours later, sitting down and standing up is laborious and the blister’s pain has not yet been halved.

We took a couple of hours’ rest in the yurt and instructed the camp’s cook to prepare a roast leg of lamb for us.  After our rest we ordered some regular dishes which were surprisingly tasty albeit expensive since this was a tourist resort.  Upon finishing our beers and the regular dishes, a server brought in the glorious roast leg of lamb and placed it at the center of the table.  Our eyes lit up at its steaming mountains of perfectly-cooked flesh and well-rendered fat over thick, large bones.  The cook provided two knives, and we wasted no time in carving and savoring the flavorful bounty.  Lamb is one of my favorite things to eat in China, but it usually comes low-quality and thinly sliced as the barbecue shish kebab yang rou chuan’r sticks that must accompany any warm night out, and the cold ones too when it’s not so deadly icy that the stall cooks stay indoors.  This leg of lamb was orders of magnitude above those miserable sinews in comparison, cut fresh from a healthy specimen killed that day.  We sliced everything until only a small altar of forearm-sized bones remained on the table.  Coupled with teacup mixtures of Scottish Collie and Pepsi, we were satisfied that we had organized a good dudes’ weekend out.

Sunset of Xilamuren
Sunset of Xilamuren
Remnants of the Evening Feast
Remnants of the Evening Feast

Once we licked our lips clean of the lamb’s flesh, the proprietor called us out to the courtyard in the center of all the yurts to dance around the bonfire with the rest of the Chinese tourists.  We participated for a bit and played the regular laowai celebrities, getting our pictures taken with all of the Chinese people.  We then stepped out beyond the commotion of the techno dance party around the bonfire and walked into the darkness of the grasslands to enjoy the starry night sky.  It was the second-best star-scene I have seen in China, next to Nam Tso lake in Tibet.  Twenty minutes granted us with several shooting stars, possibly of Perseid origin, two satellites, and the full arching band of the Milky Way, interrupted only by fireworks from the courtyard and from other yurt settlements.

Before we made it back to our yurt, a Chinese businessman invited us to join him and his colleagues in their yurt.  We grabbed the two small bottles of Mongolian baijiu we purchased earlier and the large bottle of Pepsi and accompanied him to his yurt.  Eight Chinese businessmen greeted us.  They were just getting started on their evening of drinking, and in the middle of their table sat an entire roast lamb.  Lukas and David had seen this very lamb slaughtered earlier that evening.  They invited us to sit at the table,happy that we had brought a gift of liquor.  Before they carved the lamb, they had us all sing a song from our homelands and drink a full bowl of the 132-proof baijiu.  I sang “This Land is Your Land,” and Jerry sang “Henry the Eighth,” while Lukas sang a Czech song and David sang a Colombian song.  After we sang and downed the strong liquor, we were granted a blue khata scarf, a tradition shared by the Mongolians and Tibetans from their long history of cultural exchange.  The businessmen didn’t sing songs, but the girl who served food sang a song while each businessman stood at the front of the yurt, and when she finished singing he would down the bowl of baijiu and take the blue khata scarf.  Once this finished, one of our hosts began carving the lamb and offered everyone a generous slice, with we laowai receiving the first cuts.

Over the course of the evening we consumed about one-third of the lamb, six or seven slices for each of us.  We were heartbroken that we could not eat more of it, but it was clear that our hosts purchased the lamb more for its “face” value than for the actual enjoyment of its succulent meat.  It was more important for the boss of the company to show that he could buy the whole lamb than it was to finish eating it, a fact bolstered by their generous offerings of very expensive cigarettes – I turned them down because I don’t smoke, but if I was engaging in business negotiations with them I would have to accept and smoke them regardless of my personal practice.  Once we finished eating and chatting, the boss of the company directed us all in a simple drinking game in which he turned away from the circle and beat a plastic bottle with a chopstick while we all passed a pack of cards like a hot potato.  When the boss ceased tapping the bottle, whoever had the pack of cards had to take a shot of baijiu.  This continued for nearly an hour, so by the end of the evening we were all in merry spirits indeed.  During our chat, the businessman who invited us boasted that his son is the official in Beijing’s Chaoyang District (where the Central Business District and my office are located) who ultimately signs off on every construction approval in the District.  We surmised that these men, in addition to being the executives of a textiles company, must be semi-influential Party members as well.

Exhausted from so much eating and drinking, we went to bed at about 23:30 and groggily arose with the Sun at 7:30.  It was certainly hilarious to rise from the floor of the yurt to be greeted by the bony remains of our lamb feast from the previous night.  We chugged some water and set out on a grasslands walkabout.  Unlike the first day, there were no clouds in sight and the sun glowed warmly on the steppes.  We walked for nearly four hours, simply enjoying the perfect quiet and the clean air.  It is incredible that this idyllic natural escape is such a short hop away from the incessant clamor and choking air of Beijing.

Our Gracious Hosts
Our Gracious Hosts
Laowai Grassland Nomads
Laowai Grassland Nomads

We packed up our things from the yurt and caught a ride to Xilamuren’s bus stop, where the first bus to pass blew right down the road since it was full.  Not long after, a Chinese couple in a minivan offered to take us to Hohhot for a fee.  The man driving wanted to milk the foreigners for a handsome sum, but we managed to pay only 25 kuai each – just 4 RMB more than the bus ticket would have cost.  He exclaimed to his wife repeatedly that he could not believe he was taking us for such a small sum.

When we left their van in Hohhot, we ate some spicy noodle soup and then went to the Great Mosque, built in fully Chinese architectural style.  Even the minaret is topped by a Chinese-style pavilion roof, the crescent moon on top offering the only indication that this is an Islamic structure.  You can walk around the courtyard for free, but only people coming to pray can enter the prayer hall.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the shade of Hohhot’s completely not-old Old City, a disgusting “cultural preservation” that is full of lowbrow street games and low-quality art auctions.

Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque

We boarded the K90 train, which we dubbed “the famous jiǔ líng,” at 21:21 and laid our saddle-sore bodies right down to sleep.  I was thankful for the shower Monday morning, as none of us had cleaned anything but our teeth and our hands since we left Beijing.  The inexpensive and largely free-form trip was the most fun weekend trip I have taken in China, crowned by our night with the Chinese businessmen.

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Preston

Agent of Change, Former of Entropy, Seeker of a Stateless World.

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