by Carla King

The Ghost of Genghis and other Roadside Attractions

A coal truck, the bane of my existence.

In Dongsheng it's mutton... mutton heads for dinner, mutton kabobs on the grill, mutton won tons. Yum!

Won tons and mutton head.

A transplant from Kazakstan.

Dinner and pool.

A new friend in Dongsheng.

The Genghis Kahn Mausoleum.

Gengis rides again.

Nothing for miles.

The Genghis Kahn Mausoleum.

Kahn shrine.

Bridge over a fork of the Yellow River. Dry now, but flooded later. I'll drive on the dry riverbead tomorrow on my way to Yinchuan.

10 May 98 Dongsheng

Night at the monastery passed uneventfully and I left first thing in the morning for Donsheng via Baotau instead of the dirt road west. It was going to rain and I'd get stuck, they said. I was bummed because it looked like beautiful remote farm country. But I needn't have worried about being in remote places...

In one small town a traffic cop looked at me sideways, and kind of pointed to the ground. There was a lot of stuff going on at the intersection and I kind of thought he might be telling me to pull over but I also kind of thought he might just be telling me to pass him that way and not the other way because a big truck and several motorcycles and bicycles were going that way. So I slowed down and looked at him. He turned away from me so I kept going and forgot about it. About two kilometers later I heard a swarm of bees -- nope, it was five cops on five little 125 motorbikes revving up a storm and beeping their little tinny horns.

Geez.. If I'd really been trying to escape I would have been going more than 50 km/hour. I pulled over immediately and I couldn't have probably looked more astounded. When I took off my helmet they all probably couldn't have looked more astounded, either. It didn't take any time at all for a crowd to gather and my heart is beating because nobody has been allowed to do what I'm doing and sometimes I think I'll be stopped and sent back on a plane to Beijing and home.

I put on my best dumb smile, and say "Baotau," which is thenext big town I'll pass. If I said "Lanzhou" they'd arrest me for sure. Still, they look even more astounded. I've got these Beijing expat plates which are black. Everyone else's are blue. Embassy people have black plates, too, only they've got a little red mark on top. The cop looks at my plates and I sort of smile and try to look even more benign and say, "Beijing -- Jining -- Baotau." With that he realizes that I can't speak any Chinese at all. The head guy (you can always tell the head guy because he's the fat one in the middle) screws up his face like "oh geez this is going to be waaaay too much trouble," looks down, up, and waves his hand impatiently in the direction I was going.

I have all my papers in the trunk but I'm telling you, I didn't waste any time. I stuck my helmet on my head didn't even fasten it so before he could change his mind or get razzed by the crowd who would just love to go through all my papers and bags... I was out of there and didn't stop until I had to for gas.

The road to Jining was more wild wild west, paved through the middle with dusty red Chinese lanterns hung on the saloons but the four-lane highway from Jining to Baotau is trucker heaven, there's even an American style truck stop with diners and about 20 diesel pumps, and I know if my Dad was with me we'd have to stop there because for sure the food would be good, he'd say, and he'd just want to look around at what a Chinese truck stop was like. But I like the backroads and so flew through Baotau and its miles of factories as fast as the Yin Yang machine would take me (which is about 65 km/hr).

Halfway to Dongsheng I saw my first Gobi sand dune and a homestead of mud and straw in the middle of nowhere. This kind of space is something that millions of east-coast Chinese haven't dreamed of. But the land doesn't yield much here but sand, so there's more land per capita, and an awful lot of sheep.

In Dongsheng people carry sheep live in little blue trucks, dead and skinned and piled high in wooden trailers, they lay 10 skins over the back of a 125 motorbike and pile 10 severed horned heads in bicycle baskets. This is no place to be vegetarian, and I'm glad I like mutton.

The hotel here has gray carpet and a big bathroom and very high ceilings and a bare flouresent light in the center of the room and peeling paint and ancient 50's style mismatched furniture, and, of course, a TV set to loudest volume. But there is no construction work going on as far as I can see. No sledghammer and pickaxe concerta alarm clock.

The Dongsheng department store at first looked like a normal department store, , a little dirty, cement floor, peeling paint, but it has a with a candy counter and a cosmetics counter, and a bicycle parts counter and a gloves and socks counter and another counter with bicycle parts and gloves and socks and lotion and candy, and then one with big plastic gas cans and basins and mops and funnels, then further down fruits and vegetables and the people behind the counters were calling out to you to come buy the stuff. It looked like less of a department store than a rent-a-counter location, and there was a healthy bit of competition going on.

