The Big Empty, Inner Mongolia

I’m heading out tomorrow morning on a two week expedition to Yunnan, a province in the far south of China. It seemed fitting that I should introduce this next mission with an update from the last.

I haven’t written in more than a month, and it is a true shame as I have a monster pile of material. I have recently taken a new job in Beijing, and though I won’t give the name, it has me spending a large amount of time traveling and exploring locations where we can take people backpacking and exploring China. I have stories coming out of my ears, but just not much time (and frequently not much energy) to get them on the page. This is just a bit of my recent trip to Inner Mongolia, as it was an experience I will never forget-

There is quite a bit of confusion when I speak about Inner Mongolia, so lets clarify; If you are speaking about Inner, you are speaking about a region that is still considered to be a part of China. It is heavily influenced by Mongolian culture and history, but for all purposes it is still within the borders of the PRC. I went with a few colleagues to explore options for students to spend time camping, traveling and exploring the wilderness of the great north. October in Inner Mongolia is quite cold, and even though the days are in the 70s, the complete lack of moisture in the air means that the nights can easily drop down into the 20s.

I had wanted to get at least one night camped out so that we could gain a sense of what it would be like. It is hard to see so many amazing places from the highway and think ‘Oh, that would be an amazing place to spend a few nights camped out’. No, it is much better to pull onto a dirt road, drive for a while and actually do it, and this is exactly what we did. It was cold as anything, but an amazing experience. I woke up to coyote tracks all around the tent, and the signs of a small frost still hiding in the shadows.

Camping and backpacking are in their infancy in China. Very, very few people have ever slept in a tent, let alone taken a pack and gone on a week long trip. When I proposed the idea to several people in Beijing, they seemed completely unsure of how to approach the idea, but were excited nonetheless. A night that dips below the freezing point is not necessarily the best introduction to camping, especially when you are using bad rented equipment. We made a fire (a very risky business in such a dry location), and huddled around talking about what it meant to be camped out with nothing but the wilderness. After so many months of city living, I felt that I had found a bit more of my own home, thousands of miles away in the nothingness of the Mongolia Steppe.

One of the members of our crew pulled a bottle of shampagne out of nowhere and began to shake it up. I asked why he was doing this, and was informed that it was necessary to prepare the drink. We toasted to our successfully trip and our evening under the stars, the first that I have seen since arriving in China.

I woke the next morning completely stiff with the cold the settled deep in sometime around 3am. When you are truly cold, you feel that you will never be warm again, but the feeling always seems to disappear with the rise of the sun. This is the beauty of the wilderness. Discomfort, nothingness, and no thoughts about anything other than how you feel. You always return to the real world feeling different than when you left.

We spent some time in the City of Ordos, a massive bit of development that doesn’t have enough of a population to fill even half of it’s buildings. All around us were newly built skyscrapers that had yet to find inhabitants. The entire city looked like the set for a movie, a landscape waiting to be populated. This is not uncommon in China. Speculation on development, especially real estate, is off of the charts, and developers often build entire cities in anticipation of masses of people moving in from other locales. An empty city on the edge of an empty landscape seemed very fitting.

We ventured outside of the city in search of more options for camping sites, and eventually arrived at a brick factory outside of the city of Ordos. It appeared that the factory has not seen business in a very long time, but still kept two guards around for appearances. Confused as they were, they didn’t mind us cooking next to the shop, and then spending some time climbing the dunes out back.  The strangeness of a foreigner venturing out so far to climb into the emptiness brought an apparent confusion, and from the top of the dune I could see the two guards watching me climb skyward.  Our silent fascination with one another was clear;  I wondered at their solitary existence in this lost world, while they wondered at the single tourist, an american drifting through the emptiness.

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