This is the journal for my trip to Inner Mongolia. I traveled there with Megan, David, Alex, Emily, and Lucas. We spent one night in a yurt on the grasslands, and one day in the desert. While Inner Mongolia is considered a part of China, it is not a province. Instead it’s what’s called an autonomous region. It has this status due to the large number of ethnic minorities that live there (the Mongol people), and is allowed to have special rules in regards to its laws than other parts of China. Therefore, although this trip was not out of the country, it sort of felt like it was.
(4/19) Surpassing Expectations
Today started a trip that was very different from all of the others. I had class in the morning and then packed for our trip immediately after it. We headed to the airport on the metro, cleared security like the pros we are, and didn’t even get phased by our flight’s one-hour delay. Hell, we had almost planned for it.
Our group got split up on the flight, with Megan, Lucas, and me sitting in the very front row, and the other 3 sitting in the very last row. We really had the full spread on the plane. As such, it took us a while to unload out of the flight at the other end. We walked out to the parking lot where our hostel had a driver waiting for us. That was awesome. The six of us just piled into his van and off we went. Since we were paying at the hostel there was no need to worry about money in the car, and no worries about the driver getting lost of confused. We just got to sit back and take in Hohhot.
I don’t know why, but I had an impression in my mind of Inner Mongolia being very small and undeveloped. That could be because it’s an automatous region of China and those are known for being less well-off. It could also be because Megan had sold this trip to us as going to spend a night in a yurt, which is basically a mix between a tent and a mud hut without the mud.
Regardless, the city was not anything like that. It was just a city. It had tall buildings, busy streets, and lots of people. Everything you would expect from a city (expect me, apparently). The city did have one common theme though: horses. Although I didn’t actually see a horse that night, the city had sculptures, paintings, and pictures of them everywhere. Horses on top of buildings, sculpted into fountains, painted onto busses and more. All horses, all the time. Easy to see what’s important in Mongolian culture.
Not much happened for the rest night. We arrived at the hostel and paid for the cab, our room, and the tour (which was a huge amount of money, but constituted all of my spending for three days so it was OK). We then got ready for bed and went to sleep.
Before I end the journal for today, I’ll talk briefly about why the six of us chose to go to Inner Mongolia. It’s very far north in China, with weather similar to Canada. It’s not as developed, and very few people speak English. These are not negatives, but rather reasons why we chose to come. Megan had been wanting to visit Mongolia since she was in Middle School, which is why she pushed so hard to come and visit. I tagged along because one of my goals for this trip was to see as wide a variety of cultures as possible. Originally, this meant that I would try to visit neighboring countries. That didn’t pan out due to the complexity of changing my visa. Therefore, Inner Mongolia was a way for me to see as different a culture as possible, without actually leaving China. This is a completely different trip from the mountains and cities that I see most other places, which is precisely why I came.
(4/20) So Yurting Good
This morning we had a traditional Mongolian breakfast in our hostel before heading out on the tour. The breakfast had 4 parts, a milk tea that was dark brown and very watery, a meal/grain type food called millet that consisted to many small little balls of grain, some hard biscuit/cracker type things, and either horse cheese or goat cheese (I was never able to get a straight answer from the hostel). You ate it by basically just throwing all of what was served into your bowl of milk tea, and then eating/drinking it. It wasn’t really what I expected it to be (since I had absolutely no expectations) but it was quite good! All of the ingredients on their own were extremely bland and tasteless. Yet somehow, when blended together, it created a thick and richly flavored mixture that was very enjoyable.
After breakfast, we got packed up and set out for the grasslands. There were 8 people on our tour group, the 6 of us plus two guys from Singapore who were visiting Hohhot for a week. Their names were David and Kenny. It would take about 3 hours to reach the grasslands, so after our introductions, we all settled now into a long drive.
Roughly an hour into the drive we got a bit of a surprise. It started snowing! In late April! I am from the Midwest, so I guess that shouldn’t really surprise me (since it happens every other year), but still. We had been told the grasslands would be cold, but we hadn’t realized they had meant winter. The group from the Midwest was surprised and a little bit annoyed by the snow, but the Singaporeans were completely floored by it. Since Singapore is near the equator, they had never seen snow before. David and Kenny kept giggling about it and tried repeatedly to take pictures of it out of the car window (which was particularly funny since they were in their 40s).
