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Back on the Trail of The Best Beef Noodles in Lanzhou 兰州最好吃的牛肉拉面

I’m on a mission: to find the best hand-pulled beef noodles (niurou lamian 牛肉拉面) in Lanzhou.

Actually, hang it – in all of China, but Lanzhou is the obvious place to start – I mean, it’s the home of niurou lamian, the world famous noodle soup dish with the heady aromatic broth, mind-blowing la jiao chili paste, coriander, and fine slices of beef, so full of spice and flavour it will satisfy you every day for a year.

As long-time readers of this blog will know, finding the best of anything is no easy feat, and I have previously tried and failed to find Lanzhou’s best lamian, but you know, I’m no quitter. I’m back again to give it another shot.

Lanzhou is a sprawling big, busy, dirty city, the capital of staggeringly beautiful Gansu Province, home to the thousands of Hui Muslims with whom this dish is synonymous, and also home to thousands of lamian restaurants. It also happens to be on the ancient Silk Road, where our route westward to Kashgar is taking us.

 Luckily, after our last trip to Lanzhou (and on the advice of several people since) I knew that the best noodles in the city were reportedly at Mazilu Niurou Mian, so with empty bellies and a raging hunger we jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take us to the closest Mazilu restaurant.

‘Really?’ he said, looking crestfallen. ‘It’s just over there!’ pointing to the other side of the huge intersection where we had flagged him down.

‘I thought it was near the White Temple…’ I said.

‘There is one there too’ he replied, nodding.

‘Just how many Mazilu restaurants are there?’ I asked.


‘Well, just take us to the best one. Or…um…the original one.’ Original is always good, in my books. The taxi driver, by now mistaking me for someoe who could actually speak Chinese, reverted to a broad local dialect as he continued.

‘Well, the original one is by …..(unintelligible address) and there’s also a good one right next to…(another unintelligible location). Which one do you want?

‘Let’s just go to wherever you think has the best lamian‘ I said, by now acutely aware that we had circled a whole block without deciding on a destination.

‘Well, if you want the best, and you want my opinion, then we’ll go straight to Wumule. It’s a laozihao

Just like crack cocaine those words are. Crack cocaine. The best lamian. Laozihao.

Laozihao 老字号 means ‘time-honoured brand’ and for a Chinese foodie it’s the equivalent of the German wurst shop that’s been making sausages the exact same wonderful way for 110 years, or the artisanal cheesemaker who learned to make the best chevre from a traditional recipe. Laozihao denotes quality and a definite pride in food-making, usually with a long and distinguished history.

‘So what are we waiting for?’ I said to the driver. ‘Go!!’






We drove westwards along the very high and fast-flowing Yellow River for half an hour away from Lanzhou’s centre and towards its western outskirts before pulling up alongside a nondescript building with floor to ceiling glass windows fronting the street. 

‘Here it is!’ the driver said, and deposited us on the footpath just as a stream of Hui Muslims, white caps in place, came out of the front door. Their surprise at seeing us was obvious, but they also seemed delighted that we had made our way to their far-away lamian restaurant.

Inside, the restaurant was light and airy and had all the signs of a great place to eat: queues for the cashier, queues for noodles, queues for tables, and crowds of happy-looking diners leaving through clouds of steam billowing from the kitchen. 


I was swept along on a human tide towards the front counter, battling the crowds of people and at the same time trying to decipher the blackboard menu before it was my turn to order. 

All I could make out under pressure was:

Noodles – small, medium, large 6, 8, 10 yuan 面条小碗,中碗,大碗,分别是6元,8元,10元。
Small dishes – 2 yuan 小菜-2
Cold roast beef – 58 per jin 冷切牛肉每斤58

And then all of a sudden, I was next. Behind the counter was a 180 year old man manning the cash register, and his younger and sprightlier son taking orders.

‘Hey!’ said the son with a big smile. ‘What will you be having?’ and without drawing breath he went on to say ‘How about four bowls of noodles and 200g of beef? Done?’ Done.

‘Beef over there!’ he said, pointing to a heavy-set woman off to one side with a huge cleaver in her hand.

‘Noodles that way!’ he beamed, pointing to the lengthening queue at the noodle kitchen.

‘Small dishes behind me!’ he said, pointing over his shoulder to the separate kitchen for pickles and vegetable dishes. 




My hand filled with several small white tickets, one for each component of my lamian meal. For the best lamian you can’t just dump everything in a big soup bowl, you have your spicy noodle soup accompanied by dainty plates of side dishes with pleasing, contrasting tastes and textures designed to offset the searing heat of the noodles. Noodles, beef slices, cold dishes and pickles.

But not in that order….no point in first collecting a huge steaming bowl of scalding-hot noodles only to carry them around the restaurant while you collect assorted sides from the ‘small dishes’ counter and ‘beef’ counter. No, no, no.

Roast beef first, sliced with that huge and heavy cleaver into wafer thin slices, weighed on old-fashioned scales and tipped onto a small plate.

Next: small dishes – a smorgasbord of small plates filled with a variety of spiced pickles, vegetables or finely sliced liver, all served cold. I filled our tray with sides of fuchsia-pink radish dressed with garlic, vinegar and coriander, and crunchy cold cucumber with chili and sesame oil.

Lastly – time to nab a table, leaving the small dishes there alone, and join the snaking queue at the window of the noodle kitchen right in the restaurant’s centre.

Regular customers call out their orders from way back in the line – ‘extra thick noodles!’ ‘more lajiao!’ ‘no coriander!’


Inside the kitchen the noodle-pullers, three on one side of the central cooktop and four on the other, work in steamy conditions at a fierce pace pulling noodles, while the last cook in line ladles boiling hot broth into bowls with spoons of radish, scallions, lajiao and lastly hot noodles added at lightning speed.

I took my bowl, swimming with chili oil and smelling incredible.

I took my seat and prepared to sweat, just like the diners all around me.

The first mouthful of smooth soft noodles went down easily until the chili suddenly hit me. I began to sweat. My nose ran. My cheeks flushed. I kept eating.

Those noodles were excellent – full of flavour, rich and oily, the broth savoury and aromatic.
All around me noodles were being slurped, sipped, and sucked down noisily with great satisfaction. Trickles of sweat poured from faces on all sides. I crunched on my side dishes to relieve the heat.

Between mouthfuls of hot soup I noticed a large gold plaque on the wall: 

‘Lanzhou Best Niurou Lamian: 2012’ 

So that was it – the odyssey was over and I had finally found Lanzhou’s best lamian.  What a relief….at least until next year, when the lamian committee will assign a new title. Oh well, looks like another trip back to Lanzhou is on the cards. Anyone care to join me in August 2013?




