In Yurts Among Herdsfolk by Louie Crew Clay

A scorpion, about 4 inches long, watched our visit from the foot of the first pedestal. He was there when we arrived. He had not moved when we left.

Our host, a Mongu herdsman, had directed our vans off the roads and up the slopes, each new height dwarfing what moments earlier had seemed almost the brink of the world. Finally, thirteen mounds of stones, each with a pole, crowned all. The wind whipped mercilessly and we could see over the tops of huge mountains below us to the vast rims of the horizon a full 360 degrees.

A child in our group found a small coin from the Ching dynasty (1644-1911). Others started spotting coins in the crevices of all of the mounds. Each mound was about breast high, with large limbs of dead trees and bushes piled above the rocks to surround the poles.

“The herdsmen got permission to build these earlier this year when there was drought, and the Lama priests come here on several specific occasions to pray with them for rain. The people throw in coins for good luck. With the thirteen poles they petition different gods,” a guide explained, with a tone very much suggestive of “You know how the superstitious are.”

We were in Inner Mongolia for China’s national day celebrating the communist victory in 1949. When we arrived, officials in Xilinghot proudly showed us their town and took us to the highest point, where they had erected a large monument to those who lost their lives in the struggle. Mongolia, they explained, is rather special to the party, because the party won in Mongolia even before it won in China. Their casualties were numerous.

  From those heights we could see very well the town of about 40,000. Only three huge roofs below us stood out as “ancient.” The guides explained that before the victory in 1949, only some Buddhist Lamas lived here. The three buildings in their lamasery had only the rural herdsmen as neighbors. These Buddhists for centuries had closely associated with the Dalai Lama in Tibet. From above, their beautiful roofs contrasted dramatically with those of the drab buildings that came with the new town. The latter looked no different from the housing which bureaucrats have built for the poor all over the backyards to cities and towns in the United States.

We asked to see the lamasery, but our guides demurred, saying that it was in bad disrepair, but that the government had recently allocated money to restore it as an historical site. When we insisted, they did let us visit, and I wept. Hooligans had long ago sacked the place, and the atheistic government had turned into a coal bin the largest of the buildings, celebrated in older guidebooks as one of the showplaces of all Inner Mongolia. We could still see lovely paintings on the beams high enough to have escaped abuse, but new coal for the approaching winter had already been piled higher than my head in most places.

When I asked whether the Lamas still worshipped anywhere in the area, the guide seemed not to understand my question and explained that it was time for us to go off to the department store. Another pointed out that the coal stored there is used in the local hospital.

The indigenous people of Inner Mongolia, the Mongu, live very differently from their Han neighbors who make up 94 percent of the Chinese population. An outdoor people, the Mongu thrive as loners made hardy by centuries of fierce winters and bright wind-blown summers. The Mongu eat rich foods. They sing and dance with full voices.

By contrast, the Hans, crowd everywhere, even the nearly 76 percent who throng into China’s limited amount of arable rural areas. Some have claimed that to be Han Chinese is rarely to be more than about ten feet from another human being for your entire life.

Even in Inner Mongolia, Hans outnumber the Mongu nine to one. The Hans planned it that way: in the first 20 years after the communist victory in 1949, millions of Hans moved into all tense border regions. Before the revolution, the Hans had promised to respect such regions. They “delivered” on their promises by establishing themselves as the majority spokespersons for each.

The Mongu now constitute an official “minority” of about 7 percent of the population in Inner Mongolia, officially designated an “autonomous region.” The Hans strongly encourage with money, not just talk, all Mongu diversity which is not political; and the majority Hans are very willing to re-educate the Mongu politically. They permit no vestige of Mongu “feudal” politics.

Thus, the Mongu have kept a large portion of “elbow room.” Many herd cattle and horses, ride camels, and shepherd their flocks deep into their lonely and rugged fastnesses. A thick, long grass covers their boundless and treeless heights and valleys. From a distance, the grass looks brown and dusty like most of the horizon. Up close, it is a rich dark green. At harvest time, along every dirt path sit huge carts looking ready to collapse under the weight of bale after green bale gathered to feed the animals during the long winter.

