Archive for December 25, 2014

There’s a New Way to Buy Train Tickets!

Hohhot is putting in 10 new automatic train ticket dispensers. You will no longer have to fight the long lines at the train station or hope one of the few service centers will be open.

This link has a map and description of the locations as well as a picture of one of the machines.

This link is Xinhua’s article about the new machines.

Have you used one yet? Let us know about it in the comments.

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Guest Posts

I hope you are enjoying reading the words of someone other than me! We appreciate Matthew sharing his Hohhot experience here. While he’s covering the blogging for a few days, I’m working on some of the back end stuff to get more of the previous images back up and return the site to its pre-hacked, pre-server-moving state.

If anyone else is interested in sharing your experiences here, please contact me at

The Struggles of Explaining the Definition and Location of Inner Mongolia: a study of dialogues

Sometimes information can be hard to grasp. When we decide to uproot and move halfway around the world, our well-meaning friends can often struggle to understand exactly to which part of the world we will be moving. As the time approaches for us to leave, we often find ourselves engaged in conversations in which our confused and frustrated friends make similar mistakes in comprehension. Even when we return to our home countries, we are met with the same sorts of struggles in explaining where we have been, and getting people to remember that information. However, every now and then, an extra attentive friend “gets it right.”

The following dialogues are fictional, but are based on very real conversations I have had with people before I moved to Inner Mongolia, and in the years since I have returned to the States. They are meant to be taken lightheartedly. Enjoy! [as a side note, these conversations are about a region in China called Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where Hohhot is located. Many times this is shortened to “Inner Mongolia Province,” or just simply “Inner Mongolia.”]

For reference, please enjoy the following map courtesy of Google.

china map

A map of China featuring Inner Mongolia. Image courtesy of Google.

Scenario 1: some people just don’t get it. 

Friend: “So, what are you future plans?”

Me: “Well, this summer, I’ll be moving to Inner Mongolia to teach English.”

Friend: “Cool, isn’t that where Genghis Khan is from? I really like their barbecue.”

Me: “Actually, Inner Mongolia is a province in northern China.”

Friend: “Then why is it called Mongolia if it’s in China? I thought Mongolia is a country. What is a province; I’m so confused?”

Me: “It’s like a state, and yes, Mongolia is a country, Inner Mongolia used to be part of it, but now, it’s part of China.”

Friend: “I wonder why they don’t change the name to Inner China then? Does China have as many states as America?”

Me: “China doesn’t have states—it has provinces.”

Friend: “But you just said Mongolia is a state in China.”

Me: “No, I said Inner Mongolia is a province—it’s like a state. Each province is made up of multiple cities and towns, just like our states are here in the United States.”

Friend:  “Oh ok. Well, do they have good barbecue there in Mongolia, China where you will be teaching?”


Scenario 2: Some people are quicker on the uptake, but still struggle with totally grasping it. 

Friend: “Hey, I heard you will be moving to China this year. Which part will you be in?”

Me: “I’ll be in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia province.”

Friend: “Oh, cool. Why is it called Inner Mongolia; it is in China, right?”

Me: “Yes, it is a province in northern China, bordering the country of Mongolia.”

Friend: “I see. That’s weird, if it’s outside of the country of Mongolia, you would think they would call it ‘Outer Mongolia.’”

Me: “Yeah, you might think that, but it’s the exact opposite.”

Friend: “Well, how long will you be teaching in Mongolia?”

Me: “Actually, I’ll be in Inner Mongolia. I’ll be there for one year.”

Friend: “Oh yeah, sorry, Inner Mongolia. How far is that from Japan? Maybe one weekend you can go check it out? I love sushi.”


Scenario 3: On rare occasions, someone, thankfully, finally gets it.

Friend: “Hey, so I heard you are moving to China this summer.”

Me: “Yeah! I’ll be in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia province.”

Friend: “Oh, cool. Is a province like a state?”

Me: “Yes, China has several provinces, and Inner Mongolia is in the very north.”

Friend: “I see. That would put it right beneath Mongolia. At one time, they must have been one area.”

Me: “Exactly!”

Friend: “Well, how long will you be teaching in Inner Mongolia?”

Me: [smiling, because for once, someone remembered to say Inner] “I’ll be there for one year.”

Friend: “That’s great. Hey, since it’s in the north, it must not be far from Beijing—you’ll have to go visit if you have time.”

Me: [smiling, because someone actually knows their geography] “You’re right, it’s about a 13 hour train ride. That sounds like a great idea.”

Friend: “Hey Friend 2, did you know Matthew is moving to Inner Mongolia, China?”

