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.