Seriously, Bayannuur, what the hell? (also, sheep)

Here’s a trick for you. The next time you find yourself in the mountains, or specifically find yourself leaving the mountains, make sure to bring a loaf of bread. Pack it nicely so it doesn’t get smooshed in your luggage, and then open it up at sea level.

I did this recently when I left Lanzhou. Packed a nice loaf of fluffy bread at about 2000 meters, then got on an overnight train to Linhe 临河 at significantly fewer meters, and ended up with what was essentially naan. Hilarious!

Why Linhe? Because my fine friend invited me to visit his sheep farm in Wuyuan 五原, about 80 km from here. And he wasn’t kidding – this was in fact the largest sheep production facility in China (I know these details because I have spent the past few evenings translating some of their corporate literature into English), and I have to say, was a pretty amazing operation. Among other things, it was huge – that one farm has about a hundred thousand sheep, which by any standards is quite simply one hell of a lot of sheep.

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The fun part was that the management and most of the workers all came from Liaocheng, waaaaaay over in Shandong, and quite near Ji’nan where I spent two years right out of college. They wore that accent as a point of pride.

Anyhoo, back to Bayannuur. This is the name of the region around Linhe, all of which most people would consider to be the train equivalent of “flyover country.” (go-through-real-fast country?) It’s certainly not a place that calls for you to get off the train, especially when said train arrives to the station at 5:00 am.

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Pictured: Too early for this sh-t

That’s a real shame, because Bayannuur is charming. For one thing, the KFC let me hang out for about three hours while I waited to check into my hotel. Gotta be grateful for that. For another, the places just across from the KFC served some of the best noodles I have ever had. I also stopped and had a sheep milk yoghurt, then a cow milk yoghurt, then a latte, which were lovely, but did add some urgency to the hotel check in.

But the real prize was the park.

I love Chinese parks, especially in small towns like this one. They are nice spaces where everyone comes out to have fun.

They also have nice exercise equipment, which is good when you are traveling. I am very partial to the monkey bars.

Sometimes these parks feature some real feats of athleticism. One of my friends in Hailar was a regular at the riverside park. We started talking when I saw him doing some serious routines on the pull up bar. He was not trained– just saw the routines on the Internet and just decided to learn them. Seriously.

Every park has a few of these superhumans, but Bayyan nuur seems to populated entirely by them. Seriously, one small park in one small town features a badass brigade practicing chain whip style martial arts, these hackeysackers, that would shame 1995’s best:

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I bet you guys don’t even like Jamiroquai

And the cruelest blow of all – get the action on my beloved monkey bars:

Everyone – old, young, very small children, men and women – everyone had a monkey bar routine. It was like one of those dance lines on Soul Train – everyone stands on two sides and you do your thing through the middle.

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Plus, the cutest little traffic jam, ever

And the best part is that it was all so nice and friendly. When I finally got my turn and did my monkey swings, people clapped and called me “mini Vin Diesel.” Interestingly enough, it’s actually not even the first time I have been called that exact same thing, but I will say that it might be favorite.

Wait, wait, oh yes, sheep.

Well as charming as they were, the sheep were also delicious. I mean seriously delicious. Back at the ranch (literally) in Wuyuan, we had the usual dish of 涮羊肉, which is thinly sliced lamb that you dunk in a pot of boiling soup. It’s a universal winter dish and is often served with a spicy Sichuan-style hot pot broth, and a separate dish of sesame paste with chive flowers or garlic.

At our first lunch, I was given the usual deep red broth, but everyone else was using plain water with a couple of dates floating in it. The reason was obvious – the meat was so good that spices took away from the taste. I asked for the same, and saw my social standing immediately rise from “rank amateur” to “has potential.”

Wow, were they ever right. This meat was amazingly delicious with nothing but salt and a tiny bit of sesame paste. Anything else might as well have been a burnt steak with ketchup.

Qinghai – and the best yoghurt in China

Someone call Professor Oak, because I’ve officially caught them all.

I had already traveled through most of China in the late 1990s, but Qinghai was the last one – the one place I had never been.

