Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inner Mongolia Trip: Hohhot

View Inner Mongolia Trip in a larger map

After finally finding a new way around the Great Firewall of China, the blog is finally back!

At the beginning of October there was a holiday period in China. The National Day, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of China, and the Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival, which is an historic harvest festival, were combined together for a whopping 8 days off from work. I should mention that in China it's normally necessary to work a day or two on the weekend before and after the holiday to make up some of the vacation days, which really makes the holiday about 5-6 days off from work. During the holiday I decided to go to Inner Mongolia, which is a province in northern China that borders the country of Mongolia and has some ethnic Mongolian inhabitants and influence. I figured that since Inner Mongolia is less populated than most parts of China and the trip would be during the low travel season for the area, it would be a good place to go during the busy holiday period.

The National Holiday is second to the Chinese New Year for the busiest and hectic travel time in China. At first I was a little hesitant to travel during this time, but I didn't want to waste what little vacation I have sitting around my apartment in Hangzhou. In order to get train tickets to Inner Mongolia, I went 30 minutes before the ticket offices opened on the first day the tickets would be available. Despite showing up early, all the tickets for sleeper beds on the train were sold out by the time I got to the front of the line. With no other choice, I bought a ticket for a seat for the 28 hour and 1500 mile train ride. That means I'd be sitting up for the whole train ride and also dealing with the masses since they allow standing tickets in the seats only area.

The train ride itself was pretty brutal. The first half of the train ride goes from Hangzhou to Shanghai and up the eastern coast of China to Beijing. During this part of the trip the train was packed to the brim in the seats only (meaning no sleeper beds) area. The aisles are so full of people and their luggage that it's hard to even get to the bathroom. If you are lucky enough to get to the bathroom, it's quite common for the water to run out on such a crowded train, which means that waste starts building and you can't wash your hands. The environment in the train is pretty terrible, with people smoking in the area between the train cars and the heat and smells that go along with such a crowded train. It's hard to sleep in that kind of situation. Naturally, people drop cigarette ash and spit on the ground, in addition to all other kinds of garbage. They had some people come by every so often to try and sweep up the mess, but their efforts were pretty futile for the amount of garbage produced. Fortunately, after we stopped in Beijing, the train gradually became more and more empty as we headed west into the less populated parts of China. I was able to catch up on my sleep a bit during the day until we finally arrived in Hohhot, the capitol of Inner Mongolia, at around 11 pm the night after leaving Hangzhou. That was the longest and probably the most unpleasant train ride I've ever been on.

The next morning I set off to explore Hohhot. Hohhot has a mix of Chinese, Mongolian, and Muslim styles. It was pretty cold and the air was so dry during my time there, in stark contrast to the hot and humid Hangzhou. My skin was suffering the whole trip due to the abrupt change. Around Hohhot they have all their signs written in Chinese and Mongolian. I liked the style of the Mongolian writing, which is written in vertical columns and from left to right. The best part of Inner Mongolia, at least to those of us who live on the polluted eastern seaboard of China, is the constant blue skies. It's pretty rare to have a clear blue sky in Hangzhou between the pollution days and the rainy days.

One of the better things to see in Hohhot is the Temple of the Five Pagodas. It is a Buddhist temple, but different than the style you normally see in China.

Temple of the Five Pagodas

Temple of the Five Pagodas

Mongolian Writing

Most of the tourist sites in Hohhot are in the same area and you can walk from the Temple of the Five Pagodas along this Muslim themed street to another temple area.

Muslim Street

Muslim Street

The Da Zhao temple is another famous tourist site in Hohhot. It is an active Buddhist lamasery, which makes it slightly less touristy than some other temples, although of course you still have to pay to enter. The style is more similar to other Buddhist temples in China, but still has some Mongolian flavor.

Sign at Temple with Chinese and Mongolian Writing

Temple with "Prayer Poles?"

Can Anyone Tell Me What Two Dear Staring at a Sun With Eyes Means?

While at the temple, I was lucky enough to catch a big group of Buddhist monks in a prayer hall chanting. They had some big horns, bells, and other noise making instruments that kept the hall pretty noisy, but it was definitely cool to see.

Hall with Monks Chanting

Monk Leading the Chanting

Big and Loud Horns

Chanting Hall

Young Monks Probably Skipping Church
(I Personally Have Never, Ever Skipped Sunday School)

Near the Da Zhao temple there was a big tourist shopping street. The local goods sold in Hohhot reflect the grassland and cold climate area. They had a lot of animal furs, skins, leather, dried meat, dried fruit, milk candy, and of course horse milk liquor. Horse milk liquor is kind of like the Chinese baijiu (white alcohol), which means it tastes like lighter fluid. It's recommended for those trying to bring tears to their eyes or for cleaning blood stains from clothing.

Vendors Selling Furs

Dried Fruits

Mongolian Goods

A Chinese Flag on Every Building Proves With Certainty
That the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is Part of China

Guy Burning Picture Onto Animal Skin while Smoking a Cigarette

Genghis Khan, 1162-1227, Leader of Men
Genghis Khan's face was everywhere, almost as common as seeing a portrait of Mao Zedong in other parts of China.

Horse Milk Liquor in Real Leather Bota Bag

The food in Hohhot and the rest of Inner Mongolia was really good. They served a lot of dishes with lamb, dried meat, milk, and other delicious things. An interesting thing to try is Mongolian milk tea. It's salty and very milky (maybe whole or buttermilk), with a small amount of tea. Most of the foreigners I met didn't really like it, but I thought it was pretty good. The more I travel, the more food becomes my favorite part of traveling. Seeing so many tourist sites leads to the feeling of being herded around like cattle to spend your money for the "authentic" experience, but a lot of the sites start to blend together. In comparison, the local flavors of food normally tend to be more unique than the local tourist sites, at least in my opinion.

Dried Lamb Meat, Dried Beans, and Potatoes

Lamb with Fried Pita Bread

Fruit Salad with Yogurt

Mongolian Milk Tea

In keeping with a previous tradition of ending my posts with some pictures of Chinese people doing interesting things, here are a some pictures from around Hohhot.

Local Fruit Vendor with Donkey Cart

These circles of men huddled around are in every Chinese city I've seen. They're always playing cards or some kind of Chinese checkers. Normally there is gambling involved and they can get pretty loud and animated.

Man at Bike Repair Sleeping on the Job