Grassland Disco: Honeymoon in Inner Mongolia

Days 1 & 2

It had been almost two months since our wedding and we had returned from our family time in America to our home in China. We had spent the last month eating all of the best of bad food that the States have to offer and spending some much needed one-on-one time with our families. I was so happy to see everyone, and I was also happy to be home. And to finally be going on our honeymoon.

We have spend many hours lazing away by the beaches in Hawaii, India and South East Asia. It was time for something different, completely. So, in true B & L style we opted for the adventure packed, grassland dancing, yurt sleeping, camel riding glory that is Inner Mongolia.

We traveled around China somewhat for the first two years we lived here, but not enough. This place is astonishingly huge, with so much diversity in the landscapes of nature and people, we had to see more of it. I was glancing over the travel ads in That’s Shanghaiand saw something for the Nadaam Festival in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. One look at the itinerary, which included being able to watch the horse races, wrestling matches, and archery competitions and B was hooked. So, it was like most things in our relationship; not…well, normal.

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We packed our backpacks and cameras and set out for Hohhot, the main city in Inner Mongolia where we were met by our fabulous guide, a young bubbly woman named Chelsea, and Chun Shifu, our stalwart driver.

In the city we saw an important military office from days long gone, the newly refurbished Temple, and the forgotten Five Pagoda Temple. We ate a truly tasty lunch of a delicate soup with mushrooms and flowers with homemade potato noodles and Bryan munched on mutton, the specialty of the area.

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As we walked through the city and the vibrantly colored temples, I felt waves of excitement and spirituality. The people wore smiles on their faces as they listened to stories of a great man who unified the fighting groups with the peaceful practices of Buddhism while others nodded solemly while soaking in the stories from the turbulent reign of the last emperor and his tiger of a mother. There is a feeling you get when in these places that is unlike any other. It creeps into the base of your spine and prickles your neck, making hairs stand on end. The energy is electric.

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Early the next morning we headed out into the grasslands, rolling hills and wild flowers waved as we sped past, and soon the automobile narcalepsy took over and I woke up near our home for the night. We were greeted by brightly and traditionally clothed young men and women who wore blue scarves draped over their arms as they offered us baijiu. We were instructed to dip our ring finger into the liquid, as Genghis Khan once had done to test for poison. Then, we flicked some to the heavens, some to the Earth, and swiped some on our foreheads. Then it was time to drink. I had spent a record two years avoiding baijiu in China, but I did not want to offend tradition, so down my hatch it went. It was not at all the fiery, unpleasant gag reflex inducing concotion I was expecting, it was actually a bit pleasant.

There was an afternoon of eating, wresting and mushroom picking in the abundant fields and then a horseback ride. I should have learned by now that I should not go near horses, let alone ride them, but I never learn. After a short ride around the area, my nose was a faucet and my lungs were wheezing. I nearly stepped on a toad while going into our yurt and fended off a healthy looking spider after that. As I swallowed one more Benedryl I asked myself what the heck I was thinking coming here like this, for my honeymoon no less!

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I returned to the dining yurt and watched as the big group across from us and became more and more red and hysterical as the clear liquid escaped from the biuju bottled and into ther laughing bellies. The music began, I wasn’t asthmatic anymore, things were looking up.

About a half an hour later we were ushered to a stage area that was lit up with disco lights and surrounded by high wattage speakers echoing with the exuberance of traditional Mongolian music. The guests laughed and yelled and warmed themselves by the fire. We found some soldiers among us, having a much needed night off, and also learned that the rambunctious group was from one of the country’s leading oil companies. And there we were, two foreigners in the midst of it all. It was pretty amazing.

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Things only got better as the music resumed. The baijiu was in full effect and Bryan and I were roped in to many a photo and dance. Soldiers gyrated to the beat and encouraged B to take his shirt off as one of the oil group guys incessantly tried to parade me around the concrete technicolored flashing dance floor, moving his arms this way and that in a zig zag fashion while I tried not to trip over him. At one point we were dancing around the fire in hora fashion. Hands clasped together, feet moving frantically sideways as the music’s beat sped up to meet that of our racing hearts, and in the center of it all was my funky dance partner standing in front of the fire, praying. I took a picture of that moment with my mind and hoped it would last forever.

After a bit more dancing, fireworks, and singing, we watched the last of the sky lanterns sparkling and full of wishes fade into the sky. We said goodbye to our new friends, and headed to the dimly lit yurt. After escorting a few unwanted creatures outside, we put some toilet paper in our ears to avoid them from trying to find new homes in our nice, warm heads, and kissed goodnight. Romantic? Not for most people, but for us it was absolutely perfect.

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I Heart Hot Pot

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It is no secret that I am obsessed with food. If you have read my other posts you will know that I cannot help myself from mentioning food, multiple times. When I visit a new place one of the first questions I ask is, “Where should I eat?”

Shanghai is a dangerous place for someone like me. Every street is lined with restaurants and street food. Around the city you can find any type of food from any corner of the globe. Shanghai’s community is a vibrant mix of people from every province in China and every continent in the world. People bring their dreams, families, and businesses here. It seems as though the American dream can now be found in China. Every culture brings its own personality to the city, where some places look and taste like Europe, while others look an taste like ancient China.

If it is the taste of ancient China you are looking for, then find a hot pot restaurant near you. The hot pot has been around for over 1,000 years, and although places in the U.S., such as The Melting Pot, have repackaged it and made it “fancy” the original is still the best.

Shanghai can be cruel in winter, and some days the only way to keep you warm and satisfy your appetite is a hot bubbly pot of broth and spicy red peppers. At a typical hot pot restaurant you will be offered a few types of broth, which could be a spicy Sichuan mix or a more tropical and mild coconut mix. Once the broth starts rolling, and the steamy scent fills your nose, it’s time to cook your dinner. You can order just about any type of food that is edible. Meat eaters can eat anything with a tail, wings, four legs or none. Vegetarians will enjoy the plethora of leafy greens, fresh mushrooms, and bean curd of all shapes and sizes. The type of cuisine available will vary by region with coastal cities offering up the fresh catch and landlocked cities and towns serving the four legged beasts that roam nearby.

Each person is in charge of his or her own tasty bites, and one chopstick load at a time, adds them to the savory sauce. The broth only gets better, as the individual flavors of the food infuse into it. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, it will when you visit the sauce counter where you can find peanut sauce, pepper sauce, sa cha sauce, green onions, crushed garlic, cilantro white pepper and more. You can bring back as many bowls as you like. Some taste better alone while others can be mixed in to a delicious concoction that you can drip on your food while it’s still steaming on your plate.

One of the best places I have been for hot pot is Hot Pot King in the French Concession. There the food was fresh and of high quality. The atmosphere is as it should be, full of warmth both from the costumers and the giant pots. Some patrons choose to wear the green apron offered by the restaurant, as it can get messy with all that hot and spicy liquid flying around. They offer an appetizer of thin and crispy flat bread with peanut butter smeared in between. The cost is great too. For a huge meal and the green bottled Tsingdao, it was only 120 RMB for each of us, about $19.

There may be many things about the city that you will find overwhelming at times, but the great thing is that you will always find a comfort food to soothe your soul. For many Chinese who leave their country to work or study abroad, hot pot is one of the foods that will always taste like home.