I finally made the trip last week, and just to celebrate the occasion, the gods of travel decided to make it plenty hard to get here. I took an early morning flight from Hailar to Beijing, and then after seven hours of waiting was told that all flights were grounded due to bad weather. That’s bad enough, but what followed was chaos as hundreds of pissed off and exhausted passengers tried to get refunds or rerouted. There were tears, there were fist fights, and there was precious little order, but by 11:00 or so, I was on a bus to a hotel where I could at least get a snack and sleep for four hours before my 6:30 flight to Xining.

Xining itself is another world. There are very large Tibetan and Muslim populations that give the city a very different flavor. The first thing I did on my 4k walk from the airport bus to the conference hotel was to have a homemade yak yogurt, which was delicious. The second thing I did was realize that a 4k walk with a backpack feels very different at 2,200 meters.

So just like last time, I gave my paper (on milk – see, this blog has total internal continuity!) and just like last time, everyone was very generous. The students were especially sweet. On the day I arrived, while I was wandering around for hours eating yak yoghurt and wondering why I was so winded by a gentle incline, two of them were waiting for me in the hotel lobby. They cheerfully accepted my panicked apologies, and then we went for a nice lunch.

 

After the conference, Renmin University Professor Zhang Jijia and two of his students invited me to join them on an overnight excursion to Qinghai Lake. Well, I wasn’t saying no to that.

We drove up to Kumbum Monastery (塔尔寺), about 45 minutes out of the city, and from there straight up into the mountains — and mind you, we started at 2,200 meters. The top was this pass at 3,800 meters, which is a big difference to absorb in a few hours.

 

I felt fine when we got to the lake, but another group that met us at dinner informed they were experiencing a 50% puke rate.

Undeterred, we pressed on, driving through stunning country, that changed from steep, green hills covered in livestock, to semi-arid scrub that was also covered in livestock, albeit ones that looked somehow sadder. By about 10 that evening, we reached our lodgings and went to sleep, but not before setting our alarms for 5 am to see the sunrise.

 

Of course, I was the only one who did get up, and yes the sun did rise (you’re welcome, everyone). Moreover, I got to commune with this baby yak.

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Just look at that guy

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. As we drove around the lake, I started feeling off, and after driving two hours through semi-desert to reach the Chaka salt lake, it was getting bad. The lake itself is stunningly beautiful, stark white under a blazing sun. Walking around with hundreds of people covered up in wraps and wading around in water, I felt like I had somehow been transported to the Ganges. I ate lunch, which immediately returned with a vengeance.

 

But this was all a prelude. The trip down was hell. The headache got worse as we descended, and by the time I reached Xining, I wanted to cry. I waved a quick goodbye to the group and went to my hotel, where I went straight to bed–salt, sweat and all.

So what have I learned from this trip?

Surprisingly, quite a lot about yaks, which is knowledge that I hope someday to put to good use. I also learned that gas contents of any closed container expand at altitude. Closed backpack becomes a balloon. Tube of toothpaste – balloon. Human intestines – oh you’d better believe it.

Yes, yes, but what about the food?

Honestly, I can’t say that it was memorable. We had some nice lamb sticks at what we were told was the best place in the city (the long line confirmed that we were told correctly), but you can get these anywhere, and honestly, I think the guy on the campus at Hulunbeier University does a better job. There was one place that did very nice beef noodles – the official dish of the entire Northwest – including a mixed noodles (拌面) that was unusually good.

But no, my favorite part was – get ready – the yoghurt. Xining had something you really don’t see much anymore, private farmers who come and sell milk and yoghurt on a street corner. Since I am here to learn about milk, I visited ten or so different ones on different corners and asked the usual questions about their cows, where they sell, and so forth. And in such a case you really have to buy something – it’s just good manners – so I ended up doing something like a daily pub crawl, but with yoghurt. Absolutely no hardship involved – the stuff was delicious. I think the altitude might concentrate the fat content, or maybe they just used better cultures, but really – yum.

 

Yellow Earth

From 15-18 September, the CUHK History and Anthropology AOE and Shaanxi Normal University arranged a field seminar in and around Xi’an.

The itinerary was arranged by Micah Muscolino at Oxford, and took us to about 8 villages in Baishui 白水县 and Chengcheng 澄城县 Counties, along with a large scale water reclamation project, and two gorgeous temples.

 

Most of what we were doing was to see the long history of terracing, which is a way of keeping the water in the soil, and keeping the soil in one spot. This is especially important in the “Yellow Earth” region of central China, where the soil is notoriously soft and wispy. Besides the terraces, the most notable feature of the landscape is deep gullies, which are created from water erosion. Even with plant cover, the ground just doesn’t want to stay still.

