In the summer of 2009 I spent some time working in Beijing. After two months in the city and some time off over the Mid-Autumn festival, I was ready for an adventure. I had six days off and planned to travel as far into Inner Mongolia as I could in three days and then turn around. The end goal was to reach place of intrigue: Khara-Khoto (or Hēichéng 黑城 ‘Black City’). An ancient city sitting in the middle of the desert, lost to civilisation for hundreds of years until its rediscovery in 1908.
I planned little and spoke only enough Mandarin to ask for directions, food and transport. I headed to the bus terminal in Beijing and bought a ticket to Hohhot. After a few of hours, we crossed the border into Inner Mongolia. The friendly signage written in Mandarin and Pinyin (a phoneticised version of Mandarin written in the latin alphabet), which I had up until that point taken completely for granted, changed to Mandarin and Mongolian. I now either knew the Chinese characters or I didn't, there wasn't any attempt at pronunciation. Having never seen Mongolian script before, it looked completely alien. This was an early indication that this journey wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.
Hohhot got me to a train station, one that would take me West. I picked a station down the line that appeared to be at an intersection that would take me further North. On board the train I was approached by ever-friendly Chinese students wanting to practice their English, I entertained conversation and subsequently found out that my North-bound train line didn't exist and that I needed to get off a few stops later and find a bus that would take me North. I got off at Wuhai.
The woman at the hotel told me that to travel North I would need a permit to go past the militarised zone. I didn't have time to apply for one, so decided to risk it. The following day I set out on the bus. A couple of hours North through the desert we entered an expansive industrial area. The sky was grey and thick with smog. For over an hour we drove past half-constructed roads, quarries and factories. I imagined being on a mining planet from Star Wars, one that seemingly existed for the sole purpose of heavy industry. The landscape was bleak.
More desert. An army checkpoint. This was the militarised zone I'd been told about. I got my passport out. The only westerner on the bus, maybe the only that had been through in weeks, I stood out like a sore thumb. The soldier said something to me. I didn't understand. The only people on the bus who spoke any English were sitting behind me and told me I needed to get off. I took my bags and followed the guard to a small tent in the barracks. A senior officer inspected my passport, asked me why I didn't have a permit and where I was staying in Beijing. I offered my colleague’s business card, which he attempted to call. He told me I needed to go back. The six hours of desert I had just traversed were to be revisited sooner than expected. I made plans in my head, wondered when the next passing bus I could jump on might be coming, whether there even was one coming at all.
After ten minutes, he changed his mind and made an exception: a permit would be too hard to get at this time of year and he felt sorry for me, traveling alone as I was. I ran back to my bus, thankfully awaiting the last of the passengers to finish eating a quick lunch.
Several more hours passed, and the arid landscape had turned to sand dunes. Camels walked determinedly on in the distance. After what had been hundreds of miles of nothingness we came across the outskirts of Ejina. Golden leaved trees appeared sporadically and then in abundance, a river flowed, civilisation appeared. It was one of the most wonderful experiences, a pilgrimage complete. Well, almost.
All the accommodation in town was expensive. I walked around trying to find somewhere less so, but to no avail. I bit the bullet and went into a hotel beyond my budget. Full. In fact everywhere was not only expensive, but full. It made sense: by now the town was heaving with Chinese tourists, keen to take advantage of one of the few holidays of the year. I was at a loss. I wandered around, half contemplating sleeping rough on the edge of town where the forest began.
I chanced across the bus driver. He saw my bag and understood the situation. I tried to ask where he was staying. He didn't understand, but took me into a house where a woman would take my money and find me accommodation, although I wasn't quite sure where. Five minutes later a man on a moped arrived. He would take me to his home to live with his family for two nights. I never found out how much of the money his family received, probably only a small fraction. His wife arranged –through bad Chinese conversations and writing characters on a piece of paper – for me to get transport to Khara-Khoto the following day.
In the car traveling back into the desert again for an hour, we approached the city. Sitting completely in the middle of nowhere. An island of curiosity. A relatively unknown tourist attraction. Four crumbling walls marking the perimeter of the area, a small handful of ancient spires and some sand dunes occupying the same space, seemingly oblivious to the city’s presence.
I retraced my steps: Ejina, Wuhai, Hohhot, Bejing, reunited with the friends I'd made along the way. I'd done it in just five days, but I needed the rest. It was an adventure I'd never forget.