Travel Photos and Commentary
My commentary is on this page, and I have posted four pages of photos. You can access them here:
Inner Mongolia is in the farthest North of China, butting up against Outer Mongolia and Russia (Siberia), but with a prairie climate. It is on the same latitude as Pittsburgh (40 degrees N), while Calgary is about 50 degrees. The temperatures would be similar to Pittsburgh but the girls in Hohot are prettier. The climate is dry and the skies are always blue.|
The Capital City, Hohot, is quite a pleasant place with a population of about 2.5 million, and a lot of very good shopping - although if you're a foreigner or naive tourist you may well pay far too much for everything. The city also has more traffic than New York and London combined. One day in the late afternoon we took a taxi from our hotel to a shopping area maybe 2 Kms away - and we were in that taxi for more than 40 minutes. A bicycle would have cut the time by 75%.
Inner and Outer Mongolia used to be one province of China before World War II. When the Japanese invaded China, the territory they called Manchuria included all of Mongolia as well as the North-East of China.
The Russians then invaded the Northern part of Mongolia (now called Outer Mongolia or just Mongolia) as a buffer to prevent a Japanese invasion of Russia. And at the time all this was happening China badly needed arms and supplies for the war wtih Japan and, since there was no sign that the US was going to help, they turned to Russia. So, at the time, they didn't object very much to Russia's presence in the North. But after the war, Russia sort of just stayed there, and Mongolia became split. Then the Russian Federation split up and Mongolia was just abandoned to itself. The two parts will probably never be reunited, but the population are all one people and they totally ignore the border.
Inner Mongolia is a lovely place with low mountains, prairie grasslands, quiet rivers and lots of sheep. The Mongol people are dark-skinned, shorter and generally heavier in stature, much like Canada's eskimos and similar to the Northern people in XinJiang or Tibet.
The Mongol Hordes that invaded China many centuries ago, and the Huns that invaded Europe, were the same people. You have heard of Ghengis Khan and also Attila the Hun. They were the same group of people, with the Mongols conquering all of China, Russia, much of Western Asia (Afghanistan and all the 'stan' countries), while the Huns did the same to Eastern Europe at least as far West as Yugoslavia and Italy.
One of my fondest memories, and an unsurpassed evening, was having dinner at a lovely outdoor restaurant on the island of Burano just off Venice, and sitting in a large old carved stone chair that reportedly belonged to Attila the Hun, a sort of throne he used to sit on when conducting his court. So the Huns got as far West as Northern Italy.
The province is rich in rare earth minerals and many other things, but is still quite backward and rural in most parts. It consists largely of grassland plain with many patches of small desert. It is perfect cattle country and most of China's milk supply comes from here. They also have beef cattle, and this place makes the best dried beef I have ever tasted in my life. God, it's good. It ain't cheap, at about $10 a pound, but I brought back 4 kilos of it to share with my friends.
It is also great sheep country and there are huge flocks everywhere, and great lamb dishes in all the restaurants. They make great wine and cheese too, and a kind of milk whiskey that you need to try only once to experience spontaneous human combustion from the inside out.
The Capital City, Hohot, has a population of about 1 million and is a fairly modern city. My friend and I took a taxi at 5:00 PM from our hotel to a shopping mall 3 kms away, and it took us 45 minutes to get there. Rush hour traffic is no better in Mongolia than in Shanghai or New York. Maybe worse.
On the other hand, the rural nomads of whom there are many, migrate using large two-wheeled oxen carts, carrying their households, cute round huts and probably dried beef.
Today I am really hurting, a result of one of my adventures on horseback. If you trust my advice, never ever ever ride a small horse, at least not as small as mine. I'm no stranger to riding and you'd think I would know better but it was that or nothing. God.
I want you to know that a fast trot on a small horse is a serious pain in the ass, and I mean that literally. On a large horse with long legs, the rhythm is slower and softer, and you can just comfortably ride up and down in the saddle. But on a small horse the up and down rhythm is much faster so it becomes just a bam-bam-bam, one every second on your backside bones.
You can imagine what it might feel like to be beaten to death, but can you imagine what it's like to be beaten to death on your buttocks? Jesus.
The only way to avoid it is to keep your butt off the saddle. You can do that on a large horse because the stirrup straps are long and your legs are almost fully extended so that essentially standing in the stirrups is no big deal. But on a small horse the stirrup straps are very short so that your knees are half-bent. If you try to rise out of the saddle, you are using only your knees to lift all your weight and you can't do that for an extended period. Plus if you try to stand, you are too high off the horse almost as if you were standing on his back, and that's how you fracture personal accessories like limbs unless you're lucky enough to land in a soft, warm pile of horseshit.
If this isn't clear, here's what you do: Stand up, and then bend your knees so that you are more or less halfway between standing upright and being down in a full squat. Can you do that? Okay, now hold that position and climb 20 flights of stairs. I'm going to get a hunting license and go back to Mongolia and shoot every small horse in the county.
