In the Mongolian Grasslands

Mongolian grasslands

In the mid-80s and earlier, most international tourists in China traveled with organized tours to places the authorities wanted them to see, while university students and faculty were more likely to be independent travelers who might well find themselves in areas that were “closed,” or off-limits to foreigners.

In 1986, I spoke with Valerie,  a fair-complected Australian studying Chinese at Xiamen University, or actually attached to the school but learning Chinese by traveling.  Her modest, unassuming manner gave her the ability to blend in almost anywhere without being noticed, except China.

Valerie’s story

I love the minority areas. The Chinese don’t always understand that. When you’re on these long train trips, and they say, “Where’ve you been?  Have you been to Beijing, have you been to Shanghai?”  Then they say, “Where do you like best?” and you say someplace like Kashgar or Mongolia or Yunnan, you can see they’re thinking, “God, the minorities—how do these people—they think that’s China—they go and see the minorities.”  They say to you, “But that’s not China!  China is in Beijing and Shanghai. These people out there are so luohou, so backward. You’re not allowed to go out there and think that’s China!”

It’s funny. I’ve met quite a few Han Chinese who really look down on the minorities. When I was in Xinjiang there were several incidents. Once when we were coming back from Kashgar on the bus—it’s about a three and a half day trip—there was a Uyghur lady sitting near me, and we got to be quite good friends. She was a very intelligent lady. When she spoke it wasn’t perfect Mandarin, she still had an accent, but you could understand her very easily. She was an interpreter for the Uyghur people. She had been to Beijing and had studied in the university, but you never would have guessed it. She was still a typical Uyghur lady in the scarf and thick stockings and purple dress.

When we stopped for the night, she and I were in the same room. She went in first and put her things on a bed, then I came in, and a Han man came in. Apparently we had registration numbers, but they’d gotten them all mixed up. Well, who cares. There was an empty bed, and she put her things on it. But this man’s wife had the bed, and this Uyghur lady should have taken another bed. He was talking to her as though she were a child. He turned to me, and when he found out I could speak Chinese he spoke to me at normal speed. But he spoke to her as though she were an imbecile, and he said, “These minority people don’t understand a thing.”

She was speaking to him in beautiful Mandarin, and it was just as though he wasn’t even hearing her. He had this idea that she couldn’t understand—even that the numeral four was different from the numeral five.

Quite a few times I’ve seen things like that. The Uyghurs, because they’re looked down on like this, hate the Hans. They’re friendly to us, and they say to us, “Well, we’re foreigners too. You’re like us.”

I have a very good friend who was sent to this place in [Inner] Mongolia to do experiments. She said it was a beautiful place, and I should go up there if I could. We knew it wasn’t open and there was no way they would give us permits.

We tried a few places, and they said, “Nah, you can’t go up there.”

We went as far up as we were allowed to go, and then I went to the railway station and said, “I want two tickets.”

“Why are you going there?”

“To see some relatives.”

The ticket seller turned around and said something to the people behind her. I could just make out “Russian.”

I thought, “Oh, good. They think I’m Russian.”

When we got there, as soon as we got off the train we made a dash for the bus station because we figured, “If we book in any hotel here, they’re going to tell the gonganju [police or public security] and they’ll be sending us back.”  So we just went to the bus station. We had no idea where we were going, and there were just crowds of people around us.  We thought, “God, any minute there’s going to be some officious-looking person coming.”

Then a large woman appeared over us who reminded me of an actress on an Australian television show, this huge woman who was half-Russian and thought I was a real Russian. She’d been sent out to talk to us and to ask us where the hell we thought we were going. When they found out we were students—because of course we couldn’t fool her, so we told her the truth—they thought that was fine.

“Well, great. Good to see you coming out here.”

We just said we’d take a ticket for “anywhere you think is nice” and hopped on a bus.

When we arrived it was nearing dusk. We had to book a hotel, and immediately we heard them go into the office and ring up the gonganju and tell them, “There are two foreigners here. What should we do?”

