Our first month of school is officially behind us! I’m finally settled in for the most part, evidenced by my official Beijing residence permit and my new electric scooter for commuting to/from school (super cheap & convenient). Other highlights of the first month included: befriending a bunch of Korean exchange students in some of our classes who invited us all out for “Korean Culture Evening”, complete with soju, drinking songs, and lots of yummy food; visiting Tiananmen Square & Wangfujing snack street; being reunited with my German friend, Mia, who’s also living in Beijing for a while; cheering on our friend at the Beijing Marathon finish line at the Olympic Sports Center; and celebrating a friend’s birthday with Beijing duck!
Of course, the month concluded with National Holiday (国庆节), which takes place on October 1st, commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It’s one of the biggest holidays in China, referred to as “Golden Week” since most people get almost a week off of work. This year, Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) also fell during this week, which extended the vacation by another day. In our case, we had almost 10 days off of school, so of course we took the opportunity to travel! The only problem with National Holiday is that the whole country is on vacation, meaning every major tourist attraction is packed, tickets are hard to come by, and traffic is horrible. This year was apparently a record year of Chinese traveling domestically, with over 700 million trips taken (到处都是人山人海). To avoid both people & hassle, about 11 of us from PKU decided to go on a 4 day trip to Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (内蒙古自治区) & Shanxi Province (山西省) on an organized group trip with CET.
Day 1: Mongolian Grasslands
We got on our bus super early at 4am for an 8 hour bus ride from Beijing to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The further out we got, the less civilization we saw, and the more beautiful the views became. Seriously, driving around in Inner Mongolia was kind of interesting – it’s very sparsely populated (only around 2% of China’s total population lives there), with few roads & large expanses in between and topography ranging from mountains, to grasslands, and farms & industrial zones. Inner Mongolia is one of China’s 5 minority semi-autonomous regions (along with Xinjiang (Uyghur minority), Tibet (Tibetan minority), Ningxia (Hui minority), and Guangxi (Zhuang minority)), so I was interested to see how the life & culture differed from that of other Chinese provinces.
When we finally arrived at the grassland we were staying at, we were greeted with crisp, chilly air, blue skies, and a big lunch in a yurt. We also stayed overnight in yurts, which I thought was really cool, although the yurts we slept in were more of “hotels” and less authentic. In the afternoon, we went horseback riding with crazy Mongolian horses & guides. Basically, the guides would whistle and the horses would start running in a big group until the guides, who were kind of herding them, signaled again. Definitely a bumpy ride, but we had cool grassland views at sunset and horse milk tea in a yurt halfway through the ride. Returning to the camp, the weather had become freezing, so we were happy to rest in the yurts until dinner. After dinner, we attended a big bonfire party, complete with Mongolian songs & dancing, fireworks, and lots of beer & baijiu. We also got to talking (in Chinese) with a few Mongolian guys, who taught us some phrases in Mongolian and arm-wrestled with one of our friends for hours.
One of the guys was saying he was envious of us young people coming from our countries to learn about China, and that he also loves traveling & learning about new places, but the furthest he’s been is Wuhan & Shanghai. I thought that was a really interesting conversation because it sort of highlighted in a way some of the differences between urban & rural China, and the differences in opportunities that exist regionally. And being out there on the grassland, with nothing but vast expanses in view, you really felt far away from everything.
Day 2: Gobi Desert & Hohot
Day 2 we left the grassland and headed for the desert area near Baotou. After having a yummy lunch in the middle of nowhere, we finally got to the desert, which is part of the well-known Gobi Desert, which is the 5th largest desert in the world! The desert weather was pretty nice, considering we were in direct sunlight, but still chilly with the wind. I was overall amazed by the desert landscape, as this was my first time in a desert! Sand dunes stretched on for as far as the eye could see. To enter the desert, we rode a cable car, hanging above the bush & sand, and watching the terrain become sandier the further in we got. Once there, we rode camels, rode 4-wheel ATVs, did sand sledding, and some others even rented motorbikes & went on the zipline. My personal favorite activity was taking a stroll out to the dunes as far as we could, and just basking in the emptiness of it. After several hours, on the way out of the desert, we all rode in one big dune-buggy, speeding over the dunes.
We then made our way to Hohot, the capital city on Inner Mongolia, for a hotpot dinner, full of mutton! Dinner was delicious, but Hohot was a strange city. Just like the rest of Inner Mongolia, we saw very few people. However, we saw broad streets, and huge, chunky buildings all lit up with lights that were more of like what you would expect in Russia or something. Kind of a waste of energy, if you ask me, especially considering the night before out on the grasslands, they lack even electricity for heating and hot water. It was interesting though to drive through the city and see all the signs written in both Chinese and Mongolian, which is an official language throughout the region.
Day 3: Yungang Grottoes
The next morning, we made our way from Inner Mongolia to Datong city in neighboring Shanxi Province. Shanxi is comparatively a poorer and less developed province in China, with dry & mountainous terrain, rural agriculture, and mining. We had a delicious meal at the hotel before heading out to the grottoes. The Yungang Grottoes are a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site and one of the most famous Buddhist grottoes in China, with over 5000 Buddhist carvings dating from the 5th century. All in all, the caves were very impressive, with huge Buddha statues and tiny figurines. The surrounding temples were also quite beautiful, and surprisingly, we were among the few foreign visitors there.
After we returned to the hotel for a late dinner, we had a party for Mid-Autumn Festival, which so happened to be on that day. My friend & I watched some of the CCTV Mid-Autumn Festival gala in our room while getting ready, then made our way downstairs to join our new & old friends from the group trip in playing fun drinking games. If you can’t celebrate the festival with family, who better than your friends? We also had mooncakes & took a moment to appreciate the full, orange moon outside.
Day 4: Hanging Temple in Hengshan
The next day we packed up all our stuff, and boarded the bus, stopping at the Hanging Temple for a bit on our way back to Beijing. The temple itself is perched on the cliffs over a river below in the Hengshan Mountains in Shanxi. It apparently is a temple that blends Buddhism, Daoism, & Confucianism. Interesting. Admittedly, we couldn’t actually go in the temple itself due to the enormous (3-4 hour) line for admittance (it was National Holiday, after all!). But we admired it from below, and explored the nearby paths & waterfall, which still made it an enjoyable experience.
We experienced more of the National Holiday fun on the return trip to Beijing, getting stuck in traffic that lengthened our trip by a few hours. We all felt a little happy to be back to Beijing in the comfort of our homes. It was a very fun but very tiring trip. Most of us were surviving on 3 hours of sleep a night, with supplemental naps on the bus rides. Back in Beijing, we had a good night’s rest, went out in Sanlitun a few nights with some our new friends from the CET trip, and had a full day of homework. And that concludes our Golden Week! It was quite fun exploring a new part of China with lots of lovely friends! Now back to the grind.