Brian's Blogs

An Unplanned Trip to Inner Mongolia

Your favourite blogger was able to cross off another of his must-visit-while-in-China places this past weekend. I’ve 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 plains of Asia in the 13th century had something to do with it.

Anyway, my guardian angel obviously thought it was high time I got off my situpon; and 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 are currently working on.

Inner Mongolia, for those who are geographically challenged, is the third largest subdivision of China, spanning approximately 1,200,000 square km – or 12% of China's total land mass. Although the majority of the population in the region is Han Chinese, there is a sizeable Mongol minority. Hailar is at the top of the red bit on the map, close to Russia.

I get up well before the crack of dawn and head to the airport. There are around half a dozen flights a day between the northern capital and Hailar’s Dongshan Airport and I stride manfully to the check-in aisle of Xiamen Airways whose 737-800 I am flying on today.

I’m flying to Hailar, I add helpfully to the check-in clerk as I give him my passport, but he looks at me quizzically and asks where that is. Hmmm. Not a good beginning. I show him the booking sent to me over my iPhone and he relaxes. Oh, you mean Hailar, he says. (Isn’t that what I said?) But I am used to check-in clerks not understanding my true-blue British accent, so I allow him to bask in his newly found superiority.

The flight is good, albeit that it leaves precisely one hour late; but it makes up for some lost time on the way.

Welcome to Hulunbuir the flight attendant mumbles into the microphone, as I quickly check to see where on earth I might have landed; and we are tipped out into a clear sunny day, where the temperature is already nudging 30 degrees.

Strange ladies in beautiful costumes are waiting for a couple of the passengers on my flight; but instead I am met by two of the crew and we head off into town.

It turns out that since 2001, Hailar has served as the urban district of the newly created Hulunbuir city.

Wiki explains that confusingly Hulunbuir is called a city in Mandarin Chinese, which is a mistranslation perhaps of the Mongolian ‘banner’, which 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, located some 150km from the Russian border.

The Qing Dynasty founded a garrison town along a crossing of the Hailar river in 1734, to buffer their strength against growing Russian incursion into Manchurian territory. 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 charm about it. Everywhere is clean and fresh – such a change from filthy old Beijing. The air is pure and the sky is blue. Truly a happy place before you have gone very far at all.

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.

Although the Mongolian script was defined in Unicode in 1999, there was no support for it until the release of Windows Vista in 2007 (and we all remember what a disaster Vista was, don’t we!); but the lack of support for inline vertical displays still causes problems for many software programs. The initial version of Microsoft's Mongolian Baiti font was, in the supplier's own words, "almost unusable", according to Wikipedia; while other fonts, such as MonoType's Mongol Usug and Myatav Erdenechimeg's MongolianScript, suffer even more serious bugs.

The heading of this map reads “Inner Mongolia Autonomous region & map”. Beautiful isn’t it!

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 (aka Xanadu) was located near present-day Dolonnor. After the Yuan dynasty was overthrown by the Han-led Ming dynasty in 1368, the Ming captured parts of Inner Mongolia and rebuilt the Great Wall of China at its present location, which roughly follows the southern border of modern Inner Mongolia. For the next 300 years, Inner Mongolia was the political and cultural centre of the Mongols during the Northern Yuan dynasty.

Hailar was founded as a Chinese fort in 1734, and during the administration of the Republic of China it was the capital city of Xing'an Province. It has long been known as the "Pearl of the Grasslands", or so the web blurb would have us believe.

But what intrigues me more is that so many people here are carrying rah-rah sticks (for those younger than a certain age, Rah-rah is a reduplication of an abbreviation for "hurrah", which was used as a synonym for cheering when used by ‘rah-rah girls’ or cheerleaders during the 1980s). I can see it now – clubs for the over 50s… ‘rah-rah grannies’ perhaps?

But the explanation is much simpler, I soon learn. 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 in 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. Why, it is almost as good as the streetlights in Manila!

And lest you were worried that “civilisation” might have made a detour around the region, you can rest assured that there is not just McDonalds to be found (have you ever seen it written in Mongolian before?) …

… but call girls are also using tart-stickers just like the ones you find in Beijing.

Genghis and Kublai would surely have been thrilled (both, it seems, were extreme womanisers, tsk tsk)!

Now, if you have ever watched the film Mongol (and if not, why not?) 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.

Click here to listen to some amazing music from the film Mongol!

{If this plugin doesn't play on your browser, you can try clicking here to download the mp3 file}

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. (Yes, sex is alive and kicking in Mongolian music!) 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.

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. You can see from a bus map how prominent the water is in the town.

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…

And while fermented mare's milk may not be to everyone’s taste, it is readily available for purchase if you look for the signs.

Talking of milk, 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, continuing to boil it for about ten minutes. You can optionally even add some mutton or beef pieces into the brew!

And that’s all there is to it! The perfect (?) must-have brew to drink with every meal!

If Hailar is an attractive little city in the day time, it really comes into its own once all the insects have decided it’s high time to get some shuteye and snuggle up under their little duvets, or wherever it is that the critters get their beauty sleep.

The place everyone makes a bee-line for is Genghis Khan Square, with older people doing line dancing, whilst the younger generation are on rollerblades or trying their hand at go-karting or boat rides. Naturally the street food vendors do a lot of business, selling everything from meat-on-a-stick to trinkets for friends back home.

Genghis might well have been responsible for the deaths of as many as 40 million people (it has even been estimated that the Mongols’ attacks may have reduced the entire world population by as much as 11 percent, including the killing of around three quarters of modern-day Iran’s population during his war with the Khwarezmid Empire); but he’s certainly a popular lad in Hailar!

But today it’s Saturday, and GK Square is also resounding to the sound of hiphop music, accompanying a lively fashion show which has the masses reaching out for their iPhones.

Deeper into the square (actually GK Square is in many places more like a park) everyone is intent on crossing the zigzag bridge over the artificial lake (did I mention in a previous blog that apparently devils are loathe to cross zigzag bridges as they find it hard to make a 90 degree turn, let alone five or several of them, so they are one of the safest ways to cross over water).

My visit comes to an end, and with tears in my eyes I head off to the airport – just 4 kms away from the downtown area.

The night time lighting continues to be fabulous all the way to the airport… it’s a joy to behold, and guaranteed to ensure that Hailar’s visitors will leave with a smile on their faces, determined to head back again as soon as they are able.

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