Me: [smiling]

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August, 2003 – HOHHOT IS MY HOME: First Order of Business—Transportation

Taken during my second year living in China, in Xijiang. This was outside of Hohot, on a trip to visit.

Taken in 2006, during my second year living in China, in Xinjiang. This was outside of Hohhot, on a trip to visit friends and students.

I’m here. I’m settled in. I now have two little booklets, each about the size of a passport— one is burgundy and embossed with golden Chinese characters on the front— it gives me the title of “foreign expert.” The other is paper-thin, and a gaudy orange color—it is a health exam report that lists my name, country of origin, and any other bio-metrical details I could conceive—and of course, there is a photo. Someone has saved me the trouble of coming up with a Chinese name, and I see carefully hand-written in ink, unintelligible Chinese characters which are thoughtfully accompanied by the romanized pronunciation: “MaSiYue.” I have to hand it to them—it sounds quite close to “Matthew,” but I later opt for “MaTai,” the Chinese translation of “Matthew,” as in “The Gospel of Matthew” in the New Testament.

In order to be allowed to teach, I had to go to the hospital to get some medical checks done. Everything checked out as “normal.” Each approval mark is identical—mechanically stamped in blue ink, save for one variation: when it comes to a special section titled “SARS symptoms.” To my relief, next to each category of “SARS symptoms,” the doctors had another stamp handy, which read: “none.” I certainly wouldn’t want to have “normal” SARS symptoms.


I am arriving here in Hohhot on the tail end of a health epidemic that has spanned all of China. Later I will learn from my new-found American friends, who are also teachers on other campuses, that they were quarantined for weeks. I also learn some of them were resourceful, and didn’t suffer too much, per their discovery of a way to climb over the locked iron gates of their campuses at opportune moments when the guards were sleeping, or watching soaps.

My first order of business here is transportation. Having previously been to China twice before on short two-week tours as a college student on summer break, I quickly noticed the efficiency of the bicycle—a transportation solution that is quite appealing to a newly arrived foreigner. First, after the initial purchase fee, all transportation thereafter is absolutely free. Second, with the bicycle, it’s just the rider and the road—there are no crowded public buses leading to unknown destinations, or awkward disasters of conversations with taxi drivers, too frequently accompanied by pantomimes and a general feeling that they have taken one “the long way ‘round.” Thus, I have chosen to travel by bike—quite a contrast to the mode of transportation left to children, exercise freaks, and an otherwise small minority of adults in my home state of Louisiana.

A Chinese speaking American friend accompanies me to a nearby bicycle shop—before today, I would not have even imagined there could be such a thing as a shop specializing in only bicycles. To me, this shopping trip is a “no-brainer.” I have never been a picky shopper—I just need something in a masculine color that moves forward when I pedal—functioning breaks would be nice too. However, the shop owner is insistent that I “test it out first.” He gives me a once over, makes some adjustments to the seat, and I hop on—the seat is awkwardly high, even for me, who is most likely the longest-legged customer in the entire city of Hohhot. I am a fresh college grad, and haven’t been on a bike since junior high. I clumsily pedal ten yards or so, stop, pedal back to where I started, and hastily confirm my decision to buy the bike with one of the few Chinese words I know: “hao.” “Allright—I’ll take it. You had me sold on the navy blue color.” So are my thoughts, as I pay the several hundred yuan to the shop owner—an amount I am still unfamiliar with, but do not even attempt to calculate—What do I care? I have a bike.

The owner painstakingly fills out several receipts, each one carefully stamped with a seal in red ink, signifying the approval of the sale, much like the satisfactory state of my health signaled in that little orange book with its blue stamps. Finally, I am the proud owner of my own Chinese transportation. There are no gears to shift—my bike is a simple and straightforward affair—simply designed to go. After I make it back to the east gate of my school, I bid my American friend goodbye, and proudly roll my new purchase back to my apartment building. Theft is unfortunately a common occurrence in China, and though I brazenly leave my bike parked outside for the fist few nights, I later wisen up when when a student tells me about his bike being stolen.

All the foreign teachers wheel their bikes indoors and huddle them together on the first floor of our apartment building, just inside the lobby area, immediately after entering from outside. In here, it is not even necessary to put a lock on the bike—there is a “door lady” who always keeps a watchful eye on the comings and goings in the “foreign expert” portion of this building. She spends most of her days and nights in a glass-encased “room,” right there on the first floor. I do not know how she spends so much time in such a confined space. In the “living space,” which can’t be bigger than ten feet by five feet, there is only a desk, a chair, a wash basin, a television, and a bunk bed with a top, and bottom portion. Each night, Padma, our Mongolian mother, locks the doors of her foreign children’s building. Ironically, she wraps a bicycle lock around both inner handles, to prevent the doors from being opened beyond a mere crack. This action is almost in an effort to tell the rest of the world—”the bicycles contained within are sacred chariots and trusty steeds of the ‘foreign experts,’ and are safe in here. They are sleeping, and waiting for their masters to awaken, and take them out on a quest for adventure”—yes—an adventure in Hohhot.

