Tramping around Hulunbeier in Inner Mongolia has afforded us a few reflections on the state of the planet's ecology in the geographical reality of this part of the world. The wide expanse of the grassland, the semi-pristine condition of the wetlands, and the protected reforested slopes of the Great Khingan Range occasion a celebrative affirmation of Gaia's gifts, on the one hand, and despair over our reckless disregard for sustainability in the wake of rapid industrialization, on the other.
From relatively clean Manzhouli, with its center solidly reflecting its eastern European antecedents, its construction spread is restrained by the green mesh to contain the dust, and is hardly noticeable as expansion moves into the outskirts of the city while the center remains a touristy old Russian atmosphere, with all the shops showing Cyrillic and Chinese signs. The occasional English shows of necessity when brand recognition is needed, e.g., Arrow brand shirt, and the much-duplicated Playboy.
Hailar (the old city of Hulunbeier before the name was extended to the whole prefecture), on the other hand, almost a microcosm of the haste China is pursuing industrial and commercial development. To its credit, it is not averse to English in the signage as Russian, English, and Mongolian (Uyghur script) join the Zhongwen characters. This extends to such places with names like E'erguna and Moerduga.
Outside of Hailar is vast grassland with the idyllic pastoral scenes of the sheep and cattle herds guarded by Mongolians in their famed horses. Modern China, in its need to generate additional power for its industries, has parked numerous aluminum/steel flowers to convert the wind into controllable sparks. While the windmills are numerous, it is hardly sufficient.
Coal-rich northeast (Manchuria) has already saturated Dong Bei air with carbon dioxide, and although tree planting is a 24/7 exercise, the quality of air is almost as bad as Beijing. So it makes sense that economic planners decided to add power plants in strategic areas in the open grassland. Outside of Hailar, I must have counted more than a dozen of those plants, with mounds of black coal in their open yards, busily generating electricity transmitted through new power line towers heading in every direction.
I stood at a tourist yurt yard where crash Mongolia culture is pitifully caricatured (IMHO, in the same way we train Saipan girls to dance the Hula for the tourists) but on one site, we were delighted to stand atop a hill and gaze at a 180 degree view unaltered by any sign of human intrusion. Or, so we thought. The binoculars caught some movement in the middle of our view, which at first, we thought might be wildlife. They turned out to be disposable plastic bags, very thin but commonly used everywhere, caught in a green mesh fence.
I was reminded of an early '80s swim in Wotje of the Marshall Islands where our snorkel delighted on the pristine condition of the lagoon until a piece of baby Pampers came floating into our view.
We did a circular route from Gen He and return, by train and bus. Members of an aboriginal tribe of reindeer herders commercialized their lives for the tourists. If the yurt is the dwelling of the grasslands, the teepee comes handy in the forest. Now I know where the teepees of Native Americans came from. The southern Chinese tourists were not comfortable with the antlered deer roaming around the forest trails! Mongolians consider the wolf and the deer as their patron spirit animals. The wolf has since been domesticated while the dear deer joins the list of protected about-to-be extinct species.
E'erguna is another city rapidly building apartment dwellings to replace the one-story ones of the collectives. Nearby is a fabulous wetland. The sore sight of a few of the city's power plants, however, mars the scenery.
We tramped around the grassland overlooking the wetland, lucky that a Han taxi driver dropped me off the back of a Mongolian Mosque that led to a newly constructed fancy wetland-viewing tourist area where I joined a throng. I found out later on our exit that it charged $10 per head to enter. What the taxi driver failed to warn me (or, maybe, he did, but I failed to understand) though was not to disturb the grass snakes!
Shi Wei is a recently revived Mongolian area by the river that sits across Russia. Near it are villagers of blue-green-yellow eyed Caucasians who speak Chinese and have long resided in the area, inter-marrying to the Mongols and the Hans. They are treated better than our CNMI-born residents of alien workers. The new tourist dwellings resemble Siberian log houses!
BTW, Mongol is really not a racial term. It is a term to refer to Pax Mongolica, the largest contagious empire united under Genghis Khan in the 13th and 14th century, remarkable in its religious tolerance and promotion of inter-tribal trade and cultural exchange among the various Turkic tribes and ethnic residents in what would later be identified as the Empire of the Mongols. Genghis Khan ruled China as the Yuan dynasty.
These grasslands and wetlands are frontiers about to disappear. Ay Yah!
Jaime R. Vergara (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang Aerospace University in China.