Moments of grace amid the cacophony
It wasn't until my husband and I had already shelled out thousands of dollars to visit China that I saw our destination referred to as "hideous."
Our 16-year-old daughter had unexpectedly been invited to participate in an international volleyball tournament in Inner Mongolia, with the opportunity to spend a few days touring Beijing, and we had spontaneously decided to join her.
You know, carpe diem, YOLO, and all that.
Then I started to look more closely at Baotou, the city of 2.5 million where we would spend more than a week in July.
Or at least, I tried to. There wasn't much in The Washington Post's library of travel books, and what I found was discouraging, not to mention disconcerting.
"Baotou sprawls across more than 20 km of dusty landscape, much of it industrialised and polluted," read a typical warning, this one in the 2009 Lonely Planet guide to China. "Unless you have a particular interest in steel production, there is little reason to stop."
As for outside Baotou, the guidebook sniffed at the touristy sites in the grasslands and the desert, as well as the mausoleum for Genghis Khan that didn't contain his remains. If one insisted on visiting the mausoleum, it said, the city of Dongsheng was a better option for an overnight than "hideous Baotou." The only site it had kind words for was a Tibetan monastery.
Things weren't much better online, where, among the sparse offerings, I found a YouTube video posted by an English teacher in the city who asserted that Baotou, which is "run by gangsters," is so dangerous that most men carry knives.
Then there was the Daily Mail story about the secret lake of toxic chemicals patrolled by security guards.
Nevertheless, Darryl and I weren't going to spend thousands of dollars and fly 11, 265 kilometres to while away the hours between volleyball matches in a hotel room. Whatever there was to see, we vowed, we would somehow see it.
After a layover in Beijing, where everything was so gray and dingy that it looked as if we had somehow landed in a dystopian movie, we arrived late at night in Baotou to a small crowd outside the airport, wearing bright yellow shirts and waving placards in English and Chinese.
"Welcome board," read one. The girls were dropped off at the school where the tournament would be held, and we were bused past garish neon signs to what one of the guidebooks had called a "stylish" hotel but which proved so smoky and dirty that we moved out the next day to a marginally better one.
The walk to Baotou Number 1 Middle/High School in the morning was, literally, an assault on our senses. We were in the old part of the city, called Donghe, with worn, squat buildings, cracked sidewalks, crooked electrical poles that held drooping wires and a lot of ugly signage, given that each building needs to be advertised in both Chinese and Mongolian.
The streets were full of cacophonous zooming, honking, screeching vehicles - cars, motorcycles, carts of all shapes and sizes and wheel bases - and the traffic seemed to flow according to the pattern of some near-miss dance that we didn't know the steps to.
The sky was more gray than blue, there was a strange chemical smell in the air, and the haze seemed to trap the heat.
And everyone was staring at us. Apparently, this part of Baotou doesn't see many Westerners, despite the city's status as a leader in rare-earth industries and steel production.
On the bright side: We didn't come across anyone resembling a knife-wielding gangster, and the most dangerous thing we could do seemed to be trying to cross the street. (Actually, we soon learned, drivers routinely used the sidewalks, so we weren't safe even there.)
On our daily walks, we would see food carts churning out pancakes; men playing checkers; people companionably working on bikes, of which there seemed to be thousands; vendors selling produce and some items we couldn't recognize; stray dogs; diaperless toddlers; people driving by with loads of eggs or plywood and once, goldfish in bags.
Our group of parents and chaperones would shop at the local grocery store for essentials such as salt and pepper and toilet paper; visit a couple of department stores for foam pads for the rock-hard beds; try in vain to find cold beer. Not a single person spoke English, but everyone was friendly and helpful.
Still, some aspects of Baotou gave us pause. The school was behind an impressive accordion-style metal gate and everyone who entered had to show some ID.
Later in the week, metal detectors were put up for tournament ticket holders. The players (even those who had parents along) weren't allowed to leave the campus unless they were in a group and accompanied by a security guard. And when all eight teams went on a field trip, our line of buses had a police escort that nosed other vehicles out of the way.
Thankfully, the tournament officials had arranged for one mass outing: to Xiang Sha Wan, the Resonant Sand Gorge, which is a kind of desert theme park; think of golden dunes with an overlay of the tackiest aspects of Disney.
Our bus of Brazilian, American and Chinese girls bonded via the universal language - songs by Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift - as the adults gazed out the windows at the impressively smooth highways and the remarkably unscenic scenery.
