Monday, June 01, 2009

Inner Mongolia

Spring semester is a wonderful time to study at a Chinese university. There are no less than 3 holidays we're treated to throughout the semester, not to mention the weeklong break before finals. (I'm guessing we're supposed to study?) During a glorious Labor Day, 14 friends and I embarked on a journey to Inner Mongolia for 3 days.

The tour left at a ghastly 6:00 in the morning, and was approximately a 6 hour drive to Hohhot, the biggest city in Inner Mongolia. We piled in a "15 passenger bus", which I can only assume means, if you take 15 human bodies and boil them down into some sort of liquid form, you might be able fit the remaining goo into the bus without overflowing. (Also, there were actually 17 of us including our driver and tour guides.) Needless to say, it was quite a cramped ride.

We swung through Hohhot for a quick hotpot meal, then headed into the mountains towards the grasslands. Snaking through the mountains on a very narrow road proved to be quite rough for our unfortunate carsick friends in the back of the bus. When we arrived at the top, after passing through a few small villages we reached the grasslands.

Seriously creepy taxidermy sheep at the entrance to the restaurant

Delicious hotpot

I was disappointed to find out this was just a clump of a strong-tasting seasoning, not something bloody and gross

The grasslands reminded me much of the plains in the Western United States. Long stretches of flat land, with no agriculture, and nary a tree to be found.

After about 40 minutes driving through dirt roads, we came upon our camp, dubbed "New Yurt City" by fellow traveling companions. The locals dressed in traditional clothing met us as soon as we exited the bus, singing a welcoming song, and offering liquor. The correct way to accept the alcohol was to dip a finger in it, sprinkle one drop to the heavens, one drop to the earth, one drop to your friends, and then drink with both hands (or something like that). Felt bad for germ freaks who didn't appreciate all the dirty fingers in their beverage. Turns out the fingers must have added the secret ingredient because the normally foul rice alcohol tasted delicious.

The welcoming ceremony

Me in front of New Yurt City
After settling into our yurts, more Mongolians came galloping forth from the distance.

We were told to form a semi-circle. The Mongolian warriors dismounted from their horses and entered the semi-circle. The ringleader announced to us that they would give us a Mongolian wrestling demonstration. He explained the rules, and we watched a few of them go at it.

After a few minutes, he began pulling volunteers out of the audience to go against the trained Mongolian wrestlers. A few white guys suited up, and gave it their best effort, but were no match for the quick leg work of the Mongolians. (Turns out, you're not allowed to attack the lower body with your arms - it's all throws or trips.)

I hadn't wrestled in 10 years and wasn't really interested in showing off or making a spectacle, so I gladly refrained from volunteering. However, a friend of mine (due to the Full Nelson experience - read her account here) knew that I used to wrestle. When she recalled this fact, she announced it to the whole group. While I didn't really want to go, I knew that it might be a long time before I had the opportunity to wrestle a Mongolian again, so I suited up and jumped into the ring.

Getting suited up
But by now, the Mongolians claimed they were tired, so they were now matching tourist against tourist. I first went against a rather tall Canadian gentlemen. He had long arms and a tall frame, which made it extremely difficult to get close. After a long stalemate, I stepped in front and hip tossed him.

The ringleader insisted we continue for the best two out of three, so we went at it again, and again I was able to bring him to the ground.

By this time, there was a Chinese guy in the crowd seeming to be getting quite excited, and looked like he wanted a piece of whitey. I was ready to be done, but he wanted a go, so I stuck around. After we shook hands, he came at me ferociously, I was able to keep him at bay, and sneak a leg in for a trip. After I helped him up, he looked as sore as ever. He let loose now, using any methods he knew how, flagrantly breaking a number of Mongolian wrestling rules. The ref stepped in and broke us apart. He then picked up a dried piece of horse poo and rubbed it into the man's face, as a penalty for breaking the rules.

As expected, now he was really pissed off. But once again, I scored one for the big U.S.A..

By this time, I was absolutely exhausted, but felt a bit gypped (pardon the ethnic slur) that I had not gotten the opportunity to wrestle a real Mongolian. My friends felt the same way, who pleaded to the lazy Mongolian wrestlers to go a round with me. One of them agreed, and after a quick pep talk by my peeps, I was back in the ring again.

As expected, the Mongolian was certainly my fiercest opponent yet. I couldn't get anything in on him. In addition, he was grabbing onto my shirt (completely legal) and slowly bringing it over my head hockey-style. I'm not sure how, but I was able to bring him a bit close and stuck a leg behind his, hooking him, bringing him into the ground.

