“July is the best time to travel Inner Mongolia, not October,” he wheezed out a laugh, scratching the stubble on his chin. On his head was a beanie like a black knit gourd, and his brown eyes were framed with heavy lids and smile lines. Our driver, Mr. Zhang.
It was not the first nor the last time we were criticized about our timing. Inner Mongolia is known for its grasslands and rolling hills: riding horses across green pastures, sleeping outside by a bonfire and eating hand-roasted meat…you know, Genghis Khan. In the autumn, they said, the plains are only brown and cold. How could that be exciting?
Our train had arrived in Hailaer early Saturday, and my first, waking awareness was of glittering white on the window: snow. I bolted awake. The sun had just risen and was tickling pink across the soft mountains in the distance, reducing me to awe until a friend dragged me to disembark.
Outside, the hiss of steam from the engine was a thick white cloud, and breathing equaled brain-freeze. I slid my pack over my arm and happily snuggled into the crowd of travelers, customers, and merchants haggling in the street.
“Car rental!” One shouted in that thick northern-Chinese garble, “600 kuai!” After some fierce negotiation and multi-lingual discussion (having a foreign language at your disposal – in this case, English – can be rather convenient when bargaining), we reached an agreement. Seven people, six bags, a few water bottles and a dozen beef baozi packed together in a tiny gray van, Chinese club music in an endless cycle, a Mao Zedong pendant dangling from the rear-view mirror. So our adventure began.
I had no last look at Hailaer; with all our belongings, there was little space to turn for a backward glance. It was simply forward, pushing thirty miles an hour over hill after hill of frozen grassland.
It was the most breath-taking road trip: hiking snowy mountains, trekking along the Chinese-Russian border, and, of course, experiencing interesting meals. China has all sorts of interesting cuisine, but when it comes to eating sheep Inner Mongolia wins.
After three days of bitter cold wind, pink sunsets over icy ravines, shooting stars from the Milky Way, greasy game lunches, and the smell of cigarette smoke, we arrived in Enhe, a small tourism town near the Russian border.
I had been sleeping, snuggled between the packs on my left and the puffy coat of my friend on the right. Outside were bare trees, empty hostels, a few stray dogs, brown grass and patches of thick snow. A man sidling down the hard dirt path.
“Eiy!” Braking, our driver rolled down the window. The burst of frosty air shocked me awake.
“I have six foreigners here,” he called. “There a place to stay the night?”
The man responded rapidly and slurred his words – I didn’t understand. But when he gestured to a small house nearby, our driver followed.
Our crew clambered clumsily out of the van and was quickly herded into the house by a kind-faced woman.
“Poor things,” I heard her mutter as we shuffled by. “How pitiful!”
I suppose we did look a bit pitiful: hungry and chilled, tired from uncomfortable car-naps and less-than-recommended hours of sleep each night, sore from hiking, oily and rank with no opportunity to shower. But from our faces beamed smiles, and my heart was happy.
That morning, I remember waking up warm inside and out. Our room was stove-heated and stuffy, the memory of a blazing fire in the grate beside the bed. Fog on the outer window, layers of thick quilts, and one of the softer mattresses I’ve encountered in China. I had probably dreamt of dinner from the night before:
火锅 Huŏ guō Hot pot is a typical North-Eastern Chinese method of feeding lots of hungry college students on a chilly autumn evening. There are lots of fresh meats and vegetables involved, and a large bubbling pot of spicy soup and bean oil.
Whatever you want to eat – pumpkin slices, parsley, sweet potatoes, duck, baicai (a type of Chinese cabbage), mushrooms – you simply boil on your own right there at the table. There are dipping sauces, too – a sour, red, fermented-tofu sauce or thick sesame paste.
This was all served to us with love and care by the hostel-owner’s wife Anna. They were a perfectly interesting Russian-Chinese couple. He loved to talk, to tell stories and explain Chinese colloquialisms in a brusque, difficult-to-understand accent. She would fuss at him quietly in Russian as she, smiling, served us hot milk tea.
When I told them that I was studying music at my American university, they asked me to sing a bit.
I remember singing a verse from Les Misérables through the stuffy, fragrant warmth of the dining room, laughing through a group rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and then dinner was over. Anna hugged us goodnight, and I fell asleep brimming with happy.
The best was yet to come: breakfast.
Yes, sir. Behind Mr. Zhang’s tea cup: those are pancakes.
Scrambled, peppered eggs with sautéed onions; sweet, soft bread; three or four different fruit jams; Chinese breakfast cabbage. Two buckets – buckets – of fresh, warmed milk and milk tea.
That was the perfect highlight of our trip to Inner Mongolia.
The days later were filled with riddles and road-trip games, walking on ice-covered creeks, trekking along the Russian-Chinese border. The weather warmed up, and on the last day we boarded a train in Manzhouli bound, once again, for Harbin.