Our adventure to the grasslands of Xilamuren was a lot of fun. Not a lot of tourists go there after the beginning of October, because the grass turns yellow, and it gets kind of cold. But, being the hardy Canadians that we are, we decided it would be no problem. Plus, we are here now, not in July, so it’s not like there is any other choice, right?
Our mini bus picked us up at the hotel at 8:30am. It was a rickety old thing, and the driver seemed a bit nervous that it wouldn’t make the trip in one piece. He phoned ahead, and we did a bus and driver swap with some Spanish tourists who were returning from the grasslands. Both the new bus and the driver seemed more comfortable. The tourists advised us to ask for a heater when we got to the grasslands.
The drive to the grasslands is spectacular, over a couple of hours of winding roads through desolate mountains, ascending to a plateau of wide grassy fields and crisp blue skies. The smog and pollution that blankets most of China doesn’t exist here. The fresh air was very welcome indeed. There was a pleasant absence of most everything except for the golden grass on the wide plains. Once in a while, we’d see someone galloping on a horse, but that was pretty much it. At once, it was easy to imagine Genghis Khan rallying the Mongol warriors on horseback to take over all of Asia and part of Europe back in the 13th century, but also difficult to imagine how such a desolate land could produce enough of those warriors to hold such a massive territory.
There were some interesting moments during the drive. At one point, there was a toll booth ahead, charging 10 Yuan to pass through on the highway. Our driver had a mischievous grin as he pulled off the road into a tiny village made of dirt. That village was conveniently located around the toll booth, so by giving the locals about 2 yuan to pass through their rocky dirt roads and coming out on the other side of the booth, we avoided paying the full toll. This extremely rough shortcut made it obvious that the toll money the locals collected was not being spent on road maintenance. Also, I’m certain the driver caused more than 8 Yuan of damage to his suspension during that little trip. But, it clearly gave him great joy to “stick it to the man,” so that has to be worth something.
We ended up staying at the home of a Mongol family. When we arrived, there were some Chinese tourists there. No one spoke any English, but they were eager to communicate. Dad can read a bit, so one of the guys wrote down his questions in Chinese, and we had fun struggling to answer them in our limited vocabulary. It never ceases to amaze me how you can make friends despite the barriers of language.
Our new friends were not staying overnight, so they left after a couple of hours. We spent the rest of the day just wandering around the property, taking in the fresh air and the bright sun. The wind was blowing constantly and strongly. It was so strong that often it was hard to hold the camera steady because the wind pushed on the lens hood like a sail.
We enjoyed traditional Mongolian meals, which were about 90% carbs, including moon cakes, shredded potato, noodles, etc. That pretty much trashed my caveman diet, but I was in no position to refuse, because our hosts were so warm and friendly, and there really wasn’t anything else to eat anyway.
Dad and I slept in a “yurt,” which is a circular tent traditionally used by the nomadic Mongol tribes. Our host family kindly set up that little heater for us. It was fueled by coal, and started by lighting up a wad of dried cow and sheep dung. I’ll tell you now that the smell of that was not entirely pleasant, but in the middle of the night, the heat was well worth it.
Anyway, I enjoyed the stay there very much. I felt like such a city slicker, amazed at the farm animals that wandered around us at will. I’m sure they must have rolled their eyes every time I snapped a picture of one of the shaggy little horses, their eyes squinted shut against the blowing wind and grit.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our Mongolian family and headed back to Hohhot. Because we had many hours to kill before our evening flight to Beijing, we left our luggage at the train station and took a cab to the brand new Mongolian museum. This super-modern structure had just opened, and was offering free admission to the first 3000 guests every day. The exhibits were well presented and informative, and as with all Chinese museum exhibits, had a political bent that glorified the achievements and benefits of the Communist revolution.
At night, we took a cab to the Hohhot airport, which is brand new and very nice, and flew to Beijing. We’ll be riding out the rest of our stay in China here in the capital, after which I head to Thailand, and Dad goes home to Canada.