Tuesday, 8th September, 2015
- Day 7/298
We escape the hustle and bustle of the city and head out to Lake Hulun for a spot of camping, China-style.
By day, Manzhouli is somewhat less impressive.
Gone, is the larger-than-life light fantastic. In its place, rows of shops sell tourist trinkets and Genghis Khan branded bottles.
Chinggis Khan to the locals, he is well regarded here and looks down at us from the pink wallpaper of the common-room wall. He seems a little bit annoyed at my presence, as if he’s extending a challenge that I cannot hope to win.
“So, you came here to ride solo across the badlands of Asia, eh? So what. I pillaged my way across 12 million miles of foreign lands for 20 years. And 788 years after my death, people still know my name! You know why? It’s out of respect! “
As I reflect on this, I breakfast on sticky bread treats and water, branded with Russian and Chinese faces. They gaze at me knowingly, projecting conflicting messages about what it means to be healthy here.
My friends organise a taxi, and a driver, to be our chauffeur for the day.
Over the muffled din of minimalist techno, my Chinese friends are making some sort of plan with the driver. I don’t understand a word of it, but I trust these guys, so I’m just going along for the ride.
We stop at a small lake, but not the lake, apparently, and walk over a bridge of some importance. Although it’s purpose is unclear, it does sit well within the surrounding nature. It reminds me of a Chinese Garden I visited back in New Zealand.
It is also very windy here and we indulge in some extended water-watching. The wind whips up interesting patterns on the exposed surface and blows our big city cobwebs away.
We drive on a bit and then stop again, and I still don’t know where we are.
I haven’t had to show my passport to anyone, so I assume that we’re still in Inner Mongolia, China. But while there are Mongolian steppes on one side of the road, a stereotypically Russian city has sprung up out of nowhere on the other side.
It looks clean and new. There are towers and onion-shaped domes, but I wonder who they built it for. Are there Russians coming over the border to relax in Chinese-made toy towns? Or do Chinese come to the border, then decide that it would be easier just to stay here?
Our next stop is a giant mammoth park.
Or should that be a mammoth giant park?
Over the road, there’s a stylish looking museum.
Since I’m eco-touristing on a bicycle, I’m a little hesitant about entering the National Mine Park museum. ‘Mine’ and ‘Park’ seem like oxymorons to me.
But once inside, I lose my inhibitions, because it’s actually pretty good.
There are life-size mammoth skeletons and exhibits showing local versions of cave men and women living on grassy steppes. They look a whole lot like the fields that we’ve just driven past.
The ancient people band together in hunting parties, to bring down the unfortunate beasts in their midst. Presumably they have some sort of Belgian barbecue afterwards, with beer and dancing.
Noting their teepees, an evolutionary diagram shows the parallels between these Buryat Mongols and their North American counterparts.
The signage is in a mixture of Chinese and English. I take the opportunity to read as many signs as possible, though I think my friends just want to get moving.
The second part of the museum focusses on the mining culture. It looks like a damned hard life and I try to understand whether there was a battle here once. Rippled miners seem to stand together against something, and there are Chinese flags flying in an area that is as much Mongolian as it is Chinese or Russian.
Finally, I let my friends leave the museum.
I wait in the car while the guys jump out to get some camping supplies.
Mandy comes back with a noodley bread wrap. It’s pretty nice, but I’m getting the impression that fresh vegetables aren’t a big factor in the local cuisine. Perhaps it is just a sign of the coming winter, and the need to fatten everyone up before the temperatures plummet to well below zero.
In due course, we arrive at Lake Hulun.
Part of the Hulun Buir region, Lake Hulun contains large amounts of freshwater and has grassy banks, with a few buildings scattered around the perimeter.
The two guys erect the Chinese popup-tent in the high wind, then we head off to explore the area and collect firewood.
On the way we meet a couple who are recently married. They seem a bit young to be getting married, but perhaps it is just me. After all, I’ve had plenty of time to get married, but never have.
Mandy tells me that she’s travelled from Guandong, in the East of China, to the North West, and is now heading to the North East. I try and visualise this and think back to the zig-zag bridge. Although her journey is only taking two months, it is rare for Chinese women to travel alone for extended periods, and she has run into some discrimination along the way.
There is a ger camp in the distance and I walk over to find that it is tourist accommodation, its bright flags signalling that it is open for business.
I want to walk around the whole lake, but my friends tell me that it’s further than it looks, and that it will be dark soon.
Heading back the other way, we find a market garden advertising accommodation, a concrete ger. My friends enquire about the price, but tell me that it’s too expensive. It’s a shame, because, with its round gateway, it seems like a neat little oasis in this sea of wind.
As the sun sets, we’re blanketed in darkness.
I help to get the fire started, then we boil up the water and cook an obscene amount of noodles. I’ve eaten instant noodles before, but these guys seem to eat them everyday. At least that’s the impression that I get as they shake and then tear open the flavour sachets in just the right place, without getting the contents all over themselves.
We sip on some strong alcohol from a small clear bottle. The others don’t really like drinking, but they don’t mind if I have more than my fair share.
Which I do, and yet I’m still left clinging to my inhibitions. They join together to sing over instrumentals of their favourite pop hits, but I do not know the words and cannot confidently join in. They sing passionately, as if the words are describing everything they know about life and everything they hope to know.
Encouraged by their passion, I ignore my data expenses and download some Crowded House to try a solo rendition. But I’m the only one who knows the words to don’t dreeeeeeam iiiit’s ooooverrrrr, and I feel a solid cultural barrier building between us, even if I can’t make it out in the dark night air.
Eventually, thankfully, karaoke time is over. We huddle together in the small tent and fall asleep, bonding over instant farts and alcoholic snoring.