Another Chinese World
A world away from bustling Beijing or Shanghai, Mongolia shows both the beautiful vastness of China as well as the worst mistakes and excesses of forced development
Article by Andrew Threlfall
Lifelong wanderlust compounded by being just the right generation to appreciate how absolutely fabulous Absolutely Fabulous was the first time around – before the (artistically at least) disastrous film franchise – put two ‘must do’ travel ideas in my head: Morocco – specifically centering and finding oneself away from the London media set whilst on a weekend away with the London media set – and secondly the wilds of China.
I will be addressing the Moroccan legacy later this summer, but today’s subject is a journey more of us, I predict, will be taking before long, to magical Mongolia. Well, the Mongolia on the Chinese side – known, confusingly as Inner (as opposed to Outer) Mongolia.
Alxa League or Ālāshàn League (otherwise known as Alashan Banner) was where the story began to unfold. A city of quarter of a million, with roughly a quarter claiming direct Mongol heritage. I stayed at the 5 star ( a rather reasonable £40 a night) Alxa Grand Hotel, complete with golden thrones in the bar and its own indoor temple. Bizarrely, well over half of the hotel’s rooms were ‘VIP suites’ designated suggesting to me perhaps a murky duopoly of bookings. Over half? Really..? Would the city unearth, typically in a region pushed and promoted by Beijing, an us and them culture?
Indeed it would as Alxa personified a very modern Chinese story, that of unbridled corruption at local government level. After unpacking in an establishment where, not for the last time on the trip, the staff outnumbered guests by a conservative six to one ratio, I gazed out of my room window across the road to the brand new sports stadium which, no matter how much research I attempted on Bing (Google being banned) had no actual name let alone a home football club attributed to its gleaming stands.
After an evening meal where a Russian scientist (reason for visit unspecified) and I had our pick of 20 dining tables and 15 hotel staff searched valiantly for a knife and fork (alas a fruitless yet significant bilateral venture, which one my family back in Sheffield will be distraught to hear: the Steel City clearly never cornered the Northern China market) I walked over to the stadium as the sun was setting. From inside I could hear the excited echo of young voices that only comes from Last Goal Winner near misses. A door which a team bus might drive through on match days had been left open. I was soon out on to the AstroTurf and taking penalties against a teenage female goalkeeper. You really want to know? One brilliantly saved. Three goals.
It was all a little bit too informal. No adults, no supervision, just a bunch of local kids who had also seen the opportunity for a kick around in a glorious new stadium. Back at the hotel it was explained to me that in the ten years since it had been built for several hundred million dollars, not a single sporting event (let alone a local football club moving in) had been held.
Basically, with Beijing these days pushing Inner Mongolia as a new tourist region, all accommodation and flights up from the south had been extremely cheap, frequently as low as a fiver; the Communist Party was happy to reimburse local contractors for the completion of new infrastructure. Clandestine bookkeeping even Tony Soprano might find overly serendipitous had been engineered by local contractors, whereby the bill for two hundred million dollars had been paid upfront (the way China does ALL its business), whilst the actual building cost had been a third of that. This lesson in laissez-faire approach to accounting was to be the hallmark of my adventure up north.
Which brings me to the very, very unique city of Ordos. Thirty six hours there was enough to confirm everything currently searchable on Google in the West about this strangest of Chinese cities. But in its own way those 36 hours were right up there with Axla.
Oh Ordos… Where to begin? So it’s like this… or rather it should be like this. A spanking new neighbourhood, well actually a whole new city really, called Kangbashi, has been tagged onto the old Ordos which found itself a couple of decades ago sitting on one sixth of all Chinese coal reserves.
The new playboy millionaires built enough homes for a million – as well as luxurious state of the art (think the UAE) theatres, museums as well as the more mundane stuff like roads as wide as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and the best schools and hospitals nouveau riches can buy.
These rich backers (or probably more accurately punters) guessed that within a decade of its completion in 2010 a million inhabitants would turn up in Kangbashi. Actually only 80,000 have bothered. Hand on heart I walked for two hours towards Genghis Khan Square and apart from three dust collectors I did not see another single human being. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. At the square where four enormous statues celebrating Mongolia’s national hero tower I took photos without anyone else in shot. Bliss. Kind of. No photoshopping needed but some water might have been nice in the baking heat. But there were no shops. In fact there had been no shops along the mile walk into the centre of town on a road populated by office blocks. I carried on to the Ordos conference centre where I had been invited by the United Nations to attend a follow up talk on desertification. Something of a misnomer, as unlike deforestation where the aim is clearly to preserve the forests, desertification is all about er….stopping land becoming deserts.
The Ordos conference centre it turned out, much like the sports stadium in Axla, had been paid for in a dubious manner and, hosting five conferences a year on average, was almost as criminally underused. Ordos museum meanwhile was an another enormous underused, under visited gleaming copper brown coloured egg shape spaceship from the outside with only one of its floors open and exhibiting, you guessed, the Genghis Khan show.
One last and latest addition, the Ordos train station, confirmed what I had already suspected: built five kilometres out of town rather than in the centre, it was yet another horrendous example of town planning gone completely bonkers. At least passing hundreds of completely empty or unfinished tower blocks (window frames hollowed out) in the cab on the way out to the station prepared me.
A new high speed train link had just opened the day before so for just £11 for a two hour journey it was off to Huhhot, Inner Mongolia’s bustling capital of two million and a world away from the bizarre metropolis of soulless Ordos.
Huhhot was organic in ways Ordos might have to wait 2,000 years to attain. Where else to eat goat’s head – all of it, brain, eyes, tongue – at the former Royal family’s favourite restaurant, dressed up in local Mongolian traditional dress (offered on the way in), or be offered domestic cat waistcoats for £25, or, even more worryingly, (banned in China) tiger claws..? The mosques, the Buddhist temples and the street markets in Huhhot rivalled anything I’d ever seen in my life.
I had travelled before to China twice before but in my life I had never travelled and challenged myself as much; this area is beyond doubt the final frontier – you feel very on your own. That Inner Mongolia and the predominantly Mongolian people do not even speak the official Chinese language of Mandarin made the trip even more challenging.