Not long into the snow storm we made our first stop for the day at a Mongolian Temple. Like most of the rest of China, the Mongolians practice Buddhism. We were able to walk around the completely empty temple and explore for a bit. It was snow covered a beautiful, incorporating many more colors than most of the other temples I’ve seen in China.
Once we had toured the temple enough, we piled back into the van and kept on going towards the grasslands. The further we went, the less there was to see until we were actually in the middle of seemingly endless snowing fields. At some point (and I don’t know how he knew where that point was), our driver turned off the main highway and just started out down a freshly snow-covered track. He spun out once on the loose snow, but recovered pretty quickly. He must be used to it.
After the long drive, we finally arrived at the farm we’d be staying for the night. It was very secluded, surrounded by gently sloping hills, snow, and livestock. It was truly the middle of nowhere. The only sign of human civilization was the farm itself. So amazing to be in such a secluded place. We stood there in amazement taking pictures for a while before eventually unpacking the van and moving all of our stuff to the yurt.
After that we went back to the van and were given thick, heavy, decommissioned military winter coats. They were a dull green and looked very communist. They also probably weighed at least 5 pounds apiece and double the amount of thermal insulation on my person. This was extremely necessary, since even though I had worn my full winter outfit, I was freezing. The grasslands were incredibly cold. The snow is evidence enough of this, but there was also an almost constant 20 mph wind. It was as cold as Indiana in the dead of winter, which is hard to achieve.
Once we had moved our bags and bedding to the yurt and gotten properly dressed for the weather, we moved into the meal yurt for lunch. Lunch was rice served with a beef stew which was fantastic. Easily one of the best meals I’ve had in China. Possibly ever. It was fresh carrots, potatoes, and beef in a delicious broth. I had at least 4 bowls of it and could have kept going if they hadn’t taken it away from me. So yurting good!
We also met some other people that were staying on the farm with us. They were a group of 4 French people who were traveling together: A professor, his wife, and two of their friends. We got to chat with them for a bit at lunch. The professor studies complex mathematical logic systems, and had been invited to be a guest lecturer at Beijing University. He was traveling for a bit before going to teach. It was nice eating with them, but they mostly stayed in their yurt and we only saw them at meals.
Once we were finished with lunch we went back to the sleeping yurt and made our bed under the direction of our tour guide. The yurt came with some cushion pads, comforters, and blankets. All eight of us had to layer the pads on the floor, cover them in blankets, then sheets, then comforters, and finally more blankets. This took at least 45 minutes to accomplish, since we had to move around on the bed that we were making and because at any given time at least 4 of us were goofing off and actively working against the group’s goal.
Our yurt got made eventually and we all headed back out to the main lodge. We met our guide again and she showed us where the archery equipment of stored. We dragged in out to some posts stuck into the ground near the farm. Alex, Kenny, Singaporean David, and I struck the target up using the posts and then we just started shooting arrows.
I was quite a bit better at the archery than I thought I’d be. I remember archery being insanely difficult the last time I did it, since it was so hard for me to pull the arrow back all the way. This time that was definitely not the case. Maybe it was hard before because I had stiff bows, or because I’m a lot stronger now, or because I was in the 6th grade last time. Who can say? Regardless we all took turn shooting. After a few miss fires, and a few misses, I was able to hit the target pretty consistently.
After getting bored of that I went back to the yurt to relax for a little while before the six Purdue people left to go horseback riding. We took the van to a ranch and then got up on our horses. We weren’t riding then bareback, but we also weren’t in saddles. Instead we just had thick blanks with a metal ring to grab onto and two stirrups coming down the side. We were riding Mongolian horses which are shorter, a bit fatter, and hairier than most American horse breeds.
The ride was a bit tame. I had originally thought that we would just be able to ride them around in a group, since there was nothing but grass and hills for miles. This wasn’t really how it happened though. The horses all knew where to go and just slowly walked there. Although we had been told how to direct the horses, they just ignored us. If my horse wanted to veer off to the right, it didn’t matter how hard I pulled him to the left. He was going right.
This meant that we couldn’t pick the route. We also couldn’t pick the speed. The horses all started out walking, and once we all started yelling and kicking their sides, they reluctantly moved into a trot. We all really wanted them to canter but it didn’t really happen. We didn’t know what commands the horses were trained for, so it was like yelling at a wall. We eventually figured out that shouting ‘jia’ at the top of your lungs would occasionally make the horse speed up (I later learned that ‘jia’ is Chinese for ‘next’). Twice I felt my horse start into a canter, only to immediately fall back into a trot. I would get so excited, and then so disappointed.
