I bought 8 pairs of chopsticks for like 3 bucks at the market kinda near the Temple and kinda far from the Mosque. Stored them loosely in my back pocket and thought for a second that, while I had my back turned when paying for my entrance ticket, the beggars would swipe them from me if I didn’t placate them with cash.
This thought was foolish, I admit. Here in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the rules had changed on me, and I was taken off-guard. People spoke dialects that I didn’t understand, and Mongolian was on signs and in the streets. People consumed dairy products here?
In a land of jade, Inner Mongolia was crystallized amber.
Hohhot, the “blue city,” which translates from the Mongolian into the Mandarin 青城//qing1cheng2, still uses Mongolian script to write its name alongside its transliteration: 呼和浩特//hu1he2hao4te4. This name is frequently shortened to 呼市//hu1shi4 (literally, “calling city”), and the multitude of names available to refer to this city reflect its ethno-linguistic diversity as well as its social divides.
I often heard ethnic Mongolians refer to the place as 我们的呼市 (“our Hohhot”), and was praised and thanked several times for traveling to their city as a foreigner. They explained: in our Hohhot, you speak Mongolian with other Mongolians (you probably can’t tell the difference in appearance between us and Han Chinese, but we can), and you go to the 草原//cao3yuan2 (grassland) regularly; for you to be here, conversing and drinking with us, means that you value those things enough to visit our Inner Mongolia.
I also heard a distinct dislike for dominant Han Chinese culture.
Inner Mongolia seemed like chalk art — Hohhot, the blue city, especially so. Lines are drawn and then erode away with the wind and sudden rain storms. For better or worse, the washed-out-ness gives the place character. Things of importance have been etched in stone or soil, though by nature turn back into dust with time.
One such place is the Temple of the Five Pagodas. Inscribed on the walls of the temple and in sealed display cases behind the structure are parcels of important spiritual and cosmological data. These date back at least a hundred years.
dyed cracked glass past
The temple itself was completed in 1732, but its sturdy appearance evinces little about its age. Built in the Indian style, the Temple of Five Pagodas is one of only six in China constructed in this fashion.¹
green represents the Earth and its trellised cucumbers
The nearby cucurbits and player flags display their age more readily. The longer the wind and sun have beaten down on them, the more wizened they get.
white is for passing clouds
If green represents the Earth and its sun-ripened vine veggies, then white prayer flags assuredly represent the clouds. Clouds are abundant here: the province’s flat landscape and vast grasslands see passing storms frequently.
At the Temple of Five Pagodas, the cloudy overcast whitens everything. (That is, until the cloud cover clears and the sun brightens everything instead).
and city-color is for all else
In contrast, the city is fairly gray. Cement-colored sprawling cities are ubiquitous in China. Provinces that have traditionally and culturally been on the periphery of the last Han-led dynasties — places like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Yunnan — have seen rapid development in recent years while population, industry, and consumer demand all boom.
sky of haze
The blue city (called Kokukota in Mongolian at the time) was born alongside the construction of the Da Zhao Temple by Altan Khan in 1557.² This precursor town mostly served the temple’s monks and travelers. It emerged as a hub for transit and business a decade later when Altan Khan negotiated for the lifting of prior trade restrictions imposed on the Mongols by Ming China in exchange for new tributary relations.
The crumbling of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (the first foreign empire to rule all of China, later followed by the Qing Dynasty) allowed for the flourishing of the Ming Dynasty, which built modern China’s most recognizable landmarks. By the time Altan Khan, descendant of the great Kublai Khan, assumed vassal-tributary relations with Ming China, the Forbidden City in Beijing was already 150 years old.
roofed and veiled
Since then, Buddhist temples in the Mongolian style have remained standing while the world around them changes. With improved technology and infrastructure comes improved idea exchange, but it might also have the opposite effect. Nowadays its easy to sit inside with a roof over your head and the veil of selected information before your eyes. Discerning who’s veiling whom remains the challenge.
But when you live on the grassland, your thoughts often have more to do with the wide physical world than narrow politics or whatever else — you need consistent access to water for your flock. So you drill a well. Water comes up cool from the ground below.
I think it might be true: when I sat inside this sun-shaped ger or watched the weather morph from blustery warm to deluge then quicken into a bow of refracted multi-color light, it was near impossible to not think about how I felt some damn spiritual wellness welling up inside.
Cold well water (cleaner than what comes out of the tap in most Chinese cities) was used to cook this meal: pork and carrot steamed buns, stewed potatoes, roast pork, white rice. Warm and salty milk tea made with whole milk, green tea, and hard sour cheese.
And thistle. Bugs on thistle. In the middle of endless 草原 (grassland), bees and bugs wander from flower to flower looking for these pollen goldmines.
you could miss (aka mare’s milk wine)
Look close and you’ll see a cluster of horses grazing near the mudflat where the grass is nice. You could also miss the empty bottle of what appears to be 马奶酒//ma3nai3jiu3 (mare’s milk wine) placed right here in this giant flatland.
South China Sea
The mudflat looks vaguely like an ocean if you catch it at the right angle. As does the hot pot with transported kelp and handmade noodles in its copper basin.
mounds (both of which are worthy of respect)
Before it gets dark (which is around 8 or 9pm at this latitude), it’s worth it to venture out on the plains a bit more. While it might seem like the grassland is eternally flat, there are actually two types of mounds present here.
The first kind [left tile] signifies points of comparative elevation. These are constructed initially and then built up over time as passersby add stones to the structure: believers circle around them three times, clockwise, tossing three pebbles onto the mound with a mantra in mind.
The second kind [right tile] is fairly recognizable.
Sack of Shit
Cows and the products made from their bodies are an integral part of Inner Mongolian life. In a region of the world where many cultures do not consume much dairy, Mongolians consume plenty of it: milk tea, yogurt and hard sour cheese, bing made with butter…
In addition to consuming dairy, Inner Mongolians on the grassland sometimes use cow dung to heat their homes. Sometimes collecting shit into a bag is the nicest part of the day. Afterward, you get to watch it burn and glow and smell like sweet earth.
Morning, this is what’s left.
This is what’s left in the morning. Outside the ger, next to the well, near the flock of sheep that need to be sheared and sold. After the building of cities like Hohhot with its gray cement, after all the travel by train, bus, and car, after the burning dung and watching bows form from rain, this 草原 is what remains.
The dirt road and a vehicle carries passengers past the stone mound on the left and back to the blue city where people think they’re right.
Inner Mongolia, Autonomous Province of the People’s Republic of China.
To sit down for a meal and milk tea
Before I left, I sat down and broke fast — plain flour bing, salt and millet to accompany my milk tea (and, later, milk tea to accompany my meat bing and cumin beef dinner) — with some friends.
Are we 家 people
I woke up the next day feeling jaded in a sleeper train toward Henan Province, where the Yellow River makes its great northward turn, spilling fertile soil into where China began.