Wumule Penhui Beef Noodles
2012 Winners of Lanzhou’s Best Lamian 

1268 Bei Huang He Zhong Lu, Lanzhou

Ph 13919893333 

The Cave-Dwelling Farmers of Shanxi 居住在岩洞中的善良农民

We rely a lot on the kindness of farmers. 

Every night when we set up camp it’s either on farmland or very close to it, given that every square inch of flat land in China is given over to agriculture including road verges, spare pocket handkerchiefs of land between fences and homes, and tiny slips of land beside bridges and waterways. The skerricks of land that are left over are too steep to farm but also too steep to park on, causing us all to roll forwards under the dashboard during the night, like slow-rolling stones.

When the farmers are about we ask if we can camp, and when they’re not we choose a quiet site away from farmhouses so we stay out of the way of daily farm business, allowing the farmers to go about their work without any disruption from us.

At times though, we accidentally cause a lot of disruption to daily farm business. Some afternoons shepherds bring their flocks of sheep or goats home past our van and we suddenly realize we have parked right in their  path. No wonder the grass was so flat and short! But they just move quietly around us without any bother.

Other times we park in what we consider a remote spot only to discover the next morning we are directly next to a ‘tractor highway’ as all the local farmers drive their tractors to work out in the fields. Did you know farmers start work at 4.30am? Neither did I until the deafening two-stroke engines rolling past had me leaping out of bed in the dark. 




This week we set up camp near a tiny village in western Shanxi Province and parked amongst tall wildflowers next to a field of corn. The village consisted almost entirely of yaodong – cave homes. I’ve been fascinated by these homes for several years, but the closest I’d ever come to seeing inside one was when I visited an abandoned cave house village outside Xi’an. 

These extraordinary homes are the most common form of dwelling in this part of China – almost everyone lives in one. They are not naturally occuring caves, like those inhabited by the papermakers of Guizhou, but are man-made arched caverns dug into the compacted dirt hills of the region. They’re cool in summer, warm in winter, and have the advantage of not occupying any precious terraced land used for farming.

We thought we were far enough from the village that the noise of our generator wouldn’t bother anyone, but what we hadn’t counted on was how curious those local farmers were about us.
Perhaps they had never met foreigners before. Certainly they had never seen a fangche before. In their ones and twos, then in their tens they all came to say hello, ask a lot of questions, look inside the van, and watch us cook and eat dinner. Babies, small children, teenagers, parents and grandparents – all came. I imagine not a lot of work got done in the village that evening.



The next day, at their repeated invitation, we visited their yaodong cave homes. The village had all stopped work and downed tools for our visit, waiting for us under the great big walnut tree at the entrance to the village.


Yaodong have a natural, simple beauty. Each one is fronted by three graceful arched doorways with inset windows decorated with fretwork and decorative brickwork. Inside, the yaodong are light and surprisingly airy, with light reflecting from the curved ceiling of plaster-covered rammed earth.

 The rooms are all furnished simply with a kang – a large earthen platform bed with a chimney underneath for heat during the cold, harsh winter months – a small stove, a cupboard and sofa, and framed photographs on the walls of their families, some far away. The first two arched rooms are for living, and the third used to store grain and preserved foods.


The farmers were so pleased to have us as visitors, and so proud to show us their wonderful neat houses. It’s a great privilege it is to be welcomed into someone’s home as a stranger, let alone the homes of an entire village.


As a way of saying thank you I took polaroid photographs of everyone in the village. At first there was some confusion about the strange white toy camera that spat out a white card, then amazement all round as the first photograph slowly developed, revealing first coloured shadows, then forms, and finally faces and details. 

Several spent some minutes staring intently at the black side of the photograph before realizing the image had already fully formed on the reverse. Several others rushed away to change their clothes and smooth their hair for their portraits.

Already so generous in taking us into their homes, as we left the farmers filled our hands and pockets with pears, walnuts and corn they had grown themselves. 

In our travels we’ve now met so many kind and open people living and working in the countryside. This post is a tribute to all of them – I know they will never see it or read it, but I thank them anyway.


Ten Must-Try Foods in Shanxi 山西美食探险

Shanxi oat noodles 莜面烤栳栳
Shanxi Province is not only the cradle of Chinese history but also home to one of China’s great eight cuisines, known as jin cai 晋菜, famous for its liberal use of locally produced aged Shanxi vinegar, round breads and pastries known as bing, and an extraordinary variety of noodles.
Having now traversed Shanxi from north to south eating everything that was put in front of me I can confirm Jin cusine is pretty exciting and very diverse. True to form I tended much more towards the local street food than haute cuisine, and Shanxi people seem to love eating on the street as much as I do – the province was full of snack stalls and night markets bursting with atmosphere and the smells of good cooking. 
The following list isn’t meant to be definitive, it’s just ten of the foods I enjoyed most while in Shanxi. I hope you get a chance to try them too.


1. Shanxi Oat Noodles 莜面烤栳栳
Street vendor selling oat noodles, ready to steam at home
Think oat noodles might be dense and chewy? Think again. The first surprise when ordering Shanxi oat noodles (shanxi youmian kao lao lao 山西莜面烤栳栳) is when the steamer lid is lifted to reveal their unusual honeycomb appearance, the second surprise being their soft light texture and mild taste.
Oats are a staple crop in this part of China, so there many kinds of oat noodles on offer in a variety of shapes but these are the most well-known. A steamer basket full of the wonderful hot honeycomb noodles alongside a small bowl of a rich, thick tomato and garlic sauce, and you simply peel off a single noodle and dip it into the sauce before eating.
Alternately you can have the steamed noodles quickly dry-fried with plenty of garlic, onion and chili and a little ziran spice mixture – known as ganbian kao lao lao 干煸烤栳栳 (see picture below).
Where to try it: You can find oat noodles all over Shanxi but kao lao lao is more common the further south you go in places like Taiyuan and Pingyao.
ganbian kao lao lao 干煸烤栳栳
1. 莜面烤栳栳
哪里可以尝到它: 在山西到处都能找到燕麦面,偏南如太原和平遥等地更为普遍。


2. Shi Tou Bing 石头饼
shi tou bing 石头饼
These prehistoric looking cakes are made with corn meal flour and filled with either a sweet red bean paste filling or a savoury sauce, before being baked with hot pebbles (or ball bearings, see below) indenting their surface, hence their great name: shi tou bing 石头饼 or stone cakes.
Crisp and delicious when hot out of the griddle, the crisp textured surface with the soft filling makes for a great snack.
Where to try it: southern Shanxi, on the streets of Taiyuan and Pingyao
2. 石头饼


