One of the office women conducts me next door to a hotel, and in the office a mob of curious locals gathers, including an English teacher (possibly sent for) who is more comfortable with written English. He writes that I must first go to Lanqui, two hours away by bus, and thence a further ten minutes journey to Xanadu itself but it is not clear if he means that this last is by foot or vehicle.
I’m getting warmer. (Conceptually: physically it is bitterly cold, my altimeter declaring five thousand feet.) Much conversation ensues, and I distribute souvenir stamps from New Zealand mail that I’ve received at Post Restante. A lady writes Kublai Khan in Mongol script in my guide book, and is pleased that I had recognized the Mongol script on the Chinese banknotes. They are actually very pretty, but also a political statement: each note shows cheerful faces staring positively into the future, each person from a different ethnic group, thus proclaiming that all are happy in the great family of China. That is the position taken by the Han, anyway.
Lunch is mentioned. The teacher establishes that I eat meat, and potatoes, then the party moves to an adjacent restaurant. A hotpot of beef chunks with spud chunks and gravy, also a plate of dumplings for Y15 and Y5; this is Mongolian food and most suitable for the chill. It is an unheated restaurant; all remain fully coated and I’m cursing the fact that I left my longjohns back in Peking. Now that I’ve been seen to have eaten, the others depart, while I go out to the Post Office to surprise some more people. It is in a stationery shop, and my request to post a letter causes much fuss. A telephone call must be made to ask how to deal with this, and the letter ends up almost covered in low denomination stamps for its far journey. I have a postcard to send also, but 1) time is now short, 2) it has insufficient room for the stamps, and 3) I’ve cleaned her out of stamps anyway.
Back at the terminal across the road I’m now a known problem, so I’m swiftly issued with a ticket and placed on a bus, there surprising another lot of passengers. As before, puzzlement was replaced with delight as I explain, and once again I’m shown to the front seat for the view. A bleak view, of dry brown grass/scrub/dirt.
And at three-thirty we’re bouncing along a dirt road down the side of a wide basin with a village ahead. This is Lanqui, and all I need do now is walk for ten minutes, look around, return, and wait for the next passing bus to take me away, such as the one after this that leaves Duolun at four.
But no. This bus ends its journey at the bus terminal in Lanqui, and in the terminal office the ladies reject my suggestion of walking or going by motorbike, and in this cold, fair enough too. Humm. Out on the street there are no taxis, nor much traffic of any sort at all, but there is a minibus opposite. I converse with the driver and his assistant, flashing the directions written by the ladies. No, not on our route. Urk.
Very well, “TAXI!” is my half-facetious cry (there being none in sight), thinking that they can point me to where one might be found. Instead, after a pause, there is a commotion. The waiting passengers are ejected, and I’m ushered into the front seat. Eeek! But it is done now! They had of course been waiting for a full load before setting off, and I would have been happy to wait until they had been delivered, or another minibus rolled up. Explaining this would be difficult via a phrasebook though, so they’re out in the cold while I’m in the van, and getting hot. Such is the power of money.
We head east on the unsealed but good road. As everywhere, some people are out on bikes, tractors, trailers, but all are very well wrapped up in quilted coats and trousers, and with excellent reason. We judder along until exactly opposite the Km346 post where we forsake the road for a track, striking out NE across country, lurching our way over the various braids of the track. Confusion strikes as the driver’s mate points to the phrasebook entry “Excuse me, am I going in the right direction?” Huh? Why is he asking me?
We sway onwards for a while more, approaching a peculiar isolated building that looks like it may be some sort of on-site office/museum except that there are no signs, nor signs of life. Then we see a farmer, bouncing his way towards us on his tractor: I motion towards him, but rather than ask directions, they take it as meaning “Continue”. Whatever, shortly we stop at an embankment, placed for no apparent reason in the middle of the plain.
Read Part 4