The grasslands and small villages near Hushi are somewhat notorious for being mainly tourist attractions; the road signs out there carry the famous slogan 天堂草原 - "Grassland Paradise," which seems to be partially an effort to influence visitors' perceptions: parts of the grassland were less than heavenly. But I find the following dialogue illuminating:
As we sat in the yurt yesterday that was our sleeping-room, dining room and shelter from the fierce wind, my friend Lulu asked her father, "Dad, is this yurt real or fake?" - a question I had been having a hard time with myself.
Lulu's dad just chuckled and asked philosophically, "What is a 'real' yurt? What is a 'fake' yurt?" So no, our yurt did not house a family that raised sheep and rode horses; but we were able to experience something of Mongolian culture in the food we ate, in the sounds and sights of the small compound we sat in; in seeing how people out here make their living. Not only was it a day to see horses, rolling hills and yurts aplenty; it was a day to contemplate what constitutes cultural authenticity.
When we set out from
Huhehaote in the morning, we followed the same highway that had carried us up into the mountains and highlands of our snowfilled adventure about a month ago. Late spring has given way to early summer, and we drove through valleys totally arrestingly altered, green with willows, pines and elms. We seemed to pass through the mountains and come out on the other side, for soon we were surrounded by rolling fields and hills as far as the eye could see, with the occasional mountain range in the distance.
We crossed a bridge over pretty waters, and almost as soon as we had fully exited the mountains and entered the grassland, we were accosted by motorcyclists on two cycles, tag-teaming us and trying to get us to follow them to their village or tourist compound. I was a bit frightened, to be honest, but Lulu's parents calmly drove to the next fork in the road, where the motorcyclists gave up and turned back to round up other travellers.
Lulu and her mother remembered a lake where they had passed a day at a tourist compound last year, and after being unable to find it again (no lake was to
be seen), they settled on a relatively remote compound on a dirt road off the highway. We had by this time seen many flocks of sheep, cows, and horses out on their own or with herders, as well as a massive travel group mounted on horses, headed towards an aobao
. Those riders who had reached the aobao
had dismounted and were slowly walking about it counterclockwise, just as I had heard people did in times past and, apparently, present.
The tourist compound (I call it such because it is a compound of large yurts used to feed and house tourists, attached to brick kitchens and what may be the dwellings of the owners) was pleasantly distant from the highway; the only sounds were the workers, the livestock, the wind and us. The female wait staff were garbed in Mongolian qi pao
over jeans and tennis shoes; the men were dressed in black ties and slacks which made them seem very out of place with the scenery. We were led to our yurt, and we set up the foods Lulu's family had brought on the table in the center, which were supplemented by a large plate of fresh lamb ordered
from the kitchens.
We ate spicy noodles, fresh veggies, boiled duck eggs (I am not a fan, they are somewhat grainy and too rich for my taste), and other foods; and then Lulu, her father, two of her cousins and I went back to the car for the grill and lamb skewers they had packed while the aunts and grandmother lay down on the comfy round platform surrounding the table for a nap.
Lighting the coals we had brought took time and several trips to and from the kitchen by one of the attendants, bringing us live coals. Lighting coals without lighter fluid is something I had no experience with and on which I could offer no help or advice. Instead, I focused on playing with Lulu's young cousin, who had brought her adorable stuffed pig on the journey and who was exceedingly amused when I suggested she name it "Zhu Bajie," after the lazy, corpulent character from "Journey to the West."
At last, after applications of straw, cardboard and bits of wood (and a trip on their grill out into the unbelievably strong wind) the coals caught. We carried the grill to the side of one
of the yurts and set to spicing and roasting the lamb kebabs. Before coming to Inner Mongolia, I only ate fish and seafood and the occasional organic chicken; I still usually abstain from meat when I can, but I was hungry and curious, and the kebabs were delicious. We sent the youngest cousin to wake the rest of the family and tempt them to eat our BBQ, but only one of the aunts joined us in our sunny spot sheltered from the wind. We attracted considerable attention from some other tourists...one even asked for a kebab!
Lulu and I had paid a visit earlier to some horses tied up and saddled for riding. They did not look happy, and since I feel that horses are made for wandering, I didn't like seeing them tied up like that. They declined my advances when I got as close as I dared and clucked; I only succeeding in rubbing the silky nose of one before he snubbed me and turned away, disinterested. At least I got to see some other horses freely wandering the plain, and in one case, a group of horses ran at full speed across the highway and past
Perhaps my favorite part of being in the compound was listening to the entertainers in one of the yurts: a man playing matouqin
, the two-stringed horsehead violin famous in this region, and a woman singing folk songs in Mongolian. It created a nice aural backdrop for all of our activities.
After noshing on kebabs and taking a brief rest in the yurt, we set out again, this time in search of a lake. The lake which Lulu and her mother remembered was almost completely dry, but picturesque in any case, especially since the saline water had left patches of salt on the ground, white lines that underscored the white of yurts in the distance. It was late afternoon by this time, and the wind was getting even stronger. A woman who had followed us in on a motorcycle plied us with Mongolian-style silks; I can only reckon that people here have to make their income where they can.
We left the lake bed and headed back to town. The mountains were gorgeous in the last of the sun. We had a light dinner of stir-fried veggie dishes and corn porridge with lentils; the little cousin
was my constant companion, calling me "jiejie" (older sister) and I asking me why I talked the same way as her foreign teacher.
Very late I returned to my home, only to be called out again (to my great surprise) by one of the boys I met on my "blind date" a while ago. We went to a bar in the university area that has so many trendy restaurants and clothing stores; this place sported a basement where live acoustic guitar features strongly, and the lighting and decoration are low-key and retro. We played drinking games and talked for a couple hours; it was really my first taste of the night-life here, and I liked it! I got back around midnight, and I went straight to sleep, completely tuckered out. I had had quite a day, and though there were some poignant notes, overall I had a great time with my friends and in seeing and hearing new things.
"Grassland paradise," is perhaps where (and how) we make it.
Tot: 2.253s; Tpl: 0.055s; cc: 15; qc: 104; dbt: 0.0917s; 1; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 4;
; mem: 1.6mb