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Published: August 11th 2010
China Trip 2010: Hohhot and Grassland
We arrived in Huhehaote on the morning of the 19th, having flown in from Shanghai. First order of business: relax! It was the first time since Beijing that we didn't have to hail a cab at the airport; my working at a local hotel has some nice benefits (including free airport pick-up service for me and my parents!) The airport representative, a pal of mine, was cheerful and curious to see my parents. I got my parents settled into the hotel, a little bit nervous as many of my coworkers were looking on or helping with the luggage. It was interesting to hear their impressions of my family later. We were engaged that evening for a dinner with one of the managers in a hotel restaurant; I would hear from a housekeeper who roomed with the waitress who served us that she thought my parents were very proper and serious.
If my parents were proper and serious, the manager was even more so. She had arranged a full banquet, and since she manages all the restaurants in the hotel, the food was of the best quality and the waitress was at top form
in service. We started with prawns in curry sauce, followed by stir-fried softshell crabs, stewed fish with tofu in spicy broth, vegetables rolled in tofu strips, hui cai
(Mongolian mixed vegetables, very potato-rich) and rice at our request, as most of the food was very spicy.
Of course, how could we banquet without rice wine? The manager insisted on it and ordered a bottle of "Mongolian King," one of the better brands of local baijiu
, which my parents actually liked in spite of the fact that many foreigners do not like rice wine at first. I think this had to do with the variety; rice wine comes in three "flavors," one of which is called "light;" I think is what we had. The other two are more fiery. When Mom tasted one of these later in the trip, she called it "lighter fluid."
The manager's attentions and propriety left a deeper impression than I would have expected, since I know her and have spent time with her when she was entertaining guests. After dinner my father asked, "Is she always that intense?"
"Yes!" my mother exclaimed. "The tension in the room was so thick you
could cut it with a knife!" Dad added.
That's a business banquet for you. The manager probably wanted to save face and treated us as formally as possible. Dad and Mom, conversely, knew about "face" and were trying to follow all the customs. We would have another business banquet before they left, and I got the feeling that they had picked up on the Inner Mongolian customs and felt much more comfortable the second time around.
The next day we set out for some local temples and more shopping. Dad was set on buying a pair of boots in Inner Mongolia, so first we headed to the "ethnic minority goods shopping center" and found a store selling all sorts of Mongolian souvenirs: wedding clothes, knives, horse head violins, sheep skins, and of course, boots. Dad found a reasonable pair of boots that said "urban cowboy meets grassland." Mission accomplished, we lunched in the shopping center and then hailed a cab to Wutasi, the Five Tower Temple.
I hadn't been to Wutasi since the fall, and I was interested to see the changes summer had brought to the arbor: it was brilliant green, with two kinds of squash
vine growing and birds flitting in and out. The reason I liked this temple the first time around was its smallness and quietness; we were practically the only tourists in the temple complex. I would have gone into a worship hall, but I prefer to have a Buddhist practitioner with me to guide me on etiquette and prayer, so I passed.
Dad and I climbed the slick marble stairs up to the top of the Five Tower Temple (at the far back of the last courtyard) to take in some of the frieze on the towers up close. The temple frieze, which covers the exterior walls from almost the base to the top of the towers, contains over 1,500 Buddha figures, with no two exactly alike. It is lovely, and stands out among the structures in the region as it was constructed in a style imported from India.
Also interesting: inside the temple is a giant circular stone slab, which is an ancient Mongolian star map. Like any of the statues of deities and bodhisattvas in the temple, it is a sacred object; thus, there is a prayer mat placed in front of it and a platform for
making offerings. The temple blends Indian architecture, Himalayan Buddhism and ancient Mongolian cosmology; one would think that had to be a Silk Road phenomenon.
Next, we moved on to Da Zhao Temple, a larger temple, also Himalayan Buddhist; we didn't cover much ground but did visit one worship hall. I love the worship halls at this temple. Walking in, one must pass along the periphery of the room, touching prayer wheels as one goes. Inside the boundary made by the prayer wheels are elevated platforms for meditation and prayer; we saw one woman deep in meditation, completely still, her prayer beads grasped in one hand, her eyes as distant as if she were dreaming.
