Fly Me to the Prairie
—A Trip to Inner Mongolia (Oct. 2007)
It has been almost one year from my last time to travel by plane. In the past thirteen months, I have been holding hands with mom to walk the end of her life journey. She’s still miraculously taking her breath of the vivid world. I am very grateful to God and to those who have helped and supported me. Thank you very much!
Mom and I are pretty much like twin sisters over this year. So when I once again hopped on the plane without mom and flew to a “natural air-con” up north, about 2,200 kilometers away from home, I had a mixed feeling—missing mom and wondering what I would see. Organizing the trip to Inner Mongolia was totally done in the last minute. While everyone was rushing out of town to the famous attractions at home and abroad during the National Day one-week vacation, I did the opposite—I went to somewhere remote and unpopular; somewhere breezy and offers boundless panoramas. The only unaccustomed tradition for me in Inner Mongolia is the mutton dish. I don’t eat anything related to goat /sheep /lamb or whatever flowery names implying the same animal. At home I only take a little soup made by mom—that’s my ultimate limit.
My destination was the capital of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), Hohhot, which means “Green City” in local Mongolian language. IMAR was founded on May 1, 1947 by the Party, with a population of 22 million, including 3.7 million Mongolian people and over 800 thousand people of other minorities. It has an area of 1.1 million square kilometers. Yet, I think most of the Mongolians have been assimilated by Han nationality. Since we have a word “Americanize,” I would coin “Hanize” for the Mongolians. This is actually the same phenomenon happened to other minor nationalities in China, like Xinjiang and Tibet. I only see colorful Mongolian costumes at the museum and at the dancing show on my trip.
I felt utterly refreshed and cool upon my arrival. The temperature was as low as 18C/65F, a big switch from muggy Guangzhou (30C/86F on average). A tall chap from Inner Mongolian Hotel, the cheapest five-star hotel I have stayed in my whole life, came to pick me up at the airport. I spotted my name on the cardboard right away at the exit.
“Is this your first time to Inner Mongolia,” the chap asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“For leisure or on business?” he was curious.
“How do you feel about the weather here? Too cold for you?”
“A bit. Like walking into a big natural air-con.”
As our one-to-one dialogue went on, the chap led me to a mini van. “Wow, what a
royal reception!” I said to myself. In the van, there was another guy in western suit and the driver. On the way to the hotel, I did my usual “first-impression” ride—trees were tall; roads were wide; billboards were old-fashioned; bikes were everywhere. These were the typical characters of northern city in China.
The hotel had a good service. For less than 500 RMB (approx. 65 USD) per night, I could have breakfast every morning (something I didn’t do at home). The hotel had its own travel agency, so very conveniently I had arranged the program for the last two days in my stay. I spent one full day in the city to get a better understanding of the culture and the lifestyle here. So on the morning of the second day, I went to the newly-built Inner Mongolia Museum. The whole architecture had shocked me from a distance. According to the driver, it was established early this year in the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Having invested over one billion RMB, this new museum is one of many big projects which are under the sponsorship of central government. Of course, I could see what a swift change of this “Green City”: at night the major streets were all lit up—it’s no different from the metropolis like Guangzhou. In fact, the street lamps in Hohhot were even more beautiful. In the daytime, if you walked on Zhongshanxi Road, you would see skyscrapers one after another. This is the shopping area and many buildings are shopping centers. Traffic jam is another feature of modern cities in China. I happened to stand on the flyover in that area to watch the uproar on the street during rush hour. I once heard of a joke from a western friend, that Chinese tend to drive the car with the habit of riding a bicycle—whenever they see an inch of space on the road, they would move close enough or change lanes from left to right, then from right to left. Drivers in Hohhot seemed to operate their machines like riding horses. They didn’t have any sense of driving along the lines. Several autos could meet at the crossing at the same time because they just wanted to turn to the directions they wanted. A long line of autos were waiting for green light, but it was common to see other cars from behind passed you and formed another line on the opposite lane. Gosh, that’s what horses run on the prairie with no string attached.
Back to the museum, it was so huge that it looked like a train station. From outside it looked very modern with glass wall and strong steel to support. It only opened one side of the building but it took me half a day to finish. If you want to get the first taste of what Inner Mongolian culture is like, this is a good place to drop by. The exhibit rooms have a great display of geography, biology, science, history and Mongolian culture. It was so spacious that I wish I could be on a spot where the entire exhibition just rotate in front of my eyes instead of me walking and standing for so long.