3. Sea Buckthorn 沙棘属
These tiny orange berries, about the size of a plump peppercorn, grow wild all over Shanxi Province, being well-suited to the dry conditions (in Europe they grow in coastal areas and are salt-tolerant, hence the name). They have the most unusual taste – a little sour, with the rich taste of a really ripe apricot and a deep orange colour.
Sea Buckthorn juice is sold everywhere, and sea buckthorn wine is also available. This dish was a one of the most memorable and inventive I ate in Shanxi – a steamed yellow millet pudding surrounded with soft honeyed jujubes, and drowned in a sea buckthorn syrup – soft, sweet and comforting with the slight tartness of the berries overcoming the cloying sweetness of the syrup.
Where to try it: Datong’s Yonghe Food City 永和美食城: 大同迎宾东路8号
Sea buckthorn juice and wine available all over Shanxi.
3. 沙棘属
哪里可以尝到它:  永和美食城:大同迎宾东路8


4. Fragrant Straw Beef 香草肉
Fragrant straw beef (xiāng cǎo ròu 香草肉) are small parcels of savory home-made beef sausage wrapped in tofu skin and steamed inside a tiny woven straw caboose, imparting a lovely fragrance to the finished product.
Where to try it: the streets of Pingyao – look for the large tin steamers with the woven straw parcels peeking out.
4. 香草肉
哪里可以尝到它: 平遥的大街小巷——找有草编小包的大型格状蒸笼。


5. Bottle Gourd with Aged Shanxi Vinegar 养生葫芦丝
This dish highlights for me just how often Chinese cuisine continues to surprise and delight. This cold dish, served at the start of a meal, is elegant and complex with a contrast of textures and flavours that brings every ingredient to life.
You would be forgiven for thinking this was a noodle dish, when in fact it is carefully coiled shredded bottle gourd, dressed with aged Shanxi vinegar, chilies, and finely sliced cooked scallions(yangsheng hulusi  养生葫芦丝). The textures and flavours are simply sublime, a little crunch, the deeply complex vinegar, the light heat of the chilies.
Of course, it does help that it’s served in Datong’s most exquisitely beautiful restaurant, the Phoenix Court, in a Ming Dynasty house that has been home to this restaurant for several hundred years (since 1518, to be exact). The surroundings are extrardinary with gold phoenixes flying across the ceiling and heavy carved mahogony tables.
Where to try it: The Phoenix Court Restaurant, Huayan Temple Street, Datong 凤临阁烧卖: 大同城区华严寺街
5. 养生葫芦丝


6. Scissor-cut Noodles 剪刀面
Shanxi’s noodle fame is well-deserved with more than a hundred varieties of interesting shapes, sizes and textures. I loved watching the skill of these young noodle chefs in Taiyuan as they made scissor-cut noodles from a spindle-shaped piece of dough held in their hand, using what appeared to be a pair of giant dressmaking scissors to slice long thin noodles with gently tapered ends.
The noodles are served with a variety of rich sauces – in this case a ragout made from pork, yellow beans, cubed tofu, and green bean pickles (below left).
Other varieties include mao er duo or cat’s ear noodles (below right), tiny triangular noodles with curled edges, perfect with a thick and hearty sauce.
Where to try it: All over Shanxi, although Taiyuan has a great concentration of restaurants specialising in noodles.
6. 剪刀面


7. Savoury Pork Pastries 肉饼
Bing means anything round and flat, so a pancake can be a bing, and so can a savoury pastries like these. These ròu bǐng 肉饼 are pure theatre in the making, one pair of hands taking the soft and pliable dough and at lightning speed pushing it into long flat tongues to be seasoned with lamb fat and pork mince, then rolled and flattened, dipped in sesame seeds, and cooked on a griddle by an even faster second pair of hands.
Hungry customers crowd around, waiting for the next batch to appear. Piping hot, the flaky buttery pastry melts in the mouth, with salty pork giving the pastry a delicious flavour.
Where to try it: Taiyuan’s night market, on the corner of Wulongkou Jie and Heitu Gangzhong Hengma lu 太原五龙口街黑土巷中横马路
7. 肉饼


8. Shaomai 烧卖

Shanxi shaomai 烧卖 are delicate versions of their Hong Kong and Shanghai cousins. The dumplings are wrapped in skins as fine as paper, ruffled at the edges, and filled with a rich, smooth pork filling. The best way to eat them is dipped in Shanxi’s famous vinegar, a special variety expressly used for dumplings.

Where to try it: The most well-known shaomai in all of Shanxi come from Datong, where they are served in every restaurant and many street stalls




8. 烧卖
哪里可以尝到它: 山西最有名的烧卖产自大同,那里每一家饭店和众多街边摊都有。

9. Doufu Nao 豆腐

Imagine this dish: spoons of soft-set silken tofu, still warm, slipped into a steaming meat broth then topped with chili oil, chive paste, and a little red-fermented tofu. The whole combination of salty, hot, herby, meaty tastes and the smooth, soft texture makes this one of Shanxi’s most popular snacks. Especially warming in winter, people eat it all year round at all times of the day and night. Soul food.
Where to try it: This dish is not indigenous to Shanxi and in fact can be found all across northern China. Look for a vendor on the street with two huge canteens – one contains the soft-set tofu, and the other the broth.


9. 豆腐脑


10. Tian Sheng Bing 


Yet another bing, these puff pastry circles the size of a cookie are all about flakiness and crunch. In both sweet and salty varieties, they’re a little hand-held snack for morning or afternoon.

A note here: As with many of the street foods I try, I ask the name, make a note of it, and translate it later. Sometimes though, the name doesn’t make obvious sense and there are multiple possible translations. Perhaps I heard it wrongly? Please let me know if I’ve made a naming error!

I loved watching these come out of a street-side bakery the size of a cupboard by the dozen, then lined up neatly in a wicker pannier on the outdoor counter. The black (or white) sesame seeds denote whether the tian sheng bing is sweet or salty.

Where to try it: Look for these in bakeries all over Shanxi.




10. 添胜饼


Beijing Jamboree: Camping Near Beijing 中国最好的露营地

Five things I didn’t expect to experience in a Chinese camping ground:

1. Running water and power

2. Tranquility

3. Other campervans (yes!)

4. A 94 year-old camping great-grandmother from Sichuan

5. An old-fashioned jamboree involving as much barbecued meat and cold beer as you could take

Let’s be frank: my expectations of finding a Chinese camping ground at all had sunk pretty low after Tianjin’s camping ground debacle 

But Beijing is the camping ‘ground zero’ of all of China with no less than three – three! of China’s twelve camping grounds, and in our quest to experience at least one we diligently contacted all of them ahead of time.

First was Sister Wang’s Fruit Garden (peach trees! simulated warfare! says her website, as though those two things were born to be together in one place). It turns out that Sister Wang’s doesn’t actually have a camping ground, she just likes advertising on camping websites to attract business. But you can enact great battles in full modern military kit, if that’s your thing, followed by a spot of fruit-picking.

