Originally, we did not plan to go to Ejin Banner (額濟納旗) in the most north western tip of Inner Mongolia. It is famous for the desert poplar trees (Euphrates poplar胡楊林) with the leaves turning into golden yellow only in a very short window of every October. In that single month, the quiet Ejin town of only 34,000 people is flooded with flocks of tourists from all over China to see the golden beautiful old Euphrates poplar trees. All the streets and roads are jammed with endless traffic. Inevitably accommodation prices soared. We were told that even eating in the restaurant and a bowl of noodles cost more in that month – a normal RMB10 noodles will become RMB40.
Then Taozi (濤子) whom we met in Alxa Left Banner suggested that we could go to see the budding poplar trees during this quiet time. So we made a detour and went backward in opposite direction. We took the long scenic route and drove through a number of small villages. We slept in our van for two nights – first next to the Dongqing Lake (冬青湖) near Bayannur (巴彥卓爾) and then in a tiny village called Wulijisumu (烏力吉蘇木) that only has two streets and a few shops. In total, we drove 790 kilometres and to get to Ejin Banner.
After resting two days in Ejin town and did a bit of reading and writing at a local bookshop cum cafe, we went to the poplar forest (胡楊林). We drove to the Fourth Bridge (there are seven in total for tourists to admire the various poplar trees). There was hardly anyone and we walked slowly along the wooden paths and dirt trails. Most of the poplar trees are at least three to four hundred years old. Even without the golden leaves, they look incredibly graceful and beautiful under the sunlight. We went there again for an evening walk just like the locals a few days later and the trees were so striking against the sunset rays.
We learned that some of the scenes in the Chinese director Zhangyimou’s (張藝謀) 2002 epic film Hero (英雄) were filmed here. I watched the film years ago in the cinema and at the time I only thought that its cinematography was so beautiful that it looked unreal. I watched clips of the film again before I write this blog and it brought tears to my eyes. Now I can fully appreciate the stunning landscapes and forests captured in the film as I have seen them with my own eyes in our trip. I was overwhelmed by such larger-than-life beauty and the rare chance that I could see them up close and be part of it momentarily.
There are a number of tourist spots around and we took our time. As usual, we asked the locals what is worth checking out. We visited the Swan Lake (天鵝湖) suggested by a local guy who runs a cafe. There was construction along the way and the place seemed to be closed. We could not see much water except a lot of reeds and camels. Soon after we parked our van, Kin noticed the tyre pressure warning was on. I got out to check and was shocked to find that both rear tyres were punctured. Apparently, the workers had placed a line of screws to fasten a long thread for marking. Due to lack of experience, Kin simply ignored the thread and kept driving. When we took the spare tyre out and started pumping the jack, I saw from behind that the left front tyre was bulging – meaning it was also punctured. Luckily, our van has six tyres and after using the spare tyre and taking out the two punctured rear tyres, we could still drive back with four tyres.
It took us about an hour to change the tyres before we headed out to the mostly dried marshland to see the camels and enjoy the nice view. When we left, we had to drive really slowly to avoid the screws and I was so relieved when we finally got back to Ejin town in one piece.
The next day, we went back to the cafe to ask for a good tyre repair shop. The boss took us to the repair shop but the owner was away and not even his wife knew where he was. So we went back again the day after and the owner was still not to be found. We returned after dinner and finally met the owner, Mr. Qin (秦先生). It turned out that all the three punctured tyres were damaged by at least four or more screws. Even the owner was amazed by the damage and asked what happened.
I believe that things happen for a reason. The seemingly strike of bad luck turned out to be a good thing as Mr. Qin was so impressed by our persistence despite missing him twice. On both occasions, he went fishing with friends. When all the tyres were repaired, Mr. Qin asked if we were interested to join him fishing. Of course we would not miss this chance.