We entered the hall facing the door of the massive prayer hall, where I wanted to study the huge sculptures of the deities honored here, but a man was in the middle of devotions, so I left lest I disturb him. We passed out of the meditation hall, touching prayer wheels and completing the circuit as we went. Outside, we took a brief rest in a quiet spot, then left the temple grounds. Close by is one of the oldest streets in Huhehaote, which
is now home to multiple shops selling mostly Buddhist objects and jade and coral goods, but also "Mongolian" souvenirs and animal skins. We bought some prayer beads for a bargain; then, noting the rising wind and dark clouds on the horizon, headed back to the hotel. It began to rain just as we got inside.
I was worried about the weather; we were set to leave for the grasslands to the east of the city early next morning. The night before, the concierge had called. A friend of mine, he had arranged our transport and lodging, with a private driver and at a resort about two hours from Hushi; now that I was back in town he wanted to finalize the deal and address any concerns I might have by meeting the driver and making our needs and requests clear to him. After dinner with the manager, I had met them in the hotel lobby at nine o'clock, and had asked the driver about prices for horse-riding, meals, etc. I was tolerably pleased with the answers, and now if only the weather would hold, we would be all set.
The day of the excursion dawned fair and sunny,
and by all accounts would remain so. The concierge ushered us into the four wheel drive Ford vehicle, and we were off. Our driver was fast and relatively savvy; scarily, many of the drivers on the highway were not. I ignored many of the differences in driving etiquette, only pressing my invisible break a few times. I was too charmed by the countryside, now so transformed from the yellows and browns of spring to green pastures and fields blue with the blossom of local potatoes. The only moment where I truly could not avoid noticing the road danger was on a mountain pass, where a Mack truck came around a blind curve, in our lane, passing another Mack. Our driver slammed on the brakes and veered slightly to the right; had he veered too hard we would have hit a concrete barrier. Not the most fun I've ever had on the open road.
Soon we left behind all of the trucks headed to Beijing, as we got off of the highway and headed north on a provincial road for a while. Turning east again, the road took us past "Sleeping Buddha Mountain," which really did resemble a person under
Mom drinking milk alcohol
Mongolian-style welcome drink in the grassland
covers with feet sticking up at the end. This marked our ascent into yet higher ground. Our driver pointed and said, "Once we pass through those mountains, we are there." We rose higher and higher, and passed through rounded hills on either side. Suddenly we were through, and we saw the hills open out onto vastness. Green waves of folding land as far as the eye could see, and brilliant white giants everywhere: windmills, harnessing the power of the sweeping winds in the open plain.
Soon after driving into the plain we pulled onto a side road and wound our way through the windmills, until we arrived at the parking lot of the resort. The driver told us to wait in the car while he "helped us check in." We got out and stretched, and then the music began. Turning round, we saw a man in dark glasses at a keyboard, and men and women in Mongolian silks and hats, singing as they walked smiling towards us, scarves across their palms and bottles of a clear liquid ready to be poured into little cups. Our driver said, "You must drink!" The clear liquid was nai jiu
- milk alcohol;
we all downed our cups, the music ended, and we were free to walk through the front gate.
The front gate led into a large plaza, where crowds can assemble to watch performances on a stage which is graced with a statue of Genghis Khan. We walked around a bit while the staff finished cleaning our "yurts." We didn't stay in the canvas yurts on the property (although some people had opted to that night) but rather in cabin-like plaster "yurts" with indoor plumbing, beds, and other comforts (like an electric kettle for boiling water). We were never really given a reason why we were booked in the plaster yurts instead of the canvas ones (we didn't know there was a choice), but it wasn't much of a sacrifice. If I'm going to sleep in a real yurt, I would rather it belonged to a family that had invited me, not to a hotel that is housing me.
We had been told that it was too hot to ride as yet, so we settled into our cabin-yurts and rested. Dad and I both conked out. Mom, amazingly, had a signal that her iPhone could use before reading a
new novel that she had brought with her. Doing business in a yurt in the grasslands: geez.
Our driver, Mr. Bao, was in effect our guide, and he had thus far been sticking to us like glue, very concerned that we found the hygiene of the cabins up to standard, understood how to lock our doors, etc. He only left us at the last possible moment, and we would discover that he was always at least ten minutes early. He would say, "Meet you at three o'clock" and then turn up at fifteen 'til to hurry us along, setting out five minutes before agreed upon. Thus Dad and I headed out with Mr. Bao to meet our horses and haggle over the price.
