Grasslands of Chinese (Inner) Mongolia

Wish my lawn looked like this.

Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.

Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.

Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.

KFC, Inner Mongolia (Xilinghot)

The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).

Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.

Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.

The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.

Around Xilinghot city — where soldiers amassed last year — and its mines and trucks and railroads, spreads the Xilingole grasslands, the hugest lawn imaginable.

Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is  Turkish) over 3 days.

It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.

Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.

“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”

Guest yurt, with sink.

There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).

We had hot pot in a beautiful, clean provincial capital city, Xilinhot, with a giant well-preserved Beize Tibetan Buddhist temple complex (Mongolians follow the Tibetan brand of Buddhism).

The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.

Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”

He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.

“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).

“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”

Xilingole: Industry vs. Grassland

Lower E. Side Jewish/Chinese


My Jewish ancestors started in America on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Now it’s Chinese.

Kenny heard no Mandarin on the street during our day there, but “heavy Southern accents”–Fujianese, as NYC is home to many from Fujian province, down the coast by Taiwan. Yet we saw two Lanzhou beef noodle places, a dish from China’s west (yet loved everywhere) — flavored with 20 spices, including cinnamon.

My great-grandpa had a candy pushcart here (my father’s side were in nearby Williamsburg). We easily found 5 old schuls. Glorious highlight: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 1852, an exquisitely restored gem, reopened 2007.

Outside the synagogue, it’s reasonably priced Chinese food, Buddhist temples, and grocers selling 2-foot long beans, plus rambutans and lychees. For the half century the Eldgridge synagogue was locked and disintegrating, nothing was stolen, the docent said. Good relations. Next year we want to come for “Egg Creams & Egg Rolls,” a street fair celebrating Jewish-Chinese community friendship.

It’s also very Puerto Rican, Hispanic, on the LES, and (this being NYC) other ethnicities, too.

Hipsters among them. (I guess I’m guilty of being a predecessor; like many 20somethings, I hung out at Max Fish on Ludlow St. in the early-’90s. And I lived briefly on a heroin-infested Suffolk St. midway thru Brown.)

Around 1973, mom took me here for great prices on blouses, suits & sweaters (she also shopped for upholstery, drapes), from the last Orchard Street garmentos. We got my brother’s tallis here. Now dumpling makers (pork & leek) sell to students from Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School, while an African American monk lights incense at the Buddhist Association, an active temple.

Eldridge has a proper museum on the ground floor, with these old neighborhood signs.

We also found these synagogues:
[1] the old Norfolk St. Synagogue/Ansche Chesed, 1849, now Angel Orensanz Cultural Foundation, a performance space thanks to a wowwing Spanish sculptor;

[2] Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, sad-looking all boarded up and overgrown with weeds, though preservationists are trying to raise funds;

[3] on Broome St., Kehilat Kadosha Janina, the only Greek (Romaniote) schul in the Western hemisphere, open sometimes;

[4] one we weren’t even looking for, Chasam Sofer, the longest continuously operating synagogue, built by Polish Jews in the 1940s.

In China, we often lamented the loss of culture to modernization, the Cultural Revolution. Our own material heritage is disappearing, here. You can see Streit’s Matzoh, but go quickly. Schapiro’s Wine closed only a few years ago.

And this isn’t on the preservationists’ list, just background. Soon it will be gone.

Doorway diagonally across from Streit’s Matzoh.

Seeing Like Painter Wu Guangzhong

Wu Gorge by Wu Guanzhong

“Revolutionary Ink: The Paintings of Wu Guangzhong” (1970s through early 2000s) is in its last week-end at the Asia Society in NY. We got to see the artist’s landscapes, combining tradition, as he uses old-time ink and rice paper, with abstract contemporary aesthetics, moreso in his later works – huge bold black strokes and colorful confetti points that recall Jackson Pollock. (Wu died at 90 in 2010.)

He was brave. He’d studied in Paris for 3 years and it was potentially fatal during the Cultrual Revolution that he was both Western-influenced and departed from the Socialist Realism demanded of art by that era’s fanaticism. According to the Times review of a few weeks ago, he destroyed a decade’s worth of work before the Red Guards could get to them. Still he went to a labor camp for a few years. Later, he was embraced and flourished at home.

After visiting Chongqing, built now of skyscrapers — so big a city it has the status of a province – but it’s still steeply perched on mountainsides leading down to the Yangtze River, with some old neighborhoods (small) preserved, we really enjoyed Wu’s vision of Old Chongqing:

This is our vision of Ciqikou (磁器口 or Chongqing Ancient Town), not even a recreation but actually real.

Wu also painted Zhouzhuang, a very popular 900-year old village this time in the East, an hour from Shanghai in the river delta, with 14 stone bridges. Sometimes it’s called the “Venice of China.” Here:
We saw it this way (it’s film – shot w/ some weird, probably expired old disposable):

Yesterday I got an email from a former student from the massive southern city of Guangzhou. I mentioned enjoying the hummingbirds & bunnies in my garden in the US. He said he’d seen those — once. So thru Wu’s ink paintings, once again we’re gravitating with a heavy heart to the old, straining to know what has disappeared, and yet feel joy and wonder at how Wu’s vision is at once postmodern and ancient – as China is, all the time.

PS We’re back in the US, but will keep blogging, there’s plenty to write, plus lots from travel in Shanxi and the Mongolias (Inner, Outer) that never went up. If you want an email notice, click “sign me up” on the right. Thank you so much, our 800 or so subscribers, we never expected that. Wish I could serve you all cold sesame noodles.