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Hohhot and the Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

Today’s guest post is by Only Once Today. Lobke and Inge want to share their experiences and insights with the world. They write about LGBT, budget travel and different destinations.



When we embarked on our trip to China, we were a little concerned about language barriers. That’s why we decided to join a tour for a part of our trip. We only had a month and we wanted to make the most of it. If you have time on your side, traveling on your own is always more fun. It forces you to learn how things work. Tour guides take away that experience when they take care of all your business.

A night train to Hohhot

Our train to Hohhot left the Beijing Railway Station at 10PM. Getting to the station was daunting and being there wasn’t any more relaxing. The place looks like an airport and the waiting halls are perfectly fit to host a mega dance festival. We already took care of our ticket, so we could rest while the Chinese were fighting to be first in line. We suppose they had a ticket too, but Chinese seem to have an urge to be first. While sitting with the other foreigners, we watched the craziness unfold when the gates opened and the real competition could begin. At last, we boarded the train and found our shared cabin. The sleeper hut sleeps 4 people and it’s a perfect solution for a first night train. We shared our cabin with a lovely couple and a baby.

Blue Sky City

Arriving at 7 in the morning in a dusty, unwelcoming city isn’t my favorite thing to do. We barely opened our eyes and hundreds of people just stared at us as if we were from another planet. A hostel shuttle took us to our hostel. Heavy with our morning mood, we weren’t impressed with the cleanness of the hostel. But there was no way back. We booked the dirty hostel for a week and we’d be there during the entire week. After the morning haze, things started to get better when we discovered the Food Street and the Grasslands Tours. There wasn’t much to be seen in the streets surrounding the hostel, but the city has a shopping area, an old school horse track and parts of the ancient Great Wall close by.

The Grasslands

Together with a dozen other travelers, we were shoveled into the back of a minivan on our way to the grasslands. Everything was (not so) carefully planned and we had to change buses 3 times before we were actually on our way to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. On our way, we drove by massive tourist camps, protected by brick walls, their entrances guarded by huge, stone dragons. We’re so glad weren’t on those “grasslands”. Our dream is to be in the open field surrounded by nothing but plain fields and wild horses. And that is exactly what we got. Although the locals were sleeping inside a brick house, equipped with a television, shower and bathroom, we slept in a traditional yurt and peed in the open field. It was perfect.

A night under the stars

Our grassland trip was a homestay with a local family. We were not in a crowded tent camp. Actually there were only 8 people and it felt so good to be away from the city crowds and attention. We enjoyed the marvelous sunset and helped picking up horseshit for the fire that night. To see a lot of stars, you need to step away from the fire. The sky showed us it’s entire scale of stars that aren’t visible in the city. Waking up at 5.30 in the morning is rewarding because of the breathtaking sunrise. Uncluttered by skyscrapers or other obstacles, you can watch this red ball emerge from the ground and rise to it’s full glory.

Things to do on the grasslands

Staying on the grasslands gives you time to practice archery or ride a horse over the plains. Both are great ac
tivities, though we enjoyed the archery more. Shooting arrows into a bag of straw is pretty much what you expect when you read about it. It’s fun to do and people tend to get competitive, so you’re in for some good laughs. The horseback riding, on the other hand, was not what we expected. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I’m 1m75 tall. If you’re as tall as me or maybe even taller, expect to be mocked. My horse was the tiniest of all the horses and supposedly it had the strongest legs. Whatever the reason, I looked like a giant on a mule.

Worth the visit?

So, is Hohhot worth the visit? I believe it is. We enjoyed our grassland time a lot. Hohhot was just a hub in getting there. There’s a few things to do and visit in the Hohhot area. You can visit an ancient Qin section of the Great wall, visit a buddhist monastery or watch horse races. When visiting this city it’s worth the effort to secure a good bed in a clean hostel or hotel. The grassland tours can be tricky too. It’s best to research the tour before you book it, unless you don’t mind being in a yurt in a confined area, together with 2000 Chinese tourists.

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Lessons in Being Thrown Around with Master Shen Tie Gen

So I’ve been back in China about 2 months now. When I first came back I went around a few of the parks here in Shanghai looking for some decent teachers. Met some nice people, and some not so nice people, but nobody which tickled my fancy. Then by chance I got a call from my old friend Antony who asked me to come and meet Master Shen Tiegen with him.