"Can I help you find something?" I heard behind me. Lianrong was just dying to practice her English and chattered so much I could hardly get a word in edgewise, except to answer her request for correct pronunication on certain words. "I was feeling not so good this afternoon and then I met you and I am feeling much better," she said. She used to live in Beijing where she came in contact with many different people. She has friends in the Middle East and Europe and now one in America. "I want to save enough money to send my son to school in America so he can learn English," she told me. At her job as a clerk in a local chemical company she translates incoming letters from English into Chinese, but it doesn't help her improve her English, she says, and she longs for big city life where there is more diversity. "I know many people who have traveled. Have you been to Europe? I have not been anywhere but China. Do you think I look Malaysian? Everyone says I do not look Han Chinese but I am Han Chinese I do not know why people say this to me."

She helped me bargain -- yes, you even bargian at department stores in China -- for rubber gloves and liners and boots. It had rained on me that day and my leather boots and gloves were soaked. I hadn't prepared well, though my GoreTex rain suit has been holding up and helping to keep me warm. It has begun to get really chilly in this part of the country, something else I hadn't prepared for.

Outside we bought kababs (yes, mutton) from a stand from a couple of guys from Kazakhstan and watched as dinner was being set up in the square by the department store. "You know," she said, "that department store was run by the government but it was losing a lot of money, so last year they turned it over to many capitalist vendors to buy each one a little space in it, and it is becoming a success. But of course some people are better merchandising people than other people so everything is dependent upon."

We munched on the kabobs and a little package of cheese bits she had bought for me , to demonstrate the specialty of Inner Mongolia -- milk products. They were good little chewy things that tasted something like cheese but a lot like additives. "Tell me if you stay and we will go together to do anything. I have nothing to do because tomorrow is the weekend."

In the square we drank bottles of yoghurt milk and watched the foodsellers set up their tables and begin cooking: whole heads of sheep were boiled in broth and piled high on plates, steaming in the cool night air. There were mutton and scallion pancakes and mutton and scallion wontons and cauldrons filled with sheets of the white stomach lining of sheep. Beside these ad-hoc restaurants were a dozen pool tables, and while it was still light most of the customers played.

Sleep. Heavenly sleep with no sledgehammers let me sleep until 8:30 when I woke in a panic that I had slept all day, but it was only 10 hours and after a second bath to attempt to get the second layer of road grime off of my body I was off to the Genghis Kahn mausoleum, something my guidebook said was a must-see. I've always thought that he must have been quite the leader to have conquered China and part of Europe, so I headed off down the road, and down the road, and down the road, and down the road.

There are no signs that point to "Genghis Kahn Mausoleum this way." If China is going to start with the car thing they're going to have to start learning about the art of the roadside attraction. Even when I did get there, there were no Genghis Kahn T-shirts or hats or keychains. Just expensive knicknacks to put on your coffee table, cheap replicas of Mongolian clothing and weaponry, and lots of little bronze deer, for some reason I can't figure out. All this from the SUPERFINES FOR TOURISTS shop, and THE SECOND SHOP FOR NECESSESSITIES FOR TRAVEL shop.

Other people were having a wonderful time, though, despite the lack of anything real to see, but it was a group outing for most and I provided even more entertainment -- the object of pointing and staring and taking pictures, not of the attraction, but of me. Four young soldiers politely asked if they could have their photo taken with me and that was fine, but when people just come up like I'm a zoo animal and snap my photo without asking it feels weird... especially when others in the group are going ooh and ahh and look at the foreigner. One particularly silly and insensitive group of girls were treated to a photo of a typical American hand signal. They were giggling, clueless, or just didn't care, and I'd had it I guess. I'd driven 2 1/2 hours to this huge thing in the middle of nowhere, and all it turns out to be is a pretty building with a big statue of Khan inside, and of all things, there was a kneeling stool and lots of incense burning and offerings like he was the Buddha or something... do people worship a dead Mongolian king? It seemed strange after having come from the Buddhist temples. Painted on the walls of the two mini-domes on each side of the main building were yurt replicas, some old Mongolian weapons, and a rather cartoonish mural of the Khan's life. I was in and out of there in less than an hour.

On the way back I picked up a uniformed truck driver whose engine was irrepairable and took him back to Dongshing with me. It was a coal truck, and he left it just where it had broken down, on a blind curve with a 100 foot drop and not one iota to the side. Room for barely another coal truck to pass.

Now, I haven't been too pleased with the behavior of the drivers of these vehicles, but he grinned, showing a lot of silver teeth, and patted the back seat with his eyebrows raised. It was 20 kilometers to Dongsheng over washboard and washed-out roads, and his teeth flashed in my rear view mirror all the way. I'm hoping it will give me good trucker karma, becase the rules of the road certainly aren't on my side.

I'd planned to get going to Yinshuan this afternoon, but I got ten kilometers down the road and realized that it was going to be 40 km per hour for 345 kilometers, with maybe no gas station in between. Leaving at 3:30 wasn't probably such a hot idea. So it was back to the department store to buy a gas can, and back to the hotel for some motorcycle maintenance and a good nights sleep. Tomorrow is probably going to be the hardest ride of my trip.


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