Not only that, these horses have been ridden too often by people who don't know how to ride. They have gotten so many confusing and mixed messages that they no longer know what you want so they pretty much just ignore you and follow the other horses. I did manage to make mine come to a full stop once, and he was probably more surprised than I was. So then I patted him in gratitude to let him know he was a good horsie, and his exuberance at receiving praise from a foreigner sent him into a full gallop. God, that hurt.
I guess I'm just complaining, but my backside is quite raw in places and it will be some time before I can resume some of my common daily activites. Like sitting down.
To make matters worse, my travelling companion, a girl named Silver (I don't know why she chose that name. I told her that aluminum or zinc might be more appropriate, but she didn't see the humor in that.), spent our several riding hours squeezing the horse tightly with her thighs to help keep her balance so she didn't fall off. And that's ok, but when you've never really used those muscles before and then give them a 4-hour intense workout you can expect trouble.
In her case, it was difficult to stand, almost impossible to walk, and quite painful to just bend her knees. So, after the first day, I couldn't sit and she couldn't stand. Perfect travelling companions.
Inner Mongolia Cowboy When we were riding the horses, I was wearing my cowboy boots. These people had never seen Western boots before and one man was so interested that he kept staring at me for the longest time. Finally he couldn't contain himself. He walked over to me and began pulling up my pant legs so he could get a better look at my boots and see how high they were. So funny.
Camels are another thing altogether. Another good thing. Especially the two-hump ones that we were fortunate enough to have. I have great news. Camels are cute, obedient, not smelly at all, and soft. I love camels. They cost 10,000 RMB per each, and I may buy one to ride to work. I love camels. And I was very surprised to discover that they love candy. Silver had some hard candy drops and tried feeding them, and we made some great friends. You should have been there to see their eyes light up; they were positively glowing. So now we call hard candy drops 'camel candies'.
When we were walking along (on the camels) I turned and gave a candy to the camel behind me, and for the rest of the ride he was coming up behind and nudging me on my leg to get more candy. What a bunch of babies. And I was surprised how carefully the camels took the candy from our hands. They have a lot of huge teeth, but the camels made a real effort to extend only their lips and take the candy with them. They were so gentle about it; very different from giving a bone to a dog. Or a diamond to a girl.
After the camel stuff was finished, we were still on the top of a mountain of sand and had to get to the bottom where a car would return us to our bus. So, we sat on a small toboggan and slid down the mountain. Good fun. There was an optional descent that I didn't try. They had cables stretched from a tower at the top down to the bottom, and you could strap yourself into a harness, they would connect the harness to a bar with a pulley wheel that rode on the cable, and you would go down that mountain awfully quickly. I was too chicken to try, but now I'm sorry. I should have done it. I was worried that it might not be safe but there were no dead bodies around that we could see.
We went to a museum in Hohot and saw lots of dinosaurs. That's not normally news, but they have graveyards with many things we don't have in Canada, including woolly mammoths and the biggest full skeleton of a brontosaurus I've ever seen. Here's a photo of the mammoth. Look at the tusks. And look at its face; it looks like a space alien. This animal has double leg bones above and below the knee and, while you can't see this clearly in the photo, the two leg bones are about 40 cm. wide - thick enough to hold up a building. They looked like piers to support a bridge.
In the museum we met some young girls, 8 or 10 years old maybe, and they wanted me to write my name and country and give my autograph. They hadn't seen many foreigners so they carried their little notebooks around with them and asked any that they found. For me, another first.
The food was generally quite good, including lots of lamb dishes.
From the photos, you can see how the sand just stops at some point, though it continues to encroach on the land, the dunes steadily moving Southward, covering up everything as they move. This is a serious problem in parts of China and also in Africa and other places. The cable transportation system to get you to the bottom of the sand mountain in 2.9 seconds - riding downhill on a freewheeling pulley with nothing to slow you down, and no bathroom until you reach the bottom - by which time it's too late.
If you look at the photos of the desert transport, you'll notice the odd-looking green machine. We called it the iron rhinoceros, and it sure looked like one. What a contraption. See the photo below of the engine compartment - looks like an 1837 model without upgrades. The men were spraying the engines with water hoses to cool them down after each trip.
Note the Mongol huts. These are permanent structures, but the nomadic tribes use something very similar made from skins and cloth, and that are moveable. They have oxen carts with two huge wheels - 5 feet high - that pull their households around the grasslands as they migrate with their sheep and other herds.
One photo has an example of the Mongolian writing script. Very interesting and curious, and different from anything elsewhere in the world, at least to the best of my knowledge. The words are read from top to bottom and left to right.
Note the stone elephant guarding the temple. This is the largest and most beautiful temple in Inner Mongolia, and well worth a visit. Many beautiful things to see.
At the end of our trip we returned to Hohot for the flight home (2.5 hours) that was supposed to leave at 7:00 PM but was hours late and we didn't return home until 3:00 AM. The airline chartered a bus for some of us, so at least we didn't need a very long and expensive taxi ride. But it made for a long day.