“I don’t think we’re going to make it to Hohhot any time soon…” I said.
That went without saying.
Lucky for us, we got 2 drivers in a row willing to take us to Lindong, a city a little further along our route before the day was done. The first Maeva found as I was trying to wrangle together some willing truck drivers. He didn’t say much aside from “Hohhot? That’s pretty far,” and dropped us off at a ridiculously out-of-our-price-range hotel in Tianshan, a surprisingly nice city in the middle of Inner Mongolia. The next driver was a nice man with lots of shoeboxes in the back who was saddened when I mistook him for a taxi and spent the rest of the drive trying to prove he wasn’t a bad man.
“Have some water!” he said. “See, there is no reason to be nervous.”
We really weren’t. Though, our initial goal of making to Hohhot the following day was looking rather grim.
The man happened to work in a construction company, and so was able to hook us up with a super cheap hotel. He drove us through a stunning sunset among tall hills and striated clouds to a sort of dumpy area of town.
Our beds were 20 yuan each, and we thought it was worth exactly that. There was a metal pipe extending over the head-side of the bed, the pillows were more like sandbags, and there were no showers in this hotel. But hey, cheap!
“How badly do we want to go on the pretty road?” Maeva asked. The highway would take us further south, away from the scenery, but closer to more cars.
“Let’s go,” I said. We went to the side of the road once more, past a small bee-keeping tent (swearing that we had more than enough honey).
“You know, I don’t think they know what a thumb means,” Maeva said. “It was when I was waving ‘hello’ to some cars that they pulled over.” So I went in front with my blonde hair with the thumb out, and she was behind, flapping her hand as if hailing a taxi. Within minutes, a car stopped. It was a porsche.
And then the window in the back rolled down to reveal a British guy. “Do you speak English??” he asked excitedly.
“Can we give you a lift?”
And so we got into the nice porsche. Th British guy, named Ben, was visiting his Chinese girlfriend’s parents and they were on vacation in the Inner Mongolian countryside. It was weird, because we really hadn’t seen any foreigners around. Weirder still, they were studying in France. In Maeva’s city.
“C’est impossible!” she cried. Chance swept us along the highway, stuffed in the backseat of the porsche with an eager couple telling us about the adventures of Ben meeting a Chinese family without a large arsenal of Chinese. Maeva took out her guitarlele and the time went by much faster than I thought it would.
“I wonder where we are on the map…” she said. We peered over at her camera to check.
South. Much farther south than originally planned. Still no sign of heading west.
“But, hey! We’re right on a motorway! It should be easy from here on out, right?”
We checked into a fancy hotel that offered a closet-like cell for us to stay in for 80 yuan/night. One king-sized bed, in which we were over a meter apart when sleeping. The doors to the bathroom didn’t close all the way, and the lights right over the bed were as bright as searchlights.
That night, we put on some clean clothes and went out for a cold beer. Then, with some crackers, began to dip into the tubs of honey we were given earlier that day. Things would be more straightforward the next day.
The next day, it took us almost two hours to walk out of town, out of taxi-zone, where they’d stop thinking we were just lost, stupid tourists. (Partly true, anyway). We held out our thumbs, flapped, did whatever we could, until finally a car pulled over. It was about 10 am, which was much later than we’d hoped to be getting started along the road.
Inside was a couple that grinned from ear to ear to have foreigners in their car.
“It’s almost lunch!” they said. “Let us treat you to lunch!”
“No, we’re in a hurry!” we tried to insist. A late start meant a slower day. But there was nothing for it. They took us to their hotel and we posed for picture after picture with a different assortment of baby, sister and uncle. They led us to a restaurant where we were fed plate after plate of rich food, cold beer, and were asked for pictures. An hour passed. Then another half an hour. They were starting to run out of questions.
“Have you seen eggplant before?”
“Yes…” we said. We were starting to get antsy. We drank more beer, and so went from antsy to tipsy. At last, they led us to the side of the road. We were giggling at the passing cars.
“I would love to be in a truck…” Maeva said.
As if hearing our request, a huge blue truck stopped. A shirtless driver up front, a sleeping guy in the backseat. It was much higher than we expected, so we had to climb up into the front seat, the giant windows like a fishbowl. Bouncing over the rickety roads, still punch-drunk (or just drunk, not sure) as the drivers mowed over obstacles in their way.
Until we reached the road block.
“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” we asked.
“Eh, maybe an hour.”
Three and a half hours later, we chugged our ways along. Now we were way behind, still not very far from Tongliang, where we’d slept the previous night. They decided to take a detour through a cornfield, with us bouncing all the way up to the ceiling of the truck. It gained us absolutely no ground, though it did give them Manly Points as they budged up in the convoy of other trucks.
“Can you swim?” they asked to make conversation.
