Posted by: schmivian | October 24, 2009

Inner Mongolia

This early October, China had a 11 day long national holiday. Since the all of the 1.3 billion people in the country have vacation at the same time, it’s typically a nightmareish travel situation so some friends and I took off for the way northeastern stretches of Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is the third largest province in China, buffering the Northern border against Mongolia and Russia. Like Tibet, Xinjiang, Guangxi and Ningxia, it is managed as an ‘autonomous region’ meaning the large ethnic minority groups in this region (in this case, the Mongols) have more legislative power. The area we were visiting was the supposed birthplace of Genghis Khan, whose grimace we saw on souvenirs and statues everywhere.

Day One: We get an early sart and take a 27 hour long train ride up to Hailaer. We congratulate ourselves on the wisdom of springing for the hard bunks, but failed to pack at least 7 boxes of instant noodles like the real Chinese do and eat in the overpriced dining car. We make friends with the folks in the neighboring bunks and pass the time reading, trying to teach people euchre and watching the signs of civilization dwindle out the window.

Day Two: We arrive around noon and its cold! So we eat an awesome pot of beef and potato stew; lamb soup dumplings. A cranky driver takes us out to the Jinzhanghan grasslands where we get a yurt to spend the night in. The grasslands are famous for their lush summertime green and most people in the train thought we were crazy for going out when it had all already turned fall brown, but I thought it was beautiful and the people delightfully sparse. Tonight is the official mid-autumn festival so alone in the grasslands we have a good old moon-watching and eat moon cake.

Day Three: The morning is spent playing with the local camels. Then we get a rideback to Hailar in time to catch the afternoon bus to Moerdaoga. Moerdaoga is a small town, and easy access point to the nearby national forests. Ironically, in this backwoods town, no one seems to care that we are foreigners. Unlike Beijing, there are no stares, rude questions, or shouts of ‘laowai!’ Everyone is just friendly and chill, and our room costs about $1.50 a night per person. I think of staying for a long time, and at these prices, it’s not unreasonable.

Day Four: We are taken out to Moerdaoga National Park and are dismayed to learn that Chinese national parks come at American prices (about 100 kuai a person). Not to be put off, we skip the official park and have the driver take up a ways up the road where we spend the afternoon bushwhacking – or wandering rather aimlessly through the woods. The woods are all tall thin birches, just turned golden. Underfoot is a carpet of lavender! Our tromping around releases their scent and after months of choking in Beijing, its heaven.

Day Five: We get a driver to take us to Shiwei a tiny village on the Erguna river which serves as the border with Russia. The town was recently featured on a CCTV travel special and while still very very small, is maybe a little too tourist-aggressive. The guesthouse we are staying at is run by a Russian-Chinese family. The matriarch is away, so we are taken care of by her daughter and her husband both barely older than us. The house is a one-story hall of rooms and there is a large front room for dinner. We find tonight that we are sharing it with about 12 rowdy Chinese Communist Party members from Hailaer having some sort of reunion. After much Gan Bei-ing (Dry your glass!! The Chinese call to chug) they start singing and dancing. One particularly large sweaty man takes an interest in my friend Sharone and asks her to dance. A few dances later, he mistakes me for the groups translator (which happens most everywhere) and drunkenly asks me to translate him propositioning her. Quite the evening.

Day Six: Part of this towns charm is having the locals accost you at every corner trying to get you to ride their horses. Usually this means you pay a lot of money and the horses owner leads you around town on a sad horse. But perhaps business was slow because we got a bunch of men to let us take their horses out of town on our own for a couple hours and go exploring. The hills really reminded me of home, save for the occaisional tin can car packed with Chinese
people hurtling down the dirt road. This evening, the inn owner has invited a friend of his over to take us back to Hailaer in the morning. They are apologetic about the other night and stuff us with lots of beer and food. We are the only people staying tonight and later in the evening the inn owner puts in this weird techno VCD which only has one song and sounds like the deep-voice guy from the Real McCoy and we have a bizzare 8 person dance party. I was
glad to find that light-switch raving is a truly universal phenomenon.

Day Seven: Back in Hailaer. The city is super colorful. Pastel walls and lit up trees, bridges, windmills?

Day Eight: We get a morning bus to Manzhouli, another Russian-Chinese border town, but this is a larger city where a lot of cross-border trade is done. We are totally taken aback getting off the bus because all the signs are in Russian. We get a car out to Hulun Nur, a massive freshwater lake out in the grasslands. The shallow lake is one of China’s largest by area. Being in the off-season, it felt like visiting an abandonded seaside resort. There is a weak strip of hotels and entertainments on what used to be the water’s edge. Due to damming on its tributaries and the sinking water table, the shoreline has receded by maybe 200 meters, leaving a large swath of marshy land dotted with beached boats. Spooky. Tonight we decide to try real Russian food – and don’t find much redeeming about it – except for the dessert. A mass of fried dough covered in hardened simple syrup. mmm.

Day Nine: The train back to Beijing takes about 33 hours. I estimate I sleep for 29 of them.

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