Monday, October 24, 2011

In the Land of the Khans

Though I have not updated my blog in a while, about a month, I will write today about my trip to Inner Mongolia. During the National Day holiday, I went to this province and experienced many of its sights and experienced its culture.

Inner Mongolia for those who don't know is a province of the People's Republic of China. Inner Mongolia is a portion of what is historically the national homeland of the Mongolian people, among a handful of other lesser known peoples to the West. I know it's a raw deal for them but the Mongols conquered half the world, they should at least get a province named after them for the trouble. The nation of Mongolia is what is referred to as Outer Mongolia. In 1912, Outer Mongolia achieved its independence from China during the chaos of the Xinhai Revolution and the Balkanization of China under warlords, communists, and nationalist forces. Inner Mongolia was not able to break away, though there were rebellions, and Inner Mongolia remained mostly a part of China. During the 30's and 40's, Japan conquered the region and made it into a briefly lived puppet state that was absorbed into the Chinese puppet government Japan set up after the Second Sino-Japanese War started. When Japan was defeated, Inner Mongolia returned to Chinese control and has remained there to this day.

Inner Mongolia is an interesting province in its demographic makeup. Mongols make up 17% of the population of Inner Mongolia, which isn't remarkable in and of itself but this population is larger than the population of Mongolia. All together the population of Mongols in China is about double that of Mongolia when you add together the Mongol populations of other provinces. Inner Mongolia is also home to more traditional Mongolian culture in some respects. Mongols in China still use the ancient Mongolian script, a spidery vertical script that the ancient Mongols adopted form the Uyghur script. Goods and items from the nation of Mongolia are often found in markets, mostly cigarettes and vodka, and marked by their use of Cyrillic. Mongolian in Mongolia uses Cyrillic due to Mongolia's status of a Soviet puppet state for so many decades. Mongolians always seem to pay homage to their own history as well, picture of Genghis Khan are almost always found in Mongolian homes and restaurants. In the face of an overwhelming Han Chinese majority, it seems to be a harkening back to a time when their ancestors were kings and masters of half the world. Mongolians in China also live a sedentary lifestyle. The old nomadic ways were ended by Mao's policies and modernity but herding and farming are still very common.  The Mongolians also make a pretty good beer. The breweries of China are tied to their provinces and the policies on the sale of beer are very protectionist. Though this leads to a veritable array of Smokey and the Bandit scenarios, this also leads to a small and often lacking selection in some provinces.

Inner Mongolia itself is a land of stark beauty. The landscape is very much like the people who inhabited it in times past, harsh and rugged. The winds whip over the grasslands having little to buffer them. This has also made Inner Mongolia a prime location for wind turbine generators.

At night, the temperatures can quickly drop 20 to 30 degrees in the grasslands. The landscape is somewhat varied though, full of mountains and a few deserts. The deserts themselves are vast and sandy, offering few landmarks for those that get lost within them.

Unlike most provinces in China, the skies of Inner Mongolia remain obscured. Lacking in population and with farming and mining being its main industries, Inner Mongolia is free of the malaise that afflicts most of China. At night in the grasslands, you can see every star in that portion of the night sky and the Milky Way itself.

The capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, or Huhehaote in Mandarin, is itself a standard modern Chinese city. Much of the city was constructed in the modern era though if offers a few "temples" to be seen. Most of these temples no longer seem to be used for worship. One has to ask how authentic a house of worship that charges a 60 kuai entrance fee is. Around these temples are the standard tourist shops and booths, very similar to those you would find in the states. A giant mosque is also within the city but it was being renovated while I was there so I did not see it. A refreshing change of pace was seeing an authentic Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of the city. Tibetan Buddhism is very popular in Inner Mongolia. Not because of Tibetans but because that brand of Buddhism spread there in times past.

Within Hohhot is also the provincial museum. All provinces have such a structure but  the quality of such institutions isn't always assured. Henan's museum for instance is one of the best in China due to the large amount of cultural treasures and artifacts amassed in that area. Inner Mongolia's does not fare as well. The building itself is massive and somewhat open on the inside. Most of the museum is dedicated to cultural exhibits, the Chinese space program, the mining industry, dinosaurs, and history ranging from prehistory to 1949. Most of the historical artifacts are unremarkable though, many of them are even from Henan. Unsurprisingly, an area mostly populated by nomadic herders is not a prime area for unearthing magnificent treasures. The signs also leave much to be desired.

Hohhot itself is not the draw for tourists both domestic and foreign. The city itself is unremarkable and stark in the modern Mainland tradition. The real draw is the area itself and the Great Wall. Many may ask, "What, I thought the Great Wall was in Beijing?" It is, it actually starts outside of Tianjin and winds its way through Northern China. Unsurprisingly, the wall built to keep out the Mongolians covered a good deal of Inner Mongolias border with other provinces. You might remember from the last time you watched Mulan, the wall went a long way. And yes, I am judging you by the way.

This is how much of the Great Wall stands today. Though this wall was built by the Ming Dynasty as a screw you public works project directed at the Mongols, their former oppressors, it has not been maintained since. Only the wall around Beijing and civilization largely is. This wall is now open for anyone to climb on and almost fall off of, it's quite a drop on one side while the other is probably only good for a concussion. The local farmers grow their crops right up beside the wall and no one seems to realize that their pile of empty baijiu bottles is right next to one of the greatest wonders mankind has ever made. Wind turbines also spin on the other side of the wall too, no mind given to the piece of history that stands near it. The only people who seem to care are those not from the area or China, taken in by the majesty that many locals take for granted.