Shen Tiegen teaches Wu Style Taiji as well as 10 Animal Xinyi. I have to admit I’m not overly interested in Taiji, unless it’s Chen Style, as I don’t have the patience for all the slow forms. However Master Shen is different. When I first saw the guy, he was so unassuming, big smile on his face, fairly short and skinny guy. After chatting for a while over coffee, Antony suggested we go to the park. We stretched a little, and then Master Shen went straight into showing us applications. It wasn’t really like he was teaching us, more like just showcasing what he has to offer. He would show us a move from the Taiji form, and then go off on all kinds of applications, strikes, locks, throws and kicks, all taken from one simply move. There was different footwork to move around the opponent, straight into his centre, or to feign a retreat and draw him in. He was constantly using exceptional leverage to manipulate you into all kinds of horrible positions, and when you are all tied up he will place his hand on your throat and say “this is very dangerous, now I can kill you!” Or he would get carried away and really just throw you straight onto the concrete.

As I mentioned earlier, I had no interest in Taiji, but he impressed me so much I asked to learn from him. I said I wanted to focus on Sanda and Shuai Jiao, and he happily agreed. So the next week we met again, along with another friend Jon, who practices Song Family Xingyi Quan. Master Shen started us on the first of the Taiji 13 palms, which are very different from what you think of as Taiji. Rather than soft flowing forms, they are single movements, done in a straight line. The emphasis is on simplicity. The first we learnt was Pi Zhang, or chopping palm. You literally just walked in a line lifting your arms up and down. Simple as that! However, the amount of content he could pull out of this was unreal.

Master Shen is definitely unique, and I am glad to be able to start training with him. I think long term I am more interested in his 10 Animal Xinyi though, but I will see how things progress. For now these Taiji 13 palms have really helped me understand my previous training in Mantis and opened up new doors for me…..

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Meeting a Master the First Time – What You Should Do

When coming to China to train Kung Fu, many people are unsure how to act when meeting a master. China is a heirarchical society, and if you are meeting a master for the first time there are certain things that should be considered. Don’t get too worked up over it, Chinese etiquette is incredibly complicated and even they realise that. This is one of those times when you can “pull the laowai card”, although if you follow these steps you will be sure to impress! For a glimpse into the relationship between master and student, I recommend Steal My Art: he Life and Times of T’ai Chi Master T.T. Liang.

Gift Giving

When meeting someone for the first time, it is common in China to give a gift. If you are meeting a master for the first time, it may be a good idea to bring a gift. Typically in China, common gifts will involve alcohol, cigarettes or tea. My personal suggestion will be to give tea, as while most Chinese over the age of 50 smoke and drink, some may not. Typically, Chinese like things in even numbers, so you should give either two or four jars of tea, rather than one or three. If you are tight on money, going to the market and buying some fruit is an acceptable alternative. How much you spend isn’t important, and nothing will be expected, but going the extra mile will show you understand Chinese culture, and are a person who is appreciative and respectful.

Refusing to Receive and Being Pushy to Give

Ok, this one is the most difficult for most people to get their head around. Generally speaking, if Chinese people offer you something, it is rude to accept it outright. You should make a scene by refusing several times and making them force it in your hand. Then you should make out that them giving you this thing (no matter how small or insignificant it is) was really a big deal to you and you are totally embarassed to take it. However, when somebody you don’t know very well invites to buy you dinner or have you come to their home for dinner, it would be over-stepping your boundary to accept. If on the secone or third meeting they still insist, then you can agree.

On the other hand, when you offer something to someone, be VERY pushy. Force it into their hand, shove it in their pocket, pretend to be angry that they haven’t accepted it. You may have seen Chinese people fighting to pay the bill in restaurants. The key here for both the giving and receiving is generosity is considered a virtue and greed a vice, so people want to appear as much the former and little of the latter as posible.

Train Hard and Dont Slack Off

If your first time meeting a master involves training, then you best train like you never have before! The first impression will really decide whether a master accepts you or not. It’s common that at first you will be taught by a senior student, not the master himself, and they may not pay much attention to you. Actually, they are! Just repeat whatever has been taught, drill it again and again. Don’t ask too many questions in the early stages, as you don’t wanna come across cocky. I say this not because I think questioning is wrong, but because I see many people ask questions in a way that appears to be challenging the authority of the teacher. It’s better to build a rapport first, as like I mentioned earlier, heirarchy is important in Chinese culture.

Don’t Brag

There’s nothing worse than when someone is meeting a master the first time, and they reel of their CV of previous martial arts training or masters they know. In China, being humble is considered an important virtue. In time, people will come to know more about you, there’s no need to tell them more than “I have trained before, so I’m familiar with the basics”. It’s possible you will be asked to show a form, or perhaps spar a senior student. In this case, perform at your best, but be humble. As there is a lot of inter-style rivalry, also be prepared to be told what you have done before is totally wrong. Take it with a pinch of salt, and show you are willing to learn and improve.

