Top Ten Experiences We’ve Survived on the Steppes of Inner Mongolia

By: Jill Judd

Hohhot is now our home. My husband and I have lived here for 3 ½ and almost 5 years, respectively, spanning from 2002 until now. This is the first city I lived in as a “grown-up” after college. This is the city where I met my husband. This is the city my girls will know as home. Although we love it, it hasn’t always been easy. Here’s our list of the top ten things we have experienced, survived, and have enough hind-sight humor to write about.

ONE: CONFUSION OVER WHERE WE LIVE. (Ongoing) Every time we are in America we get asked the question, “How is Mongolia?” We hear it’s good, but we don’t live there. We live in China. Our most recent response to this question involves the analogy: Inner Mongolia is to China as New Mexico is to the United States.

TWO: FIVE WINTERS. (2002/2003, 2003/2004, 2006/2007, 2012/2013, 2013) We have survived five Hohhot winters and my husband gets a special recognition for also surviving one grassland winter. There is at least heating for six of the seven months of winter.
My husband would like it noted that surviving a grassland winter means learning when to burn cow mature and when to burn sheep manure to sustain a fire through the night. (Cow lights easier, sheep burns longer, for the curious).This skill is especially useful to return to a warm home after a trip to the facilities, which are any patch of land outside of the village.

THREE: SARS-Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. (Late April-early July 2003) I didn’t have SARS, I just survived the craziness involved with this province being the third-most affected by the outbreak. For roughly two months, the entire city of Hohhot, and perhaps the province as a whole, essentially shut down. Flights stopped, restaurants closed, shops closed and you could no longer enter housing complexes other than your own.
I was single and studying Chinese at Inner Mongolia University. I lived off campus, but the university required all students to move back to campus and to be, for all practical purposes, quarantined. We were initially told we would have to return to the dorms for ten days, but it was actually a bit over two months. During this time no student could exit the campus. Surviving this phase meant sustaining on three meals a day of Chinese university cafeteria food, having only two other humans with which to speak English and attempting not to die of frustration at the ever-changing announcements, cures, protection methods and SARS-preventing-procedures.
By saying I survived, I do not mean to say that I handled this incident well at the time it was taking place. In fact, the one time when we were permitted to leave campus for a few hours to return to our homes to get some personal effects, I may have thrown a full-blown temper tantrum outside my apartment building when the guard said I couldn’t enter my own apartment without first going to the hospital for a document stating I was SARS free. I may have a tendency to exaggerate in story-telling, but this is as true as it gets: I was crying and stomping my feet like a two year old and using what little Chinese I had to express every bit of dissatisfaction, injustice, frustration and anger I felt.

FOUR: BIKE THEFTS (ongoing) Bike thefts are too common and too numerous to bother counting. My first bike was in my possession less than 48 hours. The bike passed down to me from another expat upon my second arrival in Hohhot lasted less than 36 hours. However, the night that bike was stolen was the night I met the man who would become my husband, so I don’t have too many hard feelings about that one. Aside from bikes, wallets, cell phones and electric bike batteries and/or chargers seem to be easy targets. Other than minor instances like this, our city is relatively safe.

FIVE: AN EYEBALL-LICKING INCIDENT. (Late 2006) I know. Weird, right? I worked for a time at a four star hotel. One day at work my eye was itching and hurting so I stepped into the ladies’ restroom to see if I could find something in my eye and get it out. A coworker was there and asked if she could look at it for me. Before I knew what was happening or had time to think through an escape route, she was licking my eye. This is a true story. There was tongue to eyeball contact before I could do anything about it. She said that’s how they get things out of babies’ eyes. I, however, was an un-expecting adult.
At this point an appropriate question is, “Did it work?” The answer: I’m not sure. I think the trauma of the incident itself made me forget the initial eye discomfort.