So we thought, “We may as well go for a walk because they’ll be coming to find us soon. We’ll go and see what there is to see.”

It was a lovely place out in the grasslands. It was summer, but the roads were still in very bad shape because of all the rain they’d had in the spring. There was mud everywhere. We came up to a tractor pulling out a little truck. This huge Mongolian leapt off the back of the tractor and came over to us and said, “Hi. I’m from the foreign affairs department. I’m the newly assigned member to this area.”

“Hi. That’s nice.”

“Welcome, welcome here. How did you know that we’re about to open up this area?”

“Oh… oh… a friend told us. Yeah, we knew about it.”

“Oh, that’s great. And you’re students?  Good, good. I like to have students coming out to have a look at things. That’s what you should be doing.”

He was a lovely man. He took us to dinner, put out this big spread. He was hitting the baijiu [white grain alcohol] and getting very merry and had a few friends in, and we were getting on very well.

Then he said to us, “Where do you want to look?  I can arrange to take you anywhere. There’s a photographer from Hong Kong coming out here tomorrow. He specially asked permission to come out here because he wants to photograph the grasslands. Why don’t you go along with him?  Good opportunity–you’ve got a car and so on…”


“We’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”

Then this woman came in. She was quite young, and I decided immediately that this might be her first job because she was pretty unsure of herself. She was from the gonganju, and he was from the waiban [foreign affairs], which was separate.

As I was easing out the door she said, “I’ve been told you were out here. Where’s your permit?”

“But we’re students!  Ask this man. Here he’s looking after us. He says we don’t need permits.”

He was backing us up. He was so jolly by this stage he said, “Yes, they’re fine. I’ll look after them. I’m in the foreign affairs department.”  He hadn’t even met this woman.

So she went on her way. We got back to the hotel, and about one or two in the morning there was a knock on the door. She had come back with reinforcements.

“OK, where’s your permit?”

We kept saying, “Oh, you’ve heard the man. We don’t need one. This place is open. Or it’s nearly open.”  We just talked on and on, and she gave up in the end.

“We’re leaving tomorrow morning. We’re not going to bother you, don’t worry. We’ll leave.”

So she went off.

We had a good time with this man. He sent out a car, and we went way out into the grasslands. The photographer had permission to go to an area so close to the Soviet border that even the Chinese who live there need a special permit to get in. They were a bit apprehensive that we wouldn’t be allowed in, but the photographer had his papers all written up properly, so we just sat quietly in the back of the car. When the officials had a look in and said, “What about these two?”

We just said, “We’re with him…we’re with him.”  They let us through.

It was beautiful. It was a bit put on. The photographer only had a certain amount of time, and he’d arranged for the local minority people to come in traditional costumes. It was hot. I was dressed in a skirt and a shirt with short sleeves. Some of the minority people came dressed as the Chinese usually do—in a shirt and slacks—and then changed into the traditional clothes, but most of the women and men wear these warm costumes year round. They had brought a big herd eight hundred or a thousand horses and they were galloping them back and forth in front of the photographer so he could take pictures. Instead of catching them like our cowboys do with a lasso or a rope, they have this big long stick with a loop on it. They’ ride up right beside the horse and then just put the loop around his neck. It was fun to watch.

The photographer was treated like royalty up there, and we were included in everything. It was wonderful.

After three or four days we said, “Well, we think we’ll have to get going now. How do we get back to the road so we can try to catch a bus?”

“Oh no, we’ve got a car here, and we’ll take you back in.”

“No, no. That’s too much trouble.”

“You don’t think I’ve been sitting around here waiting all this time because I think it’s hao war [great fun] or anything, do you?  They all know you’re out here.”

He drove us back to town. We said, “OK, just let us off at the station, we’ll be getting on our way now.”

“No, no, no. I’ve been told to take you to see the Big Chief.”

So we had to go and see him. He gave us a little talking to about what we thought we were doing there. It was strange. He was very interested in why we picked that particular place. I don’t know if he really had ideas I had some Russian contacts, but he wanted to know why we had chosen that area specifically. When we just came out and said that it was pure chance. We told him the whole story and said, “This happened like this and this, nothing behind it…”

“Ah, ah!”  He was very relieved.