In the brisk chill of a Mongolian autumn, we lived for four days in a yurt, a felt tent-like structure supported with collapsible wooden girders so that the families who use them can easily follow the herds as they graze new grass. Kubilai Khan’s troops used yurts 600 years ago before they moved south, conquered, and integrated with the Hans. Marco Polo slept in yurts too, on his way to Kubilai Khan’s new capital in Beijing.

Bright wool rugs cover the portable pallets which serve as floors. Yurt furniture, sparse but adequate, dwarfs to the low height at the circumference, but tall and hefty Mongu can stand with heads high in the center section. Lavender, pink, green and fuschia lining typically brighten the inner sides of the felt walls. As in an Indian tepee, smoke escapes and light enters through a hole in the center of the roof. With ropes tied to extra sheets of felt, one can enlarge or diminish the size of this opening. After a heavy frost, incense readily cuts the smell of damp felt, and mounds of bright silk-covered quilts break the draft except when one rises to urinate under the full panoply of the Milky Way.

The grasslands determine the Monoglians’ diet. Milk byproducts curdle in some corner of every dwelling. Meat of all kinds abounds, often in great slabs for skewering or boiling, and even in the towns, where most people travel by bicycle, every 20th cyclist seems to be carrying on the handlebars a nearly bare carcass of some large creature now about to become the base of a soup or a stew. Fish is also plentiful, from a local reservoir.

The Mongu serve milk with tea automatically, just the way the British do. Han Chinese never do. The Mongu also add to the tea about a tablespoon of yak butter and another tablespoon of sesame seeds. This tastes much more delicious than it sounds. Whenever they drink it, they usually also munch on thin slivers of a mild cheese that looks and tastes a bit like a white cheddar (it’s actually closer to the British Cheshire), which first they dip into a lumpy cream and sprinkle with sugar. Like many American farmers, the Mongu often store much body fat to warm themselves when the winter turns truly brutal.

My Mongu colleague ordered a huge feast for the first night in the master yurt, built to seat all 20 of us. A third of us were the local hosts, and the rest of us were Americans and Europeans employed as foreign experts in Beijing, about 1,000 miles to the south. The feast began with the tea and dairy things standard at all meals, and moved to heaps of roast cow tongue, a huge dish of special Mongolian fungus in a garlic sauce, several spicy fish and a huge slab of mutton, which the leader of the local tourism office carved ceremoniously.

We ate for over two hours and offered toasts galore, with sweet red wine popular all over China, with the Tsingtao Beer which is the finest in the country, and with a wickedly powerful mao tai (pronounced “My Tie”), a milk liquor that tastes like vodka redistilled to increase its strength. One small glass is enough to make heavy people high. The Mongu are proud of their ability to consume vast quantities. The Mongu are also proud to be able to remain reasonably sober while doing so, though they seem anxious to prove that their guests lack that ability. They let you know right off that it is rude not to make an effort to keep up with them. “Gan bei!” all shout for each toast, meaning that you must drink all of one of your three potions and turn over the glass to prove that you have done so. Immediately the ubiquitous servers refill.

The most popular food at this meal actually was the cheese curds fried individually in a caramel coating. They are served piping hot, and every group of four people shares a bowl of cold water in which to dip each. The water saves the roof of the mouth from burns and makes the caramel crunchy. It has the texture of fried ice cream but a taste all of its own. (The next night they did a similar treat with caramel-covered pork fat, which we did not eat so ravenously, and at a final feast they did it with hot caramel-covered apple slices.)

The mother of the serving group sang three songs for us. Almost all Mongu males and females wore the floor-length robes with sash and a headwrap. In public places we could sometimes easily single out the Mongu from the Han majority who never dress this way, but we learned later that many Mongu also avoid Mongu dress.

