Year 2008. Hohhot (Blue City in Mongolian and related to the eternal blue sky in Inner Mongolian) is a city most of you have never heard about but it exists and is the Capital City of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, North of China, a far distante boring place where seldom a western tourist is seen. I should correct it, during the pick of the grassland greenest period – summer to be more exactly – we can see small groups of western tourist wandering in Hohhot before crossing the Daqing Shan (Great blue Mountains) a chain of mountains located in the north side of the city clearly diving the city from the grassland fields. Every time I saw the few western tourists I couldn’t stop thinking about the tourisme de masse the industry is creating leaving behind trails of footstep devastation and erosion.
The first time I was in Hohhot in a professional assignment I asked my Chinese colleagues to help me to set-up a trip to the grassland vast fields. I mentioned I wanted to see spots of real life of Inner Mongolia (whatever it would mean in a single day) and not interested at all in shopping and touristic places, where locals come to you running in despair to sell something kitsch and tacky, “handmade” objects of the purest bad taste made in the factories of the Pearl River Delta, the most polluted area in the world. The chinese fellow to whom I was responsible to transfer the project shacked his head in a sign of understanding and fixed everything for me, he said. That Sunday early morning I got a driver and a cicerone in a famous Volkswagen Santana, one of the first foreign cars built in China, which assembly line was brought from Brasil piece-by-piece, bolt-by-bolt just after Deng XiaoPing’s China openness in years 80.
I had an illustrated book with me and a map showing where I was targeting because that is what the book explained; wilderness and nothing else! I thought everything was clear from the day before so I sipped my coffee while leaning back on the backseat of the Volkswagen which seats were decorated with embroidered curtains, a tacky reminder from my town in the years 60 when we used to see new rich people in their Mercedes decorated with curtains and a plastic toy in a shape of a dog sitting on the top of the lid behind the backseat and shacking its head in all directions as the care moved, turned and bumped.
The first stop was in a village where we could still see some houses which walls were made by muddy clay mixed with dry crushed straw. The beautiful simplicity immediately drew my eyes attention and I started to prepare my camera with happiness but they continuous their walk without even looking at it. I thought there was something more interesting ahead to see but they threw me inside an alley, a kind of slum made with small one floor houses elevated with red bricks. To my despair they wanted to show me artisanal artefacts of dubious quality, most of it being bad paintings made over treated and stretched sheep skin. As soon I entered I wanted to leave but politeness obliged me to keep cool. I kindly said we should do it on the way back and we moved on. Next stop was in a typical Mongolian tent camp looking quite brand new and I got suspicious. This was my second disappointment. The camp was made for that tourisme de masse. There were 60 tents! The only thing that could effectively look like real were the tents shape in a round model and wrapped with tick ropes which are unmistakable traditional Mongolian, but its interior was like a modern hotel with a TV set, audio, hot water and most amazingly a satellite dish in every tent so the gringos can watch the opera soap, game-shows and futebol games they would miss that weekend away from home. Poor. I always thought that if someone flies so far to see real wilderness is to be, experiment and live with wilderness but I was/am obviously wrong.
After trying to figure out with both, the driver and the cicerone, what was their intentions I could only see embarrassment on their faces because they had no a clue what I actually wanted for my trip. Almost half a day has passed and I realised that, from the samples the cicerone has prepared to me, I wouldn’t get anything I aimed for, it was a waste of time, so better off and save my day on my own instead. I calmly asked them to turn back and take me to the hotel. They were surprised but with a fainted smile I insisted. One thing that is an absolute right statement about the real Mongolian people (not confusing with Chinese because Mongolians do not consider themselves Chinese) is that they are genuinely kind, generous and polite. If a foreign do not read this in their attempt to help, Mongolians will feel very embarrassed and sad. In such a circumstances I took it easy and said I would have seen what I wanted and I still wanted to take some photos in the city at the sunset…
In fact I took this photo upon my arrival. I went to a place I knew in Hohhot downtown where a demolition of an entire old Mao’s era neighbourhood was ongoing with rage to built with enormous ferocity a new and huge commercial area in a typical Chinese characteristics from older times. For the distracted ones this is not an innocent move but intentional to create a unique and standard resemblance from South to North, an identity that will take over the traces of rich and different cultural identities others than the Chinese identity.
Obviously I do not defend crapy places, like in this photo, to stay put. There is no comfort to live in it. But the replacements can/should always match cultural heritage, not the other way around.