SIX: GETTING HIT BY A BUS (Jan. 14, 2007) One evening I was crossing the street in the crosswalk during a green light, but a bus attempting to turn right on red ended up swerving to miss a taxi and hitting me. There I was, sprawled on the freezing concrete in the intersection. I remember my first thought was, "I think I'm actually ok." A middle-aged women and her teenage daughter had been walking beside me and had barely missed being hit. They helped me get up gather my hat, mittens and backpack which had been knocked off upon impact. They helped me to the side of the road. The bus driver had parked the bus and come over to check on the three of us. He actually took responsibility and wanted to make sure I had all his credentials in case something was wrong. He insisted that I get in the bus and go to the hospital with him. I could tell nothing was broken or bleeding and I didn’t have a problem moving so I declined.
At that point in my China life, I had never been to a Chinese hospital and the thought of going with a stranger who just hit me with a bus was scarier than going home and finding an injury later. The mom and daughter waited for the conversation to end and walked me almost all the way to my home. The mother wanted to take me to the pharmacy to buy me some medicine because she was certain I would be in pain the next few days. She was right.

SEVEN: PREGNANCY+JET-LAGGED TODDLER+FOOD-POISONED HUSBAND (Early August 2012) When we moved back to Hohhot as a family of three, soon to be four, we initially stayed in a hotel room while we looked for an apartment. On day three my husband ate some jin jiang rou si that sent his body into a kind of purging it had never seen before. I was pregnant and still suffering from morning sickness. I threw up almost every time I had to change my days-away-from-one-year-old daughter. Now, I threw up almost every time he did and every time I had to change a diaper. We had just arrived so our daughter wasn’t over jet lag and still waking up in the night. She would wake up every time the toilet beckoned her father. The throwing up and other means of expulsion would commence. We’d all get back to sleep in time for another round to begin. Had we not just survived 30+ hours of international travel with a pregnant lady and a toddler, we probably would have gotten back on a plane if the opportunity presented itself.

EIGHT: ALXA DESERT ACTIVITY (Sept. 2012) Alxa is the farthest western league of Inner Mongolia and home to the Badain Jaran Desert and China’s space satellite launch site. It’s FAR. We got word [through a local friend] the local government there wanted to invite some foreigners to participate in their annual Nadam Festival and Desert Activity. Our transportation and hotel costs would be provided. We’re in! We were told it would be a ten-hour train ride followed by a six-hour bus ride. In actuality it was a ten-hour train ride followed by a thirteen-hour bus ride. Then upon arrival they insisted we attend a concert that began at roughly 9:00 pm. Reminder: I am still pregnant, we have a one year old, and we’ve been travelling for 23 hours. Kids and pregnant ladies go to sleep early. To their dismay, we declined and we were thankful for our foreign companions making up for our absence.
When it was time for the “desert activity” we learned this “activity” was a 15 km scavenger hunt/race in the middle of the desert. This activity might have been fun with some advanced warning. And without a toddler. And not pregnant. Thankfully, we played the pregnant and with toddler card again and got to stay in the bus and play in the nearby dunes while our able-bodied companions sweated it out in the desert with the corporate-sponsored teams who had been training for this event for some time. We should have had one of our friends who trekked write this section since we only technically survived sitting in the bus.

NINE: APARTMENT FIRE (Nov.2010) Thankfully, it wasn’t our home, but in our unit (the same stairwell). The smell of smoke caused us to check our house to find nothing, which caused us to check outside. As soon as we opened the door, smoke flooded into our 18th floor apartment. We grabbed our daughter and tried to exit down the stairway. We made it 2 ½ flights before we realized we were not going to make it to the ground level before we suffocate. We returned to our home and called 119. They informed us that they were already on site, took our specific location and asked us to wait to be rescued. I’m not sure how much time actually passed, but it seemed liked hours. We had time to pack a bag. We could hear the sound of neighbors yelling down to the firemen and the sound of repeated breaking glass, which we later discovered was the firemen breaking out all the windows in the stairwell.
Finally our door busted open and our heroes arrived! They had super-powered flashlights and the stairs were a bit more bearable with the glass busted out. They helped us down a few flights of stairs and then would shove our heads half-way out the window to get air then we would descend another few levels and repeat. The farther down we got, the thicker the smoke. The fire had started on the first floor. When we got to the third floor we were hoisted through the window out to a balcony to breathe some fresh air. Here we were given the firemen’s masks to make the final descent where the smoke was heaviest. We made it out safely with no injuries and no damage to our possessions.