The only interesting site we passed was the famed Yellow River, as muddy as its name would indicate.
The Resonant Sand Gorge is named for a "singing" sound that the sand allegedly makes, which you can most readily hear when sledding down the dunes, one of the activities that our hosts strangely didn't sign us up for (but we did get to ride the rather sad-looking camels).
It was cluttered with odd accessories, including but not limited to a huge plastic "I (heart) U" tucked into the landscape; dune buggies done up like Viking ships; a theater; a train; and a hotel that looked as if it belonged in outer space.
As the girls played volleyball on a beach court, before repairing to the pools, I climbed to the summit of a dune, concentrated on looking away from the people and the beach umbrellas and soothed myself with the sweeping expanse of sand and sky.
As so often during our time in Baotou, the moments of grace were there, if you pushed everything else aside so that you could find them.
After our rather inauthentic desert trip, we sadly concluded that a similar visit to one of the outlying grasslands wouldn't be worth the time or expense. But Baotou is the only Chinese city that contains a grassland park, and I was determined not to leave the area without having seen an iconic Mongolian steppe.
So Darryl and I joined forces with two other restless adults and took a 30-minute cringe-inducing taxi ride through the unruly sea of traffic, past several traffic circles with massive statues, to Saihan Tala Ecological Park in the Qingshan District, which seemed a tad cleaner and more modern but, alas, still lacked English speakers. We were quoted such an outrageous price to rent bikes that we walked away, until one of the workers ran up to us with a translation: "deposit."
The sign posted at the entrance to the park was almost poetic in its faulty English: "Every summer garden weeds characterizing a fine firm cattle and sheep like stars in the green grass, endless green prairie disseminated with the blue sky white cloud exclusive to the Great Wall."
We rode the whole way around, passing deer in a pen; a couple of Mongolian stone mounds called aobao (make a wish and walk around clockwise three times, we were advised by the sole English speaker we came across); a Mongolian-style conference centre; a marsh and, yes, the grassland we had come for, the effect slightly marred by the buildings in the distance.
Exhausted and hungry, we got to our hot pot restaurant, which I'd found online, only by showing the taxi driver the logo on my iPhone, were only able to order vegetables because of the translation app I downloaded, and spent the ride back convinced that our driver, who was taking directions via her cellphone, was going to run over someone. Still, we were quite pleased with the success of our outing.
We were so pleased, in fact, that we tried to talk the tournament officials into providing transportation for the girls to visit the grassland park the following day. It might have been easier to break our daughters out of jail.
But the organisers did supply a bus for the eight parents and chaperones to the so-called Genghis Khan mausoleum, which was more than two hours away. Though Lonely Planet had called a trip to the mausoleum "a long way to see very little," we weren't going to look a gift bus in the mouth, and we were delighted that we'd be accompanied by one of the tournament volunteers, a former Baotou volleyball player and current college student named Erica who spoke English.
Again, we didn't pass much on the drive except for the "ghost city" of Ordos, where a skyline made up of partially constructed gap-windowed high-rises bears unsettling testimony to how quickly a building boom can turn to bust in China. We stopped for lunch at a small strip of shops and restaurants, where Erica ordered us traditional Mongolian food, including milk tea (too salty), fresh yogurt (amazing), dried beef (very good), a few vegetable dishes, and of course, mutton. The last was served with a plastic glove and a huge carving knife.
The mausoleum, which the Chinese government erected in the 1950s to curry favour with the Mongolian minority, is built on a grand scale. Behind a huge white gate, and then a gigantic bronze statue of Khan, 99 steps lead to a building that looks like three gers, or yurts, with blue and gold roofs, linked together. The central yurt holds a white stone statue of Khan in the beautifully painted and tiled entryway; the wings house the so-called artefacts.
When we moseyed into the back room, which features an altar bearing a golden statue of Khan, we came upon an extended family on a pilgrimage. The jumble of unidentifiable bony items in front of the statue, Erica found out for us, were pieces of 21 sheep, on which the relatives would dine later. Incense was lit, and various family contingents seemed to be called up for prayers or blessings as the others chatted and babies cried.
Then a group of men, most of them wearing black felt hats, gathered at the front of the room holding blue banners draped between their upturned palms, and began singing a sutra over and over as the crowd gradually quieted. It was mesmerising. I reluctantly let myself be pulled away, but I was grateful for a glimpse of something real and a bit ashamed that I hadn't wanted to visit a location that clearly has deep meaning for many Mongolians.
