Go West: Among the Mongols (Part 6)

The last leg of my western China adventure was in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. The travel agency’s mis-punctuated schedule promised horse riding on the grassland, a night’s accommodation in a traditional yurt, lots of mutton, and some cultural performances. I was excited to head northeast after spending so many days in the west (and not just because my favorite meat appeared on the schedule three times).

My family hails from Manchuria, commonly known as just “Northeast” in Chinese geography. This area bordering Russia is one of the farthest points of China and its extreme temperatures have shaped the local culture and its people. Summers in the Northeast get as hot as 40 Celsius and the winters see the mercury dropping below minus 30. Northeasterners are akin to the Midwesterners of America and the Scandinavians of Europe – a tall hearty people distinctive in their looks and manners from their smaller, refined neighbors who inhabit friendlier climes.

There are three provinces in Manchuria: Heilongjiang (my home), Jilin, and Liaoning. The common saying in China goes that Inner Mongolia is the unofficial fourth province of Manchuria. I saw going to Hohhot as a kind of homecoming where I would be among friendly meat-eating heavy-drinking tall Chinese folk who speak Mandarin with a familiar accent.

Getting to Hohhot was decidedly the least fun part of the entire trip. The green train, as I had rightly predicted, was filthy and crowded. During our sixteen hours on board I tried out the bathrooms in four different carriages before deciding that the one furthest from mine was the most tolerably “clean.” So I would trudge three cars over, bumping into smokers between cars, knocking knees, and jostling food carts each time I had to go. Our bedding also looked like it hadn’t been changed for days and had been slept in by farmers who spent their previous nights rolling in the earth itself. I used my sleeping bag liner. Though conditions were unpleasant we were exhausted from the days in the desert and slept soundly for a long night.

I couldn’t wait to get off the train when we arrived at Hohhot station. After seeing puddles of water and who-knows-what accumulating on the bathroom sinks along the way, I decided to skip my morning grooming ritual. Maybe there will be better places to brush and wash in the city.

We were met outside the train station by Joe, our new guide, who cleverly chose his English first name based on the sound of his Chinese last name (Zhou). He’s not the first person I’ve met who’s done so. I often wonder how these people fare when they go to English speaking countries – do they really go by “Joe Joe” (or “Zhou Zhou”) or do they find more practical monikers?

I took a liking to Joe right away. Tall, outgoing, humorous, and very fluent in English, he was our best guide so far. He cracked me up when he introduced our driver, a Mister Mao, and then reminded us that not since the founding of China in 1949 have a group of people been led by Zhou and Mao. (This is a reference to Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou).

I liked Joe even more after he brought us to breakfast. Oh that wonderful breakfast! A short drive away from the train station is a nondescript building, which, at the early hour of seven, looked like deserted office space. But one flight of stairs led us to a sprawling, sparkling dining room with tables covered in fresh linens and a breakfast buffet that stretched the entire length of the room. I’m not exaggerating when I say we leapt for joy upon seeing that clean and abundant spread. I bounded with ecstasy a few more times after seeing the bathroom. Here was toilet paper. How good it is to be reunited with you after so many days! Soap. Oh, the luxury! Warm water. A hand dryer. And even the ultimate extravagance…paper towels! As much as I was hungry I also felt filthy from the train and spent a good fifteen minutes washing, brushing, grooming, before I deemed myself fit to eat.

The buffet was phenomenal, or perhaps we only thought so after eating out of mess kits and Styrofoam boxes for three days. At the very least, everything was sanitary looking and there was variety. I bravely went for the “yang za tang”, an Inner Mongolian specialty my childhood friends had raved about long ago. Translated, it literally means “random lamb soup” – random lamb ORGAN soup, that is. There were bits of tripe, intestine, probably liver and heart and many more things I can’t name floating in a spicy stew. It was a meat lover’s heaven in a bowl.

After breakfast we lingered at the table for a long while, taking turns to groom in the excellent restaurant bathroom. We couldn’t peel ourselves away from this place! Finally, Joe urged us to get going as we had a few hours of driving to do before reaching the Xilamuren Grassland.

Dear Q: What a Wonderful Life

Dear Q,

I love my life. I’m doing work I’m passionate about. I have a supportive
family, wonderful friends, and compelling career options. Things were going so well that I didn’t spend much time worrying about relationships. I assumed that the right guy would come along at the right time. Or would he? Six months ago, I met the perfect man. He’s charming, handsome, well-read, and successful. Despite the long distance, our relationship developed swimmingly, as we discovered we were both “dog people”, had spent significant time in random graduate programs before returning to the sciences, and even enjoy reading aloud passages from the same novel. Just as I was beginning to see this man as marriage material, my wonderful life got in the way and took me abroad, where continuing the relationship was no longer an option. We vowed to stay friends and have stayed in touch, but I can feel we’re drifting apart. A classic case of right guy, wrong time? Do I shrug and say, “Eh, what will be will be?” Or do I jump off the tracks and risk losing my perfect life for the perfect mate?

