Dispatch from China: The Mongolian Grasslands, Gangnam Style (SLIDESHOW)

Spending the night in a traditional ger. // All photos by Meagan Drillinger
Spending the night in a traditional ger. // All photos by Meagan Drillinger

There’s off-the-beaten path travel, and then there’s dancing around a bonfire in the middle the Inner Mongolian grasslands with raucous Chinese businessmen and government employees. How is that for experiential travel?

It goes without saying that these days travel trends toward experiences and coming home with a story. This past week, Travel Agent has been on location in China with G Adventures and we can say with certainty that our sack of stories is already filled to the brim. And we still have a week left to go. 

RELATED: Dispatch from China: Eat Like a Local in Beijing's Hutongs

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We departed Beijing Friday night on an overnight sleeper train bound for Bautou, the largest city in Inner Mongolia. After a 12-hour journey in a sleeper car (much more pleasant than you might imagine, save for the incessant and vivacious snoring of my bunkmate), we arrived and hopped a bus for the 300 km journey to the grasslands. There we were to spend a night in a traditional “ger,” which is a local Mongolian tent. These days camping in gers across Mongolia run the gamut in terms of amenities. This was bare bones to the core. Translation: no running water for bathrooms or showers. Everyone on the trip was about to get real friendly, real fast. 

But even amid moderate grumbles and mild skepticism, we put on our best faces and readied ourselves for what was sure to be a completely local experience. And it was.

Prayers at a stupa
Prayers at a stupa

We spent the afternoon visiting a local stupa, which is a Buddhist prayer monument decorated with offerings and prayer scarves. It’s easy to let go of Western comfort needs when looking out over the undulating grasslands as the wind gusts over your face and body. Colorful scarves and flags flap noiselessly in the wind and locals prostrate themselves in front of the shrine in the most devout prayer. It’s hard not to feel spiritual in such a place. 

Following our afternoon of meditation we returned back to the ger site for a traditional dinner of a roast, full lamb. First the family brings the cooked lamb (in whole) to the center of the dining ger as a presentation for guests to admire. Our group was one of two: the second group was a family party from Shanghai that consisted of businessmen and army generals and their wives and children. What might have been a somber evening quickly changed directions as soon as the head of the ger broke out his homemade rice wine. All bets were off then as one by one the Shanghai men became ruddy-faced and smiley as they shot back glass after glass of the rocket fuel-style liquor. 

And yet that was not the most bizarre moment of the night. An electric keyboard player dressed in traditional Mongolian garb appeared playing synthesized, trance, club-like music while a singer in Neil Diamond-esque glasses and blue Mongolian robes serenaded us to pulsing Mongolian dance tunes. Soon, the Shanghai family was toasting us pasty-faced journalists, telling us how thrilled they were that we chose to come to China instead of the more traditional European vacation that most “Westerners” opt for, in their opinions. One man was on the verge of tears as he thanked us for visiting his people. There was no turning back then, we knew. We were with these guys for the long haul that night.

The party moved outside as the keyboardist hooked up to giant speakers that bellowed out over the grasslands. The only people around to be disturbed by our cacophony were the sheep. Soon a bonfire was blazing and a circle was formed, while drunk Chinese men and their wives paraded in circles, singing and twirling for the group of befuddled (delighted?) American and Canadian journalists. 

In the grandest of spectacles, the night climaxed with a homemade fireworks show and a demonstration of Gagnam Style. How else do expect a night camping on the Mongolian grasslands to end? 

For the faint of heart, this adventure is not. But for someone who is looking for these rare travel moments that cannot be planned into an itinerary or arranged with a pre-arrival phone call, this is exactly the type of place to experience. And even if you aren’t lucky enough to make 12 new friends from Shanghai, you still have the opportunity to gaze out from your tent at the sheer expanse of nothingness, which is beautiful and haunting, and guarantees a return home with a story. 

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