To a visiting desi, language may turn out to be the steepest wall in China. It’s so utterly insurmountable that it could transform you into a champion dumb-charades player. Not that I have any love for sign languages. It’s just that my wife and I harbour a deep hatred for travel agents and packaged tours. So, when the Olympic extravaganza in Beijing got over, the two of us decided to slip away on our own to the expansive Mongolian grasslands and the Gobi desert.
By the time we boarded the train for Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, we realised we did not have the time to buy dinner or water. Nevermind. We’ll manage, we thought. But our stomachs disagreed loudly and I decided to take a tour of the train. I heard a familiar rattle down one carriage. The search led me to not just water bottles, but — to my utter delight — some beer as well. We spent the night munching nuts washed down with beer.
More than 99 per cent of the signboards in this old city are written in Mongolian or Mandarin. No one speaks English. We first went to buy our return tickets. When I asked for the tickets in deliberately slow E-n-g-l-i-s-h, the amazement on the face of the woman behind the counter was apparent. She probably couldn’t believe that a man with such Mongoloid features as mine couldn’t utter a word intelligible to her. After trying for more than 15 minutes, we failed miserably — and stepped back from the counter without a ticket.
Once outside, we were surrounded by touts pushing packaged tours. Or so we thought, because we couldn’t understand a syllable. We kept nodding, smiling and flailing.
At such a desperate moment, my wife yelped in jubilation as if she had won Olympic gold. I thought the beer had kicked in. “I am excited to see her,” she said, pointing to a volunteer. Oh, an earlier dumb-charades partner. Seeing us rushing towards her, the lady made an about-turn.
I held aloft my accreditation card to get her interested in our case. The point was that she understood some English. So for a while, she doubled as our interpreter-manager and introduced us to someone who could take us to the grasslands.
Before we started, I wanted to have Chicken à la Hohhot. Failing everything else, I crowed, “Ku-ku-ru-ku!” No one laughed. The waitress nodded and came back with some eggs.
The great escape
Out of Hohhot, everything was a surprise. Don’t ask us about the name of the place we were headed to, because we couldn’t divine it from our non-English-speaking guide. All we know that it was a grassland two-and-a-half hours drive away and it was near Gegentala. The limitless, unbroken expanse was mesmerising.
As soon as we stepped out of the van, three women in traditional attire offered us a cup of Mongolian wine accompanied by sing-song melody. I gulped it down at one go. It was good. The others — two Chinese and two Polish tourists — clearly did not. I was sure they’d never tried Old Monk in their life. After lunch and another round of wine-sipping, we went galloping under the scorching sun with the wind sweeping around at what seemed 100 kph.
Thrown up, elbowed out
We went to see Mongolian wrestling. After a couple of rounds, someone asked me if I would want to challenge the wrestler. Sushil Kumar’s bronze was fresh in my mind. I agreed. But even before I realised, I was flat on the hard ground. A surge of pain crept up my back. Soon enough, I realised it was not my back, but my right elbow that was hurting more. I was rushed to a hospital amid courteous apologies. The doctor saw my wound and nodded, as if to say ‘no problem’. I told him I wanted to get an anti-tetanus shot (ATS), as I was bleeding. But there was no reaction.
He took out a gigantic needle, siphoned out some liquid, and walked towards me with a cigarette dangling from his lips. The small crowd looked at me as if I were a specimen. I put up a brave face and tried not to twitch. The doctor asked me to raise my arm. Then, instead of poking me, he sprayed the contents on the wound.
My wife screamed. As did I, shouting, “It’s acid! It’s burning!” After a few moments, he rubbed some Chinese medicine on my wound and dressed it up. No painkiller. No ATS. When I asked him about it once again, he nodded as if to say ‘My pleasure’. That night I gulped down a lot of Mongolian wine as if it were general anaesthesia.
Back in Beijing, I rushed to Peking University Hospital. The beautiful doctor who stitched up gave me the ATS. But this time, I was on local anaesthesia.