So of course we did get utterly and completely lost, and had some minor domestic map-reading issues, and spent twenty fruitless minutes near the crest of a hill in the rain trying vainly to pick up a phone signal….but it did mean we met the Inner Mongolian beekeepers, which was very, very cool.
The first thing we did after setting off from Aershan was to get hopelessly lost. We hadn’t counted on having no mobile phone reception or 3G signal this far north, depriving us of our Googlemaps lifeline and leaving us to find our way on our own, just us and our massively inadequate maps. I also asked a lot of local goat herders and shepherds for directions.
I have exactly five maps for this area, three of them issued in China and very detailed, yet we’ve still failed to find many roads that exist in black and white on the map but not in reality, and failed to drive on roads that do exist but are now being diverted and upgraded. We’ve also driven right across pristine areas of blank map where no roads exist at all, except that we’re actually speeding down a new four lane highway built since our hopelessly primitive Chinese GPS was last programmed and our maps were last printed a year ago. We once drove on water for twenty kilometres, all four tonnes of us a pulsing blue dot hovering elegantly above the waves, but our wheels firmly hugging a thirty kilometre long bridge. Things move fast in China, and maps just can’t keep up.
Lin Ming De and his wife Wang Gui Qin keep bees in a field of brilliant yellow rapeseed right where Inner Mongolia and Mongolia proper meet. We’ve seen many itinerant beekeepers camped near flowering fields since arriving in Inner Mongolia, but something else set these beekeepers apart and made us stop immediately. They were living in a homemade RV.
Lin met us still in his beekeepers straw hat, the net rolled up over the brim. His large spectacles reflected the sunlight and he wore a cream shirt tucked into tightly belted cream trousers that were way too big.
Bees were everywhere, from the forty beehive boxes standing just south of the field and right next to his truck. He waved us in to sit on tiny stools under the outside awning, took off his hat and set to rolling a cigarette from a little pink and white cardboard box full of flaky fragrant tobacco.
Wang Gui Qin, seemingly glad of company other than bees and her husband, fussed over the children and made us a glass of honey water to drink from their freshly harvested flower honey, and brought us small sweet melons to eat.
She told us this was their first summer in the fields – Lin Ming De’s family had been looking after bees since 1959 in Ulanhot, but when the farmer nearby invited them to camp for the summer next to the rapeseed in order to help fertilize the flowers with their bees, they jumped at the chance.
So far, they were enjoying this more relaxing life. The move meant they were closer to their two daughters and their grandchildren, and their days were easy and slow. Wang Gui Qin felt so good she had given up taking her blood pressure tablets, although she did ask me to check her blood pressure with an old sphygmomanometer she kept inside the truck. 140/90. Not bad.
Let me explain a little about their home-made campervan. It was a regular old two tonne truck, painted light blue, and converted for living and travelling. Lin Ming De had replaced all the wall panels with wooden ones and installed heavy plastic ‘windows’ that could be propped open to catch the breeze. The back tray of the truck was permanently unfolded as an entry to the living area, with a long plank leading up to the back door.
Inside was a comfortable double bed, and a small kitchen with a gas cooker. What didn’t fit inside, including two birds in their birdcage, was stored outside underneath the truck and guarded by the dog.
Lin Ming De told me it had taken him one month to convert the truck into a fangche. He was very proud of it.
It was extraordinary to think they had travelled two hundred kilometres with forty full beehive boxes stacked in the back to get to their current location.
Wang Gui Qin, hospitable and kind, made delicious egg noodles for us for lunch, and we drank more glasses of sweet honey water. The price of such honey? Wang Gui Qin had a nasty bee sting on her face, but she said she was used to it after so many years. She pressed two bottles of their wonderful honey into my hands as we left.
The people of the countryside here in Inner Mongolia have been so kind, welcoming and generous to us, and these bee keepers were no exception. We parted friends, nomads of different kinds, travelling in different directions. I hope one day we might meet again.