A Break from Beijing, Part One

Get your reading glasses out folks, this is a long one.  But I divided it into 2 parts so that if you need to take a snack/bathroom/nap break you totally can. My apologies. But I actually do cool things in this post! And there are pictures! What more could you ask for?

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Every weekday morning I do the same thing: two alarms, one shower, cup of green tea, bowl of cereal, a glance at facebook and a nine minute walk to the subway.  At my internship, I work until around 1:30, take a 40ish minute lunch break with my sad homemade boiled eggs and tomato salad. After that I work until 6, which is when I have to force my way back on to the subway along with a million other Chinese commuters.  Dinner is usually something cheap, easy, and admittedly unhealthy from a nearby restaurant or the convenience store in front of my apartment (I know, it’s embarrassing). I’ll do something boring until I fall asleep around midnight, then I wake up the next day and do it all again. Hm.

While there is something comforting about having an established routine, a week and a half ago I felt that something was… wrong. After walking home from work one day and realizing that I had barely noticed the beckoning calls of delicious street food vendors or the baby pooping on the sidewalk, I figured it out: I had forgotten where I was.  Since the start of my internship, I had been so focused on “getting settled” in my new life, that I had failed to remember my initial goals of adventure in China; to explore, to learn, and to do things I will never have the chance to do again.

Luckily for me, the remedy for my situation was simple to figure out: travel. So, with only 7 days before a weeklong national holiday, two friends and I searched for the cheapest train tickets we could find on short notice and bought them. Bam. A week later, we were boarding our overnight train to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

We arrived on Thursday morning, bleary eyed but alert, despite the fact that we had just spent 10 hours attempting to sleep in upright hard seats. It was surprisingly beautiful out.  I welcomed the blue (ish) skies and cool air, and was excited to see that Hohhot felt different than Beijing somehow. Thinking that our hostel was only minutes away on foot, we immediately proceeded to wander around and get lost for almost three hours.  Funnily enough, I wasn’t stressed about it at all. My traveling compadres, Gutcha and Gustavo, are pretty laid-back, go-with-the-flow people, thus inspiring me to be laid back and go-with-the-flow. I had this feeling before the trip despite the lack of information about Hohhot online and our collective lack of research, things would fall into place.

After asking a three locals and calling the hostel four times (the receptionist/my new best friend, Guang, started answering the phone, ‘Hi Alina!’) we finally stumbled upon our cute little guesthouse, decorated with paintings of Mickey Mouse and all.  After dropping our bags in our rooms and hearing our growling stomachs, we got a restaurant recommendation from Guang and headed down the street for lunch.

I expected the food in Inner Mongolia to be hearty, filling and warm, and our first meal was exactly that.  The highlights included a surprisingly tasty salty milk tea and a specialty dish of mashed yellow potatoes with dried meats and vegetables.

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After more than making up for skipping breakfast and dinner the night before, we made our way to the Muslim district by bus. It was obvious when we had arrived; the tops of buildings changed from flat-topped and grey to dome topped with a pervasion of yellow and green.

I don’t want to be dramatic and say that this area was a dream-come-true… but it was kind of a dream-come-true.  Every street had dozens of pastry shops, butchers, and restaurants, and the hearty smell of baked goods followed us with every turn. We wandered around a small mosque, but mostly spent the afternoon buying salty bread (me), buying sweet bread (me), taking pictures of the food (me), and buying dried meat (not me).  We spent the evening back at the hostel making friends with a group of art students from Beijing, and then headed to sleep in our pink and blue beds.

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