The horses and their keepers were all in one field up above a gully called "Yellow Flower Canyon." Mr. Bao got very animated in speaking to the bosses, saying, "Give them some safe horses, old mares, don't let them go too fast," etc. I found his concern for our safety interesting, as I had noticed a total lack of regard for safety in some tourist areas. It was appreciated, nonetheless. If anything our lead was
They were everywhere!
too cautious, never letting us handle the reins (even on flat ground) and making us walk for half our "ride" as the ground was very steep and rocky. The first precaution I can understand: the horses might not have minded us. But the second took a lot of the ride out of our ride.
As we were walked out of the corral by our lead, I asked some question or other and he was surprised that I spoke Chinese. He asked where we were from and how long I had been in China. I asked him if he could speak Mongolian; he said no, but he had lived out here in the grassland much of his life. As we passed the last of the fences, my horse (a beauty) pricked his ears forward, and I had only just spotted the horses coming our way when he let out a thundering whinny, as did the mare that Dad was riding. I asked our lead, "Why did he neigh like that?" The man's answer was "打个招呼" - "Saying hello."
The horses repeated this ritual several times as other riders returned to the corral. When we set out a little foal
followed us; he would stay with us for the whole ride, nursing a little from the mare but mostly grazing, falling behind, then cantering gaily to catch up with us, often passing us by by several yards first. My steed was well-behaved enough (he didn't seem bitter, like a lot of horses are at similar riding places in the U.S.) but he was obviously getting tired of walking the same route over and over. He would stop suddenly, causing our lead to say, "Che, che!" while tugging the rope. This started happening as soon as we turned towards the gully; it was like the horse was saying, "Come on, man! This is boring!"
We didn't ride nearly as far as we thought we would. When we got to the canyon floor, our lead let the horses graze and told us to take a look around. The canyon was lovely, and geologically interesting. Unfortunately, as many riders came down here, there was a fair amount of litter scattered about, even in the creek running over rocks, though otherwise it seemed unpolluted: many tadpoles were swimming in the creek, and the ones that had developed legs were checking out the margin
of the water with the rocks.
We didn't go far, but took in the water and rocks and headed back after some photos. As we headed up a path, I was swinging my hand carelessly and accidentally brushed it against a harmless-looking plant. I was rewarded by several moments of fiery pain, followed by numbness in my palm and two of my fingers. My Dad thought I was overreacting to the initial pain until he saw the angry red swelling around the point where I had touched the plant. Upon investigating, we discovered that the plant had tiny, almost invisible thorns; these thorns probably contained some kind of poisonous agent. I can only imagine what falling into the shrub would feel like.
Returning to the horses, we once again walked out to smoother ground, then got on our horses. We switched rides this time; I took the mare, who was older and seemed to have asthma. Her foal kept up with his antics; I tried to pet him at one point, but he was too wary, eying me after I let him smell my hand and then trotting off. When we got back up to high ground, our
lead offered to teach one of us how to canter; I took him up on it, he got on the other horse and led mine off in a smallish circle. I discovered that the metal saddle was not bearable at that pace, and watching the experienced rider I noted that he was standing up in the stirrups. I did the same - much better. He had raced horses as a child. I'm not the horse racing sort but it was fun anyway.
We returned to the main campus of the hotel and went to wash up before dinner. Our guide was way too early, of course; he took us to the banquet hall before it had even really opened for dinner. We had ordered roasted lambchops (they had to be ordered ahead of time due to long roasting time); as we waited we ordered some other dishes: peanuts, potato shreds, chicken soup. The peanuts were ordered by our guide to accompany - guess what - [i)baijiu. We ordered a bottle of a regional product, this one of the "heavy" variety. It was also named after Genghis Khan.
Mom was not into it; Dad and I got sucked into
drinking with our guide. We apparently were not only paying him for his driving and guiding services, but we were also his meal and drink ticket. Well, in this case, the more the merrier. I think he wanted to see how wasted we would get. I have been in Inner Mongolia for months, so I have learned how to drink the hard stuff at a meal. It's all about pacing oneself, sipping instead of gulping where possible, and keeping one's stomach comfortable with appropriate foods. We were drinking the Mongolian version of milk tea, as well: unlike its sweet southern counterpart, it is salty and slightly oily; somehow, I think this helped to me to down more of the liquor.
