by Carla King

Trouble in Inner Mongolia

Baby in the sidecar..

Lily's kitchen. The fire under the wok also heatsthe sleeping on the other side of the wall to the right.

Dinner. I have no idea what it is.

My honorary niece. A little mountain goat.

Pony ride.

A push through the river.

Mountain Ranch.

12 May 98

Trouble comes to Town

I have been stuck for two days in a tiny town outside of Baotau, and I remember now that being stuck is sometimes the best part of traveling. It is the part that forces you to slow down and take note of what is going on inside of the buildings you've passed. To let people help you. To give it all up to fate. That low brick building in the dirt a kilometer back, for example, is the home of a motorcycle mechanic and his wife and their two year old daughter, all of whom are astounded to see me.

Two days later the mechanic's young wife is hanging on me saying "please stay just one more night." I have learned about 30 Chinese words. Her husband is pointing to words in my phrasebook: "astounding" (that I'm 40, and that I'm not married), and "interesting," and "intelligent." Needless to say he has endeared himself to me forever.

What happened was that I finally blew that ring on the left side. Should have had it replaced in Hohhot, I guess, but the mechanic there seemed to think it would last forever. I keep forgetting that they don't fix things here until they're broken. I mean, a clutch cable can be frayed to the last thread and they'll wait til it snaps, get stuck on the road, have to be loaded into a truck and taken to the shop. Meanwhile at the shop there is a foreigner with a big problem and five others with small problems backed up and waiting around just to look at the foreigner, so you'll just have to wait with everyone else. But that's okay, a foreigner is high entertainment value and all other business can wait.

A very nice man in one of those little blue diesel three-wheeler trucks towed me here. I'd been thinking of stopping anyway when I saw the three broken motorcycles lined up outside. Better than any sign that says "motorcycle mechanic" I guess. But I kept on going, hoping for the best. Wasn't very smart, after all.

The building looks like all the other buildings you pass on the road here -- low, long brick structures built back from the road about 100 feet in the dirt. From left to right, starting from the pile of trash left, is the mechanic's shop, the mechanic's house, a tiny alleyway to a dirt back yard, another shop of some sort (unused) the welder's house, and the welder's shop.

The door of the mechanic's house is covered by multi-colored plastic strings used to keep the flies out I am surmising because privacy don't count for nothin'. When I first met her, Lily - which is about as close I can come to pronouncing her real name - was swatting flies like a madwoman. Just inside the door is room number one, the combo sleeping room and living room, because even though there's a real living room nobody uses it, they all just stack themselves on the sleeping platform, light up the cigarette that Lily hands them when they come in, and stare at me. I wonder what they do when I'm not there. Probably talk, just like anybody, about something, about nothing. Whatever.

The sleeping platform is about table-high and is heated in winter by the coal stove in the kitchen behind it. People come in and out and sit on it -- the bedding is rolled up neatly and held together in a kind of big box-shaped embroidered sheet that gets put in a corner, exposing the thick carpets padding the surface, the kind of patterned turkish carpets you see under coffee tables in American homes.

People also congregate in the kitchen, but they never go into the other room, which is a kind of extra room, a formal sitting room, I guess. It has a double bed in the corner which is pretty useless except you can stash suff under it, and a headboard padded with that shiny quilted material you see on uncovered mattresses. Against the long wall with it are a burgandy naugahyde couch flanked by two red velourish-velvetish chairs with white doileys on the arms lined up side to side. Above the couch is a huge framed picture of an American suburban house with a green grass yard. The house in the photo is a white clapboard model home, the kind you see from Ohio to Oregon, and there are some flowers in the yard, and trees, neither of which they seem to have here in Inner Mongolia.

Along the far wall is a set of Chinese cabinets of polished reddish wood -- where it shows, and where it's not supposed to show there's bare wood with reddish wood stain dripped down the side. The corner vanity where Lily has carefully placed three important items like a shrine: a jar of Hollywood Queen moisturizer, a powder compact, and a bottle of perfume.

Looks like I'm going to sleep in here, because my bags are put at the foot of the bed and the mechanic goes right to work taking the motorcycle apart. When he's done he goes town on the bus with both jugs in a straw basket. I took some photos, and it was a little difficult to keep Lily and her mother, who wandered on over from across the highway, out of the viewfinder. With the mechanical interest put to rest for a while Lily decides that she's going to clean me up. She is a chubby little thing, Han Chinese with black hair and black eyes, and I think she's just playing doll with me, chattering away while she helps me wash my face (with a filthy rag in a standing basin of water ladeled from a huge urn in back of the kitchen) and dots Hollywood Queen on my cheeks, nose, and forehead, and then hands over the powder. She is very serious about this procedure, looking up at me with her black eyes and making a scrunchy face when I do something wrong (I didn't read the Hollywood Queen application guide) that I am getting a little worried about staying here for the two days it'll probably take to get going again. I don't want to be the Carla doll, I just want to get back on the road.

