Published: August 23rd 2010August 21st 2010
We were in Inner Mongolia for the open spaces of the grasslands and the fresh air they bring. To reach them we had taken a bus 2hours north from Hohhot to the little tourist settlement of Zhaohe.
On reaching Zhaohe the coach dropped us off in a large, developed camp. I’d read that slightly smaller, more bijou camps could be found further north in more peaceful surrounds, so we left, leaving a trail of unhappy hawkers to search further afield.
In the town itself we were approached by a masked woman on a motorcycle wanting to sell us a Ger for the night (or as it is in Chinese - Menggu Bao, Bao being the word for white steamed bread buns). Both negotiating parties then played their part to the textbook; she was insistent with initially wildly inflated prices, we were initially completely uninterested, followed by being a little coy, passing through the “way to expensive" stage before bargaining down to a reasonable price. 15 minutes later everyone was happy. Mongol Disco
We waited for our transport in the town centre (the T junction the town is built on). The town is essentially a single road, with dust
and rubbish blowing down the main thoroughfare in a manner that Mid-West towns have tumble-weed. But there is one large, round, brightly coloured building of note, decorated in faux Mongolian style. We were curious. It turned out to be the local dance hall. Those long winter nights must fly by.
The transport consisted of a bashed up old saloon car complete with stirrups in the boot. The woman driver (the masked motorcyclist’s little sister) drove without a seat belt while speaking on her mobile. Meanwhile her three-year-old son sat on her lap, trying to resist the urge to tonk the horn. An ideal case study for any officious traffic inspecting textbook.
Our camp consisted of a loose collection of a dozen Menggu Bao - cloth covered circular huts built on concrete bases. As with everything out on the grasslands it wasn’t a Mongolian experience at all, but a Chinese take on one. But we knew it would be like that (true Mongolian experiences are out of reach of Beijing for a weekend), and actually it mattered little because we had found what we were looking for - wide open spaces, big skies and some sweet smelling air. Our
antidote to Beijing was being administered.
That afternoon we stepped up the rehabilitation process with a spot of horse riding. It was the first time I’d properly ridden a horse, but I can’t think of many better places to do it. The horses themselves were on the small side and had had their spirits quashed a long time before. They were almost uncontrollable, following the guide’s horse inch for inch, and the short stirrups that hadn’t been adjusted for four strapping westerners made trotting fairly uncomfortable. But nonetheless, with a squint of the eyes and a sprinkle of imagination it was definitely possible to see the Khans gallopping across the open grasslands in the distance. Tea and Cheese
During the ride we persuaded our grumpy guide to let us stop at a Bao on a ridge for some tea. The local tea is similar to Xinjiang tea - green tea with milk and ever so slightly salty. It is pleasantly drinkable, although the next day in a restaurant in Hohhot we were givern tea which was really very salty indeed. Upon asking the waitress for something a little less like sipping at the Red Sea she gave us
a look of puzzlement mixed with “bloody uncultured foreigners”.
Along with the tea are served little cheesy snacks. But this is no Port Salut. The cheese is hard (the texture of dolly mixture) and sweet. I enjoyed it, but a little goes a long way. Roasted Sheep
The sun set was beautiful - spectacularly lighting up the quilted sky in a sea of reds and oranges. We watched while consuming our dinner - a whole open-roasted leg of lamb. There’s a lot of meat of a sheep’s leg, but we successfully polished it off. It was cooked simply (just some herbs and spices on the skin) but was beautifully tender and tasty. We were just lying back feeling content with ourselves when a Chinese bloke we had been have a small chat with earlier (while watching a sheep being butchered as it happens) came in and invited us to join his Bao.
This was far too good an offer to decline, so we happily said yes and followed him to a nearby Bao. As we walked in sitting on the table in the middle of the tent was a whole roasted sheep, the very sheep we had
seen being killed earlier. It was still in one piece; body, legs, head, and tail. It had a sprig of greenery in its mouth and a blue ribbon tied in a bow on its head. Pretty as a picture.
The group consisted of around 8 businessmen from a woolly-jumper factory in Baotou (though we have collectively decided for future anecdotes they should be re-branded as Government officials). And we had barely sat down before the Mongolian Bai Jiu (66% strong liquor made from sorghum) started to be passed around. The mood was convivial and friendly, communication flowed over language issues and they were as happy to have our company as we were to have theirs. And their sheep of course. Henry The Eighth
However we couldn’t proceed for long without being initiated. This ritual consisted of the initiaee singing a folk song from his own cultural, being handed a bowl of BaiJiu to dispose of in one go before having a blue silk scarf placed over his neck to great resonating cheers. For want of being able to sing any other song all the way through I chose a jolly little ditty for my moment in the spotlight
- “Henry the Eight” by The Herman’s Hermits. I’m not sure the cultural significance of the song was fully appreciated, but it seemed to go down well.
After everyone had had their moment the drinking games started. I say games, there was only one and it was very simple. The manager would face out of the circle and drum on a plastic bottle with a chopstick. Meanwhile an arbitrary object was passed around. When the drumming stop, the holder of object had to drink some BaiJiu. The simplicity didn’t prevent it from being bizarrely fun - the laughter never ceased.
