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Gods in China

The Inner Mongolia Story
Neil Smith

By after six months teaching English in Northeastern China, the Inner Mongolian grasslands was the only place for three men of the world like Joe Yost of Beligum, Steve Ashe of Wales, and myself the American southerner. Our summer vacation plans were simple; buy horses in the provincial capitol of Hohhot and ride them the seventy odd miles west to Baotou, losing ourselves along the way in the majesty of the Mongolian Steppe.

Image: Hohot Hotel Inner Mongolia

We wanted something to survive. We wanted to lay our backs in the grass and stare up at the stars while freshly killed mutton roasted on a spit somewhere nearby, the wolves circling while Mongolian cowboys settled noble disputes with swords and whips out in the darkness. And, after waiting in the haze and din of Beijing for two days to get a flight, we were ready for some space and air that didn’t make your eyes water.
The Hohhot airport felt like an outpost, with a rickety set of stairs leading down from the airplane and what looked like a dismantled lawnmower pulling the baggage cart at one in the morning. We tossed our packs into the back of the last remaining taxi cab and took off for town with the grass that grew between the cracks in the road flopping beneath its half-bald tires. In my terrible Chinese (Mandarin spoken in a southern-American accent at that hour sounds oddly like Yiddish) I managed, "Us. Hotel. Quiet. Clean," meaning some place without an all-night karaoke bar on the premises and faded bloodstains on the sheets.
"Hohhot! Best Hotel! We go!" yelled the driver.

We expected a hovel, but "Best Hotel" was a five-star thing with fountains lining the landscaped driveway and uniformed doormen bowing and hustling our bags onto large brass dollies. Inside, the lobby was half Waldorf Astoria and half emperor’s stateroom, all plush leather and soft light, ferns, white marble and mahogany.

At the front desk, the clerk said that they had three single rooms but that the price was a hundred dollars a night, far too expensive for luxury that we’d vowed to do without. When I turned around to break the news to the guys, I saw that I couldn’t have gotten their attention with an accordion and a dancing monkey. My friends stood with their lower lips around their ankles, staring at what I’d missed crossing the lobby.

The lobby was full of women. This fact alone made the setting odd because for six months we’d never seen more than three or four women together in a group since Chinese women don’t gather in large numbers to do anything besides work in factories. Add in the fact that they were of all different races and that they were all drop-dead gorgeous and the acid trip was complete. None of us had seen a woman who wasn’t Chinese in six months (China is 92% Han ethnicity), and here were African women speaking Dioula through perfect teeth while their eyes danced, Caucasian women with legs inherited from Nordic goddesses, and women with the ebony hair of Italy and the dark eyes of Syria lounging on sofas. It was like finding a flock of kaleidscopic cranes in the middle of a lake full of swans.
"Um, guys?" I said.
No response.
They seemed to be listening.
"Are you sure our plane didn’t crash?" I had always suspected that heaven was in fact a commercial for single-malt scotch, and perhaps I’d been right.
The lads said nothing.
"The hotel’s a hundred bucks a night."
"Okay," they both said.
"That’s a week’s pay."

Then I saw her and she saw me. She sat on her suitcase, waiting for the elevator but looking at me. She was dark, from one of those southwestern Asian countries that are always making new gods modeled on people like her. She was someone who had obviously mastered everything about this world. She memorized Mozart on the viola while beating super computers at chess. She practiced Tai-chi perfectly in the morning and put presidents on hold to give advice to poet laureates, and was simply sitting there waiting for the elevator because her wings were tired. Our children would have half-American half-Indian names. Joanna Marie Ghandi. Charu Mallika Smith.
"What?" We turned to Ashe. "What?"
"They’re hookers mate."
I looked at the girls. "Come again?"
"Guys, we are in the middle of nowhere at the flashest hotel in all of northern China. Did you stop to wonder what these ladies are doing here? These women are prostitutes flown here from somewhere else. Did you happen to notice the limousines outside?"

I took my eyes away from my girl and looked outside. When I’d missed the women I had also missed the seven or eight stretch limousines parked outside along with the large group of Chinese businessmen gawking at the girls through the plate glass doors of the hotel bar.
"No." I was not willing to believe this. I looked at her again, my angel. She was still looking in my direction. You’ll have to work a little harder to get my number, her eyes said, but I’ve been waiting. Please, let’s to the honest grasslands.
"Vladivostok isn’t that far away mate," Steve continued. "Think about the businessmen you know. They flew these girls down here. They’re for sale."

He had a point. And, when I really looked, the girls did seem to be here only to make this room or any other room into a holy shrine. When the tall blonde woman asked in English for a cup of tea she used an accent that was not exactly authentic Russian, but like she’d practiced an accent to sound Russian. The girl by the front desk speaking in a kind of suburban Connecticut accent was being kittenish to the older man standing next to her and then wraith-like to the concierge about the hair dryers in the hotel rooms, changing from flowers to bombs in seconds, all of it an act.
"Prostitutes," I said, the word like a door in the sky slamming shut.
I picked up my bag.
"Where are you going?" Christophe was in disbelief.
"I can’t afford a room here and I sure as hell can’t afford a girl so I’m going to go find another hotel and spend the next three hours saying my prayers," I said. I gave my girl a smile and walked out, followed by Ashe. Ten minutes later Christophe joined us in the cab.
"I’m still too young to have my dying wish," was all he said.

Three days later I sat in another hotel room in Baotou. The grasslands had been a farce, a tourist trap the size of Nebraska. We’d made it to town just in time to be marooned by torrential rain, and were spending two days bickering at each other about who’s turn it was to empty the cisterns that were catching the water that leaked from the ceiling. I sat on the bed watching television, watching a mosquito larvae twitch in one of the rain receptacles when there she was, my girl, on the screen, posing in front of a pagoda in a one-piece bathing suite. I only caught a second of it, but it was her. She was not, it seemed, a prostitute, but a contestant in the 2004 Miss Intercontinental Beauty Pageant, being held that year in Hohhot. Apparently the three of us had walked into a cross section of the most talented, beautiful women on the planet, mistaken them for hookers, and left to spend our vacations miserable and soaked.
"Ashe! You son of a b----!" was all I could really manage.

© Neil Smith February 2007

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