Travel, as the old saying goes, broadens the mind. It’s one of the reasons I decided to come to China in the first place, some five years ago. And whenever I have the chance, I grab every opportunity I can to discover more of this amazing country.
I had often thought about going up to Inner Mongolia to see what the area was like. Not for anything specific; just that it has always intrigued me in an odd kind of way. Maybe the stories of Genghis and Kublai Khan and their ilk sweeping across the plains of Asia in the 13th century had something to do with it.
One day, out of the blue, comes an invitation from a company with whom I work occasionally, asking if I’d like to pop up to Hailar, located some 150km from the Russian border. Of course I say yes!
Inner Mongolia is the third largest subdivision of China, spanning approximately 1,200,000 square km – or 12% of China's total land mass; and the region is mainly occupied by plateaus of over 1,000 metres in altitude, interspersed with mountains and plains.
It turns out that since 2001, Hailar has served as the urban district of the newly created Hulunbuir city. Wikipedia explains confusingly that Hulunbuir is called a city in Mandarin Chinese, which is a mistranslation perhaps of the Mongolian ‘banner’, that is more like the equivalent of a county or shire as it is largely rural. Hailar (also spelt Hailer or Hailaer) is the main city of the region, having been founded during the Qing Dynasty as a garrison town along a crossing of the Hailar river in 1734. The modern city currently has a population of around 250,000, with a large contingent of ethnic minorities.
Hailar's extreme temperatures range from around -48 to +39; this weekend it reaches 35 degrees, before plummeting to around 15 at night.
The town planners have done a wonderful job of putting up statues and sculptures all over the town which immediately has a modest charm about it. Everywhere is clean and fresh – such a change from the muggy air of Beijing.
The official languages here are Chinese and Mongolian, the latter of which is written in the traditional Mongolian script, as opposed to the Mongolian cyrillic alphabet, which is used in the state of Mongolia. It’s beautiful to look at, with each word being written from top to bottom as a true alphabet, with separate letters for consonants and vowels, in a line running from left to right. (Apparently it is one of the most difficult fonts to encode for computers.)
It’s only a short drive out into the grasslands from the centre of Hailar and I’m asked if I’d like to attend a local wedding reception. This is not the wedding itself, I am informed; but before the bride-to-be is carted off – literally – to her new husband’s encampment, perhaps over a day’s ride away, the friends of the bride’s family celebrate her forthcoming nuptials without any of the groom’s family present.
The wedding guests arrive, dolled up in their finery. Furry hats; amazing embroidered tunics; leather boots. Truly a sight for saw eyes. Inside a large ‘yurt’ (tent) the father of the bride – the local baker – takes time off from his loaves and cakes, and sings traditional verses extolling the duties of the bride, while the women-folk presumably try to keep a straight face on being told about their duties … from a male perspective. There is plenty of mutton and baijiu for the wedding guests, who also sip on bowls of Mongolian milk tea, itself flavoured with mutton. Apparently the fattier the meat, the more it is appreciated – not surprising when you consider the extremely low temperatures the region experiences for so many months of the year. (The result, I fear, is that the majority of the local lasses will never earn themselves a place on the Miss World catwalks!)
But Miss World is the farthest thing from my mind as these truly lovely people do everything they can to make this stranger feel so welcome.
The weekend is truly memorable, and with my mind suitably broadened by the experience, I’m determined to make a return visit to this charming place as soon as possible; but equally, after a surfeit of mutton at every meal, I am determined to give this particular meat a miss… at least for the foreseeable future.