Going home to

Inner Mongolia

The old rail lines connect the Bayanur region to the rest of China. My final destination is the city of LinHe, where most of my extended family still reside.

Each "soft-sleeper" cabin is shared by 4 passengers. The locals aren't shy and eagerly strike up a conversation. I find myself in the company of a doctor on the way to a conference, and a mother and child returning home to BaoTou.

What the train lacks in convenience and privacy it certainly makes up in character. I'm rocked to sleep by the click-clacking of the rail tracks, broken by the occasional tremor as the train stops at a station.

Hills and farmland roll by at a leisurely pace, sometimes slower than car-speed. Compared to the bullet train from ShenZhen to Beijing, we move at a snails-crawl.

I make my way to my temporary residence, my aunt's house in the HuTongs of the old district. For years the neighbourhood had stubbornly refused to change as if in proud defiance of the encroach of modernity. Now the tendrils of development are at its doorstep, replacing bricks with asphalt, bicycles with cars.

Outside my room on the second floor.

The days here are mostly quiet. The distant beeping of traffic is interrupted by an occasional merchant on a tricycle, shouting something indecipherable in a thick local accent.

There seem to be condos being built on every street corner. The green cocoons of Chinese construction peel away to reveal concrete towers beneath, every one of them identical. The buildings always seem rather skeletal, as if they were an exercise in minimalism in some titanic art installation.

The streets of LinHe would be a familiar sight anywhere in China. The bottom floor of buildings are occupied by various businesses, while the upper floors are used for residence. Having everything in walking distance is a convenience I greatly miss in the west.

I meet my grandmother while she picks some herbs. "KuTsai" (literally "bitter vegetable") is a local delicacy not found in the south. Personally, I could never get past the bitter taste.

My grandmother lives in MaChangDi (literally "horse fields"), a small farming village on the outskirts of LinHe. There may have been horses here long ago, but it has passed from living memory.

Despite appearances, many residents here are wealthy. The government has appropriated much of the village land for a highway expansion project, rewarding the displaced farmers with considerable sums.

China has always existed in a sort of time warp, but in this rural corner time may well have stopped a hundred years ago.

I stay the night in my grandmother's house, dreading the lack of Internet. She slaughters a chicken for dinner to celebrate my return to China.

Though electricity, gas and other necessities are available, rural life is still decidedly spartan. Drinking water is usually pumped by hand, on this occasion an electric pump is used to irrigate the garden.

There are no bathrooms to speak of, as there is no plumbing. Waste is dumped in a nearby pit, a sort of miniature landfill.

To enjoy a genuine home cooked meal, you have to do it with fire and kindling. The stove is connected to the bedroom next door, the smoke passing through a concrete platform that acts as a heated bed. It's referred to as a "Kang", another phrase unique to the north.

YuXiangRoSi ("Fish taste Pork") is a dish you might find in a western Chinese restaurant, but it's never tasted the same as the Inner Mongolian rendition. This, more than anything else reminds me of home.

Served with beef and potatoes, SuanTsai ("sour vegetable") is another food unique to the region. Predictably enough, it tastes quite sour. I suppose the Inner Mongolians have a penchant for obvious names.

An agrarian community invariably produce large families, which leads to me having a great number of cousins. Today I have tea with one of my cousins.

I engage in some (literal) street photography despite stares elicited by my obvious foreign-ness. In small places like these there is a strong sense of community.

At noon everyone goes for a two hour nap, even the kids are let out of school and return home to sleep. My working theory is that it's a hold-over from farming days, when it's too hot to work at noon.

I venture deeper into the labyrinth of corridors that connect the old residential areas. The HuTongs may be dying in Beijing, but not here.

In the center of LinHe you never have to go far to see a Porsche or Audi, which is doubly jarring as heavy taxes on imported cars make prices roughly twice that of the U.S.

Nothing like eating street food outside on a hot summer day. Lamb kabobs are a perennial favourite.

My cousin and a few friends go on a road trip.

Seatbelts are a bit of a driving faux-pas here, almost every vehicle is equipped with a plug that shuts off the warnings. I've seen them decorated with gems and various cartoon characters.