Then there was the Beijing International Vehicle Camping Park, which sounded quite promising. In fact they told us we could definitely camp there, but there was just one small matter – we would need to leave our campervan in their carpark and hire one of their campervans for the night, $250. Seemed like a lot of money when we already had a perfectly good place to sleep…

We struck it lucky with the third, the Beijing RV and Camping Exhibition Ground. Don’t be fooled by the name because it is in fact a vast green camping area in what was once a golfcourse with everything campers could need: power, water, open green spaces, toilet and shower facilities, a shop, and even a village next door with an excellent supermarket and cold beer. Best of all, it has fellow pioneer RV enthusiasts and campers!

Real, live fellow campers with an RV. Fishing. For free.

The campsite is owned and run by Wang Xu Dong, a young entrepreneur and outdoors enthusiast who was first introduced to the outdoor lifestyle when he began selling spare RV parts some years ago. Customers took him on camping trips and the rest is history – he now runs the camping ground, the adjacent RV dealership and exhibition centre, and is the man behind the very successful 21RV website and the annual China RV and Camping Rally.

Wang with Lu, otherwise known as Cam. 
We missed this extravaganza while we were in Shanghai last week, and Wang told me they saw 30,000 visitors over the four day event with more than two hundred RVs from all over China camping on site, an event that is one of a kind and clearly intrumental in building enthusiasm for camping. 

For a man who achieved all of this Wang is a very unassuming fellow who just loves being outside. So much does he love being outdoors in fact, that he named his 5 month old twins ‘Lu’ and ‘Ying’ because their names together make luying – camping. That’s quite a future commitment right there.

I can’t say enough kind words about Wang – he arranged first for a plumber friend and then for an electrician friend to fix a leaking pipe and a broken extractor fan in our van, free of charge, brought us a twenty litre bottle of drinking water, also without charge, and introduced us personally to all the other campers. I hope he’s very successful when RV travel finally takes off in China.

Our Fellow Travellers

 Imagine this improbable scenario: our first ever sighting of a real and proper RV, and the first person out of the door is a 94 year old great-grandmother from Sichuan, followed by her 65 year old daughter, her son-in-law, her next two oldest daughters (from a total of six children), then the family ayi or helper, and finally, a blue-eyed white cat and a glossy black red-beaked jackdaw in an ornate birdcage.

It wasn’t quite the demographic of camper I was expecting.

We had spent the first night of our stay alone, the only campers on site, and save for a visit from the 21RV crew to interview us it was pretty solitary. So we were delighted when our second night drew campers and travellers from afar – we had been looking forward to meeting these Chinese pioneers and hearing their stories.

All eight human and animal members of this family had been travelling apparently harmoniously for the last three weeks in a campervan the same size as ours, a smallish room on wheels in which four of us find it difficult enough to keep the peace and some personal space.

The three daughters explained they had set off from Sichuan to attend the Camping and RV Exhibition and afterwards take their mother to see the Great Wall and Imperial Palace in Beijing for the first time. By all accounts they were having a marvellous time, including the pets (although the cat took a day or two to adjust to any new surroundings and preferred to stay indoors in her basket until she knew it was really safe to come out).

The bird, hanging from a nearby tree in his enormous Chinese birdcage, was a great mimic who could say his own name, Xiao Gui Gui, and plenty else besides.

Great grandmother proved to be a lover of babies, although I suspect her eyesight was perhaps not what it used to be after she asked if Lu and Ying belonged to me. In a society where the elderly are so respected and revered it was wonderful to see with what care and love her family made sure her every need was met.

It turns out the family own not one, but two RVs, having taken up camping as a hobby when they retired six years ago, and they try and make two long journeys a year in the spring and autumn months. They rarely meet fellow RVers except at this campsite.

We also chatted with a delightful fellow from Taiyuan in Shanxi province, some six hours’ drive, who had just popped in for the weekend with his minivan and caravan. The minivan, kitted out for serious travel with a satellite dish, GPS system and fold-out kitchen, was all he used when travelling solo but the more comfortable caravan he brought along when his wife and mother-in-law were travelling too. 

Then there was a family of day trippers with a car and tent who – you guessed it – produced two frail and elderly parents from their vehicle along with a full-sized barbecue and enough chicken wings to furnish an entire battalion of chickens.

I started to sense that the only people with enough money and leisure time for this kind of travel in China were perhaps retirees whose children were all busy working and who chose to travel with their elderly parents instead.

The Jamboree

As evening fell and we all began cooking Wang Xu Dong rallied friends and family together under the outdoor pavilion to have a barbecue, drink beer and chat. Wang cooked up some wickedly spicy barbecued chicken with ziran and fennel seeds, we cooked a pot of chili, and many, many cold Yanjing beers were drunk and tales were told.

And there we all were – young, old, Chinese, Australians – together enjoying the fresh air, good food and drink, and the stories from other places, all around the proverbial campfire. A real Chinese jamboree.




Beijing RV Park and Campground   北京房公园

Beijing Fangshan Distrct, Daning Village, Shangzhuang, adjacent to Beijing RV Exhibiton Center     

Coordinates: Lat 39.815312   Long 116.212984
Water: available at lakeside area
Electricity: available for all sites
Public Facilities: Toilet and shower block, camping and RV parts and supplies shop
Quietness: Crickets, distant occasional trains
Nearest water/groceries: Daning village, five minutes’ walk, has two supermarkets with fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and fish. Laundromat. Sports centre with swimming pool open to the public.
Outlook: sites overlook green expanse fringed with trees or small lake

Price: 100yuan/night RVs, 50 yuan/night cars

: 100//
: 50//

Phone  话: 010-80364500

Capture the Colour Contest: China in Five Colours

I love seeing other people’s travel photographs, and when I ask to see someone’s holiday snaps I’m not just being polite and secretly hoping they won’t show me – I really, really mean it, to the point of badgering them to come up with the goods. 

So when my friends Maryanne of Ephemera and Detritus and Kate of Driving Like a Maniac both tagged me to participate in Travel Supermarket’s Capture the Colour contest it gave me the perfect opportunity to vicariously travel through their photographs and by extension everyone else they nominated. I’m inspired, as ever, by the travels others undertake, and how they ‘see’ the places they visit.

The project is really imaginative in scope, asking for an image in each of five colours – red, blue, yellow, green and white. Capturing the essence of each colour in a single photograph was a great interlude while the trusty van spent the last week in Beijing having vital repairs, and the less trusty Mr Chen argued endlessly about whether it was his fault the water heater broke and who should pay for it. 

Along the way I discovered something about the way I see colour around me – through my own eyes China is truly every shade of red, but also surprisingly green. And I learned my eye is rarely caught by anything yellow, despite its imperial connotations and ubiquity in temples and palaces in China, and I had to hunt very hard for an image that fitted.