On the other hand, because the soil is so soft, it is really easy to work. People compress it into walls between fields to stop the wind, and famously dig houses (窑洞) into the hillsides. Mao and the Yan’an communists lived in these during the 1930s and 40s, and people think of it as a hardship. Surely it was, but the houses themselves are very comfortable – since the walls are two meters thick, the cave houses stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

Historical perspective on China’s NGO draft law

This past summer, China introduced a new law aimed at curbing the activities of NGOs operating in the country. The law itself was heavily criticized in the international press, in part because the law closely resembled measures enacted in Russia under Putin. Similar measures have appeared in other jurisdictions, such as Cambodia.

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Above: the Guo Meimei scandal meets the Chinese Red Cross

The new restriction of NGOs in China raises questions about the direction of social change under the Xi Jinping government, which harken back to earlier debates about the origins and fate of civil society in China. These issues all turn on historical interpretation, whether the emergence of the NGO sector in China represents something fundamentally nw.

 

In some ways it does. China of course has its own tradition of charities, many of which operated hand in hand with government relief and social welfare, but the current sector is more visible and more politically vocal than anything China has seen before. It is also far larger. Compared to the size of the economy, the NGO sector today completely dwarfs the missionary charities of the early twentieth century, and are an order of magnitude larger and better organized than imperial-era charities.

For more on this topic, see my recently published article: “Before the NGO: Chinese charities in historical perspective.

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Hulunbeier and Manzhouli

Hulunbeier — an expanse of grasslands the size of England — is one of the new tourist hotspots in China. I spent about three weeks there this July, as well as a good deal of time on the road to and from Harbin and Manzhouli, and on local busses to places like Ganzhuer Temple, on the border with Mongolia.

The purpose was to get to see as much of the countryside as I could (oh boy was that ever successful), meet as many people as I could (ditto there), and to set up a collaboration with some wonderful scholars at Hulunbeier University (three for three!). So I’ll be spending a lot of time there in the future. In the meantime, here’s some pics of my friend Nasuk and I booting around Hulunbeier and Manzhouli. I’m guessing the -40 degree winter might look a little different.

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Malacca – and here’s Jack Chia!

Oh where to begin with the Malacca stories?  Let’s just say that Malacca was one of my favorite parts of life in Singapore. One easy five hour bus ride, and you’re in one of the most charming cities in the world.

So, when my schedule had me in Singapore in late November, and Macao in mid-December, I decided to come and stay here and work on my book for the two weeks in between. Cheaper than flying back to Australia, and a heck of a lot more interesting.

Case in point – Jack.

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Here’s me with Jack Chia, one of my former students from NUS who is currently tearing it up in the PhD program in Cornell. On my first night in Malacca,I saw Jack on Skype and we both discovered that we were both in Asia, in Malaysia, in Malacca, and as it turns out, staying about two blocks away from each other. Jack was in Malacca looking at some sources about a Buddhist monk who went back and forth between Malaysia and China. It was great to see him after something like four years, and just to show you that fate doesn’t know when to stop, one night while we were having dinner at a street stall, we heard firecrackers ad then someone off in the distance striking a big drum. That kind of sound at night can only mean one thing.

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Yes, the temple just fifty meters away was hosting a spirit medium who was in trance giving some stern instructions to the temple committee. We stuck around for about a half hour and then left. Jack went back to Singapore the next day, but I went back to visit the temple as festivities continued over the next two days. I’ll post proper pictures of those two days once I get a chance to edit the video into something nice, but here are some pics of the first evening.

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The temple is really interesting – I later found out that the deity (named Wenfuwang 溫父王) is one of the five brothers: another one is in the Leizhou huiguan (interestingly, the deity you can see from the street looks like Guanyin, I’m guessing the brother must be somewhere inside). Another deity is in a temple near the Hotel Equatorial, and a fourth lives somewhere out of town. The fifth brother lives in the ocean, since he is hot tempered, and therefore not suitable for temple life. On the 15th of the first lunar month, the four brothers are taken in procession to see the fifth. Besides the processions, there is a ritual involving large boat, which gets burned at sea.

Now that’s something worth coming back to see.