An impromptu desire to visit the Buryat tribe of Mongolian people resulted in a day to remember thanks to a man I never met, Mu Qian reports
I got off the bus at Menggenchulu, a place somewhere in Hulunbuir in Inner Mongolia autonomous region that couldn't be found on any map. The few people in the village that I saw gave me surprised looks, as if they were wondering why I was here.
Actually I was beginning to wonder too.
Although I was staying in Hulunbuir for several days, I never planned to come to this remote place, until the previous morning, when I went to a ritual sacrifice on an organized trip.
It was an annual festival when the local Ewenki people gather at a cairn to offer food and milk to the spirits and circle the cairn three times, to gain blessings for a good year to come. A group of lamas were invited to chant sutras at the ritual.
In ethnically rich Hulunbuir, one of the most common questions people ask is: "Which ethnic group are you from?"
When I asked this question to one of the lamas, he replied "Buryat".
Buryat. It sounded a little familiar to me. I had heard of this tribe of the Mongolian people who live in both Russia and China. They have a distinct culture, though their population in China numbers just a few thousands.
The lama also told me he was from Xinihe, a township in the southeast of the Ewenki autonomous banner of Inner Mongolia. Then he disappeared before I was able to ask him more questions.
The image of a distant place with people following a traditional lifestyle triggered my interest. I gave up my original plan to go to the China-Russia border, which is more popular among tourists and went to the bus station to buy a ticket for Xinihe.
However, the ticket seller didn't know where I was going after I said "Xinihe". Another passenger came to help, and after listening to my plan he told the ticket seller that I should be going to Menggenchulu, the nearest bus stop to access the area of the Buryat people.
Place names are a problem for travelers in this area, since there are official names (known to outsiders) and local names (known to the locals), Mongolian and Chinese names for almost every place. To further complicate matters, recent redistricting measures have created many new names for towns scattered in the area.
The helpful passenger, an Ewenki man, went on to call a friend of his in Menggenchulu to ask what I could see there. His friend said that there would be a Buryat wedding the next day that he could take me to.
This really excited me. I thanked him and boarded a bus for Menggenchulu.
Meng Jinshan, the Ewenki man's friend, was out of town when I arrived and wouldn't be back until very late. I checked into a small inn, where the only other guest was a person from the local surveying and mapping bureau, who spent the better part of a year wandering around the vast steppes on a motorcycle to check details of the places.
We chatted for a while, during which he pointed out that the Xinihe Monastery was marked at a wrong location in my map. That was very helpful, for I was planning to go to the monastery, where the lama I met said he was from.
The boss of the inn told me that few Buryat people lived in this village, but some of them lived around the monastery. When I asked him where I could find people who could sing Buryat folk songs, he said: "With alcohol, even I could."
Outside the inn, I found an unlicensed taxi that was willing to take me to the monastery, some 20 km into the prairie. It was already dusk, and the golden-color that the monastery was reflecting in the sunset could be seen from afar.
Xinihe is the name of the town we were in, and also that of the river we were crossing now. A shepherd on horseback was also crossing the river with his flock. He had the traditional conical hat of the Buryat people that I had seen in photos.
A temple fair is held around the monastery on the 15th day of every first and eighth lunar month, when all the local Buryat people come to trade their goods and have fun, but the area was almost empty when we arrived. The monastery was still being renovated. There was no lama, only a few construction workers.
While there are still some Buryat who live in tents, most of them have settled in houses. We stopped by a Buryat family nearby and were treated to milk tea.
I took some photos for them in return, and promised to send back the developed pictures. The boy of the family felt very happy about the photo session. Having donned his best gown and climbed onto his horse, he posed for me to take a picture that he could hang on the wall.
The next morning, Meng called to say that he couldn't make it to the wedding as he had some other errands to do, but he had asked some relatives who were going to give me a ride.
We first went to the village of the bride's family, where all the villagers were gathering at the community room to prepare for the wedding. Most women joined in the work of preparing food, while most of the men were smoking and chatting. Children were playing and screaming.
A few people, who now lived in the cities, had returned for the wedding, but the majority of the Buryat people seemed to be continuing their forefathers' lifestyles as herders.
I talked to a somber young man who was sitting beside me. He said he had studied for many years in Hohhot, capital city of Inner Mongolia, but he came back home to be a herder because he couldn't find a proper job.
I found out the reason why it was difficult for him to find a job after he told me what he studied - wrestling.
Many people told me that they had been to the Buryat Republic in Russia, where the majority of the Buryat people live. While having a sense of closeness to the people there, they said they felt it better to be living in China where they could make pretty good money by herding.
The bride and her best friends were in another room, drinking and singing songs, many of which were pop songs from Ulan Bator and Chinese pop songs with Mongolian lyrics.
After snacks and milk tea, we headed for the bridegroom's family. A few buses had been hired to transport people, but I stayed in the car with Meng's relatives.
It took another hour to go to the bridegroom's village. Now we were deep inside the prairie. The bridegroom's family were outside their house to welcome the bride and guests.
In the old days, when the procession to escort the bride was on horses, people circled the house three times before dismounting. Now the rite had been simplified as we only circled the house once by car.
Incredible amounts of food had been prepared, mostly mutton, but also desserts. All the people formed a circle in a big courtyard, with tables of food before them. An anchorwoman was in the middle of the circle to preside over the ceremony.
Some girls from an art school were invited to perform songs for the guests, accompanied by a keyboardist, who would produce funny sounds with his synthesizer to make people laugh.
The new couple were standing in the center to receive words of blessing from their kin and friends, including the somber wrestler, who looked happier now.
I had to go back before it got dark, and ended my brief but happy time with the Buryat people. Everybody had treated me so well, especially when they learned that I was a friend of Meng, and I thanked this friend I had never met. I should also thank the Ewenki passenger, the lama, and everybody in this land for giving me this wonderful experience.