China Travel Throwback: Inner Mongolia

To properly lead up to my exciting trip to Shanxi with China Daily, I’m going to count off some of my favorite China trips so far. Today, it’s my time in Inner Mongolia, which was a rollicking journey in the land of milk and honey, beginning in a countryside hostel where I met one of the most fascinating friends and travel companions to date.

Ah, Inner Mongolia! Of all the places I’ve been in China, it still sticks out as one of my favorites. (Which, as pointed out by friends, might be because the eastern part looks an awful lot like my home state, Minnesota. Well then.) I’m not sure what made me want to go to Inner Mongolia, but I’d pointed to a place on the map, and decided to head north where there would be grasslands galore.

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In the eastern part of Inner Mongolia in the Hulunbuir area, are sprawling grasslands peppered by small villages of farmers, horses, and herders. I was immediately struck by the amount of sharp green, and the fact that things like oven-cooked bread and honest-to-god honey lined the dirt roads. I stayed in Enhe, a small village with a hostel, and there I met the only other non-Chinese person staying there, Maeva. We decided to go horseback riding together one day, and I will admit that I felt more than a little like a Mongolian warrior.

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We thought the adventure would be just that, but then, at the advice of a hostel worker (and largely to avoid a 48-hour hard seat train ride to Hohhot), we decided to hitchhike to Hohhot. Along the way, we met a great variety of people: a guy who made us stop in his hometown for a huge lunch, truck drivers who wanted to show us how to off-road it in a corn field, and of course, the mini tour to a national park we sort of hitched our ways into. (You can read more here, here, here, here, and here).

***A fun side note about hitchhiking in China: we learned that the thumb is not always effective. We’d put out our thumbs, only to get a thumb’s up in return. Signs are always a solid way to go, but considering that our map was a picture Maeva had taken of someone else’s map, you can guess how much forethought we had. So we had a system: one person would flap as if for a taxi, the other, use the thumb. My main job was to make sure my long blonde hair was down and blowing in the wind. That made cars stop.***

It’s funny, because by the time we made it to Hohhot, we weren’t all that interested in seeing much of the surrounding area. We’d seen so much more getting there! So, after a rest in Baotou, we continued together on the road, stopping by Xi’an for the Terra Cotta Warriors, then up through Gansu province to experience Tibetan Buddhism firsthand in Xiahe, and then to Zhangye to see rainbow-colored mountains.

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Prayer wheels at Xiahe
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Triumphant Hitchhiker

But ultimately, we couldn’t shake Inner Mongolia, and re-entered on the west, more desert-filled side. Maeva’s friend had told her about riding jeeps through the Badain Jaran Desert, which had some of the world’s tallest dunes, and also, bafflingly, LAKES IN THE DESERT. So, we found a driver, hopped into a jeep, and went on what I can only describe as a mixture of Mario Kart and Aladdin. We rocketed around dunes, bumped over gravely areas, and even climbed to the top of a dune (which is a lot harder than it looks, incidentally). This was one of my favorite memories from that trip, and sometimes, when I stand still, I can recall the complete, perfect silence of the desert, and the footprints that take a long time to fade away in the dunes.

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Stay tuned for the next China Travel Throwback. Next destination: The Road to Kashgar.

Sandstorm

For our final adventure together before parting ways, Maeva and I decided to rent a jeep to take us rolling around in gigantic sand dunes.  The sand dunes, known for being extremely tall, are in the Badain Jaran Desert on the edge of Inner Mongolia.  And, coming from someone who actually hadn’t seen a desert before, they were pretty awesome.
Our jeep driver, a calm Mongolian, drove the jeep through the powdery sand and over peaks and bumps with the jaded air of one who’s played a video game long enough to memorize every level.  He said he’d been working in the company for four years.  He also said it wasn’t interesting anymore.  And his hand easily adjusted the gears as we shrieked and whooped at the cliff of sand below us.  (Don’t worry, mom, I was wearing my seat-belt).
It was like live-action Mario Kart.  The sky so blue, it didn’t look real.  The jeep fumbling and revving through sand around steep bends.  The lunacy of seeing road signs sticking out of the sand.  We stopped on the edge of sand dunes to get pictures.  We made sand angels.  We rolled down dunes.  We gripped the handles in the jeep over bumpy roads, grateful to have eaten a light breakfast.
And the dunes went ever on and on...
And the dunes went ever on and on…
The desert felt so unreal to me, partly because it’s such a strange one.  There are lakes in the desert.  LAKES.  We swam in one of them (to the amusement of our guide).  There are towering dunes that look unimpressive and puny from a distance.  There are tracks from jeeps in lines, definite roads created from wear.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
Yeah, life in the desert is very hard, trust me.
I kept thinking ‘This is a desert.  This is a deadly place.  FEEL THE POWER.”  But instead, I raised my hands in the air as we went for another roller coaster ride. Then the jeep stopped.  We got out and our guide said we could go climb what was allegedly “the biggest dune.”  I wore my hat, a scarf and effectively looked like Zorro.  Maeva wrapped her head in a scarf for a more Lawrence of Arabia look.  And we began the climb.
The thing with sand, we realized, is that it’s really hard to climb.  You take a step up, and your foot sinks in and drags back almost to where you’re started.  It sifts beneath you and tires you much faster than packed dirt might.  We were panting within 10 minutes, gasping in 20.
“Right now, I hate the desert so much…” Maeva said as we rested, still a fine distance from the top.
Behind us, I could see our trail of footsteps leading up and up.  The jeep disappeared behind the dune.  It was just the two of us.
Gone without a trace (almost...)
Gone without a trace (almost…)
Something I learned is that there’s a certain silence to the desert I’ve never experienced before.  No birds, no rustle of trees, no animals pawing around.  If anything happens in the desert, you know a long time in advance because even the scrape of a branch against sand is deafening.  And everything leaves a mark, even tiny rain droplets from the night before, impressed in the earth.  The desert has an excellent short-term memory.
In the silence, I felt a brief horror for what it would be like to be marooned here.  Sand, which seems so much worse than snow.
Once we made it to the top, we collapsed on the ridge and panted.  There were clouds rumbling in the distance, so we paused not much longer to say “Yay!” before heading back.  And we stepped with an elephant’s stride, the sand easily bending with us to take us away from its peaks and into its belly.  The sandstorm never came for us, though we were still covered in sand anyway.  In the course of the night, our footsteps would probably disappear from wind, and all traces of us would be gone.
But all traces of the desert stayed with us as we got in our yurt, shaking sand from our shoes, hair, clothes, everything.  And if that means anything, well it means you can always take the desert with you.  Until laundry day.