Golden Leaves and Mongolian Cheese
Trip Start Feb 03, 2008
33Trip End Aug 16, 2009
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Leaves the color of a pirate's treasure drip down to caress my hair as we step lightly over the poplar trees' sand-covered roots. We are in an autumnal forest in the middle of the desert. The brightest, bluest sky in all of China covers us like a giant upturned goldfish bowl.
Driving across the waterless plains to E Ji Na in Inner Mongolia reminded me of being out to sea. The sky is the same intensity, the horizon the same incalculable distance away. Instead of a ship, we rode a tour agency's chartered bus, and instead of whales or dolphins, we sometimes caught sight of a few camels wandering across the seemingly uninhabited desert.
Near townships, we'd see white sheep grazing on invisible grass
Dan and I walk through the trees, careful not to get sand in our shoes. We walk slowly, sit for awhile, chat. Dan feels nauseous-from eating saltine crackers too quickly, apparently-but still takes pictures like a pro. The other people on our tour appear in the golden shafts of light piercing the tree canopy, posing with colored scarves and silly poses, reminding us of elves. If calling it an enchanted forest weren't so clichéd, that's what I'd call it.
Sitting on the bus on the way to E Ji Na we congratulated ourselves for even finding it. Last year our friend Winnie's friend Alan had shown us some pictures of his trip to Ningxia province to visit his family. In addition to the family photos he had some of striking yellow trees framed against a pure blue sky, growing out of seemingly nutritonless sand. They were pictures of life in adverse conditions, of nature conquering all odds. Alan had said the trees only kept their yellow leaves for a few weeks in October, and so not many people had seen the phenomenon. Well, except viewers of the Jet Li movie Hero, which featured one of its fight scenes among the trees. We were convinced, and put it on our to-see list
A year later, though, we realized we didn't know how to get there. I emailed Winnie, who now lives in Canada, who in turn contacted Alan back in Foshan. Once they sent us the name of the nearest city our coworker Michael helped us find out how to get there.
Well, Inner Mongolia is shaped something like a crescent moon lying on its belly, and Ningxia is a thumb poking into that belly. We figured that the place that Alan had gone must be near the thumb, so Michael called the CITS travel agency in Yinchuan, and booked us on a tour going to the trees. The only problem was that the tour was at the extreme end of our trip, so we'd have to take a night train back to Gansu province as soon as the tour ended in order to catch our flight home.
The tour was three days long and there were 43 other people on the tour. The first and last days were travel days, on the bus through the amazing expanse of Inner Mongolia, and the middle day was for the trees. And, for some place called Black Water Village that the travel agency couldn't explain to us. Oh, well, we thought, it will be interesting.
We reached E Ji Na at about six p.m
Exhilarated that the trees were as beautiful as we had hoped, we got back on the bus to go to our hotel. Except, it wasn't a hotel, but an army barracks. I think the soldiers were as surprised to see foreigners as we were to see troopers at our lodging. Apparently, some soldiers had abandoned their usual quarters so us tourists could be housed there cheaply. The rooms were spotlessly clean, but in ours there was a big wooden cupboard full of soldiers' personal items. The travel agency had said that we would be sharing rooms in a dormitory situation, but we hadn't realized that it would be at a military installation. To get back into the parking lot we had to report to a guard and to get into the rooms we had to call the soldier in charge of the keys.
Dan shared a room with two men who had sat next to us on the bus. Both 40-something college professors, of physics and geography, they were on a mini-vacation with two women who they seemed to be trying to date
The next morning Dan and I, on maximize-our-time mode, got up before the sun and walked in the chilly dark back to the closest edge of the yellow forest. We watched the sun rise behind the yellow trees and thought ourselves ahead of the game. We returned to the barracks in time to eat breakfast and be loaded back on the bus, which then drove back to the same place we had walked to at dawn.