So these are just a few suggestions to make things go smoothly. As I stated, people will understand you are a foreigner, and so will make exceptions if you break etiquette. Don’t stress about it! Take it as part of the fun of living in another culture!


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The Tibetan Nomads and Monasteries of Gansu & Sichuan Province

tibetan nomadsYou don’t actually have to go to Tibet to experience Tibetan nomads and their culture. In fact areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces are ethnically and culturally Tibetan. The Tibetan grasslands of Gansu are traditionally known as Amdo by the Tibetan people, and was traditionally the eastern most province of Tibet. Due to the ever-changing and overly-complicated travel restrictions in Tibet, visiting this area is a viable alternative, and in some ways a more authentic experience. If you are visiting this area, I really recommend reading A Stranger in Tibet: The Adventures of a Wandering Zen Monk. This book describes many of the places I visited, but in the 1920s, at a time when almost no foreigners could enter Tibet.


Labrang Monastery

When you first arrive in Xiahe, its like you have just arrived in another world. The small town is home to Labrang Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet and an important centre of learning of the Yellow Hat sect. Dodging potholes as you walk down the dilapidated road of the main street, you are greeted by rugged nomad men with weattibetan nomadshered faces leading horses along, braided-haired women and smiling monks in crimson robes. The air has a familiar smokey smell, which reminds me of the fire places in old English homes. The muddy puddles on both sides of the road only add to my feeling of being back in England, however, the huge monastery ahead, surrounded by hundreds of prayer wheels being spun by some of the most colourful looking people you could imagine, brought me back to the realisation that I was about as far away from home as I could get.

Inside the monastery you immediately feel the spiritual atmosphere of the place. The dim light is tibetan nomadsprovided by the flickering flames of hundreds of yak butter candles, which also give the place an odd, rancid kind of smell. The walls are covered in paintings of Buddhist mythology; magical gods and demons, and tales from the Buddha’s life. I tried to talk to some monks, unfortunately, not only did they not speak Chinese, but I later learnt that in this area, the dialect of Tibetan is totally unintelligable from the Tibetan spoken inside Tibet itself!


Living with Tibetan Nomads in the Grasslands

Leaving Gansu I spent hours upon hours driving through absolutely nothing. When people say “the middle of nowhere”, now I can proudly tell them I’ve actually been thetibetan nomadsre! The journey to Sichuan takes you through grasslands, where besides grass, the only thing you see is the occasional yak eating the grass, or drunk nomad asleep in the grass! I finally arrived at my destination, an ugly and bare concrete lodge, which was the winter home of a nomadic family who reared yaks out here. The family of Tibetan nomads consisted of two people: an old grandmother and a 16 year old girl. I guess the men were out working. Our translator and guide didn’t say. Dinner consisted of some Naan bread, which the grandmother kindly took a handful of butter and, using her blackened fingers, smothered it all over the Naan for me while smiling and gesturing to eat. Well, I couldn’t refuse this “hospitality” could I? The home-churned yak butter was pretty delicious though, it was very salty and slightly sour tasting. Next came yak yogurt. This was quite possibly the best tasting yogurt I’ve ever had in my life. It was thick and lumpy, and had a strong flavour. Beat any Tesco’s Finest Greek Yogurt anyday! Finally was a kind of stew, bits of yak meat, mostly bones and gristle, nothing to write home about. As we sat around the fire, the young girl started to sing some Tibetan folk songs. Her voice was powerful and made the hairs on your neck stand up. As you listened, you could just imagine the vastness of the grasslands and the purity of the people who lived here.

This was a very special experience, and gave me an insight into a much simpler way of life. The Tibetan nomads are totally cut off from modern society, and really live off the land. But I can’t help wondering for how much longer their way of life can prevail.


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Book Review: My Journey in Mystic China

The recollections of Jon Blofield, a British man who lived in China before the communist era. I really enjoyed this book, and would give it 4/5. The only reason it loses a point is that I feel he overly romanticised old Chinese society and was unable to see anything bad in it, for example justifying the common use of prositutes and how he felt it made men have a better marriage. Anyway, the book provides an in-depth look at life in a China which doesnt exist any more, Jon was in a unique position as he fully integrated himself into Chinese society, basically becoming a Chinese person. He dressed, spoke and acted like a local, and was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism is also an important component of the book, and several chapters describe his stays in monasteries, pilgrimages to sacred mountains which now are merely tourist destinations and discourses with Zen masters. For anyone interested in how China was, and the nostalgia of this long-gone society, this is a must read in my opinion, and I highly recommend it.