Another score for whitey. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

If only babes swooned for me like this outside of an obviously posed photograph
Next up was a horse ride through the grasslands. It was getting a bit cold, so the locals rented frigid individuals green, thick, down-to-your-ankles, revolution-style coats. Every female on the trip took them up on it. We mounted our steeds and were off into the glorious sunset.

Once we got to the grasslands, as it was still quite early in the season, it seemed a bit anti-climactic. All of the tall grass was dead, and this year's grass had not begun to grow yet. This didn't stop me from frolicking about in the vast open fields.

That evening we had our local hosts kill the fatted lamb and barbecue it for us. Of course, they could not simply bring it to the table sliced and prepared - a ceremony was in order. And oh, what a ceremony it was! A gentleman and a lady were brought out of the crowd, and were adorned with ceremonial dress. They were placed at the center table, and the glorious animal was brought forth. Much unintelligible speech was made about the bountiful harvest, the wondrous occasion, and the provisions before us. Songs were sung, candles were lit, and rejoicing was made. The couple walked several times around the table, each time heroically downing another large glass of the fierce rice alcohol. I'm sure there was meaning to all of these procedures, but most of us were quite distracted - the ceremony seemed to take ages, and we were busy devouring the rest of our meal.

Finally the last chorus was sung, and immediately an apron-clad gentelady wielding an enormous knife came bursting into the room, going straight for the head of crispy Lamb Chop. It's carcass was disassembled with unprecedented speed and presented at our table. However, it seemed as if our butcher had done a rather inadequate job, merely handing us massive clumps of unseparated flesh and bones. The staff brought a few sword-like implements to our table to aid in the deconstruction. What followed was a greasy, bone-hacking and flesh-severing mess. Cartilage was flying everywhere. The impossibly chewy lamb gum we were left with seemed hardly worth ending up elbow-deep in ewe gristle, but the experience was worth it.

The remnants of our finished lamb carcass
While we dined, the Mongolians working at the camp gave us a variety show of epic proportions. They busted out the Casio keyboard, while ripping some pretty amazing folk songs and dances. Then, inexplicably once everyone was finished eating, they turned off the lights, disco balls lit up, and they declared it was a Mongolian disco dance party. We had seen some amazing things today, but the unexpectedness of the hilarious change in setting had everyone in tears. We pushed our tables and chairs out of the way, and got down Mongolian-style right there in the tiny dining yurt. I'll tell you, this Mongolian gent can seriously rock the Casio keyboard.

After s'more making over a charcoal fire and laying in the grass to see the stars long concealed by the Beijing smog, we retired to our yurts. Some mentally-troubled individuals woke up at 4:00 in the morning to catch the sun rise. Upon waking at a time where one would not question my sanity, I was able to see the results of the rising of the sun, which fully satisfied me. We then hopped into the bus again, Gobi-bound.

Another three cramped hours later, we had reached the desert. It turned out to be more beautiful than I even imagined - huge, rolling sand dunes stretching out as far as the eye could see. On the outskirts of the desert, it seemed slightly disappointing, as it had seemed our Chinese hosts had set up what looked like a carnival, trying to suck as much money as they could from visiting tourists. While one could argue activities such as sky-car rides, sand tobogganing, ATV and camel riding, human hamster balling, and countless other activities added to the fun, it also seemed a bit cheapening of the vast, natural environment.

While the majority went off to ride camels along a fixed route, a couple friends and I went on a hike through the sand dunes. A fantasy of mine had been to walk far enough into the desert, that when you turn around you are able to see nothing but sand dunes - no people, no civilization, just sand.

We had quite an amazing, picturesque hike, however, I can't say we accomplished this goal fully. Far in the distance on the horizon, was an enormous power plant puffing away. Oops.

We spent the remainder of our time jumping off of the peaks of the sand dunes - definitely the highlight of the trip. It seemed no matter how high the peak, how steep the slope, or how far the drop, it was nearly impossible to get hurt. We would run from the top and jump, seeming as if it were minutes before we hit the ground. Exhausted, we would lay in the sand for a few moments before mustering the energy to climb back to the top and do it all again.

The remainder of the trip passed more or less uneventful, if not still quite fun. We spent the next few days marveling at how every last nook and cranny of our clothes, bags, and bodies were able to retain such copious amounts of sand.

Oh sweet Gobi, you will not soon be forgotten.

(Props to Ade and Eva for the fantastic photography. Thanks, friends.)