The next day I joined a family of three to a desert resort named “Resonant Sand Gorge,” which took 3.5 hrs by car to get there. I had never been to desert before, neither had I ridden on a camel. But on that day my first experience arrived. Unfortunately, it had been raining on the way. Our tour guide told us that the good thing was we wouldn’t get sunburnt on the desert but the bad thing was we could not hear the sand resonate. We took a cable car to the resort and all I could see was sand dunes. We wore a pair of shoe covers to protect our shoes and pants from getting dirty. The rain had stopped when we were there, but the sand somehow had turned into mud. We rode the camels for 30 minutes and the camels were really less smelly than the horses. One led the other by the nose and from a distance we were like a caravan in the wild desert. I could imagine if there was not a soul here, leaving only footprints of the camerals, how disoriented I would feel. Thirty-minute of riding was enough for me as I already could feel my sore bottoms. Although the camel walked slowly the path was bumpy, up and down, up and down, I still liked my back-seat car ride better. Getting off the camel was exciting. It suddenly bent its front legs and I leaned forward without notice; then it bent the hind legs. Gosh hadn’t I prepared myself in time did my body leaned backward. I cried out with surprise. Luckily my cry didn’t scare the camel, or I would end up in a bad shape. After the camel riding, we walked up to another dune and watched the father and the daughter on our team to try all sorts of entertainment. I only tried the “Exploration Boat” which was a half-tank-half-truck shape of machine. It drove us fast enough from one dune to another. If time permitted, I would have tried the “Sand Parachute.” I saw a lot at sea but the first time in the desert. Anyway, I had a good time there. Maybe because of the rain, there were not too many visitors in the desert. In addition, I watched a 90min Inner Mongolian performance. It reflected the local wedding from preparation to the ceremony. Inner Mongolians are great dancers and singers. Their colorful costumes have impressed me.
On my last full day visit, I went to the Xilamuren Prairie which means “yellow river” in Mongolian. After 1.5 hrs car ride, I arrived at the vast grassland where I could see the round domes architecture—the Mongolian yurts. Today, many of the Mongolian yurts have been altered from resident quarters to restaurants or hotels. According to my tour guide, many nomadic Mongolians prefer living in clay houses like the Han nationality, especially in the winter, the houses are warmer than the yurts. Upon arrival, several Mongolian young people in traditional costumes outside covered jeans and shirts underneath came forward to greet me with their local white wine. I was taught to use my ring finger to dip first flickering to the sky, second to the ground and third to my forehead before drinking it. The wine was so bitter that I only sipped a little. After the camel ride the day before, I hesitated to ride a horse to sightsee the prairie. Although Mongolian horses seemed to be shorter than normal, they were wilder too. After a good bargain I took a jeep ride instead. The driver was a maniac. He drove so fast that I could hardly balance myself inside the car. A car ride shortened the sightseeing time compared to riding a horse. The best season to visit the prairie is in the summer between July and August. So by the time I got there, much grassland had started changing color. Some parts of the prairie were fenced as they were privately owned. The grass inside apparently had grown much better than those that were trampled by tourists and cars. Cattle were scattered everywhere, grazing happily on the grass. I discovered an unusual black pig drinking water in the stream. I first came to the swamp area, seeing several short-leg Mongolian horses and a couple of camels. I even had a close contact with Mary’s Little Lamb. It was only 6-month old and very cute. When it walked it looked like a little white hairy ball rolling on the ground. Its baa surprised me. Then I headed to a salt lake where migrant birds were perching and eating. As long as I stepped closer, they flew away. I turned a 360-degree look. How spectacular the scenery was! The whole world was only the sky and the prairie. And I was so tiny in the center. A 360 degree of horizon line, a full circle of life. The greatness of nature had completely overwhelmed me. I wish I had a back yard towards such a great panorama. Next and also my last destination I visited a local nomadic family. They were living on stock breeding. Their house was very simple, made of clay and brick. In front of the house there was a big yard used for keeping the cattle. The house owner told me they had built a little indoor hut for the cattle in the frigid winter when the temperature could reach as low as minus 30C. It was a family of three: father, mother and a son. They were all sleeping on a high-raise bed where underneath was the heater. A TV set took up the space of one third of the bed. On the bed there was a small short-leg table on which the mother greeted us with several specialty snacks which were dairy products and a favorite drink—the milk tea. Speaking of dairy products, here was a joke. When my friend asked me what I had in Hohhot, instead of “dairy” I said “diarrhea” is famous in Inner Mongolia. Well, I was really afraid I would get diarrhea after having mutton. So I brought some snacks with me all the way. The mother said all these snacks were made from their cow milk and goat milk. Of course, I was very picky when hearing food made from goat milk. These dairy products were all kept in a big ice-cream fridge. No wonder they tasted so fresh. The house owner’s son had just begun his junior one study. According to his mother, his English wasn’t too good. I was so sympathetic with this family so I promised to send some Crazy English books to the boy. And I have. I wish more poor kids from the rural areas can get a better education like those who grow up in the cities. After saying goodbye to the family, I had a quick lunch. Luckily they served veggies and pumpkins other than mutton. Then I watched a live Mongolian horse race and wrestling in the prairie. Wrestling is nomadic Mongolians’ favorite sport. But it’s a guy’s thing, I think.
On our way back to the hotel, we passed by the Islamic neighborhood. I assume Inner Mongolia might have one of the largest Muslim population in China. The streets and buildings were very characteristic. At night, the main street where the Great Mosque was located was very bright. I could see it had brightened up the onion-shape tops of the buildings on both sides of the road. Occasionally I discovered unnoticeable churches among tall buildings, one of which was a big abandoned Catholic church standing on the backstreet of some colorful Islamic buildings. What a contrast!
If you got this far, thank you for reading. I had an unexpected great trip in Inner Mongolia. I liked the widespread landscape of this part of the country. Maybe I have stayed in a big city for too long and have grown tired of traffic and crowdedness. Inner Mongolia is definitely one of the best choices to get relief. Hope someday I could explore more about China.