September 20, 2012 § 5 Comments
I was recently back in Inner Mongolia for a project briefing in the “Ghost Town” of Kangbashi, outside of Ordos, one of the coal and mineral capitals of China. It reminded me of my first trip to Inner Mongolia almost two years ago. I remember, I got a phone call on Saturday night outside a trendy Japanese restaurant where I was about to meet a friend for Teppanyaki in downtown Shanghai. My colleague told me that we’d won a project in western Inner Mongolia and the site visit was scheduled for 10 days, starting Monday morning, the implication being that I was about to be asked to go and would need to leave the next day. There was plenty of awkward laughter while we discussed the details and I remember clearly saying that I’d be sure to pack my pith helmet.
Thus the “Inner Mongolia Safari” began. As it turns out, I was only required to join for 5 days but that was more than enough time to marvel at, and then quickly tire of, endless landscapes, belching industrial parks, the Mongol diet and quirky government officials.
The running was a highlight throughout. It was late winter in the desert, so still very cold in the mornings, but dry and tolerable with the right clothing. The air pollution was the main problem, with the heating stations (along with the industrial parks we were studying) adding a pungent coal scent to the air. In the cities, after the first whiff outside the hotel, I would forget it quickly, but in the smaller towns the smell was thick and gave me a headache, sore lungs and a burning throat for the whole day, more or less.
We would be in a new town every day, usually 100 or more miles away, so my runs would consist of trying to find a way out of town as quickly as possible, first to escape the coal smoke and second to find dirt trails. Dirt trails are ubiquitous in rural, farming areas in China, but these are getting pushed further and further from town so it’s always a challenge to find them as our hotels are inevitably in urban areas.
On this day, we were in the most remote town we were to visit. There the towns are literally named “flags,” like an outpost would be. There is a “front flag,” “middle flag” and “rear flag” for the larger towns. It added to the Wild West, frontier atmosphere, already established by the Mongol facial features, Mongolian language, leather jackets, meat diet, hard alcohol, frostbitten cheeks and the intimate contrast of cold, hard poverty and fat, ebullient exploitation.
That morning, I got up before sunrise and headed out for a ten mile run. After buying some water at a bus station, I managed to escape the thickest pollution of the trip to the dirt roads outside the town after a mile or so. I was so excited to find good dirt roads that I pushed the pace despite the fatigue of a high-volume training week. Condensation formed on my jacket collar. The mouth of my water bottle froze shut. Later I came upon two frozen boar corpses. They were lying next to each other, undisturbed, but in perfect symmetry, as if someone had placed them there.
I stopped to look back at the sunrise over the town. It was up on a hill and looked like a dark, lonely outpost against the red dirt, brown grasslands and burning sky. I felt a certain admiration for carving out an existence in such a place, but mostly a reserved sadness at their situation.
I ran back into the waking town and felt the air burn my throat again. A few friendly school kids said hello. Their school track looked new and music was playing on the school intercom.
When I got back to my room, there was no more than a trickle of water coming out of my shower head. I went down to the front desk to complain and one of our host/chaperones was there. He stared at my running clothes with his sleepy eyes and bedhead and asked me if I’d already been out running. It sounded like he shouldn’t have let me out by myself, but also like he didn’t really care. They fixed the shower, I think, but that was my last impression of the run, that big, fat, hungover government guy, startled that I’d escaped and then remembering that it didn’t matter.