As I sat on the cool green grass at The Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing this afternoon I made a point of noticing the yellows around me – the lemon ruffles of a little girl’s dress, the zesty sneakers of a teenager, the late afternoon sunlight gleaming on a pair of badminton players, the gold-coloured tiles of the gateway pavilions. 

It takes the gentle push of friends, as always, for me to ‘see’ things in new ways. 

RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red RED red

A hot summer night, a single moment in a Chinese street market, and then she glanced away. The air was thick with the red glow of neon lights, the steam, smoke and sizzle of slices of meat frying on the table-top barbecues, the shouts of men calling orders back and forth and touting for customers, the clink of tall dark green beer bottles, and the hot red faces of the late night crowds.

BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE blue BLUE
Shanghai’s tallest building, the World Financial Centre – affectionately known to us as ‘The Bottle Opener’ – towers so far above the rest of the skyline the six-story buildings in the foreground are toys by comparison. They had recently been re-roofed in cobalt blue in preparation for Shanghai’s debut on the world stage – World Expo 2010. 
YELLOW yellow YELLOW yellow YELLOW yellow YELLOW
Chinese stores often have quirky and random names. I like ‘feeling’ a lot, although I’m not sure what it has to do with cross-stitch. The motorbike was purely incidental, but whoever parked it there had a great eye for composition.
GREEN green GREEN green GREEN green GREEN green GREEN
In the bamboo forests of Anji’s Nine Dragon Valley the forest floor is soft with fallen leaves and the sunlight filters through the thick bamboo leaf canopy in patterned dapples. The air is moist and warm and lush, and inside the bamboo forest there is an overwhelming sense of green-ness.
The bamboo is marked close to the ground with the owner’s name and projected harvest date. 
WHITE white WHITE white WHITE white WHITE white
Kashgar is a city filled with strange and exotic sights and smells – the lure of the bazaar with its gold, silks and carpets, the veiled women, the daily call to prayer, and the intoxicating smells of smoke, spices and roasting lamb in front of the mosque. The faces are unfamiliar to me, but hold a history of this place where east and west once hinged. 

The Hanging Temple of Jingxia Gorge 悬空寺

It’s hard to know where to avert your eyes when you’re two hundred feet above the ground on a rickety wooden structure about a foot and a half wide. Look down, and the cliff you’re precariously attached to leers at you through the cracks, look up and you’re likely to be overcome with vertigo and fall right over the knee high railing, the only thing protecting you from a deathly plummet downwards.

I’m swearing to myself under my breath quietly, repetitively and desperately: ‘fuck, fuck fuck, fuck fuuuuuck’ because it keeps my mind off my imminent death. I’m not that good with heights, or depths for that matter, or extremes of any kind. Thank goodness my children are out of earshot as I shuffle along, hoping this ordeal will soon be over and by default staring really intently at the back of the guy in front of me. 

I’m at the Hanging Temple (Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺) in Jingxia Gorge, northern Shanxi Province, a legendary place built by a single monk, Liao Ran. I’m thinking he was fond of solitude, and heights. The temple and monastery clings to the western cliff face of the gorge, high above the water line and occasional floods, and far below the snow that sits atop the mountains in winter.

According to strict Taoist principles, temples are places of absolute peace, free of the disturbance of even a rooster crowing or a dog barking, which may be why it was built in this location. Whatever the reason, it’s an extraordinary feat of daring and ancient engineering, best appreciated from the ground. 

When standing on the structure itself it seems to be the worst idea anyone ever had for a place to build anything, even making it into the Time’s Top Ten Precarious Buildings. Right.

The temple clings to the cliff face via cantilevered posts sunk deep into the rock, supported by long and elegant poles stretching down like chopsticks onto narrow rock ledges below. There is speculation these precarious spindly poles the temple seems to perch on are purely for show, according to a Chinese travel website:

The temple is supported by more than 10 wooden props, of which some are not actually useful”

I only read that this morning, at the time of course believing these poles were essential to stability. When the man in front of me grabs one of the poles and gives it an almighty shake I have a small coronary and black out temporarily. Why do blokes have to do stuff like that? 

The smiling assassin. That unassuming pole-shaker in the button-up white shirt who nearly killed me.

Intermittently I build up the courage to take a photo, cursing to myself that I can’t hold my heavy Nikon camera with one hand, therefore condemning myself to death (in my mind) every time I take my other hand off the railing. 

Because let’s face it, that railing is having the life squeezed slowly out of it by my vice-like grip. 
Mind you, the temple wouldn’t be half so terrifying if I wasn’t constantly aware I was sharing it with four hundred other tourists at the same time.

You buy tickets at the base of the gorge, then climb up hundreds of stairs until you’re at the temple entrance. Here you must pass through a turnstile designed to limit the maximum number of tourists permitted on the aged and fragile structure at any one time. 

Excellent idea, I think, as I go through, realizing just a second after the turnstile snaps closed behind me that the guy manning it is fast asleep with his head resting on top of the turnstile’s hub. People are pouring through uncounted. I’m doomed.

Gates of doom. Note evil face door knocker.

Once inside you pass in single file along a series of rattling wooden paths, tiny wooden bridges, and through the compact rooms of the temple. There is no turning back because you’d have to fight your way through the crush of tourists behind you who all have a keen forward momentum inspired by the need to get quite quickly back down to ground level.

Once in the temple’s tiny rooms there is slight relief of fear, being closer to the cliff face and further form the edge and all, until the three hundred and ninety-nine behind you push you forward and out towards the drop-off again.  
‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?? That’s why we’re hiding in this cupboard!’I did survive though, perhaps thanks to the benevolence of Sakyumani, Confucius and Laozu, their statues representing Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism respectively. Hell, if it were up to me I’d have had Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Vishnu, and the Torah in there too.

If you can bring yourself to lift your eyes you’ll be rewarded with the magnificent view of folded stone layers of the gorge and the vast and oppressive sheer face of the cliff opposite. Nature in all its solid and enormous glory, and the inconsequence of man, clinging to a matchstick temple.

Downward. Yes please, as soon as possible.

At last, just when you’re heart can’t really keep it up, you’re allowed down.

And just how old is the place? That’s what everyone keeps asking, and I’m incredibly grateful I only discovered the temple’s age this morning while reading up on its history. 

It was built in 491. Four Ninety One. 

That’s about a thousand years older than I thought it was, and if I’d known beforehand it was more than 1500 years old there’s not a chance in hell I would have gone up there. 

Add it to the list of ‘Top Ten Sights I’m Glad to Have Survived’.



The Hanging Temple

Xuánkōng Sì 悬空寺
Hengshan, Shanxi Province 
Open 7 days 7am to 7pm
Admission: Adults 130 yuan, children and students 65 yuan, under 1.3m free, parking 10 yuan.

