Go West: Homeward Bound (Part 7)

Five days in western China had accustomed me to dirt and poverty, so Hohhot looked like an emperor’s opulent abode by comparison. Tall buildings and big screen TV’s lined clean swept streets. Cranes, bulldozers, and “Keep our city green” billboards further testified to Hohhot’s level of development. China’s dairy industry giants (Mengniu and Yili) are based in Inner Mongolia, as well as rich coal mines in Erdos city.

The idea of “Inner” Mongolia trips up foreigners. The capitalized two words indicate a province in China but “Mongolia” alone refers to the country just north of the provincial border. Inner Mongolian is an Autonomous Region, but the long history of co-mingling and alternating reigns between Mongols and Han Chinese makes this China’s least conflict-ridden minority region. Like other ethnic minorities, Mongolians (~10% of the provincial population) are eligible for “affirmative action” policies, like additional points in the national university entrance exams and a two-child policy. Despite relatively harmonious racial relations, we still saw evident biases between the two peoples. Mongolians are naturally resentful of the mass Han migrations that took place from 1949 onwards, and Hans think of Mongolians as a backward, heavy-drinking, un-industrious lot who are lucky to have been included in the Chinese republic.

As we drove away from the city, Joe entertained us with facts and stories. Hours later, we were in an area with open expanses of land. We drove at last through unceremonious gates into a compound ringed off by a rickety fence. The grassland!

I had envisioned a tall, billowy grassland, romantic and bare like African savannahs. But the Xilamuren grassland was covered in a razed brown blanket, dusty like a scene from a country Western movie. Small animal skulls (perhaps the lamb we were promised on the itinerary?) were scattered about the dirt compound ground. Groups of Mongolians, residents or employees of this tourism village, stood idly, scanning us with ambivalent faces. A woman in colorful Mongolian garb welcomed us off the bus with a grassland song, sun in the signature loud, clear, and slightly yodly voice. She offered us each a cup of local liquor, which was strong like vodka, but carried a sweet tinge.

We checked into “luxury yurts,” little more than mound-shaped houses made of cement and covered with tarp painted in traditional motifs. Inside the rooms were standard hotel beds and western style bathrooms. I was disappointed. Along with galloping through knee-high grass on horseback, I had also imagined a night beneath a hide tent sleeping atop luxurious animal skins.

My fellow travelers were eager to get riding, so we quickly negotiated with head honcho Mongolian for two-hour horse rides on the grassland. This turned out to be an unexciting trot on smallish mares fitted with uncomfortable saddles. Those who wanted to ride fast found out that none of our yelling, cajoling, heel digging could persuade the horses to move. But a single shout from the horse minders in Mongolian could make the equine group head left or right, speed up or slow down. These men know their horses and the animals heed their command! Unfortunately for us the minders were uninterested in our demands to ride farther out at greater speed. They wanted to save the animals’ strength for more tourists later.

The most thrilling thing that happened to me on horseback was getting bitten by a horse. I was gingerly trotting, a little nervous, when another horse came up alongside me and took a chomp at my knee cap. I reacted with a mixture of shock (aren’t horses herbivores!) and fear (my open wound will fester into a strange horse disease!). The Mongolian minders didn’t take my squealing seriously, until we got back to the compound and I rolled up my jeans to show a large mouth-shaped indention on my knee. Luckily, there was no blood, but my knee ached and the bruise was turning in to swirls of purple and blue.

I moped in the afternoon, unimpressed with a Mongolian wrestling performance and preoccupied with rubbing my knee. Before dinner, Joe took us into “town” to visit a Buddhist temple. A few times we stopped traffic. Cars would drove by us, come to a halt, and all passengers would roll down their windows to stare at us with benevolent curiosity. Sometimes several cars would line up to gawk at us in unison. We found this amusing but slightly awkward. So we developed a coping strategy. Whenever cars or people gathered around us, we serenaded them with our Chinese love song, “The Moon Represents My Heart.” Most people would then laugh with recognition, applaud, and move on. I cheered up when Joe bought purple iodine solution, just like the kind my mom used when I was little, at the local clinic to disinfect my knee.

On the walk back, the sun set in a glorious reddish golden blaze. We took lots of pictures. By the time we got to “camp”, dinner was already waiting in the large dining yurt. The food was hearty, but unremarkable. The show was something else. A troupe of colorfully dressed performers showcased traditional music and dance, accompanied by a keyboardist playing to a disco beat with the reverb turned up too high. It felt like an eighties yurt karaoke competition. The MC for the night, a young man with a passion for English pop songs, even changed the program impromptu (since we were the only diners that night) and sang some Mariah Carey tunes.

Strobe lights and cheese aside, one performer did take our breath away. He first performed on a string instrument that looks like a bigger version of the Chinese violin, the “er hu.” His song had an extremely fast tempo and showy scale changes, meant to emulate the speed and agility of horses galloping on grassland. As he played his whole body shook with effort. It looked like his arms were getting quite a work out. After the song and a break (to rest his arm, no doubt), he returned to show off an entirely different instrument – his throat. His “throat song” had a low and echoing quality, like the Australian didgeridoo. Looking at him, it was hard to tell where the sound was coming from, for his mouth moved little, but his abdomen rose and fell heavily under his clothing. After our standing ovation, he left the stage panting and heaving.

It was a fun time, the highlight of my day in Hohhot, but the dining yurt rapidly fell cold with the onset of night. We retreated to our yurts, which were somehow colder than the flimsy tents were out on the Tenggur desert, for a night of huddled sleep.

Early the next day we left the grassland, happy that we had seen it, but without much regret at the brevity of our stay. We spent a half day wandering through the Mosque Ancient Street area of Hohhot city, marveling at antique treasures, taking pictures of many strange sights, making friends with market vendors (an affable crowd who gathered around us), and pointing out trilingual “KFC” signs (in English letters, Chinese characters, and Mongolian). By the time we boarded our fifty-minute flight back to Beijing we were thoroughly exhausted from the week of adventure and looked forward to being home. As luck would have it, the plane was delayed on the runway for a good two hours. It was the perfect time to whip out our Chinese love song to entertain everyone in Economy Class!

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