On Christmas Day in 2010, I flew from my home in Los Angeles to Beijing, China, and then on to Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. I spent two weeks in Xianshawan, Ordos City and Houthot, the capital.
Claiming twelve percent China’s total land-mass, Inner Mongolia is the third largest of the autonomous regions, and it is the northern-most of those; it shares a border with Russia, from which, the local lore says, “one can see the North Pole”. The grasslands, deserts and mountain ranges are rich in natural resources, which have recently caught the attention of policy planners in Beijing: gas and oil exploration have risen sharply since the turn of the century, and Inner Mongolia led the world in the minting of new millionaires a few years ago. In an effort to hasten modernization, Han Chinese are being slowly relocated to the big cities---Baotou, Houhot, Ordos---to dilute the indigenous Mongol population. Indeed, Ordos is a currently a city of two surreal halves: the rubble of the old settlement remains, abandoned and post-apocalyptic, while newly-constructed neighborhoods elsewhere in the city stand unused, awaiting an influx of new residents that hasn’t yet arrived. Squatters hurry down those wide streets, and schoolchildren explore the echoing rooms, timidly.
My work in Inner Mongolia is unfinished, to be sure. I intend to return in August of 2012, and again in the spring of 2013. Thankfully, I’ve gotten my winter visit behind me: it was 20-below zero on the dunes of the Gobi desert at New Year, this January, and most days the high was ten-above, while I wandered streets and alleys in several layers of down, wool and fleece.