Inner Mongolia is one of five autonomous regions in China, and its capital city, Hohhot, is about a seven-hour train ride from Beijing. In case you’re not a geopolitical wiz, like me, you probably didn’t already know that autonomous regions in China are areas where the government’s legislative grip is a little looser and there are high concentrations of ethnic minorities—in this case, Mongolians.
This is where I was last weekend: Inner Mongolia, an awkwardly shaped, large piece of land known for its sprawling grasslands and big skies. Originally, IES offered two options for the long weekend trip: Xi’an or Inner Mongolia. But almost unanimously everyone chose the latter, so all of us in the summer language program piled into a Beijing sleeper train last Thursday night on its way to Hohhot.
We arrived early Friday morning and transferred from the train to a large tour bus with cushy blue and white seats. Our first destination was a yurt village where we were told a full day’s events awaited us. The drive took about four hours, and most of us passed the time by napping or reading, or both.
“Gānbēi!” The moment we stepped off the bus, three women in traditional Mongolian get-up greeted us with a shot of something strong (gānbēi means cheers). Apparently this is customary, but I didn’t catch why. We got a quick look around before lunch: A hundred or so yurts surrounded a large, raised concrete platform. The platform held a dining hall, a store, several empty buildings, and more yurts. We were in a remote grassland valley, and far off in the distance we could see another small village just like our own. Though unaddressed, it was immediately clear these were made for tourists.
The day turned out to be uneventful. Some students paid a pretty penny to ride a horse for an hour. I took a nap, did homework, took pictures, and enjoyed the fresh air. Dinner was interesting because there were some pretty inauthentic dancing around three dead lambs and karaoke singing by Chinese tourists. It was a botched attempt at displaying traditional Mongolian culture, though it was entertaining. We all agreed that the real attraction was just being out of the city. That night, after a bonfire party, we looked up at a clear night sky, decorated with a thousand stars, for the first time in over a month.
Most of Saturday was spent on the road, and I saw a lot of empty landscapes. We’d drive for fifteen minutes with nothing in view other than grass, dirt, and weeds on hills, until suddenly a small, dilapidated village would appear. These groups of concrete houses were usually the color of worn-out mahogany, like someone had spilt coffee on their walls sixty years ago. The windows of the houses were usually broken out, and a lack of commerce or livestock made me believe they were deserted.
Finally, we made it to our destination in the desert. This was easily the apex of the trip and a day of many firsts for me, including being in a desert, riding a camel, seeing a fire-eater, and talking with native Mongolians aside an outdoor pool. Saturday night we stayed in Hohhot at a shockingly nice hotel where none of us took the hot water for granted. Sunday we took a brief trip to a Buddhist temple, a milk factory, and then had the chance to explore Hohhot on our own before riding the train back to Beijing that night.
I’m already over my word limit for this post, but I’ll say one last lingering feeling I have: the world is starting to seem smaller. I always thought travelling would make everything bigger. Like, seeing new sites and new cultures would overwhelm me with how vast the world is, and in some ways it has. But mostly I feel like the world is less mysterious—less unknown. It’s not a bad thing, and by no means am I disenchanted with traveling. It’s comforting actually. It’s a sense of security and confidence.
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<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">I’m from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where I lived almost my whole life before I moved to Iowa to study English, East Asia, and pre-medicine at Grinnell College. I'm a third-year now, and for me that means I'm ready for a change in scenery. When I make the time, I like reading newspaper columns, writing, and hiking when it’s sunny. I love eating warm chocolate muffins with milk. I've never left the states before, so my head is full of what I'm sure are one-dimensional impressions of Beijing. I'm eager for those impressions to become 3D, and I can’t wait to share what I learn living abroad this summer!</span></p>