OUT OF STEPPE

和草原有关的梦与现实

The World of Chinese - - Contents - TEXT AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ED­UARDO BAPTISTA (苏昂)这个草原有点儿不一样

Blue skies, white yurts, and gal­lop­ing steeds: Mod­ern movies and songs im­bue the grass­lands of In­ner Mon­go­lia with es­capist long­ing, but ru­ral iso­la­tion, poverty, and en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems cre­ate a preda­tory in­dus­try for tourism scams. Is it still pos­si­ble, or wise, for ur­ban­ites to book an ar­ca­dian va­ca­tion? Or do the grass­lands truly be­long to the past?

For those in need of a detox from the mad­ness of ur­ban life, the grass­lands of In­ner Mon­go­lia have long been the place to go.

To in­hab­i­tants of in­creas­ingly con­gested cities, wide-open green pas­tures are pic­turesque sanc­tu­ar­ies. Whether break­ing free from pro­fes­sional pres­sures, or let­ting go of the inanity of the new­est Rap of China con­tro­versy, gen­er­a­tions of trav­el­ers sad­dle the word caoyuan (草原, “grass­land”) with—lit­er­ally—pas­toral long­ings to es­cape from the shack­les of rou­tine. The lo­cals have al­ways known bet­ter. As the Mon­gol adage goes, “The grass­lands will al­ways be the source of life and the root of cre­ation.” This gains a darker, but no less im­pres­sive, layer of sig­nif­i­cance when one re­mem­bers that the caoyuan gave birth to 12th-cen­tury con­queror Genghis Khan and his army of nigh-in­vin­ci­ble no­madic war­riors. The Khan’s gar­gan­tuan em­pire, stretch­ing from the Korean Penin­sula to Hun­gary at its apex, brought down the Song dy­nasty (960 –1279).

The moral of the story? The grass­lands are not only beau­ti­ful, but ca­pa­ble of bring­ing whole civ­i­liza­tions to heel.

The mod­ern en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try bears much re­spon­si­bil­ity for this idea of an an­i­mus-driven caoyuan. In Genghis Khan (1997), a Chi­nese-lan­guage film pro­duced by the In­ner Mon­go­lia Film Stu­dio, chil­dren prac­tice archery by us­ing a de­cap­i­tated ox head as tar­get. Wolf Totem (2015), a Sino-french adap­ta­tion of a best-sell­ing novel by Jiang Rong, tells the story of how a Bei­jing univer­sity stu­dent, sent to In­ner Mon­go­lia dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, be­comes en­rap­tured by the steppes’ wolves, even­tu­ally try­ing to do­mes­ti­cate a cub.

Mean­while, caoyuange, or “grass­land song,” re­mains a pop­u­lar sub-genre of Chi­nese folk mu­sic, with sin­gles such

as Ji Ya’s “Grass­lands Fate­ful Love” fea­tur­ing male yo­del­ing, ex­ces­sively ro­man­tic lyrics (“let us turn into swans fly­ing to the hori­zon, chase our love un­der the blue sky”), and a mu­sic video with young lovers hold­ing hands as they gal­lop their steeds.

When I boarded an overnight nine­hour train one Thurs­day night from Bei­jing—there’s no high-speed rail yet to Ho­hhot, In­ner Mon­go­lia’s cap­i­tal— it was with vi­sions of shar­ing bowls of salty tea with hos­pitable horse­herders. In my dream of a caoyuanin­duced cathar­sis, they were ea­ger to share their skills and teach us how to ride. A hearty evening Fri­day meal at an ex­cel­lent Ho­hhot restau­rant, run by eth­nic Mon­go­lians, marked a promis­ing start to the long week­end.

In ret­ro­spect, with a lit­tle more re­search, it would have been ob­vi­ous that In­ner Mon­go­lia had more to of­fer than “hol­i­day vil­lages” out­side Ho­hhot. For one, the ideal time to head over is not Septem­ber, but dur­ing mid-july, when three­day naadam fes­ti­vals are held through­out the re­gion. Short for eriin gur­van naadam, or “the three games of men,” the naadam is full of tour­na­ments in archery, wrestling, and horse­back rid­ing. Across the bor­der in the coun­try of Mon­go­lia, the naadam is not only the most widely watched dis­play of strength, but also com­mem­o­rates the na­tion’s in­de­pen­dence from the Repub­lic of China in 1921.