The bus pulled into a parking lot adorned by an obelisk and surrounded by the golden trees-known in China as the Hu Yang, and in English as the Euphrates poplar. The trees however, were separated from the parking lot by a barbed wire fence. At first we thought that this was just a photo opportunity with the obelisk, but then we realized that we were all expected to climb over the fence to get in to see the trees. Somewhere in the contract we'd signed with the travel agency was a clause that they were supposed to pay for our entrance into the sites we would see...not this one, I guess
It was clear we weren't the first tour group to climb over the fence, so we followed and spent a nice couple of hours taking pictures.
Lunch was next, and then the bus took us to Hei Shui Cheng, or Black Water City in English. The English speaker at the travel agency in Yinchuan hadn't known what it was, and my Chinese wasn't good enough to figure it out with the tour guide. So, we had no idea what to expect. More trees? A shopping mall selling black water? A tar pit?
No, it was a ruined city. A 30-foot high wall protected an area bigger than a sports stadium, which had once been occupied by something, but now only held a few walls disintegrating like sandcastles attacked by the tide. At one corner of the grand outer wall were three paint-brush-end turrets, shining white against the blue Mongolian sky.
A group of workers were fortifying the outside wall, and once inside we saw that huge dunes of sand seemed to be propping up the walls. The mostly level ground inside was littered with shards of broken pottery, so much it seemed some guard had bought some plates and then broken them, scattering them around because an archeological site needs broken pottery
Not knowing what the place was made it more interesting. For the two hours we spent there, Dan and I kept trying to make sense of what we might be seeing, and wondering how the city had fallen, if a city it was.
Coming back to Zunyi and the Internet, I found out that we visited the ancient crossroads city of Khara-Khoto, probably visited by Marco Polo and called Etsina by him. It was the site of some major battles, including one siege where the water supply was diverted, the commander killed himself and then the soldiers slaughtered the population of the city rather than let them thirst to death. The city fell to the Mongols in the 1300s and was abandoned not too long after that, it seems.
Next, we went to visit a dead forest. Euphrates poplars do well in sandy soil, but they do require some water. This forest of poplar trees had once been as healthy as the ones we had visited in the morning, but with the water from the river being diverted for agriculture father upstream (or, I guess, to break a siege?), now the forest had died
In the parking lot of the dead tree forest was an old man with three camels selling short rides for 10 RMB per person. Even better, there were two yurts set up by the camels. That cheered us up a lot, which was good because the rest of the site was a little depressing.
A bilingual sign at the entrance called it an "alarm forest" because it was supposed to warn us of the dangers of desertification. Apparently, hundreds of years ago this part of the world had been very fertile. We took pictures of the eerie dead and dying trees before going back to the E Ji Na town for some shopping.
We wanted to get some souvenirs, and mostly ended up buying Mongolian snacks-hard horse cheese, soft cow and yak cheese, and a kind of beer made of fermented horse milk. We should never go shopping when hungry. I also got a bottle of hard alcohol shaped like a rocket ship that was commemorating the Shenzhou 7-China's first spacewalk mission-that had that week taken off in Gansu and landed in Inner Mongolia
We didn't stay out too late because I was starting to feel a little sick. By morning I knew why-I was coming down dysentery. Luckily, I had bought some anti-dysentery Chinese medicine in Yinchuan before we left for Inner Mongolia so I didn't develop the sickness fully like he did, but it was an incredibly unpleasant 10 hour bus ride back to Yinchuan, especially since we started late and had to catch a train that evening to get our flight in the morning. Talk about being nervous.
In the end we were able to catch all our connections with time to spare, and returned to Zunyi. It was a beautiful trip, but at the end we felt we had been greedy-we pushed too many places into too short of a time. We spent a lot of time in transit, and didn't give ourselves enough stationary time for recuperation or snafus. Every trip makes us wiser.
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What it cost:
Three day tour to E Ji Na, inclusive of accommodation and transportation: 658 RMB each
Fried noodles for lunch: 6 RMB each serving
1 bottle fermented horse milk: 13 RMB
Climbing over a barbed wire fence to see trees: Free!