Despite the fact that freelancing is often a bit stressful and I’m still learning the ropes towards increasing sanity, I have had so many awesome opportunities working for various companies. This past weekend was definitely one of the best. I got to take a research trip to Inner Mongolia, and check out the environmental issues of desertification, water scarcity, energy production, and wildlife. The trip started off when a lot of unknowns. What were Jeff and Bright, my travel companions, going to be like? How long would it take to get there? What is Inner Mongolian food like? So, with a backpack and a bus ticket, I headed out on my adventure!

For those of you that don’t know, Inner Mongolia or Nei Menggu, is an autonomous region IN China. Its north of Beijing, but stretches widely to the East and West and comprises 12% of China’s total landmass. The official languages of Inner Mongolia are Chinese and Mongolian, and Mongolians use a Cyrillic form of writing that looks drastically different from Chinese, and is not based on the character system. From what I had heard in Beijing, Mongolians were known for eating a lot of meat and cheese, and for their vast grasslands.

So, I met Jeff at the bus station, and we got on what was supposed to be a 7-hour bus ride. 8-hours later, we saw a sign that read 100Km to Chi Feng, so we figured we were making pretty good time. We started going down half washed out dirt roads and began to wonder if our driver was lost. Turns out, he was lost, but the dirt roads are unavoidable on the way to Chifeng. I have never seen such a huge bus navigate such small and bumpy roads. We reached one section of road that was washed out, so we had to turn around, which landed us in a country-road traffic jam that took an hour to get out of, simply because other buses kept piling in and we couldn’t turn around. Then, we made our way back through fog so thick I put my head in my lap and tried to sleep. We finally made it to Chifeng over 12 hours later.

Upon arrival we were swarmed by the typical masses trying to offer us taxis and accommodations. Fortunately Jeff speaks really good Chinese, and called the hotel where we had a reservation. Oh, that hotel is in another city? Hm, driver also not here to pick us up, shocking that he didn’t wait 5 extra hours! Phew, random guy from the Chinese Press is telling us that he will get us a room. And…he did. Our lovely room consisted of one single bed, cigarette butts all over the floor and a few empty drink containers, but it was 4am and we couldn’t be picky. Jeff and I became very close co-workers on our first meeting, literally.

We slept 5 hours and met our local guide, Bright, who explained that the driver had been waiting for us since 9pm the night before and fell asleep in his car. We all got breakfast at a local restaurant and headed to Wudan, our first stop. In Wudan we checked into a pretty bad, but much nicer room and started off to visit the Yulong desert. It took a while as the main roads in Wudan were all being torn up, but we finally found a dirt road out to the area. Yulong is quite beautiful; a mix of lakes, grass and large sand dunes. It is also China’s fourth largest desert. Our guide explained that the area use to be lush and fertile before the cultural revolution, but due to poor farming practices and mismanagement of the land, it had turned into a desert. Now major actions are being taken by the local government and people to restore the land, including subsidies that are paid to residents for not letting their animals graze. We visited a local family who own a farm and culture center of sorts in the desert, and I had my first cup of authentic Inner Mongolian tea. Loved it. Salty milk tea, I drank three cups. It also happened that Xia Guohua, the district mayor of Chifeng city was visiting the family, as he was related in some way. His English was pretty good and he drunkenly chatted us up for a while, and took photos with us.

The most exciting part of the day was when the daughter of the farm took us on a tour of their land. It was really stunning, complete with small, sandy rivers and large sand dunes. We managed to get stuck in the middle of the cow fields, and had to go under, around and over-top a whole lot of barbed wire, which took quite a team effort. When we finally emerged, we wound our way through corn fields to get back home. After the hike we stayed for dinner in the family’s ger, a typical Inner-Mongolian-style tent where we ate everything from local veggies and blood sausage to some animal’s liver. The family sang and toasted us, and we had a good time…but I couldn’t manage to eat enough to be full. They also tried to make us drink a lot by saying it was offensive if we didn’t have at least three drinks, so I drank three tea-sized cups full of beer, but was not happy about it!

The next day we stopped briefly at a museum and Mongolian school in the town of Keqi, and then made our way to the grasslands. We visited a few local families and their ger campsites, drank really strong milk wine and ate some Mongolian cheese. It tasted a little chalky to me, despite dipping it in the milk tea, but Jeff may have actually fallen in love. There has been a lot of investment made into wind energy technologies in the grasslands, and we passed by quite a few fields of windmills. Apparently these things cost 2million RMB each to build! I really loved the look and feel of the gers, it was like camping, only better.

Next we headed to Dalinor lake, which is huge and used to be known for its swan population. Unfortunately the swans have recently stopped using the lake as much for their nesting grounds, and the lake is actually receding at a quick rate (although I couldn’t make out the numbers from the conversation in Chinese.) It was starting to rain at that point, so we made a brief stop at a mini-mountain in the middle of the grasslands. I’m sure there is a name for this type of structure, but you can see in the photo. We ran into an awesomely decked out local with his horse, who was happy to stop for a few photos, and headed back for dinner at the ger. Dinner was much better than the previous night, and we were entertained by deafeningly loud traditional Mongolian songs, followed by K-TV. That night we slept in bug-filled gers with the rain pattering down on the roof.

The next morning we ate some awesome sweet bread for breakfast and drove a long way back to Chifeng, and hopped on a bus that actually took seven hours to return. Overall it was awesome to discover a little bit about Inner Mongolian culture and see such pretty scenery; quite a nice break from Beijing. I only took one shower the entire time and have never been so close to having dreadlocks, but I was lucky to have some very entertaining and positive companions who didn’t complain about the smell. The distances are quite long in between the cities we visited, but I would certainly recommend visiting the desert and grasslands.

Thunder, thunder, thunder cats!

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