Monday, July 19, 2010

Lamb, Camels, and Genghis Khan

内蒙古! Inner Mongolia! I don't know where to start, so let's run through some memorable experiences first:
  1. I rode a horse; and later, a camel
  2. I ate a piece of raw liver from a freshly killed lamb.
  3. I spoke at length with herders, tour guides, a female worker at a textile factory, and both high school and university students.
  4. I may or may not have bought ~50 movies and 20 TV episodes of pretty solid quality for the equivalent of $5 USD. My favorite collection title: "Pirates Nuclear Ships Movie Collect."

Overall, the trip could have been better planned: I've probably spent more hours on a bus in the last week than I've ever spent in my entire life, and it's more of a shame because this has likely been my first and last trip to the area.

That said, now for the interesting things:

First of all, it turned out that our interviews, set up with locals by HBA, were much more of a highlight of the trip than I had originally expected. I came to relax and ride horses, but I ended up really appreciating the opportunity to talk to people, particularly the herders. I learned that fewer and fewer Mongolian children speak Mongolian; that the Chinese government actually treats them surprisingly well (no one-child policy for Mongolians, choice of free education at either a Mongolian-speaking or Chinese-speaking institution, etc); and that the best-tasting lamb comes from a 6-year-old grass-fed animal slaughtered during the winter months.

I also heard a lot about my topic - the barrenification of the grassland. Unfortunately my essay isn't going to be as awesome as I imagined: I need more info and statistics and a better understanding of how the hydrogen cycle works on a local level. Also, my interviews with the herders brought out some views and experiences that conflict with certain aspects what the artist and NGO leader had told me, and there's no chance to go back and forth between them to ask for responses and discover who's right. Basically, my conclusion is this: In most areas, the grasslands (the ones that haven't been turned into fields) aren't nearly what they once were a mere few decades ago, and in fact it's hard to call the place 'grassland' or 'steppe' any more. (Instead, it looks kind of like my front yard back home.) The cause is in question: local herders say it's the weather, but possible deeper (or unrelated & other) causes include nearby farming and manufacturing activities. Government policy encouraging/compelling fixed dwellings and divided plots of land may also be to blame, but my information on the subject is incomplete, and to their credit recent government policy seems aimed at conserving what little grass is left. To sum it up, unfortunately, i must resort to what I'm told is an oft-used phrase in Chinese academia: "有待研究." I.e., "There is still research to be done."

The day-by-day:

  • Night 0: Worst traffic jam ever. Why? A bus driver up ahead fell asleep and the road was narrow. We were behind a trailer full of pigs. Got into the hotel in Hohhot (呼和浩特) at something like 4:00 AM. The power was out.
  • Day 1: Woke up at ~8:00 A.M. Bus ride to the grasslands. Interviewed a herder, saw a lamb slaughtered (for future reference: you put a hole in its side, reach in, and pinch the aorta to stop blood flow), ate the aforementioned liver (mm delicious. but, with a nosebleed aftertaste.), and had an "everything inside the lamb" dinner. Saw a performance, including singing and wrestling (the latter is one of the three sports of Mongolian men, the other two being horse racing and archery). Did some singing and wrestling myself (win? & epic fail, respectively).

  • Day 2: Bus ride to a different, much more touristy set of Mongolian tents (yurts), though to be fair nobody but tourists use them any more. Walked about; discovered some cows and horses (parents and two littl'uns) and part of a lamb(?) spine. Rode horses - a first-time experience which definitely depends on the horse (my first was a terror, my second, fantastic). Belted out "草原上升起不落的太阳" ("Upon the Steppe Rises the Unsetting Sun") as I rode.

  • Day 3: More interviewing of herders. Completely-not-worth-it bus riding. Arrive in our hotel near Oordos (?尔多斯).
  • Day 4: Interviewing of Oordos textile factory workers. The conditions, hours, etc seemed to be pretty good, though one can never be too sure about these things. Visit to the memorial to Genghis Khan (成吉思汗), where I discovered that Mongols too have long used the savvastika (which you know as the swastika and the Mongols call by another name), specifically in the same orientation that Hitler adopted but with the meaning of "harmony." I''m not certain, but I'd be willing to bet it entered Mongol culture from ancient Hinduism/Buddhism. I'm also curious as to where Hitler/Hitler's people got it from - I used to think it was straight from the Indian/Chinese religious usage, but I'm now thinking it was from something like Genghis Khan's bow.

  • Day 5: Party in the desert. We went west a bit to some legitimate desert (a piece of the Gobi? I should know this but I don't); besides getting sand in every nook and cranny of our bodies we also had the opportunity to ride camels, "sand surf" (aka sand sled), and drive sizeable go-karts. Returned to Hohhot and ate an excellent hot-pot dinner (oh! Inner Mongolian lamb on the bone! how I will miss you!), followed by a very brief beer-drinking competition with the extremely friendly locals at the next table over. Approximately 60% of the restaurant was openly staring at us.

  • Day 6: Tour of one of the facilities of 蒙牛, a massive dairy company that simultaneously seems incredibly modern/professional/quality-oriented and is also known to be responsible for multiple 'tainted milk' scandals in China. (Rest easy: they do very little exporting.) Visit to a temple, which a few of us decided not to visit in favor of shopping. I bought an awesome knife, which has no practical use and will be sent home with a friend because I can't take it on trains here. Sitting down outside to "write our reports" was a failure - apparently the area only rarely gets Western tourists, and we were very clearly turning heads. (By "we," I mean me, because the friend I was with is of Chinese descent while I on the other hand am white.) Eventually we accumulated a crowd of the braver Inner Mongolians and satisfied their curiosity by offering our opinions on Bill Gates and the American political system. Spent a fantastically excessive evening with two of my three best friends at HBA (the third didn't come to Inner Mongolia), playing "国王游" (better known as Kings) and watching pieces of the movies we'd bought. ("Every time you hear 'Doctor Jones,' 干杯...")

  • Day 7: Interviewing of students at (one of?) the best middle-high school(s) in Inner Mongolia; then interviewing of students at the best university in Inner Mongolia. 9-hour bus ride back.

And now we're here! Back to the daily grind. If I have time later this weekend, I'll write again on another topic to make up for not having time to update the blog last week.


1 comment:

  1. More pictures if/when you go to other cool places like this, s'il te plait!