We ride our first train of the trip from Lanzhou to Yinchuan. It is a huge relief to give Lanzhou the ol’ heave ho, and the train is leaps better than the buses we’ve been taking. It’s comfortable, smooth, and no excessive honking! Still, it’s China: at the train station, a sea of people heave and push as their shoulder-perched luggage, largely consisting of over-stuffed giant rice bags, bob like flotsam in the waves. People board the train armed with 6 or 8 giant cardboard containers of instant noodles, ready for a long haul. And, in the sleeper section of the train, men lie with their shirts off in bunks filled with beer cans and drink the day away, perhaps savoring the peaceful interlude between the family pressures of home and the grueling demands or monotonous days at their distant job.
We are in a sleeper compartment with two middle-aged men who are friendly, and Nick strikes up a conversation with them over some peaches one shares with us. A big topic is the debt ceiling negotiations in America, and whether the American goverment will pay back all the money it’s borrowed from China. After a while, one man asks the other, “Do you think America still has potential?” The other thinks a moment, then answers, “Every country has potential.”
The first man has very recently read a Chinese translation of David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter. He recounts this American history of the Korean War with great excitement, still reeling with amazement at how different it’s narrative is from what Chinese are taught in school. The man beside him listens politely but isn’t inclined to continue the conversation.
Later, an older woman pokes her head in our compartment to check on Owen (she visits us every 20 minutes or so for the entire train ride). Seeing him with his pacifier, she says:
Nick says: “We Americans think pacifiers are okay.”
Woman says: “No. They are bad.”
Nick: “Well, we think they’re good.”
Nick: “Well, we have different opinions.”
Me: (laughing hysterically)
Perhaps the constant baby-care criticism has made me quick to observe Chinese society’s faults, but it seems the babies we encounter are all listless, lethargic, unsmiling and bored. Our baby kicks and grins and yells, but the Chinese babies sit, expressionless, while he squeals at them. I want to find out what Chinese moms think about this difference, but so far most babies are not with their moms (who are working), but with their grandmoms, and it seems that people past a certain age in this too-recently-opened-up country just don’t often have sensible things to say.
In Yinchuan, we stay at a really nice hotel. The draw card: a non-smoking room, something we feel we deserve after Lanzhou. The hotel’s breakfast buffet has on offer over-easy fried eggs (which are borderline impossible to eat with chopsticks; think about it), “plam juice” (particularly cruel as it looked like coffee but decidedly was not), and a lovely pitcher of “mike.”
Outside of Yinchuan, in the sandy strip between the Yellow River and the mountains, are the Western Xia tombs. These once-massive burial monuments, built to glorify the emperors of this short-lived medieval civilization, now rise saggingly from the sands like half-melted scoops of ice cream. Members of an older, still-living, victorious civilization crowd around, making the peace sign with their hands for endless series of photos.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Well put. I wished for a small plane to zoom over the whole area, take it all in from above.
Ningxia province, of which Yinchuan is the capital, is the Hui Muslim autonomous region, but compared with the parts of Qinghai and Gansu we were in, there seems to be very few Hui here. Just a thin slice of fertile land resisting the desert’s sandy onslaught, with a shiny new downtown and lots of restricted military areas heading towards the mountains.
Another train, this time to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. Out the rushing-by window: broad-shouldered mountains; coal mines, coal trains, coal power plants; sunflower fields, corn, corn, corn.
Hohhot is windy and almost empty. We eat excellent mutton hot pot, dipping thin slices of raw meat into the boiling, peppery broth until we’re too sweaty to eat any more.
It is time to see the famed grasslands of (Inner) Mongolia. We decide not to strike out on our own this time, and give the Chinese tour group experience a whirl. We settle on an overnight excursion that will have Owen (and us) sleeping in our very first yurt. Nick rides a horse, while Owen and I opt for the horse-pulled carriage, through the undulating terrain for 2 hours. The horses are trained, but not enough for the rookies riding them. There is also a tendency for the Chinese to ignore the instructions given to them by our ethnic Mongolian guides. A three-way power struggle repeats itself over and over again as we go: between arrogant Chinese tourist, impatient Mongolian guide, and lively horse. Each time, When the Chinese doesn’t cooperate with the Mongolian in controlling the horse, the Mongolian switches sides and he and the horse gang up on the Chinese. The magical grasslands indeed.
