Riding out on the Mongolian Grasslands

On the third day we drove farther into rural China to the Inner Mongolian grasslands.  We entered a camp, with rows of Mongolian yurts of various sizes, bordering the open plain.  As we got off the bus, three women in traditional Mongolian dress greeted us with a song and extended a small wooden cup.  As I stepped off, I took the cup thinking it was tea, and as prompted, took it down the hatch.  It was Baijiu, a strong Chinese rice wine that has a distinct taste (more like vodka), and needless to say, I was wide awake after napping on the bus for the last few hours.  We all settled into respective yurts; although they were structurally bare, with only thin metal walls, inside was pretty cozy with a pile of blankets and a hanging lantern.  The idea is that they are somewhat like Native American teepees although they are circular in shape.  Like teepees, they were easily transportable and allowed for a nomadic life which was characteristic of the Mongols.  These were more permanent than their traditional counterparts and we crammed 9 people in ours.

Mongolian Yurts

We had lunch as a group in the settlement’s restaurant (serviced by Mongolians in traditional dress) before walking out to a corral where almost a hundred Mongolian horses were huddling together.  It was nippy out, although with the sun it wasn’t too bad—in Mongolia we had heard that it is significantly colder than in Beijing, especially in the open grasslands.  We all hoped on a horse, and gathered into groups based on how many of the “sites” we wanted to go to that were available to visit.  During lunch they had described the various places you could go (like everything in China, it was based on what you wanted to pay) including a Mongolian village, a river, a mountain, long grasslands, etc…  I was part of a group that had used bargaining to our advantage and got to go to seven of the “sites” for a relatively good price.  With that, we were off and following a gruff man in a green bulky Chinese overcoat (not only the standard heavy coat issued to the military but popular among many in countryside), we trotted out into the Mongolian grasslands.

Although the different “sites” blended together, our ride took us through fields of long grass, an old river bed, and vast barren terrain, passing cattle and even stray horses along the way.  We stopped to rest at an ancient Mongolian village, which today has a few houses.  There we tried Mongolian yak milk and some sort of milk candies.

Mongolian Girl with a Baby Sheep

We returned back to our encampment, and as we returned our horses, some of of the horse wranglers did Mongolian wrestling, which culminated when one man managed to get the other off his feet and on his back.

Mongolian Wrestling

As the sun fell in the Mongolian sky, the temperature rapidly dropped and the empty horizon assumed a deep orange glow.  Six Mongolian horsemen gathered beneath the waning sun in preparation of a race.  With the last rays of light streaming between them, the horsemen charged toward us, crouched upon their stirrups.  One wrangler eased ahead right before they all trampled by, followed by a cloud of dust.

Preparing to Race beneath the falling Mongolian Sun

Shortly after we all went back to our yurts to avoid the increasingly frigid Mongolian night.  All the guests at the camp gathered in the banquet hall where we had a traditional Mongolian feast including a roasted lamb which they paraded up and down the aisle for everyone to see.  While a Mongolian woman sang local songs on a modest stage, we filled ourselves with warm food to get us through the infamously cold night on the grassland.

After the banquet, we had a bonfire in the middle of the encampment with plenty of Baijiu and beer and speakers that blasted music far into the black nothingness that surrounded us.

Keeping Warm inside our Yurt

Me and three friends decided to venture out where the horses had been to see what the grassland was like at night.  After walking out into the infinite expanse of plains, the music started to fade away and the bonfire and camp dwindled to a modest glow which bordered the infinite blackness of which no movement or signs of life could be distinguished.  Beside us was a single dirt road which was the only way to and from the encampment and the only indication that anyone had even been over this vast plain.  With only the faint illumination of the stars above, we sat upon a hill on the border of civilization, looking out with uncertainty at the mystery of the Mongolian grassland.

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