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Ancient culture kept alive in 21st century Inner Mongolia

(People's Daily Online)    15:49, August 12, 2019

Inner Mongolia possesses over 86 million hectares of natural grassland, much of which suffered severe degradation and desertification in the late 1990s due to drought and overgrazing.

However, in recent years, policies have been put in place to curb this desertification, with over 68 million hectares of grassland now made designated environmental protection areas. It seems to be working, as the natural grassland maintained an average vegetation coverage of 44 percent over the last three years, according to Xinhua.

As much of the land is now protected, locals who traditionally belonged to farming families are finding new ways to make an income. Hongge'er Bateer, the owner of a modern eco-family ranch about three hours from Tongliao, is one of the many people in this area to move into cultural tourism.

Cultural tourism preserves history

Hongge'er has created a hotel with a difference, which allows visitors to experience a taste of real Mongolian life. Guests stay in yurts, eat local food, and enjoy traditional Mongolian activities including wrestling and horse riding.

"I stepped into the cultural tourism industry in 2017, and I have gradually enlarged my entertainment program to include tours, horse riding, archery and wrestling. These are all traditional Mongolian cultures that I'd like to have preserved and passed on to the next generation," he explained.

Hongge'er has also helped the local community by bringing in other people to work on his ranch in both rearing his herd of cows and in the hotel. He noted that he would bring more local households into the cultural tourism industry and cow breeding industry this year as his business expands.

Although I haven't been on a horse since I was around 10 years old, I hop on one of their very healthy-looking horse for a quick loop around the fields. The only noises to be heard are the small herds of cows and horses grazing and bees cutting through the light breeze, and in the distance, the sound of nomadic horse traders who still call the real yurts home.

As we loop back towards the ranch, Hongge’er explains that he has put on a traditional Mongolian spread, including lamb and blood sausage, the Mongolian version of black pudding.

After a delicious main course, it's time for dessert. Hongge’er's team have prepared creamy yoghurt, crunchy deep-fried rice, milk tea and milk tofu. Hongge’er mixes the rice into the yoghurt and hands me a bowl. It's a little sour, similar to Greek yoghurt, which he says can be remedied by adding sugar, and the crunchy pieces of rice add some texture.

He mixes some butter into the milk tea, which makes it quite salty. Although it's the traditional way to drink tea here, it's a very different flavour from the sweet milk tea I drink in Beijing, and I am only able to finish one bowl.

The meal and activities here all centre around the livestock that live on the grassland, allowing guests to appreciate the vital role that animals have played for those living here throughout the centuries.

Ancient necessity becomes an art form

Since the days of Genghis Khan, people have been using animal hide to produce maps, as the material was more durable than paper to carry on long journeys across the plain. Throughout the centuries that followed, leather carving morphed into an art form, and Gawa, Chinese name Li Siqin, has been involved in the craft for the last 30 years, earning him the title of UNESCO Ambassador of Chinese National Culture.

He first came across leather carving shortly after graduating from art college, and immediately fell in love with the craft, explaining, "Without any hesitation, I starting looking for perfect resources for leather carving and kept digging into it."

His hard work paid off, and in 2015, he was given the opportunity to present his artwork the Louvre in Paris. He said it was a proud moment, not just for him but also for his people, as leather carving is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and the blood of Mongolians.

"I think I made a good impression as a descendant of Genghis Khan," he said with a smile.

Gawa owns a shop and workshop in Tongliao city, where several students learn about the art of leather carving under his guidance, hoping to pass on the craft to the next generation.

Language continues ancient stories

Across the city of Tongliao, another method is being used to help pass on traditional Mongolian culture to the younger generation. Jarud Mongolian Primary School is one of the 109 local schools that feature Mongolian culture, as well as using Mongolian as their primary teaching language.

In this school, Mongolian is taught from kindergarten, while children are taught Chinese from 2nd grade and then English from 3rd grade. This gives the students different identities, opportunities and interests.

As well as language, these students learn to play classical instruments, songs and stories, to help them better study their personal history and learn about their ancestors.

13-year-old Qinggelt, a student at Jarud Mongolian Primary School, has been learning to play Sihu for three years. "I want to inherit this music style as my ancestors were all fond of this instrument and it's a traditional Mongolian music style," he notes.

Qinggelt and his bandmates have already played in cities across China, including Beijing. These young musicians have been handed the gauntlet to preserve their lifestyle and share it with the outside world.

Although Inner Mongolia is slowly modernizing, changing the way of life in the grasslands for many, locals here are using their history and culture to keep the Mongolian spirit alive in the 21st century, and making it easier for others to experience their unique way of life.

As Gawa notes, "a country needs to prioritize its culture to become powerful. As an ethnic Mongolian, China's recent attention and promotion of ethnic culture has made me feel like our spring has arrived." 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: He Zhuoyan, Bianji)

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