TEN: TRANSITION. (ongoing) Another aspect of life here we have survived is the welcoming, and the much harder parting, of friends who become like family. I know it’s the fate of every expat that as soon as you make really good friends their study is over, they are transferred or their contract ends. It’s hard. And sometimes we are the ones to leave. And although the promise of unlimited cheese and cereal in America are waiting, it doesn’t make the leaving process any easier.
We have survived it all because I could write a list ten times as long about all the good we have experienced here. We could tell even more stories of the good friends we’ve made and their kindness to us. We hope to have stories of survival to tell for years to come.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingJill Judd is an American expat living in China. Blog description: Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, expat life in China, an online home for foreigners in China, foreigners in Hohhot, English information about Hohhot
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Contest Comments » There are 14 comments

J Brown wrote 5 years ago:

Jill, I'm so glad you've survived all of this! Good grief -- I already knew most of these stories, but seeing them all together... You're one tough cookie! :-)

James wrote 5 years ago:

I can't believe you got licked in the eye... I think the eye-licking has to be the craziest thing I've ever heard about in China... unless maybe it is getting hit by a bus and surviving.

Met wrote 5 years ago:

Licking my eyeball will never be acceptable. Never. I realize this is probably a crazy reaction, but this kind of makes me want to up and move. Granted, survival has apparently been hit or miss what with buses plowing into pedestrians and all, but you guys will have the best stories to tell when you're 80. :) Great post!

Aubrey wrote 5 years ago:

Unbelievable! Love to hear all the stories put together. What a crazy world!

Delton wrote 5 years ago:

I am happy you survived so I could know you. I did not mind the outdoor toilet in the grasslands but the traffic going by on the highway was disconcerting. Jill you are a perfect fit for who you love and where you live! I guess climbing over the security fence in the dark to get in your apartment didn't make the top ten.

Dara wrote 5 years ago:

I really enjoyed your article. I have long had the utmost respect for you. Even more so now. Love you! You have persevered through much in the last several years.

Franklin wrote 5 years ago:

I thought I might start licking my kids eyeballs. Then I can really save some serious cash on eye drops!

Ann wrote 5 years ago:

Great experiences, wow! The fire story is so scary, and I really don't know what I would have done if someone licked my eyeball. Gross.

Suragch wrote 5 years ago:

As one of the Alxa desert trekkers, I can definitely say that the 15 km up and down massive sand dunes would definitely not have been a place for a toddler and a pregnant mother. The desert itself, though, is one of the most beautiful places I have been in Inner Mongolia.

Olivia Bai Yan wrote 5 years ago:

Dear Jill,you are doing a great job! I am proud of you! Olivia Bai Yan

Helen G wrote 5 years ago:

I like your New Mexico analogy. I have to say that you live a way more colorful life than me, a native Huhhotter. Can\'t imagine you got your eyeball licked.

Jill wrote 5 years ago:

Thanks for all the comments, friends! @Delton, there were so many things that had to get cut from the list. Along with fence-climbing, here are some other honorable mentions: We have also survived eating blood sausage, sheep’s head, processed camel meat (think SPAM, but made of camel) and various forms of intestines. I survived an entire year of daily staff meetings conducted in Chinese at a state-owned enterprise. And we have survived the relentless criticism from the older generation of women that our kids are under-dressed, too skinny, too active or whatever the daily complaint may be.

Org wrote 5 years ago:

Jills blog is very rare find from a hidden corner of still opening new country. The information quality in her blog is much better than searching things at 10 biggest newspaper websites.

Sherri wrote 5 years ago:

This post is hilarious, revolting, and inspiring all rolled up in one little package. Excellent!

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