We wouldn't have had half so much to drink if it weren't for the travel group sitting towards the front of the banquet hall. They were the only other people in the room, but they had ordered a whole roasted lamb, which was served to music and great ceremony by the restaurant staff. This included the imbibing of more milk alcohol by the honored guests, who were soon in high spirits. The waiters and waitresses also passed by our
table with the bottle of milk alcohol; having been instructed by our guide, I did the honors for our table by standing, dipping my ring finger into my cup, and making libations first to heaven, then to earth, before smearing the last libation across my forehead and downing the rest in one go. This brought applause from the guide and my parents. I had always thought that ritual was so cool, and now I was the one performing it.
A few minutes later, another waitress came by with a plate full of lamb. I thought this must be our dinner, but the waitress explained that the travel group at the front of the hall had sent it to us with their compliments. We were properly moved, and consulted our guide as to the best way to thank them. His answer was, "Go toast them." Great. When they seemed properly unoccupied, we walked over and thanked them, and then drained our cups. The men in the group stood, a bit blearily, and slugged massive amounts of alcohol. We were drinking from tea cups; they, from tall glasses. We were impressed, but not particularly envious: it was clear that their condition
was quickly deteriorating.
Unfortunately, one cannot toast in China and not expect to be toasted back. Soon the men ambled our way and began slugging again, liquor pouring down their shirt fronts. Things were looking desperate: I did not want to be flying as high as they were, but if they continued this way there would be no avoiding it! Fortunately, we were saved by their children rushing over to get another look at the trio of laowai
. Mr. Bao was kind enough to take some group photos of not very high quality, and then the performances began on the stage just outside. This drew everyone, including us, out into the moonlight and the flickering light of braziers piled high with firewood.
Some of the performances were truly noteworthy; there was one woman in particular who had some real pipes, and she sang more than once. One the other hand, the emcee, though handsome, was not particularly gifted in the vocal area. However, most of the people out in the plaza seemed too high-spirited to notice the inconsistencies; any music was an excuse to dance. Some of the couples waltzed slowly in the firelight; others seemed more pleased
with a disco-type step. A tall giant of a man approached first my mother, then me, opening his albatross arms wide and stepping in place to invite one of us into the beat. When we declined, he pressed his hands together in the Buddhist fashion of blessing, his feet moving the whole time, before moving off into the night.
At this point my mother said that we should make our escape. The bass-beat sounds that reached us from the plaza did not last much longer, and the deafening silence of a windless night closed in. Having lived close to a major thoroughfare in the city for months, subjected to the sound of morning traffic jams replete with people abusing their horns, the silence was welcome but strange. I fell asleep quickly and awoke feeling refreshed and quick, in spite of the indulgence of the previous evening. I had actually shared in the fresh lamb and roasted lambchops; I had blocked the image of the poor critters being rounded up and caged (we had seen this going on out near the corral) just long enough to have a taste of the meats. They had been truly superior. I walked out
Water and Rock
Yellow Flower Canyon
into the morning sun and the electric buzz of hundreds of grasshoppers calling; knocking on my parents' door, I was greeted by Mom. We walked for a bit on the path and looked out toward the windmills; the lower-lying ground was filled with mist. Finally we returned to our cabins and began packing up.
Although the performances and Mongolian-style clothing were all part of the hotel experience, this seemed to me a much more authentic experience than when I went to the Zhaohe grassland; much more complex and involved. The staff presented us with customs and foods traditional to the region, doing so with enthusiasm and flair. Further, the location was gorgeous, and the employees were all people who lived nearby in the grassland in more or less a "traditional" fashion. The motorcycle is indeed replacing the horse in the practical use of traversing large distances, as I have read, but our horse-riding lead was still an active horse racer, and he was proud of the horses he was leading (his main point of pride being how expensive they had been).
I hope to go farther to the north and east in my travels; I am nurturing a
interest in Mongolian culture and want to begin studying the language(s); I would find it fascinating to see what is changing and what is remaining the same from a more informed point of view. But for now, I am bound to my city life, and I was pleased to spend this precious time off with my parents. We returned to Huhehaote in good spirits, I think refreshed by an experience so different from anything else we had done so far.
