Oh, how high my hopes were for our first weekend in China. When we first find out where we are headed we buy a travel book. We’ve learned through the years that the books are more of an inspirational starting point and try to buy the one with the most photographs. When we actually start planning and booking we use the interweb- it always has more up-to-date info and reviews are seriously your travel planning best friends. Our Chinese friend had gone through our book with us and pointed out the hot spots we should visit. But one day as I was flipping through, I spotted these photographs from Inner Mongolia and I was determined to go.
I started looking into it online and found that we could go out into the grasslands to meet Mongolian families, eat mutton, watch them wrestle (they wrestle, it’s a Mongolian thing), watch them race horses, ride horses ourselves and even sleep in a yurt (traditional Mongolian tent, albeit a modern version). I emailed a few travel agencies and found one that promised all of the above and a tour of the city’s temples and museums for Sunday. I got the team onboard and we were all off Friday night to the city of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia.
We stayed in the city that evening and met up with our guide, Tom, the next morning to make our way to the grassland. As soon as we started the drive Tom started saying we may not want to stay in the yurt because it was so cold in the grassland. I had asked the agency about this and clarified 3 times that it was okay to stay in the yurts this late in the season. I was told it was cold, but okay as long as we dressed warmly. It was only going to be just at freezing and we would have a heater in the room. Tom was making me nervous though.
Then Tom announced that although our “luxury” yurt did indeed have bathrooms, but they didn’t work. “No worries” he says “This is grassland, everywhere is toilet”. I’m now officially nervous.
We keep telling each other we’ll just check it out and if we need to, we’ll just go back to Hohhot that evening after all our awesome Mongolian activities.
We arrive at our destination and pulled up to a simple house with a number of rundown looking yurts in the front yard. There is trash everywhere, chickens roaming around and a couple cows. Tom introduces us to our host and we check out the yurts. No way, people. No way. Actually they weren’t that bad and certainly not the most basic place we’ve ever stayed, but when Tom said the everywhere in the grassland was a toilet, he meant it. There is cow, horse, chicken, camel (yes- camel) and who knows what else kind of poop and litter all over the ground. I’m not about to wander outside in the freezing dark to go to the bathroom here. I’m no sissy, I can pee outside- but this was a no-go. No. Go.
We talk to Tom and tell him we aren’t comfortable staying, but we’d like to enjoy our day out there and then after the campfire dinner with the Mongolian dancing and singing we can just go back to Hohhot. We had already talked to him about how we were going to pick out a lamb for a traditional lamb roasting.
Tom then confesses that well, there won’t be any wrestling, or songs, or dances, or campfire or anything. We can ride horses and that is extra, but the rest of it isn’t available in October. What the what?!?
Guys, can I tell you how grateful I am for the laidback people we had in the group? I can? Okay- I AM SO GRATEFUL!!!
We’re there, it is what it is, so we decide we’re going to hop on some Mongolian horses and ride out to the alboa, a place to make sacrifices and wishes for good luck.
Jules hasn’t been on a horse since a very bad horse buggy accident that happened when she was a little girl. I love to ride, but haven’t been on anything other than that crazed donkey in Petra since we’ve been together. That’s almost 10 years.
Lucky for us, Mongolians are little people and their horses are to scale…
Our horse guide, named Butter (yes, Butter which means hero in Mongolian) got us all saddled up and we were off…
The grassland was actually very pretty. Although I was riding a horse so picture taking wasn’t so easy. I actually don’t have one photo of myself from the entire weekend, but here’s a view from my horse…
I named his Snowball and he pretty much sucked. He was lazy beyond lazy and only picked up his step when Butter came up behind to grunt and shoo him. I tried to American-style “HE-YAH” him, but he didn’t speak English, although Butter thought this was hilarious. Actually, the whole ride was hilarious. We were all trying to mimic Butter’s horse language to get our horses to go which was a high pitched “HE” and a whispering “shhooo, shhooo”. So we’re all out there, 2 Americans, an Argentinian and a Mexican on top of these tiny horses in the middle of nowhere Inner Mongolia sounding like kids playing with lasers guns.
Once we got back it was time for lunch and this was really an incredible experience. Apparently during the tourist season (you know, when all the stuff is actually available) they eat at large restaurant type places, but our only choice was to eat in the family’s home. Butter’s wife prepared our meal (details to come on the food blog) which was amazing. We were the only foreigners they had ever met and they treated us with immense warmth, unwavering hospitality and a bit of curiosity. If you have ever watched that show “No Reservations” with Anthony Bourdain, that was exactly what is was like and it was beyond awesome. Their baby was more interested in her lunch than us, but she did take time to make some faces at us…
After lunch, the Grandfather pulled out some Mongolian “wine”- aka grain alcohol that will about kill you…
and then marveled at my wedding ring. I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was the fake one I travel with. Butter was more interested in Julie’s green eyes and seemed to really be asking why in the world were they that color.
This was by far my favorite part of our weekend and I think it would have been even if that had been singing and dancing and wrestling. I mean, look at the pure beauty that emits from these faces…
Upon returning to Hohhot the battle began with Tom, his boss and the agency in Beijing about all this tour business. It lasted 4 hours and no side was too thrilled with deal that was finally reached. The guys and Julie spared me from it, although I am usually a hardline negotiator, I was too in love with the family that hosted us and felt bad for poor Tom because he was just the local guide. I wasn’t going to help the situation, at least not for us.
As part of the compromise, Tom and our driver took us to eat hotpot. We were the only ones in the restaurant and clearly the only foreigners they had ever had because the entire staff just sat down at a nearby table and marveled at us eating. The food was pretty good and Tom made a peace offering of a bottle of Mongolian “wine” that reminded me of a much stronger version of moonshine.
Somehow, we then agreed to go out to a bar. We haven’t been out dancing since last year in Tokyo and seriously I just don’t have the desire anymore. So much so that people don’t even ask us to go out anymore. They know we’ll never go. Well, seems like the trick is Mongolian “wine” because there was no arm twisting involved.
The bar we went to was packed, had a handful of dj’s spinning great music and absolutely no foreigners. We were like celebrities and although a bit blurry, I remember having an absolutely amazing time. We danced with everyone, drank with everyone, some table sang a song to me and presented me with a rose and I somehow convinced the manager to let one of the dj’s let me scratch the record during a song. My 22 year old self would have been so proud of me.
However, it was my 33 year old self that I had to answer to the next morning and let me tell you, she was not a happy camper. She refused to even get out of the bed before noon and therefore missed the touring of Hohhot on Sunday. She’s such an old curmudgeon!
So there is was- our first weekend in China. Not what we expected, not what we hoped for or what we paid for, but with some pretty cool surprises along the way.
This weekend we’re off to X’ian to see the terracotta army and finally get reunited with our friends from Argentina! Can’t wait!
Pics from the weekend…more to come when I can get them from Nachito…