Eventually, as Chinese faces grew redder and redder and Western eyes grew lazier and lazier we decided the moment had come to give our thanks and slip away. The whole experience was not only fun, but also an interesting insight into “Face”. The whole thing was typical of Chinese business men showing face - the drinking, the inviting of foreigners and the excesses (none more so than the sheep, which cost £180. There is no way 12people can finish the amount of meat on a whole sheep; we barely scratched the surface). But it was also a celebration
of newly found wealth. The eldest amongst them wouldn’t’ve been born long after the great famine, and would’ve grown up in a society of oppression, control and poverty. But now in modern China they can live a life of prosperity and freedom, so who can blame them for indulging in the luxury of the odd whole sheep every now and then.
On leaving their bao we walked away from the camp a little to observe the sky - one of the clearest views I’ve ever had of the Milky Way. I’ve barely seen a star in my time in China, so it was a beautiful sight. The only thing that spoilt the peace were the fireworks being set of from a party at our camp - oh and the techno music blaring out. We had to negotiate a few dozen photos before we could transit the party that was in full swing and hit our Bao. A Morning Stroll
The sky when we woke the next morning was incredible. I’ve never seen anything so vividly blue, and utterly cloudless. We decided to enjoy it by going for a morning walk across the grasslands. As we were leaving the
camp our friends from the night before were setting out on some horses, all but one that is. I asked why he wasn’t going and his reply was concise if nothing else: “tou teng”. Headache.
The walk across the grasslands was fabulous. The colours were straight out of a set of poster paints, the sun strong, the air fresh and the nature expansive. At one point we decided to head to a camp in the distance to find some tea. Half an hour later it wasn’t any closer. It felt like being a desert dweller imaging a mirage of an oasis in the distance. It was just a shame we couldn’t stay forever but we had a train to catch that evening. The Road to Hohhot
When the bus to Hohhot arrived it didn’t stop. Instead it just passed with the bus driver gesticulating that it was full. We were faced with a two-hour wait for the next one when a smart black car pulled up, offering us a lift back to Hohhot. At first they gave the impression that the ride would be for free, so I told the driver and his wife how kind they were.
They replied with a “no we’re not” and asked for a contribution. The novelty of making money out of any opportunity has not worn off here yet.
We negotiated down to barely more than the cost of the bus tickets and we were on the way. The driver, though, was annoyed that his wife had agreed to take us for so little money and tension pervaded the first hour of the drive. However when the conversation moved onto work, and we told him how much we earned, he commiserated us and from then on the mood became much more genial.
At one point we passed a dead cow in the middle of the road. It was an epic piece of road kill that asked many more questions than it answered. Hohhot So Hot
As we left the grassland plateau and twisted down the mountain roads into Hohhot we were greeted by a dusty smog. It felt like a being war veteran returning to the concentration camp.
Hohhot is, to be honest, just a city. There is little to set the fire of one’s heart alight. However the signage including old Mongolian script (it looks like a
vertical arabic) is an interesting addition, and the size of the Muslim quarter really did surprise me. I didn’t expect there to be such a large Islamic minority in this part of China.
Of particular note was a Chinese-style (originally Qing-dynasty) Mosque. I find non-buddihst or -taoist religious buildings in China fascinating places, and this was no exception.
We stayed clear of the clichéd local temples and cursed modern Chinese tourist bureaux when what was enticingly referred to as the “old town” on the map turned out to be nothing more than a partly-finished reconstructed street selling a million and one tacky Chinese trinkets. What, you haven’t heard of the famous Jiu Ling?
Time progressed, as it has a habit of doing, and soon it was time to head to the station to catch our sleeper train to Beijing - the famous K90. My friend insisted that it was legendary; known far and wide across China, in fact to the point that people just refer to it as the “jiu ling” - the “nine zero”. We were sceptical but went with it. From his description we assumed it would come replete with jacuzzi car, king-sized beds, mints
on the pillows and complimentary massages, and that we would be floating to Beijing in serene decadence. Reality wasn’t quite on the same wavelength. Jiu Ling, Jiu Ling
As I drifted off to sleep listening to my MP3 player on shuffle, the one Country and Western song I have in my collection came on. I never knew Dolly Parton was such a train spotter... “Jiu ling, Jiu Ling. Jiu Ling Jiu Ling, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man...
Jiu ling, Jiu Ling. Jiu Ling, Jiu Ling, please don’t take him just because you can...
He talks about you in his sleep, and there’s nothing I can do to keep from crying when he calls your name, Jiu Ling...
And I can easily understand how you could easily take my man, but you don’t know what he means to me, Jiu Ling
Jiu ling, Jiu Ling. Jiu Ling Jiu Ling, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man...
Jiu ling, Jiu Ling. Jiu Ling, Jiu Ling, please don’t take him just because you can...”
I was flabbergasted.
The perfect end to a fantastic weekend.
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