The site I really wanted to see was the Tibetan monastery in the nearby foothills, about 45 miles away; the question was how to get there and back in time for the girls' 4 pm game. Taking a cab seemed out of the question. Buses would be slower. I tried one English-speaking tour guide advertised on the Internet with no success.
Finally, Erica suggested that our tiny group of three parents hire a car and driver from a travel agency. It was genius: The price turned out to be extremely reasonable, about $100; the car was a new Mercedes SUV; and the driver was willing to make whatever stops we requested.
So on the way to the monastery, we paused at the ruins of what is perhaps the oldest section of the Great Wall: a rammed-earth divide built during the Warring States period by King Zhao Wu-ling. There was a huge statue of Zhao on a rearing horse, but the wall itself, constructed in 300 BC, was harder to find, and the signs weren't explicit. We settled for looking at all the mounds of earth nearby, figuring that one of them had to be the right one.
Then we went on to the 18th-century monastery, a series of whitewashed, red-edged buildings terraced into the hills, full of elaborate paintings and rugs and Buddhas of all sizes and materials. Monks in maroon robes and sneakers guarded the entryways to the nine buildings, punching tickets, instructing guests to step over the raised thresholds and whiling away the rest of the time on their cellphones.
We had read that the once- vibrant temple usually hosted more tourists than monks, but on this day, the grounds weren't crowded, and the sky was clear and a striking blue background for the white buildings fronted with intricate murals and draped with colourful banners and streamers. It was possible to spin every prayer wheel we passed, as Erica taught us, and imagine 1,200 monks praying together, the hills reverberating with their chants.
Later that afternoon, we would watch our team's last game and the tournament's closing ceremonies, and the players would swap T-shirts and trinkets and hugs. That night, we would eat at a Mongolian restaurant, and the girls would sing karaoke as the staff crowded into the room, gaping at our gorgeous multiracial group.
But first, we would have enough time to ride to another Baotou district, Kundulun, full of sleek, modern, finished high-rises, because Erica wanted to show us her family's new apartment.
Her doting parents - abruptly summoned from their jobs to entertain some unknown Americans - would bustle home bearing soda and beer and some welcome Pizza Hut pizza. Erica would show us the furniture she had picked out, and we would all crowd onto the new couch for photographs. Like most of our experiences in Baotou, it wouldn't be what we ever would have imagined. But it definitely wouldn't be hideous.
Chang is an editor with The Washington Post Magazine.
There are plenty of city buses and taxis. Always take a business card from the hotel to show a taxi driver so you that you can return easily. Either download onto your phone or ask someone to print out the name of the place you'd like to go to in Chinese characters.
WHERE TO STAY
Donghe, the older section of town, has the convenience of the airport and the bus and train stations but doesn't offer much in terms of hotels. We stayed at the Super 8 Hotel Bayantala Xi Da Jie, which was adequate. The nicer hotels seem to be located in the centre-city Qingshan district.
WHAT TO DO
Saihan Tala Grassland Ecological Park, Qingshan, Baotou, Inner Mongolia. Free admission.
Xiang Sha Wan (Resonant Sand Gorge), Ordos, Inner Mongolia. Admission starts at about $16; there are add-on fees for each activity. 8:30 am to 6 pm.
Genghis Khan Mausoleum, Bulage Road, Ejin Horo, Ordos, Inner Mongolia. Admission about $40. 8 am. to 6 pm.
Wudang Lamasery, Wudangzhao Town, Shiguai District, Baotou. Admission about $12. 8 am to 5 pm.
Check government websites health and safety information. You'll need to get the necessary shots at least a month before your departure.
Drink only bottled water and don't consume ice. Don't eat uncooked fruits or vegetables.
Ask your doctor to prescribe a course of antibiotics in case of severe traveller's diarrhoea.
If you have breathing difficulties, bring along some respiratory masks.
Make sure you have an international data plan. WiFi is spotty at best.
Download a translation app such as KTdict C-E. You'll come into contact with few English speakers.
Carry toilet paper and hand wipes. Not all public restrooms will be stocked with paper or soap.
Consider bringing a pillow (the pillows were as flat as the proverbial pancake) and a towel.
Avoid using the "facilities" at highway rest stops at all costs.
- The Washington Post