Friday, July 31, 2009

Grassland Flora

Grass and wildflowers as far as the eye can see...Not a tree to be seen for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers.


Getting Out There

We've visited a lot of places in this big, beautiful country, and as "out there" as I know that some destinations have been, I've been searching for something more. Perhaps more remote...A place where nary a foreigner (and, for that matter, nary a native) has seen or roamed. Call it overkill if you will, but this type of adventure has been on my mind ever since David Adams (our Fulbright program officer) laid out his expectations for the Ballas as a Fulbright family. His words, which have been in the back of my mind for over a year, have never ceased to conjure up images of the four of us...Backpacking across Inner Mongolia.

Inspired by his confidence in us, as well as the desire to live up to this challenge, we were led to a place that not only did we not know existed, but also one that unquestionably satiated my desire to get "out there."

No doubt, Steve will be happy to hear that I am finally satisfied, as finding a more remote location than this would be a challenge in itself!


Thursday, July 30, 2009

The "Big" Hike

Having scouted out possible routes for an all-day hiking adventure, the four of us set out after breakfast down this one dirt road that seemed potentially very promising. The reason we made this particular choice was pretty simple. For one thing, the path seemed to lead way out into the grasslands, away from any significant trace of modern day living. Yet, at the same time, there were some occasional trucks that would rumble by, suggesting that, somewhere out there, was a Mongolian outpost, just waiting to be discovered.

And what an all-day adventure it turned out to be! This one will surely go down in the annals as a certified Balla family "death march." In the end, we estimated that we walked something like fifteen kilometers that day, over a period of, shall we say, a good number of hours.

From the beginning, we were desperate not to have this hike turn into a "we can go no farther" walk. In other words, we really wanted to discover an endpoint to our journey, rather than simply run out of steam and head back to the yurt at some random point down the road.

Our conversation kept going something like this...

Why don't we walk up to the top of that next little hill and see what lies beyond.

Then, at the top of the said rise...

How about just one more valley?

Finally, just when we were beginning to think that there simply was no endpoint within our reach, we caught a glance of what looked to be a small village in the distance. Now, as it turned out, this village was many more kilometers, and several more hours of walking, in front of us. Did we make it all the way there? What did we find when we got there? How did we get back to our little yurt?

Stay tuned...


PS: Every now and then, we encountered along the path things other than grass, clouds, and blue sky. There was a man herding his flock of sheep...On a motorcycle! And there was a truck that passed by us going in the opposite direction. About fifty yards down the road, the truck stopped and began backing up toward us. Before we knew it, two young guys and a young girl jumped out of the cab and started snapping pictures of us with their cell phones. I don't know who was more amazed...Them at the sight of four waiguoren walking down this desolate road, or us for being the subject of an impromptu photo shoot way out in the middle of the grasslands!

Roll Call

At 7 am every morning, it was time for roll call at the place we were staying. For some reason, I got a kick out of this early morning ritual, watching the mostly young staff members line up, some in costume already, get their instructions for the day, and yell out dao! when their names were called. Talk about an interesting (and shower-less!) summer job!


Sunrise Was Also Spectacular

The only hitch? It was 4:30 in the morning! Oh, and the grasslands get pretty chilly at night, even in the dead of summer...


Sunset Over The Grasslands

Looking out over the seemingly endless horizon made for quite an incredible way to take in the sunset on our first evening out in the grasslands.


Yes, This Is Really What The Grasslands Look Like!

We were standing right there, and still couldn't believe it!


The Beauty And The Bugs Of The Grasslands

After getting settled into our yurt, and ditching our backpacks, it was finally time to get away from civilization altogether and go for our first hike out into the grasslands.

As you can see from the picture of the terrain, the grasslands are truly breathtaking, especially with the contrast of the sky and clouds hovering, it seems, right over our heads out into infinity.

As you can see from the picture of Desi, Desi (and the rest of us!) were really, really excited to venture out into the pristine surroundings of Hulunbeier.

As you might infer from the picture of Z and Julie (blow it up for a closer look), there is one hitch in this part of the world...the mosquitoes! Yes, we quickly found out that we were, sad to say, underdressed for this extended encounter with raw nature. As the locals are fond of saying...Wenzi tai duo le! (Essentially, "Man, there are a lot of mosquitoes around here!")

The solution, we decided in a hurry, was not to walk straight through the grass itself, but to stick to the dirt roads that cut through these remote parts. The mosquito quotient, our arms and legs can tell you, is significantly lower out there on the rocks and packed earth.

So...What are the lessons we learned for you out there in the Hulunbeier?

Lesson #1: Trust us, you need to go to the grasslands!

Lesson #2: Wear long pants!


Our Nei Menggu Bao

Our home for a few days out in the Hulunbeier grasslands was a real, authentic Mongolian yurt...

...Actually, sad to say, no self-respecting Mongolian family would likely ever be caught dead in the place where we stayed. Why not?

The yurt had a concrete floor and walls.

The yurt had electricity.

The yurt had actual beds.

So, yes, we did what we had to do, and bunked down in an imitation yurt. That said...

There were plenty of creepy, crawly creatures inside the yurt with us.

The beds were really tiny and basic (of the wooden slat variety).

The yurt did not have a bathroom. Nor, by the way, did the place where we were staying have anything more than a couple of toilets and sinks (which, much of the time, were overflowing). So it was no showers for the Ballas for a few days. Hey, at least we smelled like we were roughing it!