Once our lazy ride on lazy horses was over, we took the van back to the farm. I napped a little bit in the yurt and then went to the meal yurt for dinner. Dinner was a soup dish with a small amount of meat and a large amount of strangely textured vegies. I felt like it had a bit of an abrasive flavor to it, and didn’t really enjoy it. I ate mostly rice and noodles.
After dinner, the day got really crappy. We were having a bonfire that night, but didn’t have fuel for the fire. Therefore, our job was to take some pitchforks and baskets and head out into the fields to find some cowpies to burn that night. I never though picking up poop with friends could be so fun! We wandered around for about an hour, picking up poop, shooting the shit, and making bad jokes about poo. It was silly, inappropriate, and just so bizarre. It was a surprisingly amazing bonding experience and I had a blast.
When I went back through all the amazing photos we took during our poop adventure, I stumbled upon one that looked amazingly like an album cover. Since we had heard a lot of traditional Mongolian throat singing in our many car ride, I figured we could just start a band. Our album drops this summer.
Once the sun set, we headed back to the farm and dropped the cowpies off. The guide told us we had found especially good ones. Don’t really know how she determined that, but whatever. I yurted for a little bit after that (hung out in the yurt) and then headed out to the fire. The fire was very normal. We learned that in the Mongolian culture, cowpies aren’t considered dirty, since they’re almost entirely just dried grass. This is why they burn to well, and it meant that the fire didn’t really smell. We hung out and warmed ourselves by the fire for quite a while. Really made me want a s’more.
I also spent some time away from the fire to stargaze. This is something that I have been unable to do elsewhere in China because of light pollution and regular pollution. Out in the grasslands though, there weren’t really any artificial lights, and the air quality was somehow better than it is in the states. I tried to find familiar constellations in the stars, but it was hard since I’m on the other side of the planet. I do think I found the big dipper, but it was upside-down. I’m not sure if that actually makes sense, so maybe I was just seeing something that wasn’t there. We did find Orion’s belt though.
We put the fire out after a while by placing big bricks on it, and then went back to the yurt. It was now bitterly cold, especially without the fire. Sleeping arrangements were a little strange. There was room for everyone, but it was a tight fit since we also had all of our luggage. The six Purdue people ended up sleeping a one big spoon train, while Kenny and Singaporean David slept off to the side. It was tight and very cold in the yurt at night, but I was able to fall asleep without too much hassle.
(4/21) Roastie Toastie Icicles
I slept surprisingly well for just being on a big pile of padding on the ground. Even so, I still woke up a few times during the night. We had gotten to bed pretty early the night before, so we could get up early to see the sunrise. I got up at 6, when they said the sun would rise, carefully picked myself out of the pile of sleeping people, got shoes on, and walked outside. I was then assaulted by blinding sunlight, and a sun that had been above the horizon of about an hour. So much for seeing sunrise.
With no sunrise happening, I headed back inside, took off my shoes, carefully worked my way back into the pile of sleeping people, and went back to sleep for an hour or so. I was woken up by everyone else getting up, and after some complaining got up myself and helped strip the yurt of its blankets. We went to the meal yurt and had another traditional Mongolian breakfast, identical to the one we had had the day before. We then packed up our bags, and took them out to the van.
We really had to pile into the van for the next drive, since the French people we had met the day before were coming to the desert with us. We somehow fit 15 people into the van with all the luggage and off we went to the desert. We had all been pretty cold for the past 24 hours since arriving at the grasslands, but after an hour in the windowless van with little AC us icicles were getting pretty warm.
A few hours into the drive, we stopped for lunch at a local restaurant. It was a lazy susan style meal and very delicious. The Mongolians don’t really have much spice in their cuisine which was a really nice change of pace. It had a lot of rich and savory flavors instead. After lunch we piled ourselves back into the van and continued the rest of the way to the desert. It took about 5 hours in all.
We arrived at the desert and were taken into a shack with four walls and an open roof. Inside there was a giant pile of fabric that our guide called ‘sand socks.’ We were told to put two on and head back outside. It took me a long time to find two that would fit my massive, size 14 hiking boots but after 10 minutes of digging around I found some.
