Thursday, August 4, 2011

Inner Mongolia

On the fourth day of our trip we flew to Inner Mongolia.  That morning we visited Heaven's Gate temple in Beijing and did some shopping.  Tim got some good bargains

Our flight to Hotho was delay an hour.  We flew out of the smaller airport in Beijing, and there were no signs as to when the flight would leave; none in English and none in Chinese, so we waited, not knowing when we would leave.  By the time we reached Hotho, we went straight to dinner and then the hotel.  

The next morning we drove to the grasslands for what we thought was going to be a fun filled day. Our plan was stay in a yurt, a traditional Mongolian house, watch a wrestling and horse racing show, ride horses and watch a show at night.  When we arrived at the grassland "ranch", it was apparent that this was going to be much less than we had hoped.  As it turned out, it would be a lot less, and in fact, it was awful.

While we did not expect the yurt to be as nice as a 4 or 5 star hotel, but we thought that it might be a decent place.  All of our other nights are in nice hotels (5 stars when available, 4 when not), and we've even stayed in very nice tents in Thailand in the past.  The yurts were not the traditional round tents that we expected, rather they were small round concrete structures.  They were very simple and basic, which in and of itself would have been okay, but the bathrooms smelled absolutely foul.  There was a kettle to boil water that had some dirty crust in the bottom.  They did not even have towels in the room, the guide explained that they were an environment friendly lodge.  That of course translates to "we don't want to spend the money on laundry".  In short, the place was an absolute dump.  Even the numbers painted on the yurts were done sloppily.  It looked like something a six year old would do, with paint running down the side of the door or wall.  

After a lunch that was not very good at all, we went horse riding.  Tim thought it was supposed to be included, and the tour guide said that it wasn't.  Tim tried to tell the guide to have the tour company pay for it, and we could sort it all out.  It took a bit of time, and a phone call to the tour company, but eventually we did that.  The riding was fun, but the guy in charge was an ass, screaming at us in Chinese any time he thought (sometimes incorrectly) that someone took their hand off the handle of the saddle.  

Our guide, Alice, means well, but she can be very frustrating to deal with.  She speaks English, but not very well.  I think that she has a lot of trouble understanding us sometime, but she has the infuriating habit that a lot of non-native English speakers have in that they won't say that they don't understand.  They seem to think that there is some kind of shame in it.  Seriously, what makes you look dumber, to ask someone to repeat or rephrase something or to completely screw something up because you did not understand what they wanted and pretended like you did.

Alice would also interrupt me when I was talking, saying "I know, I know", or "it's okay, it's okay."  Usually it was clear from her answer that she did not understand what Tim or I was saying.  I finally told her to stop talking and listen to me.  I'm not sure that she understood, but at least I was able to finish my sentences uninterrupted.  

I'll say this for Alice though, she does seem to want us to have a good time.  She's went and bought some things to try to help supplement the meals, as it was obvious that none of us really like the food.  

The horse riding and wrestling show was a farce.  Together they lasted less than ten minutes, and the participants seemed to be putting forth very little effort.  That was really disappointing.  When we were looking at our itinerary, we thought that would be a highlight that all the family would enjoy.  I think that this was clearly their intention.  After the show, we went on a home visit to a traditional yurt, which basically involved sitting in a room much like our yurt and eating some really awful traditional Mongolian snacks.

Dinner was similar to lunch in both some of the dishes and their lack of appeal.  Alice bought some roasted mutton skewers for us, and those were actually pretty tasty.  There was supposed to be a show at night that started at 9:00.  By 10:00 p.m., it seemed to be starting; with a Chinese kid in a yellow sweat suit doing some kind of dance to western music.  We went back to our room.  

In the morning, we all decided to forgo showers, lest we spend any more time in the repugnant bathrooms.  The kids even brushed their teeth outside.  After breakfast, we set out for the desert for a planned day of fun in the sand.  Our guid told us the trip would take 3 hours, the tour company told us 2, and in reality it took 6.  There was a traffic accident that contributed, but largely it was the fact that they would have parts of the highway shut down to 1 lane due to construction.  It would be shut down to a single lane for a kilometer, open back up to 3 for a kilometer, and then back down to one.  As bad as it could have been, the kids were absolutely amazing.  They got along together as well as they had on any trip.  The iPad helped of course, but Tim and I were both pleased and relived.

We arrived at the Gobi Desert, where the Chinese government has set up a tourist attraction, a few hours later than planned.  Once we arrived, however, we all had a very good time.  We rode a half kilometer long ski lift and then took a converted troop transport vehicle to a place for lunch.  The open top vehicles were formerly owned by the U.S. Army.  After an uninspiring lunch, we rode camels, which was actually more enjoyable than the horse back riding.  They have a lot of camels, and while the line was fairly long, it moved very fast an efficiently.  

As soon as we got off the camels, we went to a show about a traditional Mongolian wedding.  The show was really well done, with a lot of dancing and music.  The girls liked it a lot, but Jacob wasn't such a fan of it.  Maybe if there had been a sword fight over the bride, he might have liked it more.

After playing on the sand dunes, we went rode a train to a giant sand slide.  The sand slide was probably 200 meters in length, but I'm not sure.  You would sit on a little sled and use your hands as rudders to steer and to slow yourself down.  The kids went down 3 or 4 times each, while Tim and I did a couple each.  The ride down was fun, but the walk up in the sand was challenging.  

While in the desert, we wore sand socks, which were like large boots made of fabric that fit over your shoes were tied to your leg.   They actually did a really great job of keeping the sand out of our shoes.  

It was pretty late by the time we left the desert and headed to the city where we were spending the night. We decided that instead of eating the meal that had already been arranged, that we would just go to KFC.  Even though the KFC was out of mashed potatoes and about 3 other things that I tried to order, the kids still really enjoyed. it.  

The next day we drove to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum.  When I heard that we were going there, I really didn't think it would be that interesting but I was wrong.  The mausoleum was really well done.  We had an English speaking tour guide who was really good.  Apparently they have a rule that outside tour guides like Alice cannot accompany you and act as a tour guide inside.  The guide was knowledgable about the mausoleum, and spoke better English and was more pleasant to be around than Alice.

After the mausoleum, we had a long drive back to Hothot.  We had been scheduled to see another temple, but Tim and I realized that the kids were not going to enjoy it, so we had dinner at McDonald's and went to the hotel.  

The last day of our trip was pretty much all travel.  We flew from Hothot to Beijing, arriving at 10:00 a.m.  We ended up hanging out at the airport until our flight home at 5:00 p.m.  I was having stomach problems requiring me to go to the bathroom quite frequently.  While it is never fun on a trip, being at the airport where there were clean bathrooms that didn't require squatting made it much more bearable.  We did have lunch at Kenny Roger's Roaster.  The only two Kenny Roger's restaurant's that I've seen in recent memory have been in Singapore and Beijing.  

I think that we were all glad to get home.  In retrospect, the trip was not as bad as it sometime seemed at the time.  The food in Beijing was fantastic and the sites were great, it was just harder to enjoy them with the crowds.  Inner Mongolian food left a lot to be desired, as did our time at the grasslands, but the day in the desert and even the visit to the mausoleum were definitely highlights.  Still, I think I'm done visiting China for a while.  I might make an exception for Tibet, but other than that, I think there are other places I'd like to see first.

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