Signed,

It’s A Wonderful Life

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Dear Wonderful Life,

You hit the nail on the head — right person, right time. It really can’t be any other way. Although this sounds like a tautological cop out for a self-anointed relationship advisor, I believe that when you’re ready, you’ll do the right thing. Mr. Right isn’t good enough, what you’re looking for is Mr. Right Enough who will make you feel that it’s worthwhile to do the things you’re not willing to do now (such as a compromise on your dream job location or taking on the inconveniences of a long distance relationship for the reward of being with him). What’s troubling you now is not so much the loss of a great potential life mate but the idea of it. Your life has gone so well that you’ve never second guessed your decisions. Now you wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing by pursuing your independent aspirations. You’re not. Your feelings are shared by your guy as you both agreed a long distance relationship is a bad idea. Neither one of you feels compelled enough to make sacrifices for the sake of staying together, nor even to ask the other to do so. Why tip the equilibrium now (where you’re both happily single and on good terms) out of fear for “missing out”? Aren’t you already living a happy life? It’s not so bad to stay in touch, even if you’re drifting, and see if the right time comes along for you two again in some other place. Meanwhile, keep living the wonderful life!

Best,

Q

Dear Q: A Hairy Problem

Dear Q,

My boyfriend is a good looking guy – tall, blonde, green eyes, toned but not overly muscular. However, he has a hairy problem. He once said, “It’s like I have fur!” And it’s true. He doesn’t have an abnormal amount of arm and leg hair, but his entire front is covered in hair, and even a patch on his lower back (which he thought about shaving before a pool party one time)! He’s not quite ape man since there’s no hair on his upper back. The problem is his face — he has the beginnings of a unibrow. He’s blond so it isn’t overly obvious…except to me. Early in our relationship he asked me if he should pluck, but as I was in the throes of new love, I told him I didn’t even notice it (which I meant). But now it’s all I can think about. How do I bring it up again without hurting his feelings?

Yours truly,

Dating Frida Kahlo

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Dear Dating Frida,

Monkeys pick ticks, horses mutually scratch, and birds smooth each other’s feathers to show affection, trust, and relieve stress. Everybody else is social grooming, why shouldn’t we? Turn the dicey unibrow problem into a bonding experience. Spend a lazy morning together in bed with coffee, newspapers, and…a handy pair of tweezers. Start by tweezing your arches then ask him, “Wanna help me out?” After he plays male chimp, playfully pin him down and say, “Now it’s my turn!” Or, surprise your guy with a day of pampering at the spa (if he goes to pool parties he cares about his appearance). Set him up with a MANicure and a massage, and while he’s down have the spa staff offer a pluck. He’ll just assume it was standard operating procedure. This gets around his hairy problem without making you the bad guy. Oh, and if there are other hairy situations with your man that you were too shy to bring up, I have two more words of advice – Boyzilian wax.

Cheers,

Q

Go West: The Desert (Part 5)

My first night in the desert was not as devastatingly cold as I expected, even in a flimsy tent and sleeping bag with broken zippers. It wasn’t all that easy either. I woke up once to pull on socks and an extra fleece. Shortly after I huddled close to my tent mate for a long time forcing myself back to sleep before admitting I needed to go outside for a pee break.

By morning, after less than twenty-four hours in the Tengger Desert, we were all complaining of sand in our hair / shoes / bags / food and longing for a toilet that doesn’t blow sand into your underwear. At breakfast, resourceful Uncle Liu boiled water over the campfire for hot drinks. We watched with some jealousy as Spit Man made instant noodles in his tin lunch box and loudly slurp them up. The ramen was staff food; “wai guo ren” customers were fed spongy bread and fruit jam.

After packing up the gear we set off again on camel back. It became clear that we were taking large lateral laps around the desert to pass the three days. We didn’t really mind for even on this circuitous desert exploration the scenery was breathtaking and ever changing.

I was at the head of the pack again, my camel being personally led by Uncle Liu. Despite the language barrier and his rough country manners I could sense how much Uncle Liu enjoyed being with his animals. Through the long walks he would often bend down to pick a sprig of deep green grass to hand feed the camels. When I asked him about it he said with a hearty chuckle, “When they’re busy they don’t get to eat! This grass is particularly tender, it’s their favorite.” The camels were obedient, rarely straying from the march to munch on a bush, and clearly deserved the Favorite Grass treat.

Uncle Liu is a native of Zhongwei and a farmer by birth. He started buying camels years ago (for 4000-5000 RMB each), amassing a team of ten. The animals make him 20,000 RMB a year in revenue, more lucrative than the farm. During a break, Uncle Liu lovingly cradled the head of his favorite camel, the oldest of the pack, in his lap. He laughed when we cooed at his affection and said, “Yes, I like my camel. He makes me good money! We get along very well!”