When we return, we watch the afternoon’s main event, a performance of the traditional Mongolian “manly” sports. They do some lackluster horse tricks and stage a wrestling match. There are now 4 empty hours until dinner.
We lay back in the yurt and watch the Chinese tourists play games on their cellphones until we’re so bored we have to go wander about. This is when we are informed that we’re actually assigned to separate yurts: men and women cannot sleep in the same place, regardless of marital status. Our annoyance quickly wears off when we walk away from camp into the vast green steppe, nothing but grass for miles around. We return for a sodium-fueled dinner and then head back out to watch the sunset/moonrise over the plains. It is fantastic. Owen howls at the moon.
We traipse back to our little tribe to find that a baijiu-fueled disco dance party has enveloped the camp, with Chinese tourists of all ages drinking and dancing to high-decibel beats. When we think the party has started to wind down, Nick and I say goodnight to each other and head to our separate yurts. In mine, my female yurt-mates feed me watermelon and fuss over the baby’s clothing, which is of course not warm enough by their standards. When I wake up at 3 am to pee, I stumble out of the yurt to witness the most fantastic star-strewn sky I have ever seen. The Milky Way is downright bright. Finally, it is quiet all around.
The next morning, after meager breakfast rations, we are corralled onto our bus, which we believe will take us back to Hohhot. Unfortunately, since that is far away and most of the group is going on a second-day tour to the desert, we and a half-dozen other cheapskates are ejected about 10 miles outside the city. The eight of us stand, about to stranded on the highway, fighting fury while the tour director thrusts 10 yuan in each person’s hand and tells us to get a taxi. Nick yells at her that this is unacceptable for what we have paid, there are no cabs our here, we have a baby, et cetera. She assures us there’ll be cabs, and sure enough one rolls up before the argument has ended. We cram as many people as we can into it and speed toward the far-away city. The ride costs much more than the, um, stipend, and we spit rage for about 5 minutes before succumbing to a numb amusement at the whole disaster.
To Datong we go.
Datong, as it turns out, is under construction. The dust is insidious and blows in our faces as we walk around at night—a concrete storm. But the city itself is pretty nice. We see two major sights the next day: first, the Yungang caves, with very old Buddhas and thousands of Chinese tourists (are you sensing a theme here?). It’s impressive and worth the crowds, which is really saying something. The crowds are not idle; they swarm and flock. At one point, I see an interpretive sign that is blissfully un-surrounded. I make a beeline to it, already savoring the chance to learn something without pushing. As I arrive, a 12-year-old girl comes sprinting over. Sure enough, she places herself one inch in front of me as if I’m not there, not trying to look at the same damn thing.
In the afternoon, we hire a driver to see the Great Wall at Desheng Bao (“Win Victory Fort”), a tiny village 45 minutes outside of town, once a Ming Dynasty frontier garrison. It seems that the entire population of the village, which is to say all the elderly whose children have left for jobs in the cities, is out this afternoon, as they probably are most days. They line the shaded side of the street, eating snacks and chatting. They give Owen the thumbs-up and cheer us on; the walk through is like a red carpet. With mucky potholes. The Wall here is unrestored. It is a crumbling dirt fortification that rises and falls along the edge of a cornfield; we reach it on foot after a hot half-mile walk. The wall here stretches across a narrow valley, connecting two nearby ridgelines, plugging a gap through which Mongol invaders might have entered from the north. We scramble atop the wall and follow with our eyes the series of crumbled observation towers dotting the ridges from east to west.
We’re at the wall with an Austrian couple we picked up along the way. They had been trying to get to some point on the Inner Mongolia border where they could find Great Wall remnants, but the bus driver had inexplicably told them to get off a few miles from their destination before continuing in that direction. Not able to speak any Chinese, they were stranded, but fortunately we saw them as we drove by. We find that their idea of travelling is very values-laden. They have a guide book from the 1970’s, which they are proud to say is filled with incomplete or incorrect information, thus making things more adventurous. They do not take pictures. But on the drive back to town, the Austrian woman asks furtively to sneak a peek at our Lonely Planet to find a hotel in Xi’an; the Austrian guy shoots her a dirty look. “Don’t use that, Britta. We’ll find something. We always do.” She ignores him and pores over the recently-written pages while he looks on scornfully, reminding her that they are true travelers who don’t need such things.
Next stops: Border run to Mongolia (to get our visas stamped), Walking the Ancient City Walls of Pingyao, Exploring a Cave Village by the Yellow River, Sleeping in the Hourly-Rate Room.