Many people don’t realize that there are two Mongolias. Good old standard Mongolia is a standalone country north of China, and is best known for its famous conqueror, Genghis. Then there is Inner Mongolia, a province in the far north of China, that was claimed a long long time ago for the Chinese empire.
Both places are known primarily for grasslands and horses. Not sure why people find grasslands so fascinating, since I’m sure we’ve all seen big fields of grass before. But somehow, those tourism brochures make walking through big fields of tall itchy grass seem like an exciting heart-pounding adventure. It must be all the cavalier cowboys charging about on snorting horses.
Since Inner Mongolia is just a stones throw from Beijing, we decided to do a quick weekend trip, together with a few friends from church and from work. The trip started with an overnight 10 hour train trip. We hired a 4-person sleeper, which was fabulously comfortable and clean, complete with personal TV and individual air-conditioning. Its amazing what people discuss when trapped in an enclosed space for 10 hours – our conversation during the night ranged from Quaker theology, to world’s worst toilet experiences, with the occasional injection of some comment about how we were all probably going to hate each other by the end of this weekend.
The train pulled into Hohhot, capital of Inner Mongolia, bright and early Saturday morning. We were greeted by our cheery tour guide, who immediately rushed us to our van in typical chinese tour guide fashion, without giving us even a second to enjoy the view of the gray, overly-urbanized city. Well, after 10 hours in a train, we definitely weren’t ready to hop into yet another confined space, so instead we got permission to meander and hunt for some breakfast. 10 minutes she gave us – which quickly turned into 1 hour, since traveling in a group is never a streamlined, well timed operation. We managed to hunt down some tasty jian bing (pancakes with chilli paste, chives, and lots of msg), and even managed to get a great buy on raincoats, since it looked like it was going to be a rainy weekend.
It was then an enjoyable 3 hour drive to Huitenxile, a famous grassland, where we intended to spend a day and night charging around the grasslands. Enroute, our friendly guide inundated us with all sorts of useful and useless information, including details on the type of grass sheep ate in Inner Mongolia (for those who are interested, they eat a variety of onion grass that apparently makes their meat less pungent).
Huitengxile grasslands has, as one would except, a lot of grass, punctuated with the occasional rolling hill and white windmill. Its a nice change from the concrete jungle of Beijing, but we couldn’t help feeling that it really did just look like a big grass field that stretched out as far as the eye could see. Grass is, after all, simply just grass – its green, and all looks the same – one could argue you could get just as stimulating views by just looking at the ground at the local park.
Okay, so this was a bit nicer, thanks to the kitchy, but nevertheless quaint, yurts. The rolling grassy landscape was punctuated with the occasional cluster of white and blue yurts, that helped conjure up quaint visions of Mongolian nomads. Yurts are the traditional mongolian abode – a big round tent lined inside with carpets and not much else. Its tourist tradition to spend a night in one of these, and being the traditional people we are, we planned to do the same. We had booked the ‘foreign tourist’ grade yurts, since they had attached bathrooms. Of course, the question of the day was, “how do you get an attached bathroom in a tent”. Quite simply, by making a concrete building that looks like a yurt, smells like a yurt, and even feels like a yurt (thanks to strategically placed carpets on the inside), but most definitely isn’t a yurt. We were all a bit disappointed, since us city folk had all been looking forward to ‘roughing’ it out by sleeping on the floor in the treacherous environs of a yurt (with attached bathroom). To make matters worse, the concrete yurt wasn’t particularly sanitary, with the highly advertised attached bathroom being a decrepid little chamber that had clearly been built by blind racoons with parkinsons.
After a quick shower and change, we headed off for lunch in the camp site restaurant, where we were gloriously overcharged in typical tourist fashion. It was then off to the open wilderness, to enjoy our primary reason for coming to the grasslands – a jaunt on horseback. These horses were pretty cool, many having interestingly fashioned manes – clearly one of the stable hands considered him/herself a hair stylist. Additionally, many of the female horses had little baby horses that pranced playfully around their mothers. So while we rode our horses, we were treated to the playful antics of the little foals, including short little games of tag, hide-n-seek and of course the occasional fight. Every so often, the mother horses would whiny to their young, and the young ones would whiny back sheepishly – it seems even horse mothers are prone to nagging.
Alas, it was an overcast day, so the scenery, although pleasant, wasn’t spectacular. Additionally, half way through our ride, it started to rain, so we took refuge in a conveniently placed yurt where a supposed ‘farmer’ woman fed us mongolian cheese treats and tea. The girls were all quite cold, so we were ‘encouraged’ to spend an hour cowering in the yurt until the rain finally broke.
We were then taken a few meters away to view the local lake – which, like everything else in this place, was green. Green in this case, since thanks to a 3 year drought, all that was left of the lake was dry ground that had been overrun with grass. The lake was supposedly one of the highlights on our horse tour …. which gave us little hope of the rest of the highlights.
For the rest of our sojourn in the grassland, we were entertained by the flatulance of one of the horse handlers. Clearly, she had learned a thing or two from her horses, because, honestly … we thought it was the horses – these things were loud. She found them particularly hilarious – we weren’t quite sure whether this little show of flatulance was part of the tour, or just a little extra, since we had been good tour members.
That night, we were entertained by a free cultural show at the camp site. It was an interesting fusion of traditional mongolian stories about grass, horses and yurts, done to the latest chinese techno tunes. Considering that the singers were simply the waiters and horse handlers, they did fairly well, though the failing PA system that insisted on regularly dropping out made listening a bit of a chore. After an hour of singing, the dance floor was opened, and many of the tourists charged out to dance the night away under the stars. Watching chinese people dancing is always fun – you have to admire the fact that they have no sense of shame. Particularly entertaining were the antics of one old guy that clearly had been dipping into the mongolian ale – he spent the night doing what I could only label as the ‘dying octopus with ocassional bouts of itchiness’ dance.