If you ever find yourself in the Beijing area and you are looking for a place to get away from it all, head to Inner-Mongolia to enjoy stunning scenery, huge open space, tranquility and good food. In October last year the English training school I work for organized a relaxing 3-day get-away for the staff (teachers and course consultants) in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. I must admit I wasn’t too thrilled about the long drive to get to Wulan Butong (8 hours) but it quickly became obvious we’d be driving through beautiful scenery. We first passed picturesque mountains (with the Great Wall on top!) and then we drove by little hamlets surrounded by sunflowers everywhere. Mountains then turned into rolling hills with herds of cows and sheep lazily grazing, and eventually we reached the grassland with scattered yellow sand dunes: lovely setting to unwind! And I didn’t even mention the pure blue sky above! (Nice change of pace from Beijing!)
We settled down in a simple but cozy hotel on the edge of the very small town of Wulan Butong. I have no doubt that a few years ago only farmers used to live in this part of China.
However, with the boom of the tourist industry things have changed. The streets of Wulan Butong are now filled with hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants for the tourists who come in bus tours or behind the wheels of their fancy 4-wheel drives. But we didn’t come to Wulan Butong for the town itself and it didn’t take me long to grab my backpack and start walking… within 5 minutes from town, I was entering grassland territory: infinite pasture, wild flowers everywhere, occasional farmers cutting down the high grass with their small tractors (no John Deer here!), prairie dogs hiding behind haystacks, and billions of grasshoppers and other insects making music: harmonious tranquility.
Our trip was well-planned and we were dropped off at different ‘touristy’ grasslands. We climbed a steep hill to take in the view and the immensity of this green area. We rode a horse (with a guide walking and holding on to the reins in front of us…), we hopped in a little train to see the sights; we were encouraged to take a horse-drawn carriage to get to a lake in the middle of grassland. At the hotel they made a bond fire every single night
some parts of the grasslands have been turned into Disneyland...
I found it very funny (interesting and odd) that every single Chinese tourist ends up at the same place in the vast grasslands... They all go to the same spot where there are restaurants, horse-carts... and crowds and trash, when 5 minutes away, it's all quiet and untouched. Weird!
for the tourists to dance around and drink some Inner-Mongolian beer at the same time. We also attended a show where Mongolian performers sang Mongolian songs and played their local instruments (some kind of plucked 3 string-instrument) while men performed stunts on galloping horses. The entire day was nice and easy and perfectly catered for tourists.
Other than the horse performers, I didn’t see any people from the Mongolian ethnic minority. A farmer I was talking to in the grassland told me that more than 80% of the people in the area were Han (farmers + people making a living from the tourist industry). I couldn’t help but think about my grandparents (who used to farm in France) and imagine how they would laugh at us (city people) paying to see grass, hay and cows… As I was wandering in the fields on my own in the late afternoon (my Chinese colleagues don’t seem to enjoy walking too far apparently) I stroke a conversation with a farmer who didn’t seem to understand why a Frenchman would come to Wulan Butong on holidays. For him there was nothing beautiful about the scenery there (he clearly told me it was “not
good looking” = 不好看). Every farmer I talked to asked me which hotel I was staying at. I suppose their relatives are probably the ones running the businesses in town.
These 3 days were also a good chance for the whole school team to get to know each other better. It was nice to hang out and talk about something else than class curriculum or students’ performances… Spending time together outside work definitely brings people closer, especially young people (although I’m over 30 now and this makes me the oldest person at work!!! Scary!). We pretty much spent 60 hours all together. Most of us got up at 4am to climb up a hill to watch the sunrise (absolutely fantastic sight, with fog circling the hills down below!), we played different kinds of games, asked each other all kinds of (silly) questions (Chinese people are not as shy as they used to be!). We shared accommodation, food, drinks, stories. We even danced around a bonfire! We built life-long memories and I have no doubt this trip will have a positive impact on our work with our students, back in Beijing.
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