Go­ing to the games is es­sen­tial for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the lo­cal cul­ture. The same ap­plies to vis­it­ing the Mau­soleum of Genghis Khan, lo­cated near Or­dos and pre­vi­ously guarded by a Mon­go­lian tribe, the Darkhads, for over half a mil­len­nium. Even to­day, around 30 Darkhads are of­fi­cially em­ployed by the mau­soleum to watch over the site’s relics, keep wor­ship can­dles lit, and stop the tourists from tak­ing pic­tures where they’re not sup­posed to.

With­out the wis­dom of hind­sight, how­ever, we be­gan Satur­day morn­ing with tor­ren­tial rain de­scend­ing upon Ho­hhot. My Wechat pinged with a mes­sage from our driver: Due to the “added dif­fi­culty” of driv­ing in the down­pour, his fee was go­ing to in­crease from 200 to 300 RMB. My in­stinct was to back out, but it was too late; the re­turn tick­ets were booked for the next day, and the driver, ap­par­ently as­sum­ing we had ac­cepted his im­promptu price hike, soon called to say he was just min­utes away.

So we ac­cepted the first rip-off of the week­end with­out protest. Our Han driver was ex­tremely talk­a­tive, per­haps to sug­ar­coat the ex­tra fee he’d sur­rep­ti­tiously ex­tracted—though in all fair­ness, the roads were in­deed pock­marked with pot­holes, mud, and sharp stones. Soon he was of­fer­ing a les­son in ba­sic Ho­hhot di­alect (“pretty” is xiedang), and told us about the de­cline of Mon­go­lian-lan­guage teach­ing in In­ner Mon­go­lia.

In­ner Mon­go­lia’s case seems to be iden­ti­cal to that of China’s other au­tonomous re­gions: The in­creas­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness of China’s gaokao (univer­sity en­trance ex­am­i­na­tion) has led many eth­nic Mon­go­lian house­holds to give up teach­ing the lo­cal lan­guage al­to­gether. Al­though the ver­ti­cal Mon­go­lian script is vis­i­ble all over Ho­hhot’s main roads—a con­trast to the kite-like Cyril­lic used by the coun­try of Mon­go­lia—only 17 per­cent of the re­gion’s 25 mil­lion peo­ple are eth­ni­cally Mon­go­lian. In spite of this, ac­cord­ing to our driver, the re­gion’s cul­tural prac­tices and eth­nic pride re­main in­tact.

Our des­ti­na­tion was the Anda Hol­i­day Vil­lage, which was praised by a soli­tary re­view on travel app Mafengwo for its “hy­brid tents,” cheap lo­cal del­i­ca­cies, and (most im­por­tantly) hours of rid­ing at dis­counted prices. Al­though the re­viewer’s re­lent­lessly flat­ter­ing tone was sus­pi­cious, the dozens of high-res­o­lu­tion pic­tures that ac­com­pa­nied the text made us be­lieve in this fairy­tale of the caoyuan.

The first thing we dis­cov­ered on ar­rival was that the so-called Mon­go­lian “yurt” was not the tra­di­tional ger (“home”) of the no­mads. In pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, the ger is a short cir­cu­lar struc­ture made of wooden lat­tice, cov­ered with wa­ter­proof furs and skins, pro­vid­ing a durable, com­fort­able, and quickly portable home to herders on the Cen­tral Asian steppes. By con­trast, Anda’s yurts were white­washed con­crete struc­tures with domed roofs, with a

price per night that in­creased ac­cord­ing to the num­ber of mod­ern ameni­ties in­cluded. Ours had a bath­room, but no shower or flat-screen TV; at least, the over­priced igloo was a respite from the heavy rain. Like our driver, ev­ery­one work­ing at the hol­i­day vil­lage was eth­ni­cally Han.

Trapped in­doors on a Satur­day night, there was noth­ing for us to do ex­cept tune in to The Rap of China as usual. The key dif­fer­ence was that, at 2,000 me­ters above sea level, food de­liv­ery apps were un­avail­able. Tra­di­tion­ally, the cen­ter of a ger con­tains a stove be­neath a ven­ti­la­tion hole in the roof, used si­mul­ta­ne­ously for heat­ing and cook­ing; ad­di­tion­ally, fam­i­lies will of­ten hang an­i­mal car­casses in­doors for cur­ing, and put bar­rels of cheese and airag (fer­mented mare’s milk) be­side the en­trance.

