Part One: Grasslands
On Saturday, we had an early morning flight booked for Inner Mongolia. Matt and I met our new friend Lucy, an American girl from Missouri, in our hallway to catch a taxi to the airport. We flagged a taxi, dragging our rolling suitcases behind us. “Huo che zhan,” I mistakenly said (train station), as we put our suitcases in the trunk. “Oh wait,” I told Lucy as I climbed into the front seat. “I said train station. Tell her airport. Fei ji chang.”
The taxi driver (who didn’t look at all like the male driver picture on the license on display in the front seat) asked us something none of us could understand. We drove for a while, on Nanjing highway, watching the morning come to life. Then, we pulled over at an intersection next to another taxi driver. Apparently, we were supposed to get out and take this second women’s taxi the rest of the way! That meant two flag falls – but I’m not sure how to say flag fall in Chinese to argue with the second taxi driver. In addition, at the airport, she wouldn’t give Matt change because she said she paid for the toll.
It was a sign of things to come. At the check in counter, we were told something was wrong with our flight. For an hour, we were ushered among different counters. Finally, a young woman came over, and between her English and our poor Chinese, we found out that another flight was leaving at 3 pm the same day. She took us and the other passengers to a nearby airport hotel, where we “had a rest,” (a power nap in every sense of the word), ate Chinese breakfast, and were offered lunch. Then, finally, we were taken back to the airport and got on a plane to Hohhot.
We were met at the airport by Zuraguai, who worked for Anda Guesthouse Hostel. We sat in the back of his Jeep, which looked like it had been a pick up retrofitted with bucket seats too low to the ground. The hostel was adorable – clean, bright, with fun paintings on the courtyard walls. The girls working at the hostel spoke some English and offered us tea while we checked in. We booked a tour for the grasslands the next day.
Online, the reviewers about the hostel and their tours were positively raving. The guide book said that we could take the bus, but then we wouldn’t be able to stay overnight, so we chose the tour. The guidebook also talked about Mongolian horse racing and wrestling we could watch – but no such tourist attractions were in our itinerary.
At one point in our long drive, the bumps in the road were too much for my small bladder. We asked the tour guides if we could stop, and one of them took me to the bus station to use the bathroom. It always seems that the bathrooms you have to pay for are in the most disgusting condition. Muddy stalls (I hope it was mud), no running water, soap, or towels, and a stench that would wrinkle a pig’s nose. I would have preferred to have gone outside, behind the station – at least then I wouldn’t have risked getting the hem of my pants dirty from the floor. Shortly, I would have plenty opportunity to bare my bottom to the great Mongolian grasslands.
We drove two or more hours, though mountains very much like those in California, covered with patchy dry grass, contoured sharply. Eventually, the terrain levelled off into brown prairies and grasslands. The sky was enormous and deep blue, an amazing sight after weeks of white-skyed Nanjing. We took the minivan off-roading across one tiny village with shingles falling from the roofs of their houses. A line of old men and one old woman, tanned, seamed faces so similar to the portraits of Native American chiefs in our high school history books, stood in a line across the road through the village, and only let the vehicle through after the driver paid them – a kind of toll, I guess. Occasionally, along the main road, we saw clusters of yurts, tourist camps.
We were not to stay at a tourist camp. We took a turn off on a bumpy dirt road. We passed a mob of Chinese tourists, about fifteen men, riding horses, dressed like cowboys with new stiff wide-brimmed hats. They arrived at the camp shortly after we did, jumped eagerly off their horses to take pictures with Matt and I (if I ever move to Florida, Minnie Mouse had better be worried about her job security). Lucy, with her big dark sunglasses and maroon knitted bohemian cap over her hair, escaped their notice.
The camp was not so much a camp as the home of a Mongolian family. They had their own proper cement house, with Chinese style hard beds, a small wind turbine and solar panel supplementing the electricity brought with some irregularity by the power lines. Two metal and cement yurts, shaped like white steamed buns, were for tourists.
Outside of their house, there was also a pen for one gigantic, curly-horned goat – a goat you would expect to see conferring with Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies. Our guide told us they were not supposed to have goats, because goats eat the grass, which means that the sand flies away – straight into Beijing. There was another pen for the cows as well.
First, we had tea with our fellow tourists, a family from Australia, Peter, Susan, and Sophie, a slight blonde about twelve or thirteen years old. Peter and Susan, originally from England, were travelling with Peter’s older daughter, but had a week left to themselves. We had tea and hard Chinese cookies that looked like steak fries (which, though they weren’t tasty, I gobbled up because I was hungry), sitting on the floor of our yurt at a low coffee table. The inside of our yurt was like a Genie’s bottle. The walls were lined with a pink satiny fabric, and the floor was covered with a thick, soft, plush carpet with a deep blue pattern. Pillows and blankets were piled at the back wall. A portrait of Genghis Khan was hanging along the back.
Just before one o’clock, we had lunch, but the tour guide had forgotten to tell our host we were vegetarian. While the others ate a kind of yellow stew, we had rice and cucumbers with garlic.
After lunch, we went for a walk to a stone altar, a circular pile of stones about eight feet high, with scraps of prayer cloths tied to the stones and animal skulls on top. The Mongolians, our tour guide explained, worship the sky. Officially, their religion is lama Buddhism, like Tibetan Buddhism, but as with all religions, they are layered upon one another, so there is still the original nature-religion within their beliefs.
Here is an iron plant that you can see from the altar.
We then walked down to what appeared to be a lake lined with salt, but was really just a bunch of puddles and squishy mud. They have been having a drought for some time, which you can see in the brown grass.
After our walk, and a nap, we got to ride horses for two hours across the grasslands. Mongolian horses are smaller than American horses; you can look them in the eye. The horses had had a long day being ridden by tourists; they were eager to finish their last job, and would break out into a run or a trot. Trots hurt – with each step your bump slams into the saddle. To avoid this, you have to lift yourself up, holding yourself up with your thigh muscles and arms, but this does a number on your knees. When the horses run, though, it’s exciting in the same way as skiing or mountain biking is exciting – they go so fast, you can’t let yourself think too much, you have to let it happen. There were a few times they were going so fast, they crashed into each other. We were sore for the next two days from charging across the grassland.
At night, after a dinner where Matt and I loaded up on mantou (steamed white buns), our host barbequed sticks of meat and too-spicy green pepper under the stars. It was freezing, even bundled in our coats and sweaters, but the stars were beautiful, white sparkles crowding each other against the inky black sky. The Big Dipper was gigantic, filling one whole corner of the sky, and you could make out the shadow of craters on the moon.
In the morning, after steamed and fried white bread and hard boiled eggs breakfast, while Sophie and Susan went out for one last ride, Matt and I took a walk along the lower end of the grasslands. There, patches of straw-like grass grew in thick bunches. A shepherd herded a flock of sheep and goats through the family’s land. The weather felt like a perfect, cool autumn day.
On our way back to Hohhot, our tour guide stopped outside of a toll booth. This tour guide didn’t speak English, but the Chinese in the north is spoken so well – every word pronounced, so that even if I didn’t know a word, I could probably spell it in pin yin. We figured out that this car would not continue to Hohhot, but another car, the Jeep, with more tourists were coming, and we would switch. As we switched, we asked the tourists heading to the grasslands what they thought of the desert tour. They said that, while it was cool, there wasn’t much to do – much like our experience on the grassland. Given this new information, we decided to go to Datong for two days, outside of Inner Mongolia, before heading back to Baotou to see the desert.