Closest towns: Hanyuan 5km, Datong 65km

Restaurant Chinglish Goldmine

Should I run downstairs to see if that huge explosion came from my decrepit Shanghainese fusebox or use my very last towel to mop up the waterfall coming from my kitchen and living room ceilings? These were the tricky decisions thrown at me yesterday by Typhoon Haikui, which roared into Shanghai full of drama, red alerts, floods and high winds. 
Those of you who follow on Facebook and Twitter are already ahead of the curve and know campervanning has been suspended for a week while the van’s poor old cupboards, rattled off their hinges by Inner Mongolia’s roads, get screwed back on again and various work commitments and promises in Shanghai are kept in the meantime. We just hadn’t figured on being in town at the same time as a typhoon. 
It was fierce, to say the least. I got a lot of messages from the city authorities on my mobile phone, hoping I was safe and sound and warning me to stay indoors, which was very kind, but what I would really have liked was for my ceiling to stop pouring water and the power to come back on. 
Today, amazingly, it’s business as usual. And blogging as usual – so here’s the post I originally planned for today, it’ll certainly cheer up your Thursday wherever you are! (And if you’re in Shanghai, I hope you and yours are safe, sound and dry).
Restaurant Chinglish Goldmine
So we left Inner Mongolia, where the mountains, the hills, the valleys and grasslands were incomparably lovely, but where the food, interesting at first, became a bit repetitive (lamb, potatoes, lamb and potatoes, lamb and potato hotpot) – and drove into Shanxi province where untold culinary riches awaited. 
First stop was Datong, a small city in Shanxi’s north where highly rates Yonghe Gourmet City. Can I just say up front, their food was fantastic and deserved its high rating, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the genius who put their menu together. 
Yonghe’s menu is an undiscovered goldmine of the best restaurant Chinglish ever in one place. You might think China is still full of excellent unedited menu Chinglish, but thanks to a governement directive and website for naming dishes in English, restaurant Chinglish has toned down a lot in recent years. Thank goodness for places like Yonghe, still flying the Chinglish flag high!
The first dish to catch my eye let me know we were in for a treat:
Just like lemon juice on a papercut, if you have been shot in the head, cucumber stings like blazes.

Who wouldn’t immediately go for a casserole dish full of baked colon sand nest? Just like a pot full of gritty colon donuts, it sounds exotic, looks mouth-watering, and goes for only eighty eight yuan. Add it to the order, waitress.

This is a euphemism for something, isn’t it, for those in the know. I’m just not sure what it’s a euphemism for, there are just so many buzz words in there piled together. But I think if you’re a straight animal liberationist who never does drugs, this dish could really hold some surprises.

Sometimes, in the restaurant business, it’s better to forgo simple descriptions for something more flowery and….anatomical. Why not just call it brain soup and be done with it?? Everyone finds brain soup delicious, right?
Page three of the menu threw up this cheery cherry-eyed fellow, apparently Popular of all Piglets. 
Personally, I don’t like eating socially awkward piglets, or piglets-no-friends, so thank goodness there were none of those on offer.
Being an equal opportunity restaurant, able-bodied clams and clams with disabilities were both available. Think it’s an easy life being a clam? Try being a clam with a disability.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen prep area there had been violent scenes: 
Looking at those wafer thin slices of cucumber, a very sharp knife has been involved here. I’d say the salmon won. 
Then after the cucumbers were all dead, the salmon turned on each other…..
This one’s harder to call. I mean, when goose fights goose, who can say which goose’s neck or leg ends up on the platter??
And for this dish they just got a whole menagerie of ragtag donkeys together, and waited for one to start picking arguments. There’s always one.
At the height of its powers, and thanks to a single match and a room full of leftover fireworks, the Krustacean Kingdom was gone, just like that. A tragedy.
Now hold on just a sweet second here: clearly, you cannot be Popular of all Piglets if you are, in fact, a dead chicken. We’ve already eaten the Popular Piglet. I’m not that stupid.

But I might be stupid enough to pay 888 yuan for a Mexican/Chinese fusion dish (please note, the Chinese translates as ‘Hong Kong style fried sharkfin’. Use of the word ‘burrito’ is just a bit of artistic embellishment, like a carrot carved as a phoenix).

It’s a mess. What can I say? Moving on….

There’s no better pinnacle to any meal than a plate full of assorted bacteria, nicely arranged. It does seem a lot to pay for food poisoning, but I’ve paid more… least these guys are up front about it. And a big thanks to Jane for supplying the bacteria.

More Chinglish…

Chasing Naadam Part 2: Perseverence Triumphs!

Above: What a Mongolian horse herdsman should look like, according to me. 
Below: Actual Mongolian horse herdsman, and his wife, whose advice I trusted despite him not fitting my romantic notion of a horse herdsman.
In his sparkling blue flat cap and trendy t-shirt-jacket-satchel combination, I have to admit he didn’t really look like a horse herdsman, but he assured me that’s exactly what he was – a mumaren 牧马人. He and his wife had struck up a conversation with me at a truck stop where he was refueling his motorbike. (Yes, this is the sad and modern truth – horse herdsmen in Inner Mongolia use motorbikes.)

I asked him if horse herding was good work.

‘Oh, it’s not work‘, he said, giving me the impression horse herding was an excellent occupation indeed. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked, waving at the campervan.

I told him we were travelling to Hohhot. Well, actually to Gegentala, to see the Naadam. You see, I still held out hope that after our recent near-miss we could break campervan land speed records and get there in time.

‘Gegentala?’ he said. ‘Why go all the way there when there is an even bigger and better Naadam just up the road? It starts tomorrow!’

I felt a little glimmer of excited hope as I pulled out my map, now grubby from the dozens of fingers that had traced lines across it in truck stops just like this one. I showed him where we currently were.

He moved his finger along a thin brown line to a point west of a small dot marked Abag.

‘Right there!’ he said. ‘Maybe….two hundred kilometres, at most.’

Now I’d suffered through a lot of blind leads before, and I wasn’t going to take what he said at face value – I was fully prepared to cross-examine him to pick up the fatal flaws in his claim. This was important – if we sidetracked to Abag and there was no Naadam, then that was it, curtains, our chances of getting to Gegentala in time exactly zero. It was a big risk to consider.

‘It’s a great Naadam with a very local flavor….’ he said, just as I began to work out what my cross examination questions should be, maybe something along the lines of and what colour is your favourite horse?

‘…..and there are never any tourists there’ he said, somehow innately knowing that the bane of any tourist’s life is a bunch of other tourists. Well, he might as well have said they were handing out free thousand dollar bills. I decided we should go immediately. No further questions, your Honour.

