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Mongolian nuptials in the heart of the grasslands

It’s day one of my first ever trip to Inner Mongolia, but we have a full day ahead of us. It’s only a short drive out into the grasslands from the centre of Hailar and we’re due to film a local wedding reception for an upcoming documentary series on the region.

Close to the venue is a restaurant complex, and while part of the crew goes off to set up equipment, the rest of us decide to do a bit of exploring.

According to the display board, you can enjoy a “Shepherd samily tourst route”, or a “NIatyre Trail Road”, not to mention a “Banbecue”; but most people are heading for the Aobao worship area.

Wiki comes to my rescue – again. Aobaoes (敖包 áobāo) are sacrificial altars in the shape of a mound that are traditionally used for worship in the indigenous religion of Mongols and related ethnic groups. Every aobao is thought as the representation of a god. There are aobaoes dedicated to heavenly gods, mountain gods, other gods of nature, and also to gods of human lineages and agglomerations. The aobaoes for worship of ancestral gods can be private shrines of an extended family or kin (people sharing the same surname), otherwise they are common to villages (dedicated to the god of a village), banners or leagues. Sacrifices to the aobaoes are made offering slaughtered animals, joss sticks, and libations.

We plod up the hill to the mound which is covered in coloured ribbons, together with a number of empty bottles of baijiu scattered liberally around – used, as Wiki has already explained, to toast the gods and ancestors.

To get good luck, we are obliged to walk around the mound three times. What kind of luck will we get if we only manage it twice, I wonder…

Amongst the colourful ribbons are beautifully printed cloth documents, though I have no idea what they are describing.

Using my favourite filter in Photoshop the aobao looks impressive, towering over the grasslands…

On the way down to the resort again we come across some totem poles. What is it about totem pole designers that they so love to feature such in-your-face phalluses? (You can imagine such a designer coming home to his wife of an evening: Hello dear… Have a good day at work? How many penises did you carve today? Hmmm … what a job – but someone has to do it I guess! LOL)

At the resort, there are also some concrete yurt-like structures, which are overflows of the main restaurant… and that’s about it.

We are about to walk back towards the car, when we are accosted by a minder, demanding 20 kwai each for the privilege of walking up a hill. My companion explodes. What?

Oh, you didn’t see the notice? asks the minder. Right over there, he says, pointing to a scruffy blue notice, which those of you with 20/20 vision can probably now see in the second pic of this blog.


Maybe we should have walked an extra circuit of the aobao?

Ahead of us, strung up on poles, are what remains of some sheep, who were probably too busy munching the grasslands to be overly concerned about their future.

Their friends munch away in determined fashion, equally oblivious of their fate…

Meanwhile the wedding guests are arriving, dolled up in their finery.

Your favourite blogger cannot resist the temptation to try on a Genghis costume himself… what a dashing figure! (though it would have been nice if there had been a furry hat lying around as well!)

The female guests (all 19 of them) want a camera pose with this westerner and, of course, it would be impolite of me to say no!

I tell the bride (in the furry hat) that she looks lovely (well, what else can you say on such occasions?). She and her minder (in the blue hat) – 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!

(This is where BS considers doing a runner!)

But soon it’s down to business. There’s a lot of filming to be done, even though, I later find out, this is purely for background footage inside the yurt before the actual event, which is in a couple of weeks’ time.

I’m very taken with the furry hats and wonder what comments I might get if wearing one on the Beijing subway in the depths of winter.

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 there is plenty of mutton and baijiu for the wedding guests…

… while they sip on Mongolian milk tea at the same time slicing off another piece of dead sheep for their stomachs. 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. But the result, I fear, is that the majority of the local lasses will never earn themselves a place on the Miss World catwalks.

It’s obviously tiring work sitting for hours in front of a camera crew – unless you happen to have your cellphone with you, of course.

But finally the filming is over and everyone can relax in front of some mutton soup, mutton dumplings …

… and sliced mutton.

Some of the women pose for photos.

And it’s not long before the whole party has decided this is probably quite a spiffing idea and are posing together with some strange foreign blogger sat right in the centre of their little group.

The sun decides that lest there’s danger from the guests over-dosing on fun, it is time for it to head towards the horizon.

But the celebrations aren’t finished yet. In the light of a camp fire, set ablaze with the help of some dried animal dung and a liberal helping of petroleum spirit, the party continues once again with singing and dancing…

… while the camera keeps on rolling, recording all for posterity.

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