In mid-October I and the rest of the students in the TEAN China program took our planes to Yinchuan (银川), the capital of Ningxia (宁夏), an autonomous region, and then took a long bus ride to Nèiménggǔ (内蒙古), Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is the part of historical Mongolia which is part of modern China, but still retains much of its Mongolian culture. It is famous in China for its fresh air, rolling plains, and the sand dunes of the Gobi Desert. We journeyed into the Gobi for an adventure far different than the urban environments of Beijing and Shanghai.
After the bus ride we then filtered into several groups of four and got into some jeeps made for gliding the dunes. What followed was only natural, but it was exhilarating nevertheless to ride the dunes like a roller coaster with Chinese party music bumping away, our cameras being tossed around as we tried to document the experience, our left hands tightly gripping the straps hanging from the roof’s frame to keep ourselves from shooting out the window. (I wanted to provide a short video of this scene, but shake your head vigorously and you will know why that video is absent, my friend.)
Once we got into the desert’s dunes we made for our new accommodations, some traditional Mongolian yurts – Ménggǔbāo (蒙古包) in Chinese. As you can see in my photo, it was already dusk when we got there, so the only activities for the first evening were to have a great communal dinner, make the yurts comfortable, and squeeze as many people into a yurt as possible for a night of card games and stories. A few of us, including myself, took the liberty of jumping the barrier surrounding the complex to climb one of the tallest sand dunes and see the oasis at nighttime, while the full moon set Moon Lake a shimmer with pellucid glimmers of moonlight.
The next day we got up early to start our day with a camel ride to a neighboring oasis, called Sun Lake. I chose to ride a camel back rather than to the lake, and because of this I was able to spend some time basking upon an especially tall dune. The sand was freezing from the frigid desert night, but the sun took care of me as I lay and napped till we moved on. I had to wait for a while as the camels were far slower than the jeeps we rode out.
When the others arrived with the camels, we each selected our camel and waited for the handler to tell us when to mount the laying down camel. To get upon a camel, it lies down as a camel does – its legs folded under its body – and you get on, then it raises itself up back legs first, so it is quite a jolt when it gets up with you on it! I and the others in my group took the camels back to Moon Lake, where we then dismounted for the next activity.
Next we rode four-wheelers out to an exceptionally tall dune for some sand sledding! It was very similar to normal sledding in the winter, but the fact you are doing it on sand in such a foreign environment definitely makes it a unique experience worth the try. Personally, I would rather have a four-wheeler to control on my own to explore the dunes, but that may be just me!
Before we left, we had a bonfire and listened to music out in the open air. The bonfire burnt quickly, though, and soon we all returned to our yurts. Some played games and partook, while others spent the night quietly resting and perusing their photos.
The trip was great because the Beijing and Shanghai students got to reunite and have fun once again, like we did during the orientation in Beijing. A trip into the dunes was also a good experience, I feel, because if you want it to be it can be a very personal experience. I myself took the time just to think while I lay on that dune awaiting my camel. The sand reminded me of the opening of a William Blake poem:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
It is so interesting to be in the dunes because there is so much sand, everywhere you look, everywhere you touch, and yet each grain is so small. If you let yourself, it becomes a very philosophical place, a place for thought and fragile time. Especially when you come from the smog of Beijing or the bustle of Shanghai, Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert can be a perfect place for pure air, clarity of thought, and idleness less fitting urban life.