We headed to Abag, 200km by road, a mere trifle on the motorways of Europe, but equivalent to six or eight hours of hard slog on Inner Mongolia’s back roads. Already nearly dark, we stopped overnight in Xilinhot, a brightly neon-lit city-in-miniature with the fastest growing GDP in the China, thanks to rare earth mining nearby. Who would have known all those riches were sitting underground?

After the crushing disappointment of missing Naadam by several days in Haila’er and again in Zhanglengqi, I was determined we would catch every single second of this Naadam, so I woke everyone early and got them into the Naadam spirit with a hearty breakfast, and a few songs, and we hit the road. 

Within a few short minutes it had begun to rain, the sort of serious rain that causes cancellation of things. But I knew these Mongolians were a hardy bunch, stalwarts who could withstand subzero temperatures for months in wintertime. Rain, to them, was nothing.

By now the wind was picking up too, as we stopped just outside Abag for fuel. It was raining so hard torrents of water gushed across the driveway of the fuel station. I asked the fuel station attendant, like everyone I met, about the Naadam. 

‘Yes, of course there’s a Naadam!’ he said. ‘But all this rain! Why not relax in town, have lunch, and go out there when the rain stops this afternoon? It will be much more convenient for you!’

That was when I noticed a long procession of cars coming back the other way, headlights on, hazard lights flashing (as the Chinese do in dreadful weather), nose to tail for as far as the eye could see. 

One lone car pulled into the service station and I asked her if she’d come from the Naadam.

‘Oh yes – too wet!’ she says. Within ten minutes hundreds of cars have passed us back into town. Hundreds. Hundreds. All abandoning the Naadam because of the rain.

I just need to see it though. Just see a Naadam, even in the pouring rain. Even if it’s cancelled. We continue westwards, by now unable to see anything but the road in front and the endless swish of the windscreen wipers. There is a lot of thunder and lightning.

But then there it is. A magical city of tents on the horizon, blue, yellow, red, a long promenade of flags, a row of yurts, and a police blockade.

A police blockade??

‘The weather is too bad!’ the police tell me. ‘Maybe come back this afternoon?’ as they turn us around and send us back to Abag.

I’m not going to print what I said next, because it wasn’t polite. NOOOOOO!!!!! 



Abag Naadam, as close as we were permitted to get.

A Few Hours Later…

Nothing like a hearty Mongolian meal to restore your sense of hopefulness, not to mention that strengthening Mongolian beer. By now, the weather has lifted a little, and the restaurant is beginning to empty. It’s time to seize our chance and get back to the Naadam. I’ve waited. I’ve hoped. I’ve worn the patience of my family thinner and thinner. This had better be good!

And it is. We step out of the campervan and straight into a crowd of wrestlers heading for a match in the main arena, splendid and also slightly ridiculous in traditional wrestling dress. Like a scene from Camelot, the arena is magnificent as the sun pushes through the heavy dark clouds, illuminating the flagged pavilions and the stadium.

I’m going to stop talking now and just let you enjoy the atmosphere, a riot of colour and spectacle, worth every single frustration of the last two weeks spent chasing this damn thing all over the countryside.


Wow. Those pantaloons are really something! Naadams traditionally include three ‘manly sports’, the other two being archery and horse racing. I would love to have seen both of these events, but I could never quite pin anyone down as to whether the archery had already occurred, or was likely to occur  on subsequent days, or had been cancelled due to bad weather. The same went for the horse racing, a single long-distance race which finished at the arena.

Sideshow Alley

Even more entertaining than the sports, sideshow alley at Naadam is both familiar and at the same time bizarrely novel. Hoopla games, the simplest yet trickiest of carnival games, are given a unique Inner Mongolian twist with all the prizes (live rabbits, grotesque plastic jade vases, or cash) laid on old carpets on the dirt.

Then there are pyramids of tin cans filled with cement, to be knocked over with a basketball, or rows of stuffed toys to be knocked off with bags stuffed with beans. Everything has a makeshift, rundown air but the lack of polish isn’t affecting anyone’s enjoyment.

The Circus
What would sideshow alley be without an amateur circus? The brightly coloured tent is manned by a spruiker with that patter familiar to every carnival goer, the lips pressed close to the microphone, the words running into one another. I can’t really know what he’s saying most of the time because he’s speaking Mongolian, a wonderfully musical language so different from everyday Chinese, but
what I think he’s saying is this:
‘Come-in-come-in, come one’n’all, here’s the best, the greatest, the biggest circus show on earth you, yes you, friend, come in and join the crowd we’ve got dazzling dangerous highwire acts and extraordinary and daring juggling, live animals and….you! YES YOU! Foreign friend! Where are you from, from America, from France, from…’
At this point the monologue is interrupted by the arrival of a long haired goat who has wandered out from inside the tent to see what’s going on.
The spruiker stops briefly to glance sideways at the goat and yell something to his offsider then continues on, looking about with slight disorientation until he spots us again in the crowd.

‘Oh! Even foreign friends want to see our circus, come in! Come in! Everyone welcome in the great and grand cirrr-cus!!’

We go in. Concentric circular rows of broken and chipped plastic bucket seats line the rickety stands. We take our place next to a man in a cowboy hat, and an old guy with no teeth, both smoking heavily.

The acts have the small audience transfixed. There’s a man with a whip, cracking the top off a beer bottle, another man balancing on a bamboo pole balancing on another man’s shoulder, a dog who can do maths, and a lady unicyclist who can juggle four plastic rings with a tower of china bowls on her head. These are the best kind of circuses, where it’s not so hard to imagine that you too could perform like this if you just had the time and the balance.

Restaurant Alley

After the wrestling was over I took a wander up and down the rows of gers, or yurts, in an area to the side of the main arena given over to eating. Low and sturdy, swathed in heavy felt or canvas and wound round with rope, you enter through a low brightly painted door into the dim interior. The choice of food is sadly, unexciting – lamb skewers or noodles – but you do get to sit in a yurt while you eat.

If beer drinking is your thing, you’ll find no shortage of recently victorious wrestlers happy to share a celebratory drink with you.

Five things I know about Naadam in Inner Mongolia:

I can now share with you the very little wisdom I have about Naadam. It’s not much, and it’s certainly not impressive, but here it is in case you ever decide to chase a Naadam for yourself. If you ever get the chance and your time is measured in weeks rather than days, go, go, go.

1. The starting date of Naadam, to add variety, changes every year according to the phase of the moon. It’s also likely to change depending on the distance you are situated from it and the number of farmers you speak to.
2. Naadam goes for three, five or seven days, except when it lasts for longer.
3. The first two days are always the best, and so is the last day if you are able to discover when exactly that might be.
4. The schedule of events may change according to weather, whim, or horse availability. Rain delays everything. Few people other than the competitors and judges seem to know what happens when.
5. If a horse herdsman gives you a red hot tip, go with your gut feeling. It’ll be right.