We take a detour through a village to avoid the highway toll booth. The locals have caught on and have set up their own checkpoint at a paltry 20 Yuan discount.

The highway meanders through the mountains, guiding us to the border between China and Mongolia. Presently we take a break from driving to enjoy the scenery.

Stopping at the edge of the Gobi desert. Sandy dunes are driven by harsh winds as if waves upon a barren ocean, extending as far as the eye can see.

We chance upon an Ovoo at the side of the road. It's customary to stop and make three rotations clockwise for good fortune in your travels.

The road thins and turns to gravel, then dirt, and then nothing at all. We drive across what appears to be a dried out lake bed and find a truck stuck in the mud.

Our party stops to give them a hand.

We find a real Mongolian tending to her flock. She explains that she lives in Mongolia proper, but comes south to graze her animals.

While Inner Mongolia is relatively close to Mongolia and there are indeed Mongolian minorities living here, the cultures are utterly distinct.

Milk and meat are the staples of Mongolian life. Milk tea is enjoyed ubiquitously, though the salty taste does take some getting used to.

Ending our trip at the obviously named Camel Mountain, we stop to take some photos. At dusk we eat, drink and light a bonfire before making the long trek home.

Drive long enough in any direction and you'll see flocks of sheep just like this one. Their shepard herds them into cohesive groups with a long streamer tied to a stick.

I have dinner at my aunt's house. A meal in Inner Mongolia is never complete without copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes. I decline their offer of ErGuoTou ("twice-boiled wine", indicating its strength) and drink some QingDao.

The day of the dead - simply referred to as "the 15th", is a day to remember the dead through ceremony. Paper money and food are burned as offerings to departed loved ones.

The paper offerings are sold in stores and on sidewalks, piles of them popping up overnight like effigies of forest mushrooms.

At dusk my uncle prepares his offerings, drawing a small circle for each intended recipient. As they burn he beckons the spirits to come claim their money.

There is a frank practicality about the whole thing. "Is the location not important?" I ask him.

"Easier for the garbage men to clean up" he says


I depart LinHe for the infamous ghost city Ordos. A cousin lives nearby and I take advantage of their hospitality to explore one of the most famous cities in Inner Mongolia.

Security is heavy at the bus and train stations, undoubtedly in response to the recent terrorist attacks in XinJiang.

I can't help but laugh at the American imagery on the vehicles, a symbol of authority that requires no translation.

The DongSheng municipal district is home to two cities - DongSheng and Ordos. A 10 minute bus ride takes me from my cousin's home in DongSheng to Ordos city.

I get off the bus and walk the last mile to take some photos.

Ordos feels much like a work in progress, like a painting that's been roughly blocked, still searching for a way to fit everything together.

Workers taking the Inner Mongolian nap at noon. They are planting something in the shape of letters on the side of the road, the characters yet to be legible. I can only imagine it will say "Welcome to Ordos"

Certainly no shortage of monuments here. A walk through the city's center reminds me of a huge theme park, with every set piece larger than life.

It's as if I've stumbled into the home of a giant, his chess pieces still in play as he left to wrangle his horses.

My cousin invites me to dinner with her family. I bring up the subject of Ordos and its portrayal in western media.

"They only look at KangBaShi new area, of course there's nothing there. Everyone lives in DongSheng"

"When you put this on your blog, tell this to your western friends: There are no ghosts in this ghost town!"

We take a stroll through the park at night. I'm hoping the LEDs are just a fad.

I decide to return the favour by cooking something western.

I managed to find an actual supermarket, a nice break from the street markets and cramped mini-stores in LinHe.

Inside, salespeople shout at me as I walk past, breaking the illusion. I wonder if they work on commission.

The edges of the city are still being erected. By now the empty buildings are a familiar sight.

Here at the periphery of concrete and sand, city and desert, only workers clad in orange walk the streets.

I can't say whether the Ordos experiment will be ultimately successful, but there's a long way to go yet.

Back in LinHe, my family send me on my way with a final dinner. I promise to come back again next year, for the food if nothing else. My mind lingers on that YuXiangRoSi, I really need to figure out the recipe.