We washed up once back at the hotel; there was really no need for lunch as we still felt full from our breakfast of mantou
(steamed bread), pickles, boiled eggs and milk tea. I seemed to be the only one among us, aside from the guide, who had any enthusiasm for milk tea: Mom and Dad skipped their morning dose. According to our guide, in traditional herding culture milk tea played a very important role. In the morning, the men would rise for breakfast; most of their breakfast time was spent in drinking liters and liters of milk tea. When they mounted their horses, they would pack no water and little food; the combination of the massive amounts of
fluid and salt they had consumed would keep them hydrated. Coming back at night, they would dine for the first time since breakfast.
Well, I guess my milk tea was my Mongolian cowboy breakfast because, although I had been plenty hungry at breakfast, I didn't feel hungry again until dinner. Mom, still
on U.S. time, declined dinner; Dad and I ate at a Thai restaurant, where we had a lovely chicken curry and where we saw our first foreigners since entering the domestic flights terminal in Shanghai. (A side note: security at the domestic terminal of Shanghai's Hong Qiao airport was the tightest I have seen in China. We had to pass through security before
we could even check in. I would bet a fair amount that it is because of Expo.)
The next morning I helped my parents confirm their hotel reservations and get airport pick-up service at the hotel in Beijing. I would not be with them for this leg of the trip, and fearing language problems I did as much as I could ahead of time. I would later hear that the hotel had few if any English speakers, but it was only for one
night. Just as my parents finished packing up, my supervisor called to confirm lunch time. We went to one of the hotel restaurants to eat lunch with two office managers, the Front Desk supervisor and the concierge. This was once again a lavish banquet, with salads of local greens, you mian
(a regional cold noodle dish), a whole fish, stewed mutton and potatoes, and softshell crabs (they must be in season). It was all excellent and served with a fragrant red wine, which was slightly fruity but just dry enough to be to my taste.
The office managers toasted my parents, saying they hoped they had enjoyed their stay in Inner Mongolia, and saying other pleasant things pertaining to my work. I was at this point acting as translator; while two of the staff spoke very good English, one did not speak any at all, and it was nice to be given that role anyway to facilitate more detailed dialogue. Dad got up the courage to toast the staff, saying that he toasted the people of Mongolia and of China and that he thanked them for their hospitality. His language was just simple enough that no translation was necessary;
I found this interaction touching. My parents, in spite of not speaking Chinese, had nonetheless tried their hand at the language whenever possible (referring to phrasebooks), and they always tried to communicate for the sake of the cultural move, the facing of the Other. Seeing them here with my coworkers and bosses, and seeing how much of heartfelt communication can transcend language barriers, from both sides, I was happy, and knew that it would be hard seeing my parents off.
The highest-ranked office manager asked me why I was not eating much; I replied that I was nervous. This brought laughter, and the concierge, a natural-born singer and an even bigger natural-born ham, declared that it was time for a song. He took a draught of boiled water and began with "Hongyan," a Mongolian folk song. It describes seeing a goose in flight, headed toward the south, and thinking of the northern home in the grasslands from which it has come. I peeked at my parents whenever possible; they were caught up in the song. When it ended I translated the lyrics, and Dad had me tell the concierge that the music had conveyed much of the feeling of
the words. After a short break the concierge rose again, eliciting more laughter, and sang "Fuqin de caoyuan, muqin de he," - "Father's grasslands, Mother's rivers." One of my favorites, which I noticed most of the staff, including myself, moved their lips to. The lyrics were written by a woman who was raised in Taiwan, but whose parents were from Inner Mongolia. When she visited her ancestral home for the first time, she was profoundly moved and penned a poem about her experience. It has since been set to music and is a staple of the "grassland song" repertoire. It is a love song about nature and a changing way of life.
It was quite a way to complete our time together in Inner Mongolia, and in China. For me the farewell was hard, but still somehow an upbeat moment. As I left the Hohhot airport with tears in my eyes, my head was filled with all we had done in the past two weeks, and I felt light with the excitement we had shared in experiencing the culture and growth of this amazing country. We shared together our love of travel, which with any luck, gives one new
perspectives, reaffirms basic truths, and leaves one changed, hopefully for the better.
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