So the next day, we went back to Mr. Qin’s shop at 1 pm and off we went with two of his friends. He drove for about 20 kilometres and arrived at a marshland where there was a body of water that was deep enough to fish. As they fish all the time, it took Mr. Qin only half an hour to catch a few rather big carps (鯉魚) and grass carps (草魚). In the evening, we took two fish to the restaurant and cooked them in different styles. Even Kin who normally doesn’t like fresh water fish loved it since it tasted so fresh and yummy.
We went fishing again the next day and this time we had to search much harder on the mostly dry riverbed. Mr. Qin drove like a professional rally driver with only one hand and the other holding a can of beer. We had a beer drinking party while bumping up and down in his pickup truck. I was surprised that I did not feel sick drinking in this roller-coaster style and actually felt pretty excited!
By now we understand why it was so hard to find Mr. Qin at his shop as he is so fun loving that fishing and having fun seem to be his priority over business. Everyday, he would suggest some activity to do. Mr. Qin is not only friendly but also very helpful and kind to everyone. He knows everyone in town and always shares the fish he catches with friends and others. He is also a very loving father and his three children (an 11-year-old son and four-year-old fraternal boy-girl twins) are very sweet. His daughter is smart and super outgoing. Whenever she saw me, she would stretch out her arms and asked me to carry her and giggled happily. I could only half understand her dialect but we had lots of fun and laughs nonetheless. The twin brother has the most angelic smile and he copies everything his sister does.
We went to see sunset in the desert with the whole Qin family and had picnic dinner and slid down the sand dunes. We were lucky to be able to take part in their family time. As we sat at the top of the sand dune waiting for the sun to set, I could not help wondering how different our lives are. While running up and down the sand dunes and watching the sunset is just a routine in their lives, I kept thinking how precious it is since our city lives are often hectic that even eating together regularly as a family is deemed difficult for many. Their lives may be simple but their quality of life is so much happier and richer.
We know that Mongolians are keen drinkers and we finally witness it first hand when we had dinner with Mr. Qin and his friends. He was quite impressed by my drinking capacity – actually I was surprised too, as I seldom drink baijiu (白酒), a distilled liquor which has over 40% alcohol content. His friend sang a Mongolian song to welcome us. We had a blast and ate and drank until almost midnight.
On Saturday, we had lunch with Mrs. Qin and the daughter. Mrs. Qin is quiet and more reserved. She is very kind and always stays at the shop and urges Mr. Qin to come back whenever there is customer. She picked Mr. Qin up from a shop-opening lunch nearby. He wanted to take us and the family to a rather famous marshland called Juyanhai (居延海) to see birds. But Mr. Qin was already quite drunk. So Mrs. Qin was the designated driver and he soon fell asleep. In the end, Kin and I walked around the marshland with his children and Mrs. Qin while Mr. Qin slept in the car. He finally woke up when we returned to the shop. While we cannot fathom their drinking habits, it shows how incredibly hospitable Mr. Qin is and why we kept extending our stay in Ejin Banner.
One of our favourite activities was joining Mr. Qin’s daily evening playtime with his children in the park or sports ground. It was quite vigorous, as the twins would ask us to either carry or piggyback them non-stop. I came up with an ingenious idea by getting the daughter to stand on my feet and I held her by the waist and we walked together. She loved it so much that she kept wanting more. This is the best strategy as otherwise, her twin brother who weighs at least 50% more than her would have asked me to carry him and I could hardly carry him for more than 10 steps!
Our initial intention to stay one week in Ejin Banner eventually extended into three weeks as we truly enjoyed spending time with the Qin family. It’s always the people we meet that makes a place so much more beautiful and memorable. Throughout our travel, we always get friendly messages from the friends we met on the road asking where we are. Taozi (濤子) often asked where we are and then responded with lots of suggestion on where to go next and what to do. Mr. Ma (馬先生) whom we met in Yuanyang, Yunnan (雲南元陽) last January asked us to join their Pig Killing dinner again this year. We felt so much love from all these amazing people we met and I am sure that we will meet more as we continue our trip.