We spent the entire second day of the trek roaming the desert, stopping once for a lunch and a nap in the sand. Under the umbrellas Uncle Liu pitched (while humming along to “Eh, eh, eh” from Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) it was like being on a dry beach, strange but pleasant. The midday grub was “shao bing” (salted large bread buns) with mystery sausage and packaged pickles. For dessert we had assorted fresh fruit (yes!), including large tomatoes eaten raw (a Chinese favorite).

In the evening we settled in another sheltered valley. Everything went more smoothly this time because we knew the routine: pitch tent, gather wood, eat takeout dinner, and steer clear of asking Juice questions. We had a wonderful time sitting around the campfire drinking beer, playing games. I even taught my companions the quintessential Chinese love song, “The Moon Represents My Heart” (a Teresa Teng tune). This would later come in handy, when we would serenade curious farmers who gather around to stare and entertain an airplane full of travelers who had been delayed. Singing a native tune really endears “wai guo ren” to Chinese and brings a smile to everyone’s face.

We predicted from the clear skies that it would be a cold night, and sure enough it was. My tent mate and I insulated our broken tent by draping heavy wool blankets over the holes. Even so, I woke up at 2am feeling a freezing bracelet around the strip of bare skin between where my socks ended and where my tights began. I piled on extra clothes and tried to while the cold away. Soon, I could hear whisperings of misery coming from other tents. Everyone was waiting for morning to come.

Sunrise on our last day in the desert brought us warmth and high spirits. We survived a brutally cold night and looked forward to a hot shower (arranged with some difficulty through Juice). That afternoon we would board a train for Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia. (Outer Mongolia is the nation, whereas Inner Mongolia is a province in China). As our faithful camels carried us closer to the edge of the desert we could see signs of civilization growing bigger and bigger. Smoke stacks, buildings, trees, water, and finally, the highway. We bid goodbye to Uncle Liu and Spit Man.

Reunited with the party van, we started sanitizing ourselves to the best of our ability. Off came the sand-crusted scarves, gloves, and hats. Moist towelettes and scented gels were vigorously rubbed on hands. I tried to comb my hair but found it caked into shape from days of wind and dirt.

Hot showers were waiting for us at an hourly hotel. We paired off in two’s and three’s to share rooms for thirty kuai an hour. This was unabashedly a love motel. The bathroom counters displayed an array of protective and lubricating products alongside standard hotel toiletries. The shower was less than luxurious, a plastic spout annoyingly close to the toilet bowl. The bathroom wall was made entirely of frosted glass, a fact I didn’t discover until I turned around in the shower. There wasn’t time for modesty — I was only allotted twenty minutes for my shower.

My roommates took turns getting clean and we all repacked our bags in the cramped space between bed and table. No matter how many times we shook things, sand continued to fall out. At the end of the hour we had left a mini desert in the hotel room.

After the showers we all gathered in the lobby, cleaner and better looking versions of ourselves. Our train was leaving mid-afternoon, so we had a few hours for lunch and unsupervised exploration. Before we set off we had our favorite Juice episode. We asked her to purchase a case of bottled water so we could board the train well-supplied. In her habitually impatient tone she barked, “Yes, yes, yes, ok!” I wasn’t sure she was truly “ok” so I translated in Mandarin, “They want a case, 12 bottles.” To which she practically jumped with surprise, “What? A case!?” Clearly, she hadn’t understood all along, perhaps not more than a few words in the three days we’d sent together!

I tried to explore Zhongwei “city” but quickly found that it was little more than a shopping center flanked by small businesses. I stopped in the mall to revel in consumerism. Afterwards I roamed the two blocks between the mall and the hotel. I found mom and pop shops selling Goji berries (also known as wolfberries), a local produce, in oil barrel-sized vats. These small red berries are so expensive that they are usually only served as a sprinkling in Eight Treasures Tea or soup. Here, they were twenty-two kuai per kilo. I had to buy some.

At last we made our way to the Zhongwei train station. It was so small that only one arriving or departing train could be accommodated at a time. We waited in the crowded lounge as people came up to stare. Our guide Juice was now joined by a nicer woman who was the guan xi (“relationship”) in purchasing our train tickets. Because so few people depart from Zhongwei the tickets issued out of this stop are hard to come by. So, our “guan xi” lady had bought us nine tickets issued from three different surrounding train stations. She would accompany us onto the train, armed with a pack of cigarettes to bribe the train conductor, and get off after our tickets had been inspected.

As the much delayed train was finally announced for boarding, we squeezed through the narrow doors along with the rest of the traveling herds. As I walked closer to the platform I saw with some dread that this was a green paint train. Another night on an old clunker, and if the rule applies then this would be even worse than the red paint train to Yinchuan!