“What kind of water?” the man in the back, who had previously been silent said.
“Any kind of water.”
“How about that?” The driver pointed to a muddy, shallow, fast-moving river. The truck was going slow enough for us to see the torrents that would very likely kill us if given the chance.
“No…” we said. That would be more like rolling around in the mud. They nodded and went back to the road.
We kept bouncing and swaying along the road, until we reached a small dusty town with one hotel on the middle. The driver pulled over and said he wasn’t going all the way to Tianshan after all. He was going to get dinner, and then we could set out the following morning.
“That’s impossible,” they said. “There just aren’t any people.”
“But we want to try anyway…” we insisted, getting somewhat tired of the familiar response.
On the side of the road in Aershan City, we’d been mostly drawing stares and flashing cameras. Most people weren’t heading in our direction: the next town, Wuchagou.
“Just take a train!” a girl from a nearby restaurant said, bouncing over. She had a gap in her teeth and was speaking very slowly for our benefit.
“No, we want to hitchhike.”
“That’s too expensive!”
The words for “hitchhike” (da che) sound very close to the words for “to take a taxi” (da che). No, we were not taking a taxi all the way to Hohhot. But it’s hard to get that across to people who may have never seen hitchhikers before.
“Daaaaaa cheeeeeeeee,” we’d say, trying to emphasize the first tone differentiating “taxi ride” and “hitchhiking.”
“That’s impossible,” the girl said before running off to her parents. We kept at it, thumbs out.
“I think it’s raining…” Maeva said.
“Well, more pity points for us,” I said.
We waited for a while longer, when a man in a large red SUV pulled over. He was heading to Wuchagou, which was in our direction. So we hopped in, shaking off the little raindrops first.
“Hello…where are you from?” he asked in slow English. I told him in Chinese, but he kept up the English, so we went with it. He was heading to a friend’s son’s wedding in Wuchagou, and was very excited to meet us.
“I have a daughter,” he said. “She’s 33.”
“But…aren’t you 43?” Maeva asked, since he’d already told us his age.
“So, that’s impossible.”
“Oh, sorry, she’s 23,” he said. “In Middle school. Very happy.”
“Is she a teacher?” I asked.
“No, a student.”
He counted on his fingers. “13. She is 13 years old.”
He drove pleasantly around for a while. We settled into our rather comfortable seats, when he suddenly pulled over by a hillside with red flowers. Maeva and I looked at each other, wondering what he was up to.
“These red flowers are called “red flower” in Chinese. You can eat them!” he said hopping out of his car. He ran up the hill and picked 4-5 of them and thrusting them into our hands. “The…green…it tastes like…(he said potato in Chinese).”
“The stem tastes like potato?” I asked.
“Yeah yeah yeah!” And he continued to drive.
On the sides of the road are bee-keepers selling honey. Massive tubs of honey that would last most people for at least a month at a time. We commented to each other how much we like honey, how much less depressing Chinese breakfast would be with some honey…when he pulled over again. He disappeared into the tent to talk to the owners and emerged with three large tubs of honey. More honey than we could possibly want in a lifetime. We thought about how in the hell we would carry that much honey along the road, but didn’t dwell on it. We were just going to have extra weight and that was that.
“We better sing for him…” Maeva said. And she took out her guitarlele for some music. The rest of the drive passed, us trying to thank him and making sure we didn’t say we liked anything else. (Though Maeva said we ought to say we liked a car, to see what would happen). He pointed to the hills that rolled green and supple around us as we neared the town.
“This is called cannon valley sometimes.” He paused. “Because when the Japanese invaded, the hills were full of their cannons.”
And on that note, he dropped us off. We wandered around, passing by some truck drivers who said we were going the wrong direction. We readjusted, ending up on a sparse road. The road we were told was too impossible.
“It’s okay, we have time,” I said.
But after about half an hour, a car stopped and offered to take us to next intersection. We told the driver that we wanted to go along the pretty route north, but he said it was impossible. But, rather than leave it at that, he agreed to take us to the intersection so we could test our luck.
“This way goes to Aershan,” the driver said, pointing one way along a busy highway. “That way goes to Wulanhot.”
“Where do we go?”
He pointed to a small tractor road barely wider than a driveway.
“But, if all else fails,” he said. “We’ll be coming back this way tomorrow…” And then he drove off.
We walked to this small road. There wasn’t even the echo of a car or truck, tractor, or donkey-cart.
“This could be a while…” I said.
(to be continued)
In Lonely Planet, it talks about how the lake sort of just rises out of the grasslands, like an apparition unveiled out of nowhere. I would have to agree. We were going along over small hills, dipping down, then going back up, only to descend and see a huge flat lake.
“I really want to go swimming,” Maeva said.