SPEAKING FREELY A journey through Inner Mongolia
By David Koppers
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The journey by train from Mongolia to the border with China is hot and dusty,
especially in the middle of summer. Although I had made this journey before, I
had never spent much time exploring Inner Mongolia, instead opting to see the
standard tourist destinations in Beijing and Shanghai. My wife is from Mongolia
and our family was traveling with her extended family to attend a wedding in
The border guards in Mongolia stamped our passports and looked over our
belongings. After crossing the border, the Chinese
customs officials did the same. We were now in Erlian, "two gates" in Chinese,
representing the two paths one can choose here. This former backwater is now a
sprawling small city, at least compared to the Mongolian town on the other side
of the border.
For Mongolians, traveling to Inner Mongolia can be an awkward experience.
Although the province is designated as autonomous, Han Chinese outnumber
Mongolians here ten to one. Especially in urban areas, Mongolian culture is
almost non-existent. For Mongolians who do not speak Chinese, traveling to
Inner Mongolia is akin to visiting a foreign country.
After eating a hot pot lunch we were soon on our way out of Erlian. We were
headed toward Xilinhot a city on the plains east of here. Xilinhot had been in
the news recently. A local herdsman was killed by a coal truck driver there.
The man killed was an ethnic Mongolian and the truck driver was Chinese.
Numerous protests occurred resulting in some of the worst unrest in several
years. This news was on our minds when, after three hours of driving across the
Gobi desert, we saw the lights of Xilinhot gleaming in the distance.
We were now in a standard Chinese city full of neon signs and heavy traffic in
the middle of nowhere. No one would have guessed that this was the scene of
unrest less than two months ago. In fact, no Mongolians were to be seen. It was
not until later that we occasionally overheard the Mongolian language, easily
distinguishable from the tonal sounds of Chinese.
The museum in Xilinhot is a sight to behold. It pays tribute to the Mongolian
people as a proud and noble race, but relegates their nomadic way of life to a
thing of the past. Mannequins are on display wearing traditional Mongolian
attire and herding animals. Chinese tourists there asked to have their picture
taken with me.
After a brief stay in Xilinhot we were once again on the road, this time to our
final destination. We had been traveling in a team of three minivans carrying
three generations of family members. First we traveled two hours southeast past
looming windmills and small towns. Then we veered onto a gravel road and
traveled for one more hour over bumps and potholes.
At last we arrived in the tiny village of Hangal, a place that I have still
been unable to locate on a map. We were warmly greeted by family members in the
traditional Mongolian way. Blue scarves symbolizing the sky were presented to
us along with silver bowls of milk tea.
We were now in a place where Mongolians were in the clear majority and their
culture and lifestyle was alive and vibrant, not tucked away in a museum.
Several ger, the traditional felt tents, were set up and reserved for
the wedding guests. Ceremonial exchanges of gifts took place. A musician from
Mongolia came along with us to sing hoomii, the throat singing music
popularized in Tuva. He also played the horse-head fiddle for the townspeople,
most of whom had assembled around him to see the newly arrived visitors.
When the time for the weeding had arrived, the town’s only large building was
filled to capacity with more people than I had thought lived in the entire
area. Plate after plate of stir-fried meat and vegetables was served along with
Chinese-made vodka. The loud, booming voice of the area's own singer resounded
in the small space as inebriation began. The young couple received gifts and
well wishes from parents and family members as everyone toasted the occasion
with another round of drinks.
Throughout the entire event, it was not myself who felt the part of the
foreigner so much as the four Han Chinese guests. While they did indeed enjoy
the wedding festivities and drank far more than they should have, they were
like tourists in their own country. They asked to take pictures next to the
Mongolians and were taken aback when they learned that I spoke Mongolian but
Later we journeyed back to Xilinhot. This time we explored the main square and
climbed up the stairs to a stupa on a hilltop. It was set up in the traditional
Mongolian way, although few Mongolians were there. Han Chinese visitors could,
however, have their picture taken wearing traditional Mongolian clothes. The
vista from the hilltop offered us one last look at the city and the expanse of
rolling plains surrounding it.
David Koppers is a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Mongolia.
He currently lives in Denver, Colorado with his wife and family.
(Copyright 2011 David Koppers.)
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