After midterms finished on Friday afternoon, I packed up my things and that night met with five other classmates–Dare, James, Lucas, Ryan, and Xuezi–to go to the Harbin train station. We were taking the overnight train to Haila’er, a city in northwestern Inner Mongolia to begin our 5-day backpacking trip to the wintery tundra of Manchuria! We took a “hard sleeper” and shared a “room” of six beds together. We stayed up late talking with Chinese passengers and ourselves. The next morning, I groggily woke up and pushed the curtains aside to see plains of white snow and yellow grass. Was I in Kansas?
I was told by many, many people that late October was not a good time to visit Inner Mongolia. We should go to the south (Guangdong Province, Fujian Province, Hainan Island), they said. But, I decided to go to Inner Mongolia because 1) it was the cheaper option, 2) a group of my classmates were going, and 3) I’ve always wanted to go. So, seeing the listless plains of snow and finally getting off the train to feel the icy-cold wind…I was a bit worried that I had chosen the wrong vacation spot.
Map of Inner Mongolia–Our Travel Destination: Hulun Buir
We haggled with drivers outside of the train station until we found a 65 year-old Chinese man with a small “bread” car who said he would drive us wherever we wanted to go–¥100 ($16 a day)–for the duration of our trip. He was the only person that didn’t swindle us (a group of foreigners) out of our money. He was a good man. We crammed into the tiny van with our bags and set off to explore the area around Haila’er. We first visited a field of tanks (real and fake), where Japanese soldiers left remnants of World War II (Wikipedia says):
“Haila’er was occupied and fortified by the Japanese during their expansion into Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and China proper during the 1930s until the end of the Second World War in August 1945, and perhaps the oldest building in Hailar that stands today was left by the occupying forces. When the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, Hailar was the scene of a bitter struggle in the wider campaign to push Japanese forces out of Manchuria and northeast China and Korea.” This prompted the Soviet Invasion of Manchuria in 1945.
Left Over Japanese Tanks from WWII
We then drove to a Tibetan Buddhist Temple, but did not enter because of the expensive door price (¥40). It was so cold, like middle of January in Minnesota cold. The icy wind cut through winter clothes and made your hands numb and nose run–that cold. At least it didn’t make my boogers freeze! That’s when you know you shouldn’t be outside. I was still uncertain about my vacation choice.
Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and Haila’er in the Distance
We made one more stop around Haila’er at a Mongolian Yurt tourist area. There were yurts (but no people were living in them since it was too cold), Tibetan Buddhist flags and red sashes waving in the winter cold. The people in the camp consisted of only us, five foreigners, and one Mongolian Chinese walking about. We then got back into the car and drove. For most of the trip, I had no idea where we were going, which was actually pretty nice. I would sit in the car and talk with my classmates.
For our last stop of the day, Zhang Qicai (our driver)–we called him Master Zhang (Zhang Shifu) out of politeness–dropped us off at a wetland. We scaled the hill by climbing well-crafted stairs and watched the sun set over the green, red, yellow marsh land. A thin river curved through the brush and long grass, making the scenery exceptionally beautiful. When seeing this marsh, I realized that this was where I wanted to be for vacation…and it was only the first day!
Ryan, Dare, and I with the Wetland Behind Us
Sunset over the Marsh
After sunset (around 5:30pm), we drove down to the neighboring small city and spent the night in a small family inn. We ate dumplings and sang Karaoke. Before heading to bed, I looked up at the stars, and saw many more than there were in Harbin. If the stars are like this in this small city, what will they be like when we live in villages? I couldn’t wait.