As I mentioned in my last post, trains are the way best way to go long distances in China, but unfortunately they book up quickly. My friend Moriah and I had planned to go from Huangshan to the Chinese province bordering Mongolia called Inner Mongolia. Due to a lack of seats, we made a several-day stop in the ancient capitol city of Nanjing. Nanjing has all sorts of historical sights including an old city wall and a mountain covered with temples, tombs and pagodas. It poured nearly the entire day that we were at Nanjing's Purple Mountain, but that meant that when we accidentally stumbled into the spectacular bonsai garden, we had it all to ourselves. I can say without a doubt that the bonsai garden in Nanjing is the best display of bonsai that I've seen on this whole trip.
It rained the day that we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum as well. It was a fitting ambiance for a gloomy sight. During the second Sino-Japanese War, Nanjing had been an important battleground and Japanese soldiers had murdered approximately 300,000 Chinese people including women and children. The bodies were flung into shallow mass graves, some of which were open for viewing. It's something I've seen too many times. The museum itself had an overwhelming amount of information, images and relics. The quote that stuck with me the most was: "There's no crime to this day that the Japanese haven't committed".
The weather got nicer as we eventually made our way to Inner Mongolia. The rain and European-country-sized cloud of smog which extended down from Beijing, was held back by the great wall of China which lined the ridges of mountain ranges along our path. Our first stop in the north was a city called Ulanhot, where we were hoping to get tickets toward a geopark called A'ershan. A very nice woman sitting across from us on the train spoke a bit of English and helped us buy tickets as soon as we arrived.
Our train to A'ershan didn't depart until late that evening so our new friend asked if we'd like to do lunch with her and her arranged boyfriend. We said yes and took a cab to a Korean BBQ place across town. The food was amazing. It was better than any BBQ I had in Korea. Part of what made that food so delicious was the mix-your-own set of spices that you dipped things in. That turned out to be a common practice in Inner Mongolia and something I hope I find in Mongolia proper.
The food was as overwhelming in quantity as it was in taste. Our friend suddenly sprung up and darted for the cash register, and me and her boyfriend chased her. A fight ensued over who would pay and eventually they convinced me to go sit back down. After lunch they took Moriah and I to Genghis Kahn Park where they treated us to admission and ice cream with a maniacal "Your money is useless here" when I tried to interject. After the park they helped us find a place to stay for a couple hours so we could get some rest. We had been riding by overnight hard-seat trains and had another such journey ahead of us.
You see a lot of shit both on the inside and outside of Chinese trains. On the other side of the window we saw a gang of unicyclists and a pile of manikin parts in the middle of a field. We also saw heaps of trash piles which often had partially busted western-style toilets in them. On one of the rides, a baby that was sitting directly across from Moriah took a dump on the floor—as I mentioned earlier, Chinese kids don't wear diapers or underwear and always have a slit along the crotch of their pants. Moriah took everything—the excruciating journeys and the unpleasant sights and smells—in stride.
We eventually made it to the city of A'ershan, which is a one-street town with over-sized Victorian style buildings decked out in light pastels. Everything about the city of A'ershan was bizarre, from the all-female Canadian style mounties to the karaoke yurts on the edge of town. The geopark turned out to be much further away than we'd expected, and only accessible by chartered vehicle. We had planned to go hiking and camping all along the park, but it was made clear that that wasn't possible so we hired a cab for the day and drove around to some of the beautiful forests and volcanic lakes.
I see a lot of poorly translated and often funny signs in China. My friend Clelia, who can read both Chinese and English, first tipped me off to the fact that placards in Chinese parks usually have complicated metaphorical notifications in Chinese, but simple inelegant English counterparts. A'ershan was no exception. The trails were lined with hilarious and confusing signs telling us things like: "The Elimination Fire Directs The Trouble Construction Harmonious Society"
Another excruciating train ride away was the city of Chifeng, which was to be our stop-off point for Hexigten Geopark. Due to a lack of information about the geopark and our utter exhaustion by that point, we decided to just hang out in Chifeng for a day and see what that city had to offer. The only point of interest in Chifeng that I could find was the "botanical garden". It turned out that the "botanical garden" was actually a permanent carnival ground. In the center of the park was a large stagnant pond which had all sorts of challenges for getting across it. There were rolling logs, floating platforms, a rope bridge and hanging rings. No one was taking the hanging rings and I shortly found out why. When I got toward the center of the pool it was obvious that any way in which I grabbed the rings would result in me hanging so low that I dragged in the water. At the middle of the cesspool I could touch the bottom of the pond while holding the rings and I decided to just walk to the other side, much to the enjoyment of all the spectators.
Chifeng was a very nice small town that foreign tourists likely never go to. It proved to be a perfectly relaxing place to spend Moriah's last couple days in China. It was just an eight hour over-night-hard-seat train ride from Beijing, which is where I left Moriah in the International Airport terminal as she entered the line for immigration. I've got a day to kill in Beijing and then a sleeper train to the Mongolian border where who-knows-what adventures await me!Soundtrack: Fool In The Rain (Led Zeppelin)