These con­crete dis­tor­tions, though, were ideal only for cook­ing in­stant noo­dles, which we slurped down with a sea­son­ing of bore­dom and re­gret be­fore an early sleep.

Thir­teen

hours later, we woke to blue skies, warm sun­light, and un­du­lat­ing hills—a per­fect Mon­go­lian Sun­day morn­ing. We took a long walk through the grass­lands, ly­ing down ev­ery so of­ten to en­joy the cool blades of grass. At one point we even took turns shout­ing gib­ber­ish at the top of our lungs; we had too much space to our­selves.

Soon, though, our bel­lies rum­bled, in­di­cat­ing that it was time for lunch. Hop­ing to bal­ance our starchy diet of the pre­vi­ous night, we walked to­wards a few (real) yurts, where a man was grilling some meat.

The caoyuan has a vis­i­ble in­flu­ence on In­ner Mon­go­lia’s gas­tron­omy. Cat­tle fed on the large swaths of lus­cious green grass in the sum­mer pro­duce meat and dairy of a higher stan­dard than live­stock raised on pro­cessed feed. Tourists who are un­ac­cus­tomed to the lo­cal di­etary habits may feel over­whelmed by them; to with­stand harsh win­ters on the steppe, Mon­go­lian no­mads of­ten con­sume whole legs of roasted lamb and enor­mous slabs of boiled mut­ton, along with mugs of rich milk tea. This cli­mate has also left Mon­go­lian cui­sine bereft of veg­etable-based dishes, to say noth­ing of veg­e­tar­ian fare.

The man run­ning the makeshift restau­rant lis­tened to our or­der of a por­tion of mut­ton and veg­eta­bles. Siz­ing us up, long and hard, he came up with the as­tro­nom­i­cal fig­ure of 300 RMB. We laughed in dis­be­lief and told him we would try the can­teen closer to our vil­lage. He re­sponded that they would charge us dou­ble for the same thing (their cook was his mother’s cousin.)

In­cred­u­lous, but aware of how far we had strayed from our lodg­ings, we ac­cepted the of­fer; like our driver, our cook had a smooth tongue, set­tling us in a tent and ex­plain­ing that the leg meat on our tray was only half-done as this was how us “south­ern­ers” liked it. Moved as I was by his con­cern, my main an­guish was di­rected at the plate of su­gar-topped tomato (50 RMB) that ac­com­pa­nied it.

In the mid­dle of our meal, the cook’s wife burst in to ex­claim how happy she was to see two waidi­ren (“non­lo­cals”) and present us with a gi­gan­tic flask of tea, dis­ap­pear­ing be­fore we had a chance to ask if it was on the house. Pre­dictably, it wasn’t, and off went an­other 100 RMB from our bank ac­counts to this hos­pitable cou­ple. (Both later claimed they wouldn’t have charged any­thing had we had sim­ply re­turned the flask un­opened.)

Al­ready in low spir­its, and with only a few hours left un­til the train back to Bei­jing, we were ready to leave, un­til our driver ex­claimed that leav­ing the caoyuan with­out rid­ing its horses would be a sac­ri­lege. Notic­ing our skep­ti­cism, he claimed he would wran­gle a bar­gain­base­ment price for a 10-minute ride: 150 RMB for two peo­ple. A quick search on Mafengwo proved that this of­fer was, in­deed, 100 RMB lower than what most tourists were charged.

Un­der the logic that we would never come back to this caoyuan any­way, we ac­cepted and made our way to the sta­bles, where two pint-sized steeds and their hostler were ready on ar­rival.

On the back of this gen­tle beast, I found some small

sat­is­fac­tion in imag­in­ing my­self part of Genghis Khan’s royal guard, sur­vey­ing the bat­tle­field as we de­bated whether to quar­ter or mer­ci­fully de­cap­i­tate our en­e­mies. This fan­tasy was cut short merely 100 me­ters later, when the han­dler sud­denly stopped.

“This is as far as 150 RMB gets you,” he grunted.

I snapped out of my day­dream and dis­mounted, ready to for­get I had ever heard of this caoyuan. My girl­friend re­fused, though, protest­ing that this was not what had been agreed upon.

“Un­less…you want to take the horse for a run,” he re­sponded, a wide grin on his face.

