At this time of year, however, the grasslands were lacking in grass. There was a dusty sprinkling of greenery, but by and large it was dirt and sand that covered the land.
We had to leave Hohhot at 7am, in a convoy of two cars, and we arrived in the grasslands around 10am, after our driver stopped in a small village, in the middle of nowhere. We took this opportunity to meet a pig and some of the other locals, who were congregating in a small shop.
When we arrived at the grasslands we were both disappointed and relieved to see the "yurts" we would be spending the night in. The yurts were yurt shaped, but that might be as far as the description "yurt" could possibly stretch. These yurts had panoramic glass windows, TVs, with satellite dishes sticking out from every roof, they were constructed from concrete, had two beds in apiece and were en-suite, with a western styled toilet. None of us had prepared for this eventuality and so we hadn't even brought enough soap; our priority had been beer.
We didn't have long to rest before we were herded out for some horse riding. Out of the group only myself and another teacher had any experience at riding. I was quite excited to get back on a horse and had hear a lot about Mongolian riding prowess. I was eager to gallop across the lush, green valleys, but sadly my hopes were dashed as we trekked over a sand path, lined by old fences. At one point the path opened up onto a field and the horses were encouraged up to a trot. Mike and Dom, two of my colleagues, were bounced up and down complaining about the discomfort it was causing them.
After a minute of trotting we arrived at a small house and dismounted. We all marched inside and were offered tea and Mongolian snacks. These snacks took the form of Mongolian cheese and small, shortbread-like biscuits. Mongolian cheese comes as little, white pellets that could be easily mistaken for mints. Some of it's sweet, some is salty, but it's all very hard and chewy.
After we rode back to the camp we had lunch and a rest. Lunch was very traditional Chinese: lots of dishes were brought out and many of the ingredients seemed obscure. Over lunch a Mongolian band who worked there played music. I was expecting something highly traditional, like Mongolian throat singing, but instead one guy took up the synthesizer, one man played the traditional string instrument, whilst a third man sang into a microphone; of course he had reverb up to the maximum. They didn't play particularly ancient music, instead opting for modern classics associated with the grasslands, one of which Dom excitedly called "the grassland song." At one point our Chinese staff member, Patrick, got up and had a word with the band. I wondered if he was asking for some throat singing, but was assured by the other teachers that Patrick was a virtuosic singer. Sure enough he was handed a microphone and pulled off a faultless duet.
After lunch it transpired that Patrick was a man of many talents. What barely passed for an archery range had been set up and our drinking at lunch had been ignored; rather it had been accepted as quite unremarkable. The targets on this range were under 15 feet away, but that was probably for the best, as the wind was exceedingly strong. As if to remind us of how windy it was the range was lined with flags. Separating the range itself from the firing position were lengths of bunting and waiting for us were two old bows and a handful of arrows, all missing their fletching. I inspected the bows and didn't quite understand them. Both were recurve, but neither had a sight. One bow was exceptionally light, whilst the other felt just about right for me. We split up the teachers and decided to have a little competition. It just so happened that I, as well as the only other teacher with experience, ended up on the same team. We also had a teacher, Kirsty, who was the only one of us to get a bull's eye. However, the most consistent member of our team was Patrick, who almost always landed points. Our team won by an almost unfair margin and after a particularly competitive member of the other team left in search of a commiserate beer, we decided to do a tournament to discover who was the best. By some fortune, or the fact I had worked out how to compensate for the lack of sight, I won.
Hohhot is becoming increasingly Westernised and China, in general is opening up. Dom and I were sitting in a new jazz bar last night talking with the singer from the house band about that very topic. He had taught himself English from listening to tapes and using Youtube, and so he had an American accent. He sang mostly lounge jazz, very well, but as we talked the band's other singer, a woman, was leading a rendition of a piece of Chinese jazz. I asked the jazz man why the government bothered to ban Youtube when it was so easy to get around the ban using a VPN. He replied that only people with good English skills knew about VPNs or could acquire one. He agreed that China was opening up, however, and that the newly graduated generation no longer identified with the ideologies of Mao Zedong. He motioned towards the band and told me that the music they were playing had been written in the time of the Chinese Republic, before the Communist Revolution. I asked him if it was during the Cultural Revolution that a lot of this music had disappeared and he said that "Cultural Revolution," was a dirty term now. He recounted how songs and music associated with expression and freedom were clamped down on, but, he said, now that freedom's beginning to emerge again. The song ended and he excused himself to take his place in the band again. It was getting late and so we decided to leave, but it struck me as significant that a particular song had been recovered after so many years and played once again in a more relaxed China, one filled with young people open and interested in music that hadn't just been dictated by state bureaus.