Day two started at 6:40am with a cell phone alarm and a cup of tea, followed by a two and a half hour bus ride to the Xilamuren grasslands. This was undoubtedly the thing I was looking forward to the most on our trip. After seeing the movie Babies and becoming particularly enamored with the baby that is born in Mongolia, seeing the grasslands has been a goal of mine. I pictured pure blue skies, rolling white clouds, and fields of green as far as the eye could see.
After a nice sleep on the bus, we woke up to see… grayish blue skies, yellowish hills, and wind. A lot of wind. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t slightly put off, because I was. Where was my sea of green grass and my fluff of clouds? And where was the adorably squishable Mongolian baby? We sleepily left the bus, got assigned our yurt (!), and were given an hour to explore before lunch. Luckily, in less than half an hour the sky started to clear, allowing me to realize the actual beauty of the place. We walked down to the lake nearby, got as close as we could to the cows, and attempted to absorb the unbelievably vast expanse of land that surrounded us.
The farm that we were visiting was owned by a Mongolian family who wanted to give foreign travelers an authentic grasslands experience. Their property only had 4 small yurts, (rather than the dozens that touristy ‘yurt resorts’ tend to have) and functioned as a working farm with sheep, cows, and horses throughout the year. They served our fellow travelers and us a meal of lamb and potato stew, baozi, cabbage, and rice in their small brick house. The day only got more beautiful as the time passed, and after we were full of carbs and protein we spent the afternoon attempting to become expert Mongolian archers. Unsurprisingly, it was a difficult task, but kept us entertained until it was time to walk up a nearby hill and watch the spectacular sunset.
As breathtaking as it was, sun dropping behind the beautiful yellow hills meant the temperatures dropped along with it. We welcomed the chance to head back inside the brick house, where we ate more sheep (which, tragically, we had seen alive in the morning) until we were prepared to make a dash back to our yurt to add more layers of clothing. We spent the rest of the night staring at the awe-inspiring Milky Way, sipping on whiskey, and sitting around a cow pie bonfire with the art students we had met the day before. It was unbelievable, really. After months of barely seeing a single star in Beijing, to see three shooting stars in the span of two minutes was surreal. The bonfire kept us warm for hours, and only when the bags of ‘natural fuel’ ran out did we decide it was time to call it a night. Seven of us slept as comfortably as possible in our little yurt, with the help of layered clothing and thick blankets.
The next morning we started early again, 6am, just in time to see the sun rise. After waiting for me to layer pants on top of my pajamas and a coat on top of my sweaters, we made our way to the same hill where we watched the sun set. While it felt like we were waiting in cold for ages, when the sun finally peeked over the distant slopes it was, once again, breathtaking. It was the third time on the trip that I felt like a speck of dust in comparison to the big, big world. I sat on the top of the hill for a while, savoring the gradual warmth and the still air, until it was time for breakfast. After more salty milk tea and some bing, the three of us packed up our backpacks and waited for the car that was coming to take us back to Hohhot.
The highlight of our final day was undoubtedly our Inner Mongolian dinner. As night fell, we made our way to a popular restaurant street, where a fellow traveler recommended we go to “the barbecue place with the green tent and the lamb legs.” It wasn’t hard to find. We pointed to the massive leg of mutton being rotated over a fire by an old Chinese man, and sat down to await our feast. They presented us with the full leg skewered over a mini spit, along with some heavy forks and knives so that we could cut off the bone and devour to our own liking. As I was with two Brazilian boys, we had no problem finishing 3.75 kilos of meat, grilled eggplant, spiced bread, and a few cold beers. An hour later, we were taking our hard seats on the train, dreading the sleepless night that lay ahead but full and happy, nonetheless.
The trip was everything I could have hoped for. I saw the stars, I ate delicious food, I got out of my comfort zone, I befriended some cows, and I was laughing almost the whole time with my two amazing traveling buddies. This brief step back from my routine not only instilled in me a desire to see and do more before my time in China ends, but it also reminded me that the experience that I am having right now needs to be savored. Although my trip to Inner Mongolia was no spa vacation, it made me feel rejuvenated, excited, and ready to see more.