We were all forgiven and had to promise that if we came again we would tell him first. We were sent, sort of escorted, to the station. The man waited until we got on the train and waved to us and saw to it we didn’t come back again.

Actually, I’ve had very few run-ins with public security even though I’ve just gone where I wanted to. Now there are so many more places that are open. You don’t have to go running around behind someone’s back.

There was another incident the second time I went to Hailandao. I went there to see a friend I’d met the first time I was there. She had a new job teaching Vietnamese children in a school quite a ways out of the city. I never did find out much about it because her parents were ill or something and she’d had to leave suddenly. I just missed her. I’d written and told her I was coming and just assumed she’d be there, and normally she would have. Luckily a friend of hers overheard me saying where I was going and who I was going to meet, and she knew my friend had left that morning, so she said, “Well, come and stay with me.”

Word spreads so quickly, and we’re very obvious, of course. That night we were visited by public security, who came and wanted to know what I thought I was doing there.

“Oh, I’m going in the morning.”

I had come on the last bus that evening. That was okay. I didn’t know whether they were putting me on or not, but they were so concerned about my safety. “We want your things, we want them put here, and we don’t want anybody coming in because there’d be a big mess if any of your things get taken, so we want you to stay here and we want your things to stay here.”

The Chinese authorities want us to see all the concrete and the modernization. “There are no facilities there for you, and you wouldn’t be happy there. It’s best you leave.”  They just don’t like us to see areas that we think are lovely because they’re so simple and left alone.

I think the railways are quite marvelous. I mean, there are so many people they’re moving from one place to another, and they still manage to stay pretty much on time. The trains are kept clean. They’re crowded to the roof, and yet they manage to keep order, and there’s little theft. The people are very friendly to each other, not just with me. Watching the Chinese, you see they’re very happy to strike up a conversation with the people beside them. Even though they know they’re going to be together just for a few hours, they’re concerned about each other and look after each other. It seems well organized in a way, though it can be chaotic. But just think what they’re so many people. I’ve heard many travelers complaining about the inefficiency, but I think the trains are just great.

There are so many little things people do. That’s why you want to be in China. It’s the people. When I was in Hailandao the first time, I was walking along the beach and met this guy, a fisherman or a worker who would have been sixteen or seventeen or so. We were just walking along and talking and picking up shells. We didn’t have long because I had to catch a bus in about ten minutes. He knew I was studying here, and I think he knew my name was Valerie. A few weeks later I got a beautiful letter from him. He had wanted to send me some shells, but he couldn’t find any he thought were nice enough, so he sent me some coconuts instead. There was this big bag with three or four, I think. It was a lovely thought. I couldn’t thank him because I didn’t even know his name.

The first year I was here, a couple of days before Chinese New Year, I was going down to Nanning to see some friends. On the train a little girl came and sat down beside me. She had a comic book or something, and we were talking about it when her mom and dad came over and asked, “Is she bothering you?  She’s always like this with people.”

I said, “No, no.”

We started chatting. They asked me to come and stay with them at her mother’s place. They were halfway to Nanning. They insisted I get off with them, and many, many times I said I couldn’t do that. I refused endless times. They would not listen to me. I put up any number of arguments why I couldn’t and so on. But they said, “It’s two days before New Year, so you’ve still got time to get to your friend’s place. Stay with us for a day.”  So I did.

Again it was a place I wasn’t supposed to be. We just got off at the railway station. Because they lived just down the line, we didn’t go through the main gate, we just walked along the tracks and over a fence or something. We came in the house, and here was this poor mother. She hadn’t seen her daughter for a couple of years, and then her daughter and son-in-law walked in dragging this foreigner. You can imagine how she felt. But immediately everything was under control and I was to stay with them. I ended up staying a couple of days, and I didn’t get to my friend’s for New Year, but that didn’t matter. It was so lovely. There are so many, many little experiences that don’t seem like much when you talk about them, but you know you’ll never forget.