September 27, 2010
China — It's no longer about the armed warriors, Genghis
Khan and the robed nomads prancing through lush greenery on
China's barely populated Inner Mongolian grasslands, what
had defined Mongolian culture for outsiders have long been
swapped for leather outfits, motorbikes, cellphones and
hours outside Inner Mongolia's southeastern city of Chifeng
and deep in the grasslands, I chanced upon a local couple
riding a mule-pulled cart on a quiet road, heading toward
their coal-heated yurt. The old woman said she loves
watching drama shows on TV, gesturing toward the dish
propped up against her roof. On the freeway nearby, cars and
buses seem to be the only other form of transportation, with
horse-riding existing mostly for tourists.
old storybook nomad life has dwindled, with most nomads now
farming, living in compact brick huts, tending to tourists,
or working in nearby cities. Desertification, too, is real
and apparent, as you drive past yellowing grass where little
livestock roams and sparse green shoots struggling through
dried, gritty earth. The few who have maintained a nomadic
lifestyle only camp on the grass during the wetter June to
September months, making those the best times for travellers
seeking an authentic glimpse of the old ways.
while nomadic pastoral life is fading, echoes of it can
still be found in some of the grasslands in southeastern
Inner Mongolia. Windmills and nodding sunflowers dot endless
expanses of rolling green fields, and there isn't a clearer
blue sky to be found in all of China — although the view is
occasionally interrupted by power lines or neon-yellow tour
buses that honk relentlessly to prod the cows and sheep to
trip to the region, I saw a lanky young nomad zip up a steep
grassy hill on a motorcycle to herd his sheep. Looking like
James Dean in his dark shades and black leather jacket, he
leaned against the squeaking door of his yurt and let me and
a travelling companion crouch inside.
luck and patience, visitors may find a nomad farther inland
who has room in his yurt for crashing overnight. Real yurts
are unfussy versions of tourist yurt accommodations, with
dusty, unpretentious exteriors and claustrophobic interiors
packed with dishes, pots, a bed, an odd chair or two, and
many small furry pets (like hamsters). Other elements of
this simple Mongolian home, which matches the low-key
culture, might include a dangling light bulb, a communal
spread for the bed, and some simple kitschy decorations,
along with the quiet cold.
staying in tourist accommodations miss out on an integral
component of the grassland: cow dung. To get from the main
road to a nomad's home, we selectively tiptoed over (and
sometimes into) piles of cow dung, one of two main "banks,"
or income generators in Inner Mongolia (the other is wind
power). Dried cow dung used to be the main source of fuel
and heat for the chilly climate, and the amount of cow dung
in a household is a measuring stick for diligence when it
comes to a female candidate for marriage, as it demonstrates
her ability to bring in fuel for the family.
ubiquitous milk ads and sheer roadside cattle count point to
beef and dairy production as agricultural mainstays. Upon
arriving in Chifeng on the first day, we devoured a bowl of
beef (meat, marrow, or joint) noodle soup. The small alley
markets on Changqing Street offer a variety of fresh and
pricey Mongolian beef jerky, sampled, weighed and wrapped on
the spot. After sundown, the night market in Chifeng offers
a smorgasbord of knick-knacks and necessities, from beef
kebabs and toys to underwear and sheets, stretching many
blocks. (Chifeng is the Chinese name for the city Mongolians
call Ulanhad; both mean "Red Mountain," a reference to the
mountain that abuts the city.)
Sensitive palates may not love the distinct gaminess of the
local beef, so some visitors may prefer Mongolian lamb,
which is known for its excellent flavour. Some say it's the
quality of the air and grass, while others point to the
traditional slaughtering method. In light of the Mongols'
emphasis on an animal's spirit, rather than slitting the
throat and waiting for the animal to bleed to death, the
nomad reaches inside the animal and snaps the spine, a
technique that is said to kill the creature in 30 seconds.
The meat comes out tender and flavourful enough that it
needs no sauce or spice. Lamb-eating used to be a mark of
aristocracy, unaffordable among ordinary nomads. The price
of a fresh whole lamb is still hefty today, and nomads say
they don't eat it too often.
Something else for visitors to experience in the region is
the Arshihaty granite forest in the Hexigten Global Geopark.
Temperatures plummet on the windy mountaintop, where chilly
visitors will find vendors renting much-needed green
military jackets reminiscent of the Red Army's Lenin coat.
The Arshihaty boasts wide views of rocky green mountains and
natural stone columns moulded by the wind into shapes of
eagles, snakes, warriors, warrior's beds, turtles and
castles — sure to inspire your imagination on the drive