Passage to Inner Mongolia

(Bejing, CHINA) — The air was thick and humid and the light of dusk lent a green hue to the Beijing train station. Crowds moved hastily in the heat, feet slapping at the concrete in decisive directions. Few took notice of the five Americans led by suited officials through the maze of commotion.

Somehow, we weaved a path to our train and in minutes were off to the fringes of Inner Mongolia in a cramped 4-person sleeping cabin.

Six hours and 167 miles from Beijing, we landed in the ancient city of Datong, just south of the Great Wall of China and the border of Inner Mongolia. Minutes away, a long muddy stretch called the Jade River kept us from venturing to the border. I took off my shoes, rolled up my jeans and walked alone through the soft oozing mud towards it, while the group waited for the guide to fetch boots.

Adobe remnants of the Great Wall, a time worn border, mark the boundary between China and Inner Mongolia. A farmer’s path showed the way to the Mongolian village of Shi Yao, where a woman sitting on a log bench beckoned me to sit by her. Soon I was surrounded by others.

She took my forearm and studied it, then felt if for firmness and strength. The other villagers were curious too, and felt my arm. Later, when the guide caught up, they asked him if I hoed. “No, but I swim with training paddles,” I said, knowing that nobody there would understand even if I said it in Chinese, Mongolian or Hungarian.

She said my skin was fresh and soft, and she pointed to some freckles on my arms, something she had never seen before. I taught her a new word, “freckles,” inciting the villagers to giggle and call out “freckles, freckles, freckles.” The village was rarely visited by outsiders, save for foreign guests and diplomats.

Yungang Caves

What attracts most people to the Datong region is the Yungang Caves, built in 460 A.D. The Yungang Caves — 53 in all — are set at the southern cliffs of the Wuzhou Mountain. The caves comprise a mass of sandstone carvings of Buddha, totaling 51,000 in all. The largest is 55 feet high, the smallest, a few inches.

The faces of the largest Buddhas withstand the ravages of time. Each took only two months to build, but that involved the 60,000 men who created the sacred site during a 40 span.

Little changed over the centuries, save for the weathering of more exposed and fragile figures, and the addition of wood structures around the caves in 1661. But, like another victim of the modern age, this century brought the most significant change. In 1949 the Yungang Caves were declared an historic monument, triggering the most unscrupulous of art thieves to decapitate hundreds of the figures and land their heads in the arms of museums in Japan, Europe, and North America.

To reach the heart of Inner Mongolia, a train ride with too many stops took us from Datong to Hohot, capital of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia, and gateway to the grasslands. We were making our way to Gegantala, site of the Grasslands Festival.

Hohot breaks way to smaller towns, then layers and layers of serene swelling hills that continue forever. Mushrooms, black moss, and this season, yellow, gold and purple wild flowers mottled the vast green carpet. A huge white dome loomed ahead. We had reached Gegantala.

Grasslands Festival

It was hot and bright. Slow fat clouds dragged shadows across the rolling plains. Bright pinks, yellows, and blues lit the festival grounds. Colorful performers from districts far and near were preparing for the biggest event of the year, Nadamu, an 800-year-old Mongolian tradition celebrating the harvest season.

The next four days brought horse races and roping competitions, archery, wrestling, dancing, singing, and fancy feasts of mutton and other meats; never fish, because to Mongolians fish is the food of the gods. Some of the activities were organized, others were not. Mongolian horses were the main attraction. The ground thundered and clouds of dust welled high into the distance. Riders broke through the dust, moving their feisty horses to clearer vision.

A crowd ran to the horses, and scurried back as they charged in their direction. Eventually, the horses spread out. Some of the riders cantered them in random fashion before the crowd, showing their skills. Others rode off to the hills to their homes.

At night, we slept in a yurt, which bears a strong resemblance to a Navajo hogan. The yurt is the main house for nomadic Mongolians and dates to ancient times. It is a round domed tent, with a wool floor, wood poles, a stove in the middle and a hole on top for the stove pipe. Modern families who are not nomadic use yurts as Americans would a patio, for morning and afternoon teas. Anyone can buy one for about $2,000, minus shipping.

I awoke one morning at 5 a.m. feeling the need for a jog. I ran into the dark night wind straining my eyes as they played tricks on me. The wind whipped and the sky was too dark to make out anything at the horizon, or anything at all, save for my feet clapping at the cool, moist ground. The sky was slow to brighten as I searched for the aobao I had seen the evening before.