Tak­ing our stunned si­lence as a “yes,” he sud­denly hopped on the horse I had dis­mounted, shouted “Hold on!” and took both beasts for a 30-se­cond gal­lop—through­out which my girl­friend was scream­ing in fear— and fin­ish­ing back at the sta­bles, where it was time to pay up. We sent over the agreed 150 RMB, at which point the hostler, still grin­ning, said: “It’s an­other 150 for the gal­lop.”

Scoff­ing at his de­mands, we made for the yurts, only to be met by a row of cross-armed hostlers block­ing the way—this was clearly a well­re­hearsed scam. Ac­knowl­edg­ing de­feat, I turned back and sent the man an­other 150 RMB with some sar­cas­tic ap­plause.

On the way back to Ho­hhot, the taxi driver did his best to ap­pear obliv­i­ous, claim­ing that all the hostlers were greedy peas­ants and im­pos­si­ble to trust. Fak­ing con­cern, he even of­fered to take us to a restau­rant that his friend had opened, a place where one could eat a “proper” din­ner for a “de­cent” price. Un­will­ing to risk any more money, we sternly turned down his of­fer and struck out for a KFC.

Over our re­li­ably priced—if bor­ing—meal, prac­ti­cally pen­ni­less, I re­flected that per­haps we had been led astray by the il­lu­sion that sim­ply be­ing on the grass­land was enough. In In­ner Mon­go­lia, the nos­tal­gic caoyuan is in­creas­ingly hard to find. As China’s sec­ond­largest coal-pro­duc­ing re­gion, In­ner Mon­go­lia is also the main global sup­plier of rare-earth met­als, as well as the site of large nat­u­ral gas re­serves. Un­reg­u­lated min­ing and in­dus­try have dev­as­tated the nat­u­ral land­scape and poi­soned the live­stock. Ad­di­tion­ally, re­set­tle­ment pro­grams, of­ten jus­ti­fied as pro­tec­tion of the grass­lands from over-graz­ing, have forced most eth­nic Mon­go­lian no­mads to give up their flocks for mea­ger com­pen­sa­tion.

These days, ex­pe­ri­enced trav­el­ers say, it’s only by hir­ing a trust­wor­thy eth­nic Mon­go­lian guide that one can get lucky enough to find an “authen­tic” homes­tay—or a no­mad fam­ily will­ing to re­ceive pay­ing guests on a wist­ful search for pas­toral beauty.

On the other hand, scams and ex­tor­tion are not ex­pe­ri­ences unique to In­ner Mon­go­lia or its ar­ti­fi­cial yurt vil­lages. From the in­fa­mous “Snow Vil­lage” of Hei­longjiang to Yun­nan’s lush, trop­i­cal Li­jiang, China’s do­mes­tic tourism in­dus­try is rid­dled with tales of tourists get­ting fleeced for meals, trans­porta­tion, or sim­ply tak­ing pho­tos of the great out­doors.

The fre­quency of such scams leads older trav­el­ers to seek safety in pack­age tours, while the younger gen­er­a­tion rents cars or campers for a stress-free, DIY travel ex­pe­ri­ence. Yet in iso­lated and largely tech­nol­ogy-free areas like the caoyuan, where po­lice sta­tions are ab­sent and there’s no lo­cal econ­omy to speak of, even these in­trepid ad­ven­tur­ers must rely on goods and ser­vices priced at the whim of the lo­cals—who, in turn, have per­haps no other oc­cu­pa­tion than to milk their in­dus­try of es­capism for all it’s worth.

Trav­el­ing to ro­man­ti­cized places like In­ner Mon­go­lia is of­ten done with the hope of flee­ing an in­creas­ingly ma­te­ri­al­ist so­ci­ety. How­ever, in China, the ru­ral and re­mote com­mu­ni­ties can be where one of­ten finds cap­i­tal­ism at its most preda­tory.

Per­haps eth­nic Mon­go­lian mu­si­cian Teng­ger put it best, in an in­ter­view with Au­dio World mag­a­zine in 1993: “The lush­ness of the grass­land be­longs to the past.”

Salty tea, juicy meat on the bone, and hearty stews evoke the clas­sic Mon­go­lian meal

No­madic herders on the steppe have been of­fered com­pen­sa­tion for re­set­tling in towns

“Trav­eler re­sorts” on the caoyuan typ­i­cally of­fer yurt-shaped ho­tel rooms to vis­i­tors

Tea and pick­led veg­eta­bles, all for the one-off bar­gain price of 250 RMB

On the way to get­ting ripped off big time…

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