Early January 2017 I travelled with my wife through the birch tree forests of HuLunBuir district – Inner Mongolia, China – on the border with Russia. It was dead quiet whenever we stopped the car to go outside, as the temperatures hoovered around -25 C and not much alive was out there.
Our driver, who my wife found through intensive ‘screening’ by probing him on his knowledge of the area, stopped the car to say his greetings to this man who was about to fill his sled with wood, who invited us immediately at his house for lunch.
After a few rounds of collecting wood – we left for a little settlement where he and his brother have lived together for over the last 40 years (despite the fact that he was also married, but more about that later).
It was still at least -20 C, so the warm home we were welcomed in was perfect. The two brother were curious to know why two travellers would visit this place – let alone in winter. We explained our travel philosophies and within seconds, the stories started flowing both ways.
I must admit, my Mandarin is not good enough to join the entire conversations – but I soon understood that these man ‘escaped’ the big Chinese cities in 70’s, to venture into the wild.
The older brother prepares hot water for the tea, as I go outside to have a little look around. Before I step outside the older brother asks me where I’m from. “Europe…. Holland”, I say. “Do you have any coins from your country?”. I hand over a few coins (which I always carry with me in rural China ;) ), and walk outside.
It is when my wife and I discover a tent full of frozen wild animals – that I realise that this is true survival what these people have to go through each winter.
The older brother explains how he has been making a living in the forest for decades, by trading meat and fur with local (Russian) traders.
Sheep are kept within the settlement for meat and wool – keeping wolves at bay is the main challenge in winter when there is little food out there for wolves and sometime even bears
Poor ducks in the freezing cold
My wife and I take a small walk up the hill to take a look at this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere.
We look around and realise that these might be the most liberated Chinese we have seen so far is this vast country. As we walk back, something red appears in the distance.
From out of nowhere, the brother appeared in a red silk suit and metal chained whips to perform some of his favourite pastimes, Wushu, the fight sport. After a couple of whip’s – he disappeared again, but returned in an even more imaginative suit.
The monkey faced man is a famous creature in Chinese folkore
Not the most common sight you would expect mid-winter on the border between Russia and China.
Almost a relic, this old Motorola played a large role during the decision to move into the forest to live the wild live.
The stories (the elder brother was a chef in Moscow and Kenya during his 20s), continued as we had lunch. During each story, one of the brothers disappear into a room and return with an object they have found during the many wanderings through these forests, such as this petrified piece of tree-root.
The biggest treasure of all was this beautiful and large Polypore. When I look at the time, I realise we have spend 4 hours with a total strangers who’s language I only barely speak, but who have inspired. As we prepare to go – he dresses up one final time.
‘What a place, what a life, people are beautiful.’