Outside the wall

Dan and Sarala’s blog from Hohhot

Frontier Ho!

02 Nov 2014

Last weekend we spent a few days in Ereenhot (“Èrlián” in Chinese), a small city on the border with Mongolia. It is probably most famous for the dinosaur fossils that have been found in a nearby dry lakebed, notably the species Erliansaurus. On the map below, the lakebed is the grey blotch in the upper right corner.

Ereen is also an important border crossing, and that's why we were there. Dan is on a visa that requires him to leave and re-enter China once every 90 days, and Ereen is the nearest crossing, just 380km north and east from Hohhot. We took an overnight train that left at 9:50pm and arrived at 5:20am.

After wandering the empty pre-dawn streets for a while, we found a hotel that turned out to be conveniently located, fairly quiet, and not too expensive. A short nap later, we breakfasted at a little Inner Mongolian restaurant a few blocks away. This comprised bowls of milk tea (compressed brick tea not unlike pu’er, brewed with hot water, milk, butter and salt), small fry breads (basically unsweetened doughnuts), large fluffy steamed dumplings filled with mutton, pickled turnip shreds, and a spicy soup full of sheep organs topped with cilantro.

The rest of the first day was spent making our way across the border and back. Pedestrians aren't allowed to cross the no-man's-land between the border posts, so we had to hire rides. On the way into Mongolia we rode in a cargo van loaded to the roof with packages. Our companions were the Inner Mongolian driver and an Outer Mongolian trucker who was going to transfer the load to his big rig headed for Ulaanbaatar. In between getting our passports stamped by the four separate immigration controls, the van driver contracted with a young Mongolian woman to take us back to China in her shiny new jeep. (This little round trip cost more than the train ticket from Hohhot.)

There isn’t much to see at the border crossing except for lots of dry grassland:

...and lots of old, beat up jeeps with Mongolian license plates.

Once our errand was complete, we gave ourselves a few days to explore. We wandered around trying to find the dinosaur museum (which turned out to be way out at the dry lake bed, so we didn't make it there). Sarala spent a lot of time listening to how people talked, and even did some interviews for her research. People were really nice to us. A stranger in a restaurant randomly paid for our lunch, just to show his appreciation for foreigners coming to study China (!). And another person we chatted with fed us this delicious assortment of sweetened cheeses:

In fact, almost all our meals in Ereenhot were delicious. One reason why might be that the mutton up there (unlike in Hohhot) is grass-fed and very, very fresh. More than once we saw live sheep being delivered right to a restaurant and slaughtered on the sidewalk just outside the door. That's hopefully more sanitary than it sounds: they use the pelt as a sort of built-in dropcloth.

We also investigated the local warehouse/shopping mall catering to Mongolians crossing the border into China to go shopping. This is where all those jeeps were headed.

...and we learned just how much neon there is even in relatively small Chinese cities.

And finally, although we didn’t make it to the dinosaur museum, we did pass several dinosaurs on the grassland as we rode the bus out of town:

What an amazing set of sculptures.