My Brief (and Completely Unintentional) Visit to Inner Mongolia

A while back I posted about Inner Mongolia, which made me remember a fun little incident that happened when I was studying abroad in China a few summers ago. Some of my classmates and I were taking an overnight train ride to visit Heng Shan (Mount Heng), one of the “Five Great Mountains” of China. We would get off the train in the city of Datong, and then take a bus to the mountain.

Well, the train was supposed to arrive at the Datong stop at, let’s say, 6:30am (I obviously don’t remember the exact time, but it was early in the morning). So we had planned to wake up around 6:00am to have time to rub the sleep out of our eyes and gather our stuff. Which is what we did. We woke up at 6, and then we waited to arrive in Datong. 6:30 passed, and the train still hadn’t stopped. An hour or so later, as we were cursing the inability of Chinese trains to run on time, a voice came over the intercom to announce that we were about to arrive at the Jining South Railway Station.* Now, my Chinese language skills were basically nonexistent at that time, but I definitely noticed that the word “Datong” never featured in that announcement. We were very confused. Where the hell were we?!

Well, shit

Well, shit

Yes, as some others passengers kindly informed us upon seeing/hearing our confusion, we were arriving in Jining District in the city of Ulanqab in–you guessed it!–Inner Mongolia! Apparently the train had arrived at the Datong station way ahead of schedule (at least 30 minutes early, as we had woken up 30 minutes prior to when we were scheduled to arrive), and just kept going on its way with us none the wiser. As we were now 127 miles from where we had planned, our new Chinese friends (a university student and her mother, hereafter referred to as “Awesomely Helpful People” [AHP]) suggested we get off at this station and catch the next train going the other way. As AHP lived in this area and were getting off at this stop anyway, they helped us get new train tickets to head back to Datong.

“Well, that’s a very nice story,” I can hear you saying, “but what does that have to do with the Peace Corps or Mongolia or anything your blog is supposed to be about?”

One word: FOOD.

As our train back to Datong wasn’t arriving for another few hours, AHP invited us to a restaurant to enjoy a traditional Mongolian breakfast!

Giant pot of milk tea

Giant pot of milk tea

Steamed buns and...uh, pretzels?

Steamed buns and…uh, pretzels?

Apparently a Mongolian breakfast consists of steamed meat-filled buns, boortsog (a type of fried dough), and milk tea, or suutei tsai (Mongolians love them some milk tea). I will admit that I don’t really remember what any of this stuff actually was (other than the milk tea; it’s hard to forget what a giant boiling pot of beige liquid is), but that’s my best guess based on the little bit I’ve discovered about Mongolian cuisine at this point. Those big steamed buns up there definitely look like baozi, which is a common Chinese dish, so I’m not sure how “Mongolian” they really are (Wikipedia tells me that the Mongolian equivalent is buuz, but those seem to be more like dumplings rather than buns). And I really have no idea what those little brown sticks are, though the Mongolian boortsog is basically just fried dough, so I’m gonna go with that. And I can’t tell you how any of this stuff tasted (except the steamed buns–those things are delicious!) as this was well over 3 years ago and I never thought I would be eating Mongolian food again. I sure hope milk tea tastes good (or at least tolerable) as I’ll probably be drinking it every day during my 27 months in Mongolia.

So, thanks to a missed train stop and some random strangers, I got my first taste of Mongolian food! (I’ll obviously be posting much more about Mongolian cuisine once I actually get there.)

*For the record, I didn’t remember the name of the city we had been in Inner Mongolia. I had to do a ton of detective work to figure out where we could have been based on which railways run between Beijing, Datong, and a city in Inner Mongolia. I found that the Jingbao Railway starts in Beijing, eventually makes its way to Datong, and the next major station is Jining South. Then I looked up pictures of Jining District in a Google image search to see if it looked familiar, and lo and behold, I came across this photo:

Jining District_Google image search

It did look vaguely familiar, so I went back and looked through my photos from that summer in China, and found this photo that I had taken of the plaza right outside the train station:

Jining District

Notice how the building in the left of the first photo looks an awful lot like the building in the right of my photo below it? Mystery solved!


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