Outside the wall

Dan and Sarala’s blog from Hohhot

A day in the life

03 Oct 2014

Some of our days in Hohhot are pretty quiet. We stay home and work on our computers, and maybe go out to exercise or buy groceries or meet someone for an hour or two. This post describes a day that was less typical in that regard, but that exemplifies a lot of typical aspects of daily life here nonetheless.

Bikes and their perils

Our first task of the day was to deliver some visa-related paperwork to the police headquarters out on the edge of town. We decided to bike there. The weather was nice, plus we knew from experience that if we took a bus or taxi along that road, we’d be sitting in traffic most of the way.

We had a great ride for about 45 minutes until, just when we’d caught sight of our destination, Dan’s bike chain snapped. It's a rather old bike, and having only bought it a few days earlier, he’d only had a chance to replace the missing pedal, adjust the brakes, raise the seat, and oil the chain. Apparently the chain needed more than oil.

In the center of town the snapped chain would have been a minor issue, since there are bike repair stands scattered along the sidewalk every few blocks. In this newly built-up district on the edge of town, there was no such option. Fortunately Sarala’s paperwork task was a quick one; she was back within 15 minutes and we started to walk the bikes home. (For the Seattleites reading this, no, the buses in Hohhot don’t have bike racks.)

Perpetual construction

We managed to get back in about an hour and fifteen minutes because Dan sat on the bike and pushed with his feet, which believe it or not is faster than walking. The route we chose turned out to be under construction, so we had to ride on the wrong side of the street and dodge ditches most of the way.

We returned home to yet more construction: our building and all its neighboring buildings have been undergoing renovation for about six weeks now. More on that in a future post.

Unexpected downtime

The bike breakdown was especially inconvenient because it meant Sarala would miss the first session of a Mongolian linguistics class she had been planning to audit. Or did it? She texted a classmate to explain, and it turned out the class had been rescheduled for the following day. This is par for the course at Chinese colleges and universities, where schedules tend not to be settled very far in advance. To wit, the linguistics class was cancelled again the next day because of a faculty meeting.

Having the rest of the morning free, we rested up from our expedition and watched the men dangling in midair spreading mortar on the building next door.

Paperwork sagas

In the middle of the afternoon we got a call from the neighborhood police station (not the place we went in the morning). We've been there several times trying to get our residency paperwork in order. This time, we ended up spending almost two hours sitting around while the officers struggled to enter our information into a database. Apparently it’s a new system and they don’t get a lot of practice entering foreigners in it. If you've ever tried to fill out a form on a computer, you can probably relate to the following:

Sarala heard most of the Chinese swear words she knows, plus a few new ones. Dan spent most of the time checking email on his phone, but he did hear something that sounded like [fakʰə]. A loanword? Anyway, the officers persevered, and in the end they seemed to have successfully registered us. Phew.

Interesting chance encounters

We left the station at 5:30, tired and hungry but full of relief at having made so much progress with the paperwork. We decided to go out for dinner. We wanted to try one of the Buryat restaurants that are clustered along the alley skirting the west side of campus. Buryats are a subgroup or related group to the Mongols, mostly living in the far northeast of Inner Mongolia and around Lake Baikal in Russia.

The restaurant was like a little Mongolian-speaking island in mostly Chinese-speaking Hohhot. The menu was written in Chinese, but they took our order in Mongolian once they realized Sarala could speak it, and all the other customers who came in were speaking Mongolian too. A guy at the next table even gave Sarala a test by handing her a magazine and having her read a sentence out loud. Apparently she passed, because then he asked for her phone number and said something about a Mongolian-English translation project.

Dan kept himself busy by playing chess with the waiter while our food was cooked. Mongols play the same kind of chess as Americans, although they call the castle a “cart” and the bishop a “camel”.

We stuffed ourselves with milk tea, potato soup and deep-fried mutton pies, while the TV played music videos full of traditional Mongolian cultural tropes like people riding horses, making yogurt, and collecting dried dung for fuel. Then it switched to coverage of a horse race somewhere on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.


We left the restaurant feeling like nothing more could possibly happen after such a day. But there was one surprise left: on the way home we saw the most amazing science-fiction tricycle zipping along in the bike lane. Sadly it was gone before we could take a photo, so here’s a sketch instead. Imagine a shiny, greenish-gold beetle shell with wheels peeking out underneath.

Having made it home without further incident, there was nothing left to do but relax. Dan ate an ice cream bar with his feet propped up on the coffee table. Sarala knit.