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August, 2003 – WELCOME TO HOHHOT: The Start of Adventure for One American


Notice the mountain range at the north of the city, and the flat plains to the south. Image courtesy of Google.


As the white van races past white-washed buildings, and other obscure and meaningless structures totally unrecognizable amid the blur and darkness of the city on this late summer evening, I am thankful to be only moments from where I will spend at least the next year of my life. We turn from time to time, each street looking no different from the last, but I am completely at the mercy of my hosts. My need to “know where I am going” is non-existent—I am already here. I am in the city of Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, located in the far north-central part of China. I am home.

This sentiment may not be unusual except for the fact that I am American. I am freshly graduated with my Bachelor’s degree from a private liberal arts college located right in the middle of Louisiana—the utter south-central portion of the United States. I have often considered the ironies of this new direction my life is taking: not only am I moving pretty much exactly half-way around the world, I am going from the extreme south, to the extreme north. I suppose I have always been a chaser of borders.

“Why Hohhot?” Many people, including myself, have frequently asked. After much contemplation, I can’t more easily answer this question than I can “why China?” The truth is, a symphony of forces have played their part in leading me here. At the present, these philosophical questions are not my concern—rather, my mind is racing with ideas of what it will be like to teach English to college students. No—I am not even concerned about that—instead, most pressing on my conscious is the question “what will it be like to live in a culture impossibly removed from my own?” The stronger part of me quiets these questions, and looks forward to adventure—to Hohhot.


It doesn’t take me long to learn that I have not only entered a new culture, or even a singular experience, but rather, multiple diverse, beautiful, and intricately complex cultures. Each day I spend teaching ethnic Mongolian students the ins and outs of conversational English, I realize Mandarin is their second language, and English, their third—in contrast, I have only just become comfortable saying “hello” and “thank you” in a second language. As I explore city streets, I learn that the Han have a plethora of culinary experiences to offer. I can find everything from Beijing roast duck, to an endless variety of standard Chinese staple dishes. I also hear the shark’s fin soup is not bad—but I am not ready to try this delicacy just yet. The city is saturated in history and culture. Being so close to Mongolia proper, there is no shortage of traditional Mongolian cuisine. Surprisingly, I have even found there is a hidden treasure of Korean restaurants—especially specializing in Korean barbeque. On one side of the streets are ancient Tibetan Buddhist temples, and not much further down, past the old Catholic church, are old mosques, sacred sites of worship for the cities’ ethnic Hui population. Like other Muslim peoples, the Hui take pride in their cuisine, and offer a limitless variety of lamb noodles—and that’s just for starters. Several months later, a friend will even lead me to a tucked-away Xinjiang restaurant—a sole representative of that farthest north-west region of China—perhaps the ultimate borderland in this country.

I am here as a teacher, but part of me can’t help but feel like a student. Every day I learn a new Chinese word or phrase, or a unique historical aspect of my city. When I bike north, I near the mountains. I often come here for solitude on the weekends. I climb to the highest point, which is not really very high, but is high enough to allow me to appreciate the vast outspread cacophony of the bustling city beneath—sometimes noisy, but now, perfectly silent. Hohhot is crowned with mountains to the north, and endless plains in the south. One night a friend joins me in camping on these mountain-tops; we enjoy good conversation, and most importantly, boiled mutton. Miles below us, one by one, the city lights emerge as the evening unobtrusively yet inevitably descends, each single light, a warden against absolute darkness. These luminous guardians are not alone, but are joined by their ancient brothers and sisters above—we have decided to sleep under the stars. We want to appreciate their beauty, and for this reason have not brought tents, in turn, welcoming on ourselves the untamed and uninviting winds from the northern grasslands and distant Gobi Dessert, unnoticeable at first, but rapidly congregating and whipping down on our exposed bodies—but yet, we fear no cold. We have solid food in our stomachs, friendship in our hearts, and the warmth of adventure to keep us through the night. And tomorrow, we return to where it all began—to Hohhot.

This is taken during my second year living in China. I was actually teaching in Xinjiang, but had come to Hohhot, my previous stomping grounds, for a visit.

This is taken during my second year living in China. I was actually teaching in Xinjiang, but had come to Hohhot, my previous stomping grounds, for a visit.

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