genghis khan, grasslands, and gangnam style
genghis khan was not a harmonious man. tales of his ruthless massacre campaigns across the eastern world are legendary as he built one of the largest empires in history. his story is blood-soaked, violent, and still he is still one of the most deeply respected figures in inner mongolia, china. i’m not sure how genghis khan would have felt watching his descendants undulate in harmony with a group of foreigners in a drunken stupor by the light of a bonfire, flash mobbing to gangnam style as it echoed through the night across the grasslands. regardless, that’s exactly what happened.
i was traveling in china in the late summer of 2014 as part of a media immersion with g adventures. g adventures is a tour company geared toward travelers who like to travel the local way - local transportation, local accommodations, local restaurants. it’s all about immersion and first-hand experience. this particular itinerary was called hidden china & inner mongolia, starting in beijing and making its way to inner mongolia, down to datong, pingyao, xi’an, and finally back to beijing.
armed with beef jerky, a bag of trail mix, and a case of tsing tao beer, we boarded the overnight train in beijing and settled in for the eight-hour ride, clacking and clanging out of the city deep into the countryside. in the weak morning light, we pulled into the station in baotou, inner mongolia, exhausted, stinky, and some of our bladders about to burst because of the choice conditions of the bathrooms on board. a quick breakfast of steamed dumplings and beef soup revived us before we boarded a bus to the grasslands toward our accommodations for the night - a yurt campground.
past rolling fields of brilliant sunflowers, expansive rocky plains pocketed with pyramided stupas, and decrepit, snaking fragments of the oldest section of the great wall, we plunged deeper into the province, and away from civilization. three hours out from the capital we turned down a dusty road that seemed to lead to nowhere, when small, white, bun-shaped structures began to pop up in small clusters. the yurts slept three to four people, on top of thatched floor mats covered with crimson carpeting. the walls of the yurt were covered in brightly colored silk screens, pillows and blankets stacked neatly, and the omnipresent portrait of genghis khan watching over us.
after settling in to our digs, we were summoned to the main tent for dinner, where we learned we would be dining with our neighbors from the yurt community down the road. the group dining with us was a contingent of chinese military officials and their wives. a solemn group of men marched in with their equally somber-looking female counterparts and sat at tables on the other side of the massive tent. a hushed awkwardness swept through the space as each group eyed the other cautiously, quieted by both a language and cultural barrier. as if on cue, bottles of rice wine were slammed into the center of each table, porcelain cups rattling beside them. now, i’m not entirely sure if this is fact, but we were told that the chinese military isn’t allowed to be drunk in public, so to sidestep this rule they take to the grasslands of inner mongolia. true or not, the rice wine began to flow, fueling one of the most beautifully bizarre nights i’ve ever had.
it wasn’t long before the dining tent transformed from an uncomfortable boarding school cafeteria into a warm sea of flushed, red cheeks. plates heaped with food decorated the tables as we ate family style, but that was only before an entire roasted goat was paraded into the center of the tent, decked with flowers and wrapped with a prayer scarf. as we tore into goat meat, washing it down with rice wine, and sneaking outside to smoke unfiltered cigarettes with the chinese military, the neil diamond of inner mongolia decided to make his entrance into the dining tent. forget-me-not blue robes draped over his shoulders, he grabbed the microphone and his casio keyboard, and began serenading this motley crew of east and west. feeling inspired, one young man grabbed the microphone, raised his tiny cup to his new american friends, and slurred his already broken english, tears in his eyes, thanking us for taking the time to come visit his country.
but the party didn’t end there.
after the goat grease-streaked plates were cleared we stumbled out into the vast grassy landscape. a high-powered light, much like one you’d find at and elementary school soccer game, beamed down onto a center fire pit where a bonfire had begun to roar.wWithout warning the dark night erupted with that deep pulsing techno beat and grating synthesizer, while psy’s unmistakable mellifluous voice flooded the sky with techno pop korean. as if that weren’t enough, a handful of the chinese military men broke out into nearly perfect dance squad formation, lassoing their arms in the air in moves that would make psy himself proud. the 12 journalists i was with stood in awe, mouths agape, at this spectacle that unfolded for us.
did we join in? of course we did. and somewhere in his grave genghis khan rolled over.