Aobaos are found in high places on the steppes and serve for orientation and as places to make sacred offerings. These 3-tiered conical mounds of white rocks piled high have branches on top anchoring a line of prayer flags to the ground.

I jumped a fence past Mongolian yurts, through fields of horses, feeling the sweet grass ripping at the root. It grew thicker and I veered off to a winding dirt road and continued on a flat brown stretch. Prayer flags snapped in the wind. The sun rose drawing long shadows to the west, and a cool calm to the grasslands.

I ran uphill through the thick wet grass and waited in the dull cloudy light until 6 a.m., when our van was scheduled to leave for Baotou. I shot a roll of film and jogged down my matted path.

The grasslands were quiet. My feet resounded like cantering hooves and a long dancing shadow mocked me. From a distance, the grasslands appeared like rolling hills. When you’re on them, they look flat until you finda long dancing shadow mocked me.

From a distance, the grasslands appeared like rolling hills. When you’re on them, they look flat until you find new hilly horizons every hundred feet.

Beyond Mongolia

The van came to meet me and we were off for a long, dusty ride to the Resonant Sand Gorge across the Yellow River at Baotou. Located in the central part of the Kubuqi Desert, the gorge measures a very steep 130 feet high.

We hiked to the top, sat back in the sand and slid down to the sounds of a muffled roar. Walking along, you can also hear the sands mysterious sounds if you push the sand forcefully. One story says that the sand is fine and dry, with large quantities of quartz. After it is exposed to the sun, the rubbing of the fine sand particles causes static electricity and the noise. We left the sands for a harrowing route that landed us at the foot of the Jabhlangt Mountain and the largest lamasery in Inner Mongolia.

The Wudang Lamasery is a training ground for monks practicing the yellow sect of Buddhism, which is widely practiced in Tibet. Young men with a calling come from all over China come to learn the way during the 3-year program. Each class has about 30 young men who upon graduation are assigned to various provinces throughout China, including Tibet.

The next step was a stop at the remnants of another “great wall”, built about 300 A.D. during the Confucius Period. We stopped at the sacred Nanguan Mosque in Yinchuan, and made a spontaneous visit to the herbal medicine hospital, where we were welcomed by the head practitioner who allowed us in the acupuncture clinic. But that was after our government tourism officials talked him into it.

He was not about to say no to the first group of American travel writers and photographers to visit after the infamous student uprising in Beijing. Fourteen people sat in one room with painful looking pins in their bodies and faces. Needles in China are much heavier and more painful than those used in the United States, but none of the people here looked uncomfortable. The practitioners offered us herbal remedies for headaches and stomach upsets to take with us.

We also visited the Rock Paintings of the Helan Mountains, a collection of sand monuments and pictographs that were discovered in 1988. The paintings and carvings were predicted to be anywhere from 30,000 to 300,000 years old, but nothing much more is yet known about them.

In Shapotou, we rode on a sheepskin raft, an ancient mode of transport once used on the Huanghe River. These rafts are made of whole, hollow sheep skins, tied at the neck and feet and filled with air. Each raft has about 16 inflated sheepskins latched to a mesh of reeds that serve as the sitting area. The ride was short and not very comfortable. Further up from the river, we rode camels in the velvet wavy sands of the Tenggerli Desert. Most captivating of all was a visit to a Muslim community in Yinchuan. The area was just opened for the first time to outsiders. And, as it was planned, we were the first outsiders. The government had arranged for us to meet a wealthy Muslim family. While in the home, I had the chance to slip away from the guarded group and into the village.

A wizened woman coaxed her shy companion with her as she drew near to me, smiling like a long lost relative who hadn’t seen me for years. She seemed to say in a long melodic tone, “Where have you been? Where did you come from?” She held my hand in the warmth of hers and spoke to me expecting an answer. She touched my hair, my clothes, my skin. I was caught up in the fascination. She had never seen a white woman before.

As China opens more and more new areas to the world, opportunities for fresh cultural exchange will become less rare.

China continues to open up its little towns and kingdoms, offering the tourism industry something few other countries can. And as it unfolds its treasures, cultural assimilation is inevitable. Tourism can serve to break cultural barriers, and this woman made me a part of that break at that moment.

The air was thick and humid when we boarded a small, cramped plane for Beijing. I worried a little when the vents began to spew before my face cold white vapors — China Airlines version of air conditioning.

I turned my thoughts to visions of monasteries and temples and hillsides that I had captured on film. What took greatest concern, though, was the number of untouched regions soon to open up to a new world of people. And they may not be ready for what’s ahead of them.

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