Eating Our Way Through Inner Mongolia


Here's a story (it's mostly true, but given that my memory of the event is spotty -- you'll see -- I make no promises). 

How does a man end up eating cold, pickled donkey meat? How does he end up getting so inebriated in Inner Mongolia that he passes out in a yurt? 

In order to understand this question, I have to first explain some tenets of how to learn a language. When learning a language there are two schools of thought. The first teaches you major words and phrases giving you a quick base from which you can derive confidence and slowly pick up more complicated grammatical structures and vocabulary. Let's call this the frying pan approach.

The second school teaches you grammatical structures and complicated vocabulary (and cultural norms). It relies on you being forced to figure out how tol learn the basic daily vocab (stairs, food, bathroom...oh... to not know how to say bathroom) as you fumble your way through talking with native speakers. Let's call this the fire approach.

I was a student studying Mandarin who was exposed to the fire method. 

So I arrive in Beijing ready to study Mandarin, agreeing to a pledge not to speak English for 10 weeks, and ready to eat my way through the most populous country on earth. Dumplings, eggplant, dim sum, lamb, whole-fried fishes, chicken feet, chicken hearts, congee, you name it. I was ready.

While the stories I could tell would probably last 10 weeks -- here is my favorite:

I arrived in Inner Mongolia after a 13-hour train ride in order to have a nice, relaxing three-day weekend. Oh, Inner Mongolia you say? It's known for it's spas, right? Wrong, it's known for sweeping grass steppes, Russian influence, small horses, milk production, fermented yak milk tea with yak butter, fresh lamb, and yurts. Here's where all of those overlap.

When I first arrived, all was well, the Inner Mongolian take on Chinese was delicious. In the capital city, Hohhot, I had the Mongolian hotpots (filled with lamb) at Dunlaishun (while this is a chain it started in Inner Mongolia). A roast lamb for dinner at a local restaurant (my suggestion is ask a person who is in a suit where he or she had their last special occasion). I also went out to a great night spot called Bull Bar -- they had great snacks, yak tea, and a special version of Tsingtao that I've only found in Inner Mongolia (called Golden Mountain or River Mountain -- my Mandarin wasn't good then, and it's only gotten worse). But after a day in the city, I decided it was time to venture out to the vast grasslands of Mongolia.

I was sitting in a yurt after riding a small Mongolian pony across the grass steppes. I was drinking yak tea (an unfortunate circumstance) and eating a modest lunch when in walked a series of Chinese executives with a military escort. (Foodie note: There are many tour operators who run lunch tours out to Mongolia, I didn't see much variance amongst the offerings, so I asked to go on the one that the most knowledgeable visitors from Beijing selected, and as you'll see I got what I asked for). 

Following the Chinese diplomats was a lunch that I didn't think was possible to find in a yurt: A whole roasted lamb, tons of traditional Chinese side dishes (eggplant in a sweet brown sauce, spicy okra, scallion crusted tofu). Life looked good on the other side of the room.

Then came the bai jiao (white liquor) which the executives were spraying out of a bottle that looked like it housed lighter fluid (although if you've tasted cheap bai jiao, there really isn't much difference between it and lighter fluid).

Suddenly the two tables began to talk, even more suddenly a senior executive offered us lamb. To refuse an offer from an elder person is a cultural taboo. To refuse some delicious Inner Mongolian lamb is just stupid. I had no desire to be stupid and no desire to make a cultural faux paus, So I indulged in the lamb.

Soon I was offered the bai jiao -- the Inner Mongolian steak and three-martini lunch. I had a delicate sip to which I was challenged "Nii sh Li.hai" -- which means "are you legit?" -- to which I responded the Chinese equivalent of "I'm not legit. I'm too legit to quit (Hey Hey!!). 

This response elicited laughs (more from the Americans next to me then the Chinese (I guess MC Hammer doesn't translate directly). And then the challenge came. The alpha male in the group (suit and tie, flanked by military guards) raised his glass to me. He toasted. This meant I toasted and the first drink of bai jiao went back. Fast foward 5 toasts later and the alpha male has switched to beer (but insists I stick with bai jiao). I protested but don't think I could easily speak at this point... 5 more toasts later, he is having his second-in-command drink for him. I am trying to protest, but poor Chinese mixed with bai jiao leads to even poorer Chinese.

Long story, short. I woke up in a hotel in Hohhot, the provincial capital of Inner Mongolia (I believe this is a 3+hour drive). And three days later, I received a phone call informing me that I was, in fact, "Li Hai (legit)" and arranging transport to visit the executives at their company.

Oh, and for the donkey meat -- that's for another day.