Heading back outside we hopped into two waiting Jeeps and headed out into the actual desert (up until this point we were in more of a barren and sandy parking lot). We rode the Jeeps on roads for a while which slowly gave way to more and more sand until we were just riding over dunes.
We arrived at some pretty non-descript dunes where some camels were waiting off to the side. Much like the grasslands the days before, the sand dunes were barren, empty, and devoid of sings of civilization with the exception of our own group.
After looking around for a little while, we all headed over to the camels and got on. The camel ride was very similar to the horse ride, in that they all knew the path and we didn’t really have much control of where they went or how fast. It also had the added limitation of having the camels all tied together with each one’s head tied to the saddle of the one in front of it. This was fine though, because I wasn’t really sure how I’d control a camel on my own.
The camel ride was a lot of fun, due in part to the fact that my camel was a speed demon. He was placed third on the camel chain, but was determined to come first. He would run down the hills, and slam into the camel in front of me. I was laughing and apologizing the whole time, since I really didn’t have much control over the situation. About halfway through the ride, I realized that I was partially to blame for my camel’s aggression. I was wearing a backpack, and the camel’s back hump had gotten stuck between my back and the bag. This must have been irritating him, because I moved the bag so that I was holding it on my lap and that made him calm down quite a bit.
Once we were done camel riding, the next activity was sand sledding. This is just like normal sledding, only with sand instead of snow. It was actually not as fun as you might think. The first issue was with the premise of the activity. Sand produces much more friction against a sled that ice does, and so the max speed on the way down is much slower. The second issue was what to do after you sledded down. Our Jeeps couldn’t drive to the bottom of the dune we were sledding on, and so we had to hike up the dune with the sled.
I don’t know if you’ve ever hiked up a sand dune, but it sucks. It’s like climbing a wall that’d melting as you climb it. It’s a two steps forward, slid one step back sort of deal. Adding a sled to carry doesn’t help. As such, I didn’t sled that much. We did try sand surfing a bit, which was just standing on the sled as you went down the hill. Lucas got really good at it. I only tried once and made it halfway down the dune before wiping out.
After a few sleds and surfs, I was really to just sit down and relax, which is exactly what I did by walking away from the dune a bit and just relaxing in the sand with Emily. Over time the rest of the group joined us and we spent the rest of the time just hanging out there.
We hiked up the dune one last time, piled back into the Jeeps, and rode back to the van. We then had a 3-hour drive back to Hohhot. Once back in the city, we dropped all of our stuff in the hostel and struck out looking for food. I was pretty indifferent on what we ate, but Megan wanted pizza, so we split for dinner with Megan and me getting pizza and the rest of the group going somewhere else. The two of us split a BBQ chicken pie which was extremely tasty.
After dinner, we walked back to the hostel and I proceeded to take a long, hot shower. It had been a long two days. I was tried, a little sunburnt, and covered in sand. It was strange too that it had all kind of felt like one single day, since we had started and ended the tour at the hostel. After the shower, I hung out in the room for a bit, and then watched the first part of Passengers in the lobby with the hostel owners and some people in the group. I had already seen it though, so after finishing my notes for the day, I went to bed without finishing the movie.
(4/22) Get Off
We got up late this morning. Some people went to get breakfast around town, but I chose to just get toast and jam at the hostel. Once everyone had eaten and was back at the hostel, we all headed out to the Five Pagoda Temple, a tourist attraction we had read about online. We took the public bus to get there, and although we were able to get on without any issues, they just kind of kicked us off a stop before the temple, and we had to walk the rest of the way. Kind of strange.
The temple itself was interesting. Much smaller than I had though based on the pictures online. It was a series of small courtyards that ended in the temple itself, which was just a single-roomed building. Still interesting, plus I got 5 pagodas for the price of 1, so I really came out ahead on the savings.
After that we headed to Hohhot’s Muslim Quarters for lunch. We walked this time as to not get kicked out of a bus in some random part of the city, and eventually found a little restaurant. It was very small and crowded, but we pushed through anyways and got a table. We ordered rice and noodle dishes with a variety of meats, including one with lamb which was spectacular.
After lunch we taxied back to the hostel, relaxed for a bit, and then Megan, David, Alex, and I grabbed a taxi to the airport to head off on part two of our adventure. I won’t include that in this post, since that was basically a second trip, tacked onto the end of this one. We traveled to Huashan and did the infamous plank walk. Emily and Lucas had both already done it, so they did not join us. Check out my next post for more info on it!