It was our initial intent to dip our toes to the waters of Lake Baikal in Siberia knowing that it would be cold but we demurred on the Russian visa issue so we were pleased to learn that Hulun Lake in Hulunbeier is a sister lake, albeit, considerably of smaller size.
Glamorous as Manzhouli is as a shopping Mecca for relatively inexpensive but fashionable commodities by border crossing Siberian shoppers and southern Chinese tourists, we deferred from parting with our meager renminbi. Instead, we joined the throng that trekked down to Hulun Lake.
As the second largest lake in the country, and the largest in Nei Menggu, we expected it to be like most of the waters of the Great Lakes of North America, save the polluted shores of Cleveland of our early acquiantance, and the unseen Silent Spring of chemical effluent of pesticides and insecticides from farms. It turned out to be both.
Thus, it came as a surprise to walk into a shore that resembled the murky waters of the Laguna de Bai by the Pasig in Manila rather than the Hiawatha’s Minnesota clear waters. The water level was, at least, two meters down due to a drought, and given only two months for the comfortably warm summer season, the local tour operators laid out walkways a couple of hundred meters out to where the boats can still float when loaded with rowers, and would not scrape bottom.
Being an island person, we do not find the call of the waters that especially alluring, but the raucous delight of the boat riding public was infectious. One group of elderly ladies got into synchronized rowing with one beating the drums at the head so they can simultaneously pull on their oars in one direction.
Net traps gather the rare small white shrimps and shallow water catfish while fishermen trawl for carp and pike on the deeper end. The numerous gulls, ducks, lovebirds, swans, cranes, and goose dive into schools of sardine-size fishes, which attest to abundance given the frenzied activities of the birds.
We stuck pretty much to the shore, partaking of the roasted fish and the boiled shrimps, and swatting the flies and mosquitoes that abound, which the locals did not seem to mind, this being a given in July and August. Live and let live, in the great in the great Xizang (Tibet) tradition! I was an odd ball to the local matrons who might talk about the foreigner who wandered into their midst, did not ride a horse or had his picture taken astride the camel, did not hire one of the four-wheel bikes, or footpedal the floats nearshore.
"All he did was hacked on his computer," they might say in hulun hua, remembering us who relied on the help of Singapore and Hong Kong overseas Chinese to translate when we spoke. (With their kids all iPad-equipped, I gathered an instant congregation, an Asian Steve Jobs after a fashion.) "He worked on the famously high-end Apple laptop," they might add, the one infamously copied in Asia like what was done with fashion houses Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, with even a PC version that runs on Windows!
We do not relish playing tourist much. We prefer traveling into people’s lives-intruding into their homes and social gatherings. We gravitate toward the public market where we like to sample foods and fruits, at least, once. We walk the parks (China’s feng shui context of intellectual preference on space rather than time insures the presence of a park even in the smallest settlement) where people line dance in the evenings and perform their tai chi in the earlymorn.
We also wink at the matrons who blush quickly since it seems they had not been winked at in recent times! The coup d’merci is our Pinoy raised eyebrow when giving a non-verbal affirmative response. It tickles long dormant funny bones. At least, one is not slapped on the face like in Venezuela where the gesture has sexual overtones. Or, the Chinese are forgiving of an old lao ye ye (grandpa). Still, they do get jarred into thinking that there is more to life a life of laughter rather than be intensely preoccupied in adding more renminbi to one’s purse!
It was our return to the city that presented the spectacular view of Manzhouli nestled in a lower indentation on the grassland of Hulunbier, shining like a jem of a Far Eastern Russian city (population 300K), patterned after Eastern Europe’s best, but under the increasingly disappearing blue skies in the Nei Menggu prairie.
In a world where increasingly, the global interdependence on the health of the planet has finally reached the "gross" question of how much some places will be paid not to develop commercially remaining pristine rain forests, we may ask the same question of places that still have wide open spaces, on what can be done to conserve and sustain the life forms in them. Nei Menggu hosts 50 percent of the known bird species in China, so the protection of heretofore taken-for-granted species, and their habitats, is gaining attention.
Hulun Lake still has a lot of pristine qualities to it, but the countryside is inundated with urban visitors whose habits of living with nature are hardly exemplary.
For now, we are grateful for the chance to see a country’s attempt to catch-up, and in some respects, to lead the world into the 21st century. It appears that our journey from Mukden to Manzhouli has a few stops into Mother Nature’s heavily laden, overburdened and over utilized sustaining arms.
All of yesterday, thanks; all of tomorrow, yes; all of today, let it be!
Former PSS teacher Jaime Vergara now teaches at Hang Gong Hang Tian Da Zue, Shenyang Aerospace University and is currently traveling in north Inner Mongolia in the prefecture of Hulunbeier.