One day we visited a commune way back in the mountains, used by about 1,400 herdsmen for supplies which they carry back to their remote yurts. Residents had piled slabs of cow dung in great mounds, readying them as fuel to burn in the winter. From there we went to lunch in the yurt of the leading herdsman. He was clearly the boss and all members of his family deferred to him, including his handsome, lean and ruddy son, 24, and his daughter-in-law pregnant with a second baby. The younger man, reticent with strong dignity, respectfully waits out the time of his full authority. The two wives served us abundantly, always apologizing for the simplicity even as they stuffed us; and afterwards we had an unofficial xiuxi (pronounced “shoo she,” a Chinese version of the siesta), lulled by the herdsman’s tapes of Mongolian music. Then the herdsman roused himself and insisted on dancing with me, to the delight of the entire family. Afterwards, at their request, a French woman and I demonstrated disco.

On our way to the round-up, we stopped at the empty yurt of a lesser herdsman. A Han guide insisted that I join him alone inside to munch still more cheese. When the herdsman’s wife appeared, she seemed comfortable with us as uninvited guests. The guide gave her something that looked rather like ration tickets that people use for food. She started to bosom them in her long robe, but noticed me, the waiguoren (“outside-country person”), and slipped them into her sash. My friend pointed out pictures of her husband on the wall, in his wrestler outfit. “He’s not a champion of all Mongolia, but he’s the champion of the commune which we visited.” On his shelves the wrestler displayed a prize from a recent bout, three leather-bound gilt-edged volumes of Lenin.

On our last full day in Mongolia, we visited a rug factory. It takes a worker about 21 days to make a small wool throw rug, which sells for about 200 yuan or US$100. The workers make about US$30 per month. I asked whether someone familiar with these rugs could single them out in a rug shop in Beijing. A Han guide laughed, “You would not find these rugs anywhere in Beijing, because the people there would not buy these designs. These are made for the herdsmen.” Occasionally a bright pink or chartreuse splashed its way through the more traditional muted colors. I remembered the bright cloth hanging on the lower walls of the yurts. I remembered the lovely Yodel-like flow of sound at the ends of phrases in the songs the mother sang the first night.

The guides frequently mentioned that the Mongolian herdsmen are rich. As official “minorities” they are not bound by the law that limits all other peoples to one child per family. Also, they are allowed to own their own cattle and horses and to sell them, whereas others are bound by communal property. They raise hundreds of horses to sell to the military, for China’s cavalry.

From city dwellers everywhere one hears similar comments about the relative wealth of China’s farmers. Frequently when I bike through the countryside with colleagues, they point out how well the “peasants” (their term) live in their houses at the edges of the field. “They even own those trucks,” one said recently of the many shiny new vehicles we passed. “They don’t believe that we intellectuals do real work,” he mumbled. China Daily often publishes letters making the similar complaint, that it is far easier for manual laborers than for intellectuals to become Party members. “And the peasants almost all have color televisions,” colleagues stress, with an edge of envy. A beginning teacher in China makes about US$20-25 per month.

On the last night we had a Mongolian hot pot—a dinner which the diners cook for themselves right at the table. In the center on a heavy tray sits a metal cylinder filled with hot charcoals and surrounded by an open sleeve of boiling water. Servers bring huge platters of raw meat very thinly sliced—we had mutton, but it works just as well with beef—and each person uses chopsticks to put portions of the meat into the boiling water. The meat cooks to well done in about 15 seconds, ready for dipping into individual bowls filled with a rich hot sauce diners have already prepared from plentiful ingredients at a nearby buffet—including chilis, fresh coriander, diced sweet onion sprouts, heavy and thick soy pastes, etc. Later someone adds noodles to the water and the mutton leavings. Soup is the final course.

After a few days, some of us, Hans and Westerners alike, complained mildly of excessive binding from the dairy products, but most of us enjoyed living like the Mongu and were sad to leave. Some were also nervous about the old plane, a twin-engine prop based on a Russian version of the American C-47 from the 1940’s, possibly still the safest aircraft available. While we taxied, with my pocketknife I shaved off the paper on the hard candy which they gave us with tea. The woman next to me said, “Mr. Clay, taste.” She put a candy wrapper by itself to my tongue. It melted. Candy-makers here use rice paper.


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Bio: Louie Crew Clay is Professor Emeritus of English at Rutgers University. He was a “Visiting Foreign Expert” at Chinese International University in Beijing, 1983-84, and directed the writing program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1984-87.


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