The International Writers
Gods in China
Inner Mongolia Story
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 didnt 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 emperors 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 wed vowed to do without. When I turned around to break the
news to the guys, I saw that I couldnt have gotten their attention
with an accordion and a dancing monkey. My friends stood with their lower
lips around their ankles, staring at what Id missed crossing the
The lobby was full of women. This fact alone made the setting odd because
for six months wed never seen more than three or four women together
in a group since Chinese women dont 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 wasnt 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
"Um, guys?" I said.
They seemed to be listening.
"Are you sure our plane didnt crash?" I had always suspected
that heaven was in fact a commercial for single-malt scotch, and perhaps
Id been right.
The lads said nothing.
"The hotels a hundred bucks a night."
"Okay," they both said.
"Thats a weeks 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
"What?" We turned to Ashe. "What?"
"Theyre 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 Id 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. Youll have to work
a little harder to get my number, her eyes said, but Ive been waiting.
Please, lets to the honest grasslands.
"Vladivostok isnt that far away mate," Steve continued.
"Think about the businessmen you know. They flew these girls down
here. Theyre 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 shed 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
I picked up my bag.
"Where are you going?" Christophe was in disbelief.
"I cant afford a room here and I sure as hell cant afford
a girl so Im 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.
"Im still too young to have my dying wish," was all he
Three days later I sat in another hotel room in Baotou. The grasslands
had been a farce, a tourist trap the size of Nebraska. Wed made
it to town just in time to be marooned by torrential rain, and were spending
two days bickering at each other about whos 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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