But then her mother comes walking across the highway again in her finest white ruffeled blouse, a long black wool skirt and jacket, and her hair piled up just so. She also smiles and chatters at me a lot, showing small white teeth that would have looked artificial if not for the thick brown stains at thick ends that look filed off.

Lily has also changed clothes, twice, I notice, and applies very pink lipstick before handing it to me. Pink is not my color, but I put it on carefully, wondering what the heck is going on with the light bulb goes off in my head and it becomes clear that I am to take photos of she and her mother, she and me, her mother and me, her mother's first aid office across the street, Lily's home, etc.


The bike sputtered and quit 10 km into my day. This wasn't what I had hoped. I had enough mechanical problems during the Borders  trip across America, of visiting mechanics and their families. I hadn't imagined that I'd be free of mechanical problems in China, but I did think it would be less serious than those I'd experienced with the Ural. No such luck.And here I am, all dressed up and no place to go.

When it is time to prepare for dinner I am banned from the kitchens of my hostess and of the woman next door, who is the wife of the welder where the Laowai will be treated to a banquet with the whole town of about 12 people. The menu is:

Green stuff, brown stuff, pickled stuff, fatback and green stuff, rice and green stuff with red peppers, cigarettes, beer, green stuff with noodles, pickled brown stuff, cigarettes, beer, a plate of sliced tomatoes with sugar, a plate of julienned cucumbers with sugar, a plate of what might be julienned zuchinni drowned in soy sauce, cigarettes, beer, a plate of frozen meat sliced thinly, bowls of rice, and lots more cigarettes and Inner Mongolian beer.

We raise our glasses to drink and I involuntarily utter "cheers." They are delighted to learn the American toast, and it begins a spate of drinking with the toast "chrews," which is is as close as they can come and shouted with gusto. They seem raging drunk after the first glass, but I suppose it is heady stuff, this foreigner thing... the first time anybody's ever seen a Laowai, far away or up close, and so much the better she's a Meigou (may-gway) so they can shout YES! and OKAY! for no reason and laugh hysterically at one anothers' pronunciation.

I'm thinking "this isn't real," and involuntarily catch someone's eye who is thinking "this isn't real."

A day goes by and I've seen the routine. Except for the fact that they have no running water and to use the bathroom you have to go across the highway a squat over a hole in the cement it's about like anyone else's life in any small town anywhere in the world. Nothing really much happens outside of family life. The world goes by, visitors come in and go out, and there you are, standing behind the multicolored door strings looking at the road.

The sugar guy comes in, fills two canisters full and writes some character in it with his finger. Lily washes out her lime green jacket. Somebody on a MoPed wants a new chain. Somebody else rides up on a bike, leaves it, then hops on a bus to Baotau. The baby throws a fit over nothing.

13 May 98

Theboys have stayed up until 1 am repairing my bike. This worries me because they have drunk a lot of beer, and I wanted to participate in the repair process. They think they have done me a great favor and so what can I do. I am ready to roll, except now they want me to stay another day, lets go fishing, they say, so we all pile into the bike, me on the back seat and the wife and kid in the sidecar, and head down the highway turning off toward the moutains I had admired the day before on a road that's barely there, get stuck in the river, the pipes making smokey bubbles and the tires throwing pebbles onto the other side. Someone on a tractor comes by and can't pass unless he helps us pick it up and put it on the other side.

The mountains are hot, rising suddenly from the flats in great sharp barren peaks. We are not going to fish, I realise. We are going to hike somewhere. It takes me about a mile to understand what they're saying... waterfall.

It doesn't materialize but we pass herds of wild ponys and an old rancher woman who lets me ride her glossy pony long enough to take a photo. Usually they charge 3 yuan for that, Lily tells me.

14 May 98

I thought I might make it to Linhae and a proper bingwan (tourist hotel) but leave it to luck that I blew out the ring just 20 kilometers east of there, so I'm in a luguan, a small dormitory hotel, with the whole world here who has never seen a foreigner before and an actual Chang Jiang mechanic - he's got two of them and I'm sure that he will be able to fix it tomorrow. I hope that he will be able to fix it tomorrow.

Read Disaster Strikes!


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