Our Mukden-to-Manzhouli trek intended visits to the landscape of Nei Menggu with the misconceived notion that I would keep an eye on its Muslim character. I was mistaken.
On the way up, we identified Qiqihar as decidedly Muslim on the basis of our historical prejudice and naiveté. Other than having one of the oldest Mosques in China, way before the Japanese renamed the place Tsitsihar, the Mongolian influence has already been driven into oblivion by the predominant southern Han in the area.
For geography buffs, our route has been from Shenyang to the Russian-looking shi (city) of Manzhouli, wandering to Hulun lake, Gen He of the Ewanki reindeer herders, E’erguna and its wetland, Shi Wei by the Amur, Moer Duga and Man Dui in the middle of the Xing’an range, then Mo He, the northernmost city of China.
In the grasslands, romantic figures of horse-riding Mongolians now dressed like their Texas counterparts and Hollywood stereotypes, herded sheep and cattle, along with motorbike-mounted cowboys and herders, as well as 4-wheel drive LEV lookalikes, jacked-up pick-ups, and their fancy SUV counterparts. Some folks in Europe and Japan-Korea are making lots of jiao (a tenth of a renminbi) out of my BBQ lamb sticks!
We kept a monkish reverence to Mother Nature. She did not disappoint our adulation. The grassland around Manzhouli, Hailar, and Qiqihar are worth their value in yurts, the new standard vinyl covered ones sprouting like mushrooms in the grass, duly insulated for southern tourists’ winter occupation who yearn the experience of living in modern comforts in the wild!
At a distance outside of Hailar are the numerous power-generating coal-fired plants with their mounds of black carbon heaped the size of mountain hills the size of Saipan, plus another Kagman to boot. To their credit, some of the heaped plant tailings are terraced and planted with trees.
The birch and pine that keep reindeers and the teepee dwelling Ewanaki outside of Gen He are organized around a magical Aoluguna, more a product of the theatre than the revival of aboriginal life style. The wetland in E’erguna is kept at a distance from tourists who view it from afar on strategically located platforms without intruding into the eco-system.
The Argun River an hour’s drive from Moer Duga developed boating and rafting facilities on calm water that is an inch of comfortable temperature over icy waters even in mid summer. The elders in these parts gather in the morning mist around the parks to do their Tai Qi Quan while the matronly perform their line dancing in the early evenings, with some still doing their Dong Bei dance of the colorful fans and “flirtatious” moves in the city center.
The MTV set prop their own boom box and in many locations, Michael Jackson is very much alive, and mimickers of western rap groups, already playing Chinese versions of their music, are not left behind. The popularity of Huang Feng Chuang Qi, the duo known in the west as Phoenix Legend, particularly to the Houston Rockets, already have their music and dance beat in public squares.
An hour by bus from Mo He are two tourist destinations: a Buddhist pagoda (which we skipped) and the forest reserve in Bei Ji Cun, soon-to-be a combination of Adirondacks, Mackinac, Grosse Point, and Cape Cod, by the looks of the luxurious tourist facilities under earnest construction. It was as good a place for us to leave the green world in the care of the new breed of summer mosquitoes!
We headed toward the colorful metropolitan center of Harbin with its 12-some schools of higher learning. Silently a contemplative monk for more than a week, we decided to feign a testosterone-filled masculinity ala MexTex machismo.
Harbin previously dubbed as the Moscow of the Far East, we suspected, have Kiev’s prolific procreativity gone wild. Half the matrons in shorts on net stockings, and mini-skirted University girls, are blondes; the rest are brunettes. This has nothing to do with Slavic and Nordic DNA. It is purely the triumph of Lady Clairol. I was not allured.
Which is just as well. Inured from mosquitoes that festered Zhongguoren, I remained undisturbed throughout the whole trip, but on our last day, we might have invited a mean hybrid cousin to bite through my socks. By the time I got to Harbin, my ankle ballooned the size of a muskmelon. Maimed by a mosquito in Manchuria is a more fitting title to the second half of this reflection. Hope t’aint tainted with the West Nile virus!
Happily, London 2012 Olympics was on TV, and though CCTV kept playing events where China got the gold, there was enough to keep us glued to the tube.
The MoHe-to-Harbin marathon 19-hour ride was too reminiscent of '60s bus rides from frontier Aparri to Manila with luggage racks bulging, our 110-seat passenger rail caboose easily accommodated 200 souls with some seated but asleep on their grain sack luggage on the floor; the Harbin-to-Shenyang leg, on the other hand, with LV luggage and Gucci bag patrons, was a relief. The train heading all the way to Beijing had business class folks, culminating our Mukden to Manzhouli journey in comfort and peace, in space, and also, in our mind!