So, we went to Inner Mongolia. Or as the Chinese people call it, Nei Mongol (many of them also call it Zhongguo Mongol, or China’s Mongolia).
This seems like a bold move, leaving Beijing this early in our adventure, especially considering we haven’t even been to, oh, the Great Wall yet. But we were invited by the Beijing Farmers’ Market to visit some herders, which sounded awesome, and so early one morning last week, we found ourselves crammed into a seven person van with nine people for a six-hour voyage to Xilinhot, where we’d spend the night and then continue on from to smaller towns up near the Mongolian border.
Yes, you could also fly or take the train to Xilinhot, but planes, apparently, are frequently delayed in China, and the train to this part of Inner Mongolia is, apparently, a slow train (at least that’s what we gathered — we thought we spied a bullet train station and tracks, though, so possibly we misunderstood). Driving was cool, though, because not only did we see the sweet freeway China built three years ago, we got to follow the Great Wall for a bit, which historically separated China from Mongolia (and was supposed to keep the Mongols out — it didn’t work).
As Hebei (the province to the north of Beijing) gave way to Inner Mongolia, we were struck by how much the geography looked like northern Nebraska or southern South Dakota — rolling hills covered with shrubbery, basically. Deeper into Inner Mongolia, the landscape looked a lot more like North Dakota — flat, grassy, vast. Inner Mongolia, or at least this part of Inner Mongolia, is located on a steppe, which is essentially a vast plateau. It’s high and dry, and the area we were in was also rich in salt flats (remember that detail — Imma talk about it again in a minute).
In Xilinhot, we stayed at a hotel that included a very nice feature: you could watch your roommate sitting on the toilet through the shower, if you wanted. Because we’re D-U-M dumb, it took us way longer than it should have to realize we could pull a curtain down and create more privacy.
Xilinhot is a growing city, and we spent some time wandering around a new mall, where we bought essentials: instant coffee and Great Wall wine (made in China!). Buying that wine is also how we learned that everywhere in China is BYO — and later in the trip, we learned that you can carry your beer out on to the street after dinner. High five.
We headed to the Beizi temple, which, one of our hosts told us, is one of the four largest in Inner Mongolia. Below the temple, the entire town seemed to be gathered for a night out at the park — kids were driving these light-up go-karts around, and some roller bladers were cruising backwards down a long line of steps at a horrifying speed (“I can do that,” says Rob). There were also a disconcerting number of swallows hovering in the air above us. Never quite figured that out. We were rolling deep in Americans — four of us to our five Chinese traveling companions — and we made for a bit of a spectacle, especially after our friend Council engaged in a conversation with a woman and her dog in fluent Chinese. This drew a crowd of incredulous onlookers. We also took a lot of photos with kids — not sure westerners are so common in Xilinhot.
Xilinhot also gave us our first taste of Mongolian cuisine, which comprises a lot of meat (mostly mutton, goat, and beef…and innards) and dairy (yogurt, very hard cheese, milk tea, and camel cheese…more on that in a second). Our first taste of Inner Mongolian yogurt was an excellent one; it was tart, sweet, and thick. Could Inner Mongolian yogurt be the next Greek yogurt? Probably not, but more for infrastructure reasons than anything else — more on that, too, in a hot sec.
Day two, we cruised up north to a small village called Ejin Noor, where we spent most of the rest of our time. A rancher gave us a tour of his land, which included:
1. Seeing the famous stud sheep, famous for fathering tasty babies.
2. Checking out the salt flats and tasting the grass — the lambs eat this grass, and it imparts an excellent flavor to the meat; the grass makes the meat really tender and savory. Also, because of the cold winters, the lamb gets pretty fatty, but maintains that nice, rich grassfed flavor (corn-fed fat, I find, makes the meat blander). This was truly some of the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, and many of the people in Inner Mongolia are just boiling the meat in water with a little salt. If this lamb were raised in, say, Europe, I believe wholeheartedly that it’d be an internationally coveted product. But the infrastructure isn’t in place in Inner Mongolia to support the kind of branding that would differentiate in the market. I’m not even sure there’s infrastructure in place to ship the lamb long distances. So alas, we can’t really even buy it here in China, or at least we can’t be sure that we’re getting Inner Mongolian lamb. The Farmers’ Market is trying to bring it there, though, so fingers crossed, we’ll be able to stock up. These infrastructure issues explain why the yogurt won’t be the next big thing, either.
3. Meeting our tour guide’s brothers, who rode in on ponies. These guys were wearing some killer boots. They rounded up a herd of camels for us so we could take turns sitting on them. Here’s Rob sitting on a camel:
4. Hanging out at the farmer’s house (and in his parents’ yurt!!), where we feasted on lamb, cheese, and watermelon; played with a small child; kicked a soccer ball around; tried on some traditional Mongolian gear; and shot a bow and arrow. Rob has a couple of large archery bruises. Between this and his cliff diving injury, which he obtained in Indonesia, he’s really going for some obscure sporting wounds.
We also drank a lot of milk tea, which tastes sort of like watered down hot chocolate, except salty. The pro move is to float some biscuity puffs in it, or maybe a cheese brick or two. This also has the nice effect of softening the cheese, which can be as hard as hard candy.
Fortuitously, we were in Inner Mongolia for the Naadam festival, which is the big party of the year. The event brings all the herders together in one spot and features three sports: archery, horse racing, and wrestling. We caught the horse race, but like the derby, that was over quickly — dudes on horses galloping at top speed, leaving a trail of dust behind them as they streaked by. We missed archery entirely, but we saw quite a bit of wrestling. All the young bucks suited up in leather vests festooned with colorful streamers, and then tried to push each other down in one-on-one match-ups. First guy to fall on the ground lost. Pretty straightforward, though it seemed there was no rhyme or reason to the match-ups — specifically, there were no weight classes. So the early rounds featured a lot of matches that saw a big Bruno handily tossing his whisper-thin opponent into the dirt.
Beyond those events, Naadam in this part of Inner Mongolia seemed a lot like small-town America 4th of July: people standing around a big field eating roasted meats, drinking beer, and chatting it up under a relentless sun while activities go on around them, and kids weave between everyone’s legs. We spent several hours posted up in tents eating lamb on a stick and sipping Yanjing beer, and fielding the frequent requests for photos. We just needed a deck of cards.
Oh — so that camel cheese: We had our first taste of camel cheese at breakfast one morning, except we didn’t know it was camel cheese when we put it in our mouths. We were passed a dish of adorable morsels that looked like homemade candy. There was a white one, which we imagined was a sweet vanilla treat. The brown one looked a bit like British tablet, which is sweet, caramely, and delicious. Rob wisely took the white one, which was equal parts sweet and sour — not unlike cream cheese. No problem there. I took the brown one, and because I was so certain it was going to be like tablet, popped the whole thing in my mouth. It was not tablet. It was eye-wateringly sour and as pungent as a foot. And it lingered. I think I can still taste it, in fact. I’m a strong buy on the meat and yogurt. More of a sell on the camel cheese. Don’t think that one is coming to Whole Foods any time soon. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Rob says he ate the brown one — all of it — and liked it. DIFFERENT STROKES.]
Feels like it’s conclusion time, so I guess the moral of this story is that Inner Mongolia was wild — in many ways, literally so, for there’s still a nomadic spirit, even if the people aren’t actually nomadic anymore. It provided an intense contrast with the international sensibility of Beijing, and we got a great first taste of life in other provinces. And should you ever spy Inner Mongolian lamb or yogurt, buy that stuff immediately. It’s good.
Here are some more photos: