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Spring Break in Mongolia


I was twenty before I realized that one of my dreams was to live in a Mongolian yurt and ride camels in the morning. But once I acknowledged this repressed desire, it took over any practical impulses I had. I was going on four months studying in China. It was cold. I was tired. I knew I should head south like most of my more level-headed classmates and soak up some sun in Yunnan Province or see some pandas frolic in Chengdu or have a meal at an Italian restaurant in Shanghai. But visions of sharing a few meals around a fire with a Mongolian family, drinking nai cha (milk tea) and then galloping off on the back of a camel just wouldn’t leave me. So Dan, Courtney and I decided to spend spring break 1999 in and around Manzhouli, one of the largest cities in the semi-autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.

Inner Mongolia is not the same as (Outer) Mongolia. Mongolia is a separate country; Inner Mongolia is part of China. But we didn’t want to haggle with visas, and figured that the difference between Inner and Outer Mongolia was probably just a few degrees Celsius anyway, so we booked seats on a soft sleeper from Harbin to Manzhouli the day our midterms ended.

Fun yet relaxing: that’s how I envisioned this trip. I think I must have forgotten I was in China. At this point, the NATO bombing was in full force, although the Chinese Embassy had yet to be hit. So we swallowed our patriotism and stuck Canadian flag pins all over our luggage and jackets, spoke in made-up Italian, and did anything else we could think of to distance ourselves from America. And that’s hard to do on a train ride when the price of everything from our shoes to our underwear was in question, when it seemed like everyone in the train was huddled into our bunks asking for opinions on computers and freedom and education. Speaking Chinese is a wonderful asset when traveling in China, but it can also turn into the greatest hassle-we didn’t get a minute’s peace during the entire fifteen hours it took to reach Manzhouli.

It felt like we were in the middle of a western-walking down the incredibly dusty streets with our packs on, no idea where we were staying and lots of people looking at us very suspiciously. The only foreigners who go to Manzhouli are Russians, and they’re there just for trade. The Chinese and Mongolians don’t particularly like them. Were it not for NATO we would be parading our Americanism loudly just to distance ourselves from the traders, but as it was we just wanted to crawl into a hotel as anonymously as possible.

But that was not to be. In the next three days, we became local celebrities at a dumpling house, had our passports confiscated on the Russian border (there went our Canadian identity), were harassed by a Chinese man who was convinced we were going to fall in with the Russian mafia, and had a round-table discussion on immigration over beer with a Russian who barely spoke English, a Mongolian who spoke Russian but no Chinese, a Russian who spoke Chinese but no English, and a few people who didn’t speak Russian at all (including us).

And then we headed out into the grasslands.

It was incredible peaceful out there-nothing but miles and miles of rolling hills, a few lakes where snow had recently melted, not much grass because it was April and the grass wouldn’t really grow until June, and some gorgeous herds of semi-wild Mongolian horses. We stayed with a friendly family who supplemented their income by letting tourists stay in their yurt. Before arriving in Manzhouli we’d worried a bit about the availability of a yurt-after all, doesn’t everyone want to stay in one? But as we were the first tourists of the year (and no one else would arrive, we were told upon arrival, until the middle of June) there were no problems. We negotiated a price, they told us our vegetarianism was no problem, and we decided to stay two nights. It felt so liberating to get away from the smog and traffic of Harbin. Out in the grasslands there were no roads, just faded tracks that winded their way out from Manzhouli, and we just fed the lambs and played with the two-year old granddaughter of our host and took pictures of us riding horses in traditional Mongolian garb. Peace and quiet. Exactly what we’d asked for. Day one passed uneventfully. Not so day two.

Unlike the first night, our host and his friend (who spoke both Mongolian and Mandarin and so acted as translator) sat down to dinner with us. Our meals were served in their house, a small wood-and-brick construction about twenty feet from the yurt. Our vegetarian meal consisted of mutton with onions, mutton with noodles, mutton with mushrooms, rice, and milk tea. The milk tea I’d been dying to try was there in abundance, and it wasn’t until right then that I realized it wasn’t tea with milk. Nai cha, the Mongolian specialty, is fermented horse’s milk mixed with corn water and seasoned with, yes, salt. Dan ate a lot but didn’t actually taste much of it since he was plied with bai jiu (grain alcohol) the whole evening. The girls were not expected to join in. So while Dan, our host and the translator drank bottle after bottle of bai jiu, Courtney and I tried to make it look as if we’d actually eaten something.

A patriotic singing contest was called for. Ignoring our pleas to let us sing together, our host pointed at me. I don’t know any Canadian songs, and the only thing that came into my head was an Indigo Girls song. They didn’t like it. Waving his hand dismissively, our host launched into a folk tune that scared the lamb I was holding right off my lap. He ignored the plates that went flying as the lamb landed on the table and merely yodeled louder. Courtney’s “Lean on Me” didn’t go over very well, either. The translator took his turn with a Chinese folk song that he subsequently translated in Mongolian. With drunken tears running down their faces they at last pointed to Dan, the guy we were hoping would redeem Canada in the eyes of our hosts.

Dan stood up to his full height of 6’8″ and started rapping. Courtney and I looked at each other, thinking that if they didn’t like our songs, what the hell would they think of Dan’s? But they loved it. This is a true folk song, they said, can you teach it to us? While Dan tried to recreate his rap, they broke open another bottle of bai jiu and toasted their new friend, the patriotic Canadian. Then conversation turned to how much our host appreciated us, and didn’t we appreciate him? We established that we were all good, good friends, and that Canada and China and the Mongolian people should all be like a family. And good friends and family always want to settle debts quickly, don’t they? Within five minutes, they doubled our previously negotiated price. Forgetting that they had told us in the morning that there were no camels to be had this far east in Inner Mongolia, they tacked on one hundred kuai for a ride the next morning with their neighbor’s camel.

We didn’t want to pay the extra money, but the real problem was that we were afraid our host would conveniently “forget” that we had paid him at all. We hastily came up with a plan: Dan would say that we needed to get the money from our bags in the yurt and then we would come back. We’d run to the yurt, lock the little door, and appear the next morning when our hosts were sober and our taxi was ready to pick us up.

We left the house, whispering to each other in English, and walked into the yurt. Three member’s of our host family were sitting there, waiting. The lock was broken. We all smiled nervously and tried to talk to them, but everyone, it seemed, was drunk out of their gourd. We had no choice but to give them the money. They left peacefully, smiling and saying sleep tight.

It wasn’t until they had all left and we were ready to hit that sack that we realized they’d left without giving us any coal. None of us wanted to go after them. So Courtney, Dan and I spent our last night in a yurt in Inner Mongolia with no heat, our bellies yearning for the dumplings and blintzes we’d discovered in a fabulous Russian restaurant back in Manzhouli, and no chance of riding a camel in the morning.

When we finally got on the train to go back to Harbin, we decided to strike out for at least one night of peace and quiet and pretended we couldn’t speak Chinese. Of course, that’s when I broke the hot water bottle and sent scalding water all the way down the aisle. We had ten people surrounding us, using sign language to tell us that we needed to pay for it. But at least they didn’t ask us how much our sneakers cost.

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