Five Naadams in Inner Mongolia:
(2012 dates, likely to change in subsequent years) 
Haila’er July 17-20
Zhenglanqi July 18-22
Gegentala Grasslands July 25-31 (these dates appear to be relatively fixed)
Abag Grassland July 24-28
Xilinhot August 5-12
There are many more Naadams I heard rumours of, but these five were the most consistently mentioned by locals.

Chasing Naadam Part 1: Catch a Naadam by the Tail

As ephemeral as a puff of smoke and as thrilling as a bullfight, Naadam, the legendary sports festival of the Mongolian people, is a riotous carnival of wrestling, horse racing, archery and sunshine. If you can find the damn thing, that is. 

I started dreaming about Naadam months ago, when it seemed our journey north could be re-routed to coincide with the biggest Mongolian festival of the year, a festival I knew little about except that it involved horses and bare chested men. Sounds fun, right? 

In my mind, Naadam became my whole reason for traveling to Inner Mongolia, because there’s nothing I like more than a rowdy and colourful festival (should you need convincing about this, may I remind you of previous travels to the Lantern Festival, the Ice Festival, the Sisters’ Meal Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Tomb Sweeping FestivalSpring Festival and a random Tajik festival all the way out in Tashkorgan. China arranges a rowdy and colourful festival approximately once every three days, year round).

But our epic, frustrating and often fruitless journey chasing Naadam was so huge I’ve had to divide it into two thrilling instalments, the first today and the next on Monday, so be sure to catch both!

In trying to pin down a Naadam we were fairly certain there was one in the Gegentala grasslands, north of Hohhot, which reliable sources said runs from July 25th until July 31st each year. In retrospect, we should have driven directly from Shanghai to Gegentala and camped right on Gegentala’s doorstep for two or three weeks straight, to be certain of catching Naadam the minute it opened.  
Our inconvenient problem was we had entered Inner Mongolia at the farthest possible point from Gegentala, because we’d also heard there was a Naadam in a town called Haila’er in the far north around mid-July and it sounded a lot more fun, with fewer tourists, so I figured we’d be able to get up close and personal with those bare-chested wrestlers rather than having to watch them from behind an enormous crowd. We could catch that Naadam first, then hot-tail it 1600km to Gegentala in a week to see it all over again. That was, of course, until we encountered the actual roads of Inner Mongolia, (where a speed of 30km an hour is optimistic going) and our plans all came unstuck.
So we headed towards Haila’er, chasing one seemingly white hot lead after another, only to be told the Haila’er Naadam was cancelled. Or that it started two weeks before and was already over. Or that it started in three weeks’ time. We chased our tail, round and round in circles.
We scoured the internet, made phone calls, sent emails, searched guide books and asked everyone we met from goatherds to shepherds to horse herders, but one tip after another led to a dead end and solid advice was completely overturned by the next person you spoke to. Finally, in complete and utter frustration, we took a side trip to A’ershan for a day to regroup and replan. Haila’er was still a whole day of driving away, on bad roads.
In A’ershan I managed to track down the name of a big hotel in Haila’er and called their desk.
“Hello, I don’t speak Chinese very well, but do you have a Naadam in Haila’er this week?” (fingers crossed, toes crossed)
“Yes! We do!” (sweet, sweet relief) “It started two days ago, and today is the closing ceremony!” (crushing, crushing disappointment).
We began to think we were cursed.
We turned tail and drove westwards across Inner Mongolia like demons, pursuing the start of that Gegentala Naadam like our lives depended on it. And of course, that’s when it happened – we came across a Naadam we didn’t even know about completely by accident.

Catch a Naadam by the Tail

On our way back from the ruins of Xanadu the police diverted us off the main road at a town called Zhenglanqi, late in the afternoon. We thought it was yet another set of roadworks until I saw a group of brightly coloured tents and flags through a stand of trees. Could it be? Surely not.
Yes! It was! A Naadam! Our elation was palpable. 
Everyone was converging on a huge grassy field on the town’s outskirts. Every road was packed with parked cars, and people streamed from every direction. There was a great buzz of excitement in the crowd and we just followed on its wave, anticipating a long night ahead of games, food and who knows? Maybe even singing and fireworks. 
In the gold light of late afternoon an entire tent city revealed itself, red, yellow and blue, with flags flying. Alongside the tents were rows of yurts or gers, traditional Mongolian circular tents clothed all in heavy white felt roped round and round, and entered through a single low painted door. 
There was a sideshow alley with a haunted house (full of Mongolian ghosts), a chair-o-plane and a merry-go-round, all as familiar to me as any carnival in the west. Children ate fairy floss and held spinning foil windmills while their fathers tried to win giant tuffed toys for their mothers by throwing darts at a board.

We followed the crowd and moved to the main arena, an open field facing a huge pavilion crowned with flags. In the setting sun there were eight men deep around the edge, some standing on stools or on horseback for a better view, all intent on what was occurring in the arena’s centre.

We stood politely behind, craning our necks, seeing nothing. Shouts erupted from the crowd and the excitement ramped up a notch, but we still couldn’t see a thing and fidgeted and hopped from foot to foot and craned our necks more, until my youngest daughter was hoisted onto my husband’s shoulders to act as sentinel and report back.

“It’s the wrestling!” she yelled down to me.

I’d read all about Mongolian wrestling by now, the bizarre costumes, the lengthy bouts, the force and determination required to win. I was desperate to see some action so I grabbed my camera and squeezed between the legs of half a dozen surprised onlookers until I was three men back from the front. Using the zoom lens I could just make out the two-man battle taking place – the wrestlers wore embroidered pantaloons and studded leather vests that covered their backs but left the chest bare. Three judges watched closely on as the wrestlers, locked in a hold, tried desperately to topple their opponents to the ground, forcing a win.

Then the arena erupted with shouts and yells and applause and before I knew it everyone around me was running into the centre. I had no idea what had just happened. The man beside me, seeing my confusion, said “That’s it! it’s all over!”

“The wrestling?” I asked

“The Naadam! This was the final wrestling bout, and when it’s over, the Naadam ends.”

All around me people now streamed back in the opposite direction, away from the field, the arena, and the victor. Naadam was over.

I watched the loser leave the arena, his studded leather vest folded neatly under his arm. I knew how he felt, to come so close and still lose out. To strive for something, catch it by the tail until you are certain of it, then feel it slip from your grasp.
A little part of me had a quiet cry, because I had become convinced that this was as close to a Naadam as we would ever get, probably in our whole lives. There would probably never be another chance to come so far, and the detour to Xanadu and now to the tail end of a Naadam had probably cost us our best chance of making it to Gegentala in time. Naadam was over. 
To be continued…