Take a Deetour

"I write to find out what I think." - Joan Didion

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mi Ni Ner Chesna! *

Adventures in teaching English in Inner Mongolia

brrrrr... recorded temperature @ a gas station enroute back to hohhot from saihan
* My Name is Snow!

Ok, it sounds dumb in translation, but at the time, really cool and exotic in Mongolian.

Anyway, this is in reference to the day I refused to stay indoors despite -20°C temperatures. If the students had to go outside in the crunching snow for Phys Ed (which involved doing hilarious, militaristic swimming movements with their arms and legs, to the beat of music and barked orders through a crackly PA sytem), so did I!

That's when the teachers decided to name me after the one thing I seemed to enjoy most.

So anyway, in the little pocket of calm between Christmas and New Year's, I shall attempt to document my most recent travels!

Here's what else happened between this & this. A few - OK, twenty! - of my favourite shots...

On the first day of school, right after we taught our first class, we got to meet 3 lovely Mongolian teachers who decided to sneak 3 of us out for breakfast. It felt deliciiously naughty to be skiving, even if it wasn't really - we had an hour before our next class! Of course, in typical Asian fashion, they ordered way too much food, insisted we try everything and picked up the tab.
So here it is, a typically Mongolian breakfast - Salty (YES! SALTY!) milk tea with little rock-hard buns, millet, dried cheese and boiled fatty lamb all dunked in it. Drunk out of a bowl like soup. Without a spoon.

Snow sculpture outside the first school we visited.

Outside the school at dusk - old man wheeling his broom-laden bicycle along the icy street.

Kids hanging out on the pavement across from their school. Check the cute lil' old granny in her hoodie on the left - she looks just like one of the kids (and just as short!).

This delightful class were eloquent, inquisitive and aggressive! We got mobbed after the lesson and treated like rock stars, everyone clamouring for an autograph.

Walking back to the hotel from school.

Most of Saihan looks like this - squat, terracotta-hued brick houses, the odd taller building and dirt roads (thankfully they were covered in pretty snow!).

Behold! Beyond the rooftops, the main street (which is paved and modern).

Behold! Upon the paved and modern main street, a dude and his horse-cartload of charcoal (still their main energy source). He even stopped and held up traffic so I could take his picture!

What a lovely way to start the day! Charred cow hooves and head, anyone? One super-friendly old dude was searing chopped cow on a charcoal stove outside his house to keep warm. He invited me in for lunch. Score!

The Dynamic Duo of Dairy (奶食)! A staple of the Mongolian diet, milk products like yoghurt, curds, cheese and milk are hand-made in this here shop.

One of MANY ridiculously large, lamb-centric meals hosted by schools we taught at. Clockwise from top, stir-fried string potato (土豆) and chives, lamb omelette, rice porridge, the famous "hand-pulled" lamb (手扒羊肉), chive and egg stir-fry & topping it all off, the Inner Mongolian version of our Murtabak - pan-fried, minced lamb pancakes!

Yet another ridiculous feast for our bursting bellies. After the generous teachers and principals stuff you with bottles of moonshine and lamb dishes, the "main food" (主食) arrives - usually rice or noodles or dumplings. But surely NOT usually all at once?!

Last day, last school. As the sun went down, the kids appeared to clear the courtyard of snow. Bless them!

We emerged from our final class on to the quiet, golden-hued street. Sunset always creates interesting shadows & shapes.

Two brothers, whom we taught earlier in the day, happened to be at the same restaurant where we were being hosted our final whopper of a farewell meal. They were really bored, so I let them play with my camera.

At a freakishly early hour next morning, we said our tearful goodbyes and piled on to the bus that would take us back to the capital city Hohhot. It was so cold, that the windows were completely frosted over. Everytime I used my credit card to scrape off the ice, I was treated to scenes of a winter wonderland outside.

But after about 2 minutes, the windows would freeze over again. Tired of scraping ice away so I could look out the window, I decided to amuse myself in other ways...

Finally back in Hohhot after a four hour busride, we get back to the hotel and are immediately beset by small human beings, eager to speak English with us. These little tourguide-wannabes asked me a million questions, suggested a whole bunch of places I should visit whilst in Inner Mongolia and showed off what they learnt in school: "HELLOHOWAREYOUI'MFINETYHANKYOUMYNAMEIS... WHEREAREYOUFROMWHATFOODDOYOULIKEIAMHAPPY!" They bellowed at me enthusuastically. I was besotted and gave away all my maps and postcards of Singapore. This is them, clutching their spoils and saying goodbye, as we skipped off to explore a little of the city.

Sunflower seed vendor.

Cantankerous old bike-repairer who had taken control of a street corner. Love his getup, especially the fuzzy Russian hat with earflaps.

More food! This time, the infamous Mala Hotpot ( 嘛辣火锅/ 刷羊肉). Paper-fine slices of delicious lamb is dipped in a tongue-numbing, spicy-hot soup and devoured with a sesame-peanut dipping sauce.

OK, so I'd read about this in Polly Evan's travelogue, Fried Eggs with Chopsticks, but didn't really expect to experience it firsthand! Apparently, in large hotels, you can find little perspex displays of products like these these in the bathrooms. For the, uh, convenience of your genitalia?

And after wondering why my phone kept ringing at night but when I answered, the person on the other line would hang up immediately, I remembered a little nugget of info from said book. Ladies offering "special" services often make random calls to hotel rooms, hoping to find male occupants willing to indulge. They can't be arsed with female occupants - if they hear a female voice answering the phone, they hang up.
Now if only I could just figure out what a pudenda means...
I never knew pudenda means THIS! Up your pudenda, schweetheart!

Completely meaningless picture. Included only because I am a compulsive buyer of useless stuff, completely swayed by crass commercialism and willing to fork out US$28 for a slice of China's history. In other words, I bought a boxed set of Olympic mascot plush toys at Beijing airport. Um, it's for my niece and nephews, you see. That's the excuse I'm sticking with, anyway.

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