Sunday, May 22, 2005

China | Hebei Province | Mongolian Plateau

Popped into Beijing and headed north by car to Dolonnuur in Inner Mongolia. On the edge of the Yan Shan Mountains north of Beijing we got several good views of the Great Wall. This section of the Wall has not been restored and is not open to the public. My informant, the estimable Mr. Li, the Chinese translator who accompanied me on this trip, said that the wall here is very unstable and unsafe on walk on. The southern ranges of the Yan Shan are extremely rugged and heavily vegetated. The farther north one goes the more desert-like the terrain becomes. Finally we climbed through a number of switchbacks and emerged on a pass whose name as I understood it was Qian Song Bai Lin Chang, although it might well of been the name of a nearby place instead. Mr. Li was the the moment immersed in one of his interminable mobile phone conservations and could not explain the matter fully. In case the elevation was a surprising 5991 feet, some 5300 feet above Beijing. As if to officially mark the entrance to the Mongolian Plateau (although we were still in Hebei Province) there was also an ovoo, the first I had been on the trip.

Ovoo at the 5991-foot pass at the southern edge of the Mongolian Plateau

On the hilltops on either side of the pass were scattered patches of snow. Mr. Li, clearly more at home guiding tour groups through the Forbidden Palace than on the Mongolian Plateau, insisted that these patches were white rocks, although after finally ducking back into the car to escape the frigid wind (he was clad only in a snazzy and if I am not mistaken custom-tailored tweed blazer) he finally admitted that they could well be snow. A hotel located right on the pass, closed now but according to a caretaker having a smoke in the parking lot quite popular in summertime, has constructed a large statue of Khubilai Khan, son of Tolui, Chingis Khan’s fourth and youngest son, and of course founder of the Yuan Dynasty. To examine the ruins of Khubilai’s first capital, Shangtu (the inspiration for Coleridge’s “Xanadu”) is one of the reasons for this trip.

Statue of Khubilai at the Pass

From the pass onward for the next thirty or forty miles extends the well-known Bashang Grasslands, identical in appearance to the steppe in Mongolia itself and at about the same altitude as Ulaan Baatar. This is a very popular place for Beijingers escaping the summer heat and humidity of the city, and there are many ger camps with faux Mongolian gers made from sheet metal.

Faux-Mongolian Gers at a Ger Camp

All these however are closed now and won’t open at least until the first of June. Just beyond the dusty little town of Bashang we stopped at a hotel complex which someone in town told us was open. There was not a soul in sight, but after yelling down a few hallways Mr. Li finally rousted the the hotel receptionist, a young woman who seemed very surprised to see us. A room in this place were a preposterous 475 yuan a night. We finally talked the woman down to 300, but this was still outrageous, considering that I stay in a very nice hotel in the heart of Beijing in a king-sized room with free high speed internet access for 275 yuan a night and of course there are even cheaper places available in the capital. But according to our informants this was the only place in the area open at this time of the year, so we did not have much choice. Mr. Li was not the kind of guy who slept in the front seat of cars. I noticed he was applying cold cream to his face to protect it from the ravages of the wind and sun at this altitude. Asked by Mr Li if this place was busy in summertime the receptionist said it was packed out the entire summer and if you wanted a room it was necessary to make a reservation several weeks in advance.

The restaurant on the other side of the vast parking lot was a huge affair with round banquet tables seating up to fifteen or twenty. Again there seemed to be no one at home. After shouting for ten minutes a girl who had obviously just gotten dressed appeared. She assured us the restaurant was indeed open. We took a seat and Mr. Li, who obviously knew his way around a Chinese menu, imperiously ordered five or six different dishes. We sat back for what I assumed would be a long wait. Amazing the first dish appeared in about five minutes and the rest followed in short order. We were the only customers the restaurant was expecting that day—maybe even that week—so it was a mystery, to me at least, how and why they had all the ingredients on hand and were able to russle them up in such short order. And the food, especially the leg of lamb, was excellent. Even Mr. Li allowed that it was “not bad.”

Waiting outside for us after the meal was a local man wondering if we wanted to rent horses. At the moment we did not, but told him we might later. Questioning this guy we discovered that some twelve miles away was a interesting building dating from Yuan Dynasty. Following this man’s directions we finally tracked it down. The square building turned out to have a remarkable resemblance to a small mosque.

The Make-Up Building

A sign posted out front said it was the Shu Zhuang Lu, or quite literally the “Make-up Building.” According to the historical signpost it was built by the Mongol aristocracy during the Yuan Dynasty as a place where woman could stop and fix their makeup, in short a kind of glorified powder room. The ideograms on the front of the structure identified it as the “Make-up Building” are said to be the touched up originals.

”Make-Up Building" Ideograms at the entrance

Later three Mongolian noblemen were interred under the floor of this building. They were buried in hollowed-out tree trunks, said to be the only known examples of this kind of burial among Mongolians.
The compound is surrounded by a chain-link fence and the gate is locked, but an old couple cutting dried grass nearby show me where I can crawl underneath the fence for a closer look at the building. The coffins are on display inside the building during the summertime when a caretaker is in attendance but at the moment the door to the building is locked.

We went back to the hotel only to find the local horseman still waiting for us, hoping we would rent some horses. I normally take eight or ten day horse trips in Mongolia and at first was not disposed to hire a horse for an hour, but when Mr. Li announced that he would like to try riding a horse I changed my mind. This, I thought, might be amusing. Besides, a brisk horseback ride might sharpen our appetites for dinner. The horseman, who according to Mr. Li was a Han Chinese but who had a distinctly Mongolian look about him (he did not, however, speak Mongolian), lived in a small fenced in compound about a mile from the hotel. His wife and father quickly appeared appeared to help saddle up the horses. He had both Chinese and Mongolian horses. The big stocky Chinese horse were at least two feet higher at the withers than the lean Mongolian mounts. He gave us three Chinese horses (the driver had decided to come along) but he himself rode a palomino Mongolian. I expected an leisurely trot across the steppe but the moment we leave the compound the herdsman broke into a full gallop and we followed behind. After about a mile I was already a couple a hundred meters behind. My big clumsy Chinese horse clearly did not want to gallop. We stopped for a moment and the horseman and I switched horses. The Mongolian horse was a different story, and after another mile’s gallop I was several hundred yards ahead of the pack. The others stopped for some reason and I rode ahead and climbed up a steep knoll for a view of the countryside. The others stopped and dismounted about half a mile away. After about fifteen minutes it did not appear they were going to continue so I rode back to where they were. It seems Mr. had strained a muscle in his back. We decided it might be better to head back. Realizing we were heading back to the compound my Mongolian horse hit a full-gallop with the rest of the group foilowing. Poor Mr. Li was barely able to fold himself up to get into the car for the ride back to the hotel. He did rally for a five-dish dinner, including some excellent sheep ribs. To me five dishes seemed a bit excessive for three people but Mr. Li assured me that normally he would order seven or eight.