Exploring Inner Mongolia

So, after classes last Saturday, we prepared to head off the Inner Mongolian grassland. Just to clarify, Inner Mongolia is a province, or rather a Semi-autonomous region of China. I did NOT go to actual Mongolia. I did NOT enter a different country. Think New Mexico. New Mexico is not in Mexico, it just borders it. Same thing.

So, last time we traveled to another province we took the bullet train and it took three hours. This time, we traveled nearly identical distances except we spent eight hours on a train instead. Why? Because we took the “sleeper” train. What, you might ask, is a sleeper train? Well, let me tell you. It is essentially your typical train travelling at typical speeds, along typical tracks. But, instead of assigned seats, you get assigned beds. Apparently William and Mary splurged for us and ensured that we were on the bottom bunks (apparently its better because you have more headroom?). So, at 7pm we headed off to the train station again waited for our 10:30 departure. As we waited in the waiting room, several large groups of rowdy middle schoolers also entered and began practicing their wrestling, Tag, and screaming skills. All we could do was pray they weren’t on our train.

Well, of course as luck would have it, not only were they on our train, they were in our cars. And not only were they in our cars, they were in the bunks above us (the bunks are three high). Perfect. There was a moment where I considered passing around my bottle of sleeping pills and telling them it was caffeine, however, some moral conscience inside told me that was a bad idea.  As soon as one gave the all clear that the chaperone was asleep, off came the covers and out came the balls, and on went my noise cancelling headphones. Sleep was not easy to come by.

Hohhot History Center

We arrived at the capitol city of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, around 7:30am. Hohhot is a “small” tier-3 city in China, population 2.2 million. After a brief breakfast, we headed over to the Inner Mongolian History Center. As massive, modern museum, that was just completed within the last few years. We spent an hour and a half there, exploring the dinosaur rooms and historical sections on Genghis Khan before heading back to the bus for the 4 hour bus ride to the grassland. To be honest, I slept almost the

Home, sweet, home.
Yurt Number 10

entire way. It wasn’t until my head smashed against the window and I looked out, only to realize that we were no longer on a road, that I awakened. We were literally driving across the grassland. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that we were on a dirt road, I might generously call it a “trail.” But like I said, being generous. After driving through a stream, a gully or two, and several camps, the “trail” ended as we came over a ridge and began our descent into a large valley. As we came over the ridge, our bus was met by several men in traditional garb on horseback who escorted our vehicle into the yurt “village” where we would spend the next 24 hours horseback riding, feasting, wrestling, and partaking in a traditional fireside ceremony. Or at least that was the plan. We ended up having to roll with the punches.

The grassland stretched on for miles

When we got off the bus, we were all greeted in traditional Mongolian custom, with a shot of baijiu, as part of a special “welcome” ceremony for “honored guests.” That afternoon, we all hopped on a horse and spent the next hour ascending to a peak across the valley. The view was breath-taking, the sky was actually blue, and I could take deep sweet breaths. On top of the peak was a large rock pile that served as an altar of sorts, for the local animist religion. Supposedly, if you walk around it three times, in a clockwise fashion, you will bring good luck upon you and your family. We all forgot to do that. Maybe that’s why mother nature was angry?

Dinner?

Upon returning to camp, we were able to rest up before our dinner was served. And a good dinner it was. On the Mongolian grasslands, the specialty is lamb, and they do it well. As a group, we ordered two lamb legs, and though it cost us extra, it was well worth it. I don’t think my mother’s cooking will ever be as good as a fresh cooked lamb leg. How do I know it was fresh? Because it was grazing outside my yurt just an hour before. Up next on the schedule, the wrestling and fireside cultural performance. We headed down to begin wrestling and, of course, watching the Americans wrestle became a camp wide activity. And yes, I did wrestle. But no, I will not be putting up photos or video. As a member of our group, a rugby player, began to wrestle one of the locals who wears a wolf ankle-bone around his waist from a wolf he killed with a rock and his bare hands, the sky darkened and the thunder began to rumble across the grassland. Though the wrestling was cut short and the fireside cultural performance was cancelled, we rolled with the punches and made the best of it. Though it cancelled the cultural performance, the storm rolling across the plain gave us something better…

 

 

All pictures taken with my iPhone. Hence the graininess

 

… an amazing lightning show that more than made up for the rain-delay.
Thankfully, the rain ended around 10:30, and we were able to make our own party. Literally.
The staff lit a small bonfire, and though the cultural performance was scratched, we played techno-dance music from large speakers and still danced around the fire with a bunch of middle schoolers, who were also staying at the camp for a school trip. Though it didn’t go as planned, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The next morning we loaded back up onto our bus and headed back to Hohhot, again, most people slept for the next four hours. Back in Hohhot, we explored the Hui District. The Hui is one of the 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China and they are characterized my their Muslim religious beliefs. In Hohhot, they have a large district that makes you feel like you are walking through downtown Cairo or Amman.
Chinese Mosque and Arabian Palace
Fang Jun and Matt in front of the Chinese mosque

 

The white building you see on the right side of the left picture is actually a large “relaxation center” where cultural performances are held, a large buffet is located, and a Greco-Roman bath is located. The mosque is actually on the left side of the photo and in the right photo. After briefly touring the mosque we went to a Buddhist temple down the road, where we took a brief guided tour. Though I must confess, at this point, one buddhist temple looks just like another. However, after taking a vote, we decided to return to the “relaxation center” for dinner and a show. The set-up was luxurious. We had a private suite with two balconies that overlooked the stage, so we could watch the show during dinner. Our suite had a private bathroom, lounge area with big-screen TV, and a MASSIVE circular table that all twenty of us could sit around. We laughed, recounted stories, made fun of everyone’s wrestling skills and, most importantly, feasted before boarding the train home.
Dinner at the Arabian Palace “relaxation center”
Heading home, our train departed Hohhot at 10:50 local time, a sleeper train again, though this time we left the small children at home; and we arrived in Beijing at 7:30am. After fighting our way through rush hour traffic, we arrived back at Tsinghua at nine, just in time for our classes which began at 9:30. I give WM credit for efficient use of time, though I can’t say I was really “there” that day. Coffee was definitely everyones drug of choice that day.
Moral of the story: Hohhot was spectacular and sometimes, mother nature knows best!