A Desert Dropped in the Grasslands


From Inner Mongolia Datong

On the ride from Datong to Baotou, leaving at 1:40 in the morning, we each had a hard sleeper ticket, but each in a different car. Exhausted, I climbed up into my top bunk (which has very little room above and is a little clausterphobic, not to mention high off the ground). I slept on-and-off, partly because I was worried about waking up at the correct stop, and partly because the smoke from the passengers below irritated my throat. Near Hohhot, the lights turned on and I could sleep no more. I climbed down from my bunk and asked the passengers which station it was in Chinese. When they said Hohhot, I climbed back up into the bunk and tried to sleep. Eventually, however, the sun rose and I could stand the close quarters no more, so I sat on the vacated bottom bunk and looked out the window at the huge blue sky and passing mountains.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

As we neared another station, I asked a middle aged man what station it was in Chinese. He asked me where I was going. I said Baotou. He replied that it was not Baotou station. I thanked him, and sat back on the lower bunk. A few minutes later, he came over and struck up a conversation in Chinese. He spoke incredibly clearly, but I have a very limited vocabulary, so it was quite a challenge, and there were plenty of pauses.

“Where are you from?” he asked.
“America,” I said.
“Are you travelling?”
“Yes, I’m travelling with my husband and my friend. We are teachers in Nanjing.”
“English teachers?”
“My friend is an English teacher, and I’m a math teacher.” (This is the summary. It took me a long time to remember how to say math, and even then I check to make sure he understood by saying, “one plus one is two.”)

We went through my repertoire of polite conversation. (Do you have children? Yes. How old? Eleven. How long have you been married? Thirty Seven years! What is your honourable last name? Tai.) Mr. Tai said he was “Baotou ren,” a person from Baotou. (This usually means their hometown, not just where they are currently living.) He also said he had a black friend from California who had lived in Baotou for two years. He asked me if I had friends in Baotou, and where we were going. I didn’t know how to say “Resonant Sand Gorge,” in Chinese, and Matt had the Lonely Planet, so I couldn’t read the pinyin or show him the characters. After a long time of saying, I don’t know how to say it in Chinese, I said “yi ge di fan mei you shui,” a place with no water. This is how I learned the word for desert “san mu.”

He told me that there were three desserts in Baotou. I couldn’t remember the name of the one we were going to see. He named them, and I pounced on “Kubuqi,” dessert. He made fun of me – “You said you didn’t know!” and he made fun of my Chinese as well. He asked if my husband spoke Chinese, and I said I spoke better than he did. He rolled his eyes, and I could here him thinking, “Oh, no!”

Mr. Tai asked me how long we were staying in Baotou. Just the day, I said, our plane leaves at 11 in the morning the next day. That’s not long enough, he said, we would be too busy! Mr. Tai asked me how I was going to get to the desert. I said I didn’t know – bus? No, there were no buses. Taxi? Taxi was too expensive, he said, and there weren’t any taxies leaving the desert. He offered to take me. I couldn’t believe the generous offer!
He repeated it a few times to make sure I understood. “Gende?” I said, “Really?” and “Xie-Xie,” “Thank you.” He shook his head like it was nothing. We’d go to his house to pick up his son first, he said, then he’d take us to the desert, and then to the bus station to go back to Hohhot.

And that’s just what we did! We got to be on a family vacation to the dessert! Mr. Tai picked up his son, an eleven year old named “Tai Zhi,” (sounded a lot like Tiger!) and a thirteen year old girl – maybe a cousin – whose name was “Woman Tiger,” which Lucy says means bossy lady. After waving to his wife in the window and delivering fish to friends and family for the holiday, we set out for the Kubuqi desert.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

The most amazing part of the desert gorge is that it is in the middle of dry grass mountains. When we came up to it, it appeared from behind the mountain, incredible in size. Soft, bone colored sand, just like pictures of the Sahara desert, in dunes and one huge mound, directly across from a Grand Canyon-like cliff, which was directly under ordinary grassy land. It expanded for as far as the eye could see.

Mr. Tai was generous not only with his friendship and time, but with his money. He paid for our tickets, bought Matt and I both cowboy hats, and Matt had to give the boy three hundred kuai to pay for the next tickets. We rode camels along the dunes in a line, to a collection of sand-sculpture Buddhas.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

Then, we took a huge green sand rover vehicle, racing through the desert, up and down the dunes. After a lunch in the shade, we slid down the steep sand slide, as if sledding in the snow. It was a little like being in Disneyland, but with a beautiful, far-reaching desert as the background.

From Inner Mongolia Datong

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