Brian's Blogs

Exploring the Steppes in the far north of China


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It’s no exaggeration to say that China is a massive country. It’s nearly 5,000kms from the north-east to south-west; and the third largest subdivision of China – Inner Mongolia – covers over a million square km, or 12% of China's total land mass.

I’d often thought about going up to Inner Mongolia to see what the area is like; not for anything specific… just that it has always intrigued me in an odd kind of way. Maybe the stories of Genghis Khan and his ilk sweeping across the steppes of Asia in the 13th century had something to do with it. So I was particularly delighted when out of the blue came an invitation from an independent TV production company, with whom I work occasionally, asking if I’d like to pop up to Hailar for a long weekend, to get better acquainted with one of the projects they were currently working on.

There are around half a dozen flights a day between Beijing and Hailar’s Dongshan Airport and the flight takes a little over two hours. Hailar is the main city of the northern sector of Inner Mongolia. It’s located some 150km from the Russian border. We arrive early in the morning on a clear sunny day, where the temperature is already nudging 30 degrees. Inner Mongolia experiences extremes of temperature through the year. In Hailar it falls to around -48 in the winter, rising to +39 at the height of summer. This weekend it reaches 35 degrees, before plummeting to around 15 at night.

In 1734, the Qing Dynasty founded a garrison town along a crossing of the Hailar river, in order to buffer their strength against growing Russian incursions into Manchurian territory. The modern city currently has a population of around 250,000, with a large contingent of ethnic minorities.

The Evenks, for instance, are a Tungusic people of northern Asia. In China, they form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by the P.R.C., numbering around 70,000. A few thousand live in Mongolia, and the remainder are almost equally divided between Russia and China.

The Hailar town planners have done a wonderful job of putting up statues and sculptures all over the place, adding to its overall charm. Everywhere is clean and fresh… the air is pure and the sky is blue.

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, with separate letters for consonants and vowels, but in a line that runs from left to right.  Although a Mongolian font was defined in Unicode in 1999, there was no support for it until the release of Windows Vista in 2007; but the lack of support for inline vertical displays still causes problems for many software programs.

Genghis Khan unified the Mongol tribes in 1206 and founded the Mongol Empire. In 1271, his grandson, Kublai Khan, established the Yuan dynasty. His summer capital Shangdu (a.k.a. Xanadu) was located near present-day Dolonnor. Inner Mongolia was the political and cultural centre of the Mongols during the Northern Yuan dynasty. After the Yuan dynasty was overthrown by the Han-led Ming dynasty in 1368, the latter captured parts of Inner Mongolia and rebuilt the Great Wall of China along its southern border.

If you have ever watched the film ‘Mongol’ you will undoubtedly have fallen in love with the music of Altan Urag – a Mongolian folk rock band. Formed in 2002, the band's musical style combines traditional Mongolian and contemporary influences. The members of the band have all been trained in classical Mongolian music, and typically perform with the morin khuur (horse head fiddle), ikh khuur (grand horse head fiddle), bishguur (traditional horn) and yoochin (a type of hammered dulcimer), as well as incorporating khöömii (throat singing) and long song into the vocals.

The morin khuur consists of a wooden-framed sound box to which two strings are attached. It is held nearly upright with the sound box in the musician's lap or between the musician's legs. The strings run in parallel over a wooden bridge on the body up a long neck, past a second smaller bridge, to the two tuning pegs in the scroll, which is usually carved into the form of a horse's head. Traditionally the larger of the two strings (the "male" string) has 130 hairs from a stallion's tail, while the "female" string has 105 hairs from a mare's tail. But nowadays the strings are more often made of nylon.

So I’m particularly happy to see not one, but two horse head fiddles on display at the Hulunbuir Hotel, across the road from my slightly more modest inn.

What intrigues me is that so many people here are carrying fly whisks, and it’s not long before you discover why. This place may well be the ‘Pearl of the grasslands’, but with that grand title comes something else … midges and insects by the trillion. If you haven’t got a ‘rah-rah stick’, you have come ill-prepared for the constant fight against the little critters!

Something else that is really noticeable about this town is the streetlights. Somebody in the planning department has an artistic touch and a good sense of humour. And lest you were worried that “civilisation” might have made a detour around the region, you can rest assured that if you are really that desperate, you can find McDonalds restaurants with the name written in the Mongolian script!

There’s a lot of water in the town (Hailar lies on the south bank of the Hailar River, at its junction with the Yimin River) and this is one of the city’s undoubted charms. Apart from the aforementioned statues, there are also flowers in abundance, not to mention flower and plant sculptures. Along the banks of the rivers can be found walls decorated with simple motifs that include horses, yurts, sheep and even the occasional camel…

Everywhere you get a feeling of getting back to nature. While fermented horse’s milk may not be to everyone’s taste, for instance, it is readily available for purchase if you look for the signs.  But you should also be prepared to try Mongolian milk tea just for the experience if nothing else. It’s easy to make using normal black tea… Sauté half a teaspoon of flour with a little butter; add rice or millet and fry it for a little while. Add in the tea, plus a little salt, and boil it all together for a short while. Then throw in a load of milk and bring it back to the boil for about ten minutes. You can even add some mutton pieces into the brew! And that’s all there is to it! The perfect must-have brew to drink with every meal!

That’s exactly what a wedding party is sipping as we go to film the reception in the bride’s village. I tell the bride that she looks lovely (well, what else can you say on such occasions?). She and her minder – who also acts as an instant interpreter – go into a fit of the giggles before the latter tells me ‘She says she loves you too’… at which point I fear something might have got lost in the translation!

The father of the bride – who, it turns out, is the village baker – 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, that is.
Meanwhile as the wedding guests continue to sip on their milk tea, they are also tempted by glasses of Baiju and plate-loads of mutton. When you consider the extremely low temperatures this region experiences for so many months of the year, you can appreciate why the meat is considered best when it is really fatty; but the result, I fear, is that the majority of the local girls will never earn themselves a place on the Miss World catwalks.

Finally the filming is over and everyone can relax in front of some mutton soup, mutton dumplings and sliced mutton, not forgetting some mutton-flavoured milk tea. And just to cap it all, there is plenty of Russian beer to clear the pallet.

It’s been a great weekend; and Hailar is definitely a place I will want to explore further.

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