Maeva and I hitchhiked our way into a tour. That’s where things stood. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t so bad. The car was pretty comfy, and we got to see all that we’d hoped to see anyways. Inner Mongolian singers wailed on the radio, and we of course did our best to imitate them, to the amusement of our driver. Maeva had a guitarlele (a mix between a guitar and a ukelele) that she’d bring out to sing with. And so we made our ways to Manzhouli.
Which is basically Russia.
All signs were in Chinese, Mongolian script, and then Russian. We kept looking at the Russian words, because they almost looked English, only to give a double-take and realize that it was like drunk English, with R’s backward and crazy N’s. The word for “restaurant” was “PECTOBAH” so we walked around saying it with a thick Russian accent exactly how it looked. It is the only Russian word I know.
Steeples, domes, gold, Russian, Russians…we kept asking each other if this was still China at all. When we tried to talk to Russians to ask how to say things in Russian, they neither spoke Chinese or English. So we were emphatically saying “Pectobah” wherever we went and happily getting greeted in Russian. The driver got us a great deal on a hotel room, which originally would have been over 300 yuan (barf) and ended up about 100. We went to bed dreaming in Russian.
The next day, still part of this tour, we made our ways to Hulun Lake.
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.
This lake was really the only thing bringing us to the area, so we were expecting something spectacular. What we saw was a very green, weedy, plastic-bottle-attacked bog.
“Still want to go swimming?” I asked Maeva.
We spent a grand total of 15 minutes there, deciding to move on to make it to the park.
I’ll skip much of the details of the drive, only to say that cows in Inner Mongolia have a wonderful “I don’t give a shit attitude” about roads. Cars stop for them as they stare back, chewing their cud. And the roads were buckled and grainy, full of potholes and more critters not bothering to bother about modernity. We made it to the park after an entire day of driving, spending the night in a hotel definitely not worth 150 yuan. The next day, the park.
Aershan. Kind of like Yellowstone in the US, with gaping lakes and dramatic cliffs, and prickled fields of trees along the hills. I was astounded at the green, and also how extraordinarily American it somehow felt. We stood by a large lake at the entrance, amazed and silent, reverent for the gods of trees. We went deeper. The park, being formed by volcanic action, has crater lakes where fish have disappeared, cuckoo birds that forever sound as if they’re on the opposite side of the lake, birch trees so white they looked erased from the green around them. We had to climb a monotony of stairs to find some of them, but the views were (usually) worth it. And then we found ourselves looking down over cliffs toward more lakes. Rushing rivers, untamed gorges, relatively untouched tangled grass.
“Not many Chinese know about this place,” the man whose tour we crashed said. “Let alone foreigners.”
“We might let Lonely Planet know about it,” Maeva said. The Inner Mongolia section is, after all, pretty sparse in comparison to other provinces. And to feel the silence of a wind-rippled lake in a country where silence is a rare species, well. It’s something.
The day ended with a tiny white dog nipping at our ankles and Tour Guy asking where we were heading next. Manzhouli was only a test run, I guess. But we didn’t need to consult about that one.
“To Hohhot,” Maeva said. All 2000+ km of that road.
“That’s impossible,” he said, the familiar tune coming back from our other day on the road.
“But we still want to try…”
And so the next morning, they dropped us off on the side of the road in Aershan city. We flicked out thumbs out, I released the beacon (aka made sure my blonde hair was down and visible) and waited to see where the bend of the road would take us next. Impossible or no.