On the first day I arrive at Hohhot’s Anda Guesthouse in Inner Mongolia, I feel like an intruder at their kitchen table.
I have read countless reviews about the warmth and welcome other travellers have received, but this evening conversation is stilted. Over the chatter of a Chinese variety show I try to chat with the lady boss as she makes dinner, warming up milk and stirring it into a millet porridge.
Now and again I venture a question. 她在唱什么歌 ？这种音乐是传统的吗？— What is the woman singing onscreen? Is it a traditional song? She answers without elaborating, polite but removed, with a slight distance that says she has other things on her mind.
Of course she does. When her husband and hostel owner Zorigoo returns at eight, he has been away for a few days, on a reconnaissance in the 二连浩特 area — grasslands that are a four-hour drive away from the city. He will take guests there in the summer, when the fields spring into green and the bitter cold of winter gives way to pleasant, 25 degree afternoons.
He greets his wife and their intimacy is quiet, understated — a hand on his shoulder, plates of food served swiftly at at table, multiple options for his choosing. “要粥吗？咸菜？吃一点馒头?” He nods in assent to all of them, tapping away on the tablet-sized smartphone he uses to respond to email enquires about the guesthouse.
I journal while they eat, pausing between sentences to sneak glances at a ritual they perform nightly. There is a living area with couches and wifi but I want company after a 12-hour commute, two layovers, and an entire afternoon spent alone. Still, I sense the privacy of the moment as much as they sense my presence. After dinner, without conversation, they retreat to each other’s company in the living room.
Thousands of miles from home, I think the weekday dinners I share with my partner — a meal to unwind from the work day, an hour for the demands of clients and bosses to dissipate, quiet conversation or none at all, while racing minds and taut shoulders ease into the comforts of home.
I have read multiple reviews about the warmth and the welcome other travellers have received from the pair at Anda, but tonight it is just about them. This much I can understand.
Almost every solo traveller will agree that at some point, the road becomes unspeakably lonely. I have asked this of backpackers the world over, although it is not an easy topic to bring up — a question I only venture after a few drinks have given way to companionable silence.
Mostly I hesitate because this is not easy for me to discuss either. As a solo female traveller, I have grown adept at masking fear and vulnerability, of hardening my fists and stance into something impenetrable at the slightest hint that a situation can turn. I have a whistle clipped to my travel wallet and a small blade tucked within. Sarah Hepola, who took a solo road trip through the United States at 27, carried a ball peen hammer in her car. These measures may sound overwrought but they guard our sanity as much as our safety.
But when you spend so much time appearing self-contained, swashbuckling; the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself and not tell her parents, it can be difficult to code switch and let your guard down in the safety of a hostel common room. I’ve lost count of the times I watched from the sidelines of a conversation, waiting for an appropriate moment to chime in, introduce myself, get in with a group of strangers whom I could possibly spend the next few days in a foreign city with.
Sometimes they are friendly, having only convened earlier that evening, and we run quickly through the requisite where are you from — where are you going — how long are you traveling spiel. Off we go the next day, splitting the cost of cab fare or a tuk-tuk ride, and I’m secure in a new group of companions to last until my next departure. But sometimes there are cliques I can’t penetrate, or a couple I am loathe to intrude on. Those nights, there can be too much silence.
Humans are funny that way. Silence is a commodity I travel to acquire, but when a foreign land proffers it in spades, I find there can be too much of a good thing.
Still, I appreciate the flexibility of solo travel because it lets me pick and choose. There is no fear of offending anyone if I sit out of a group activity, and when one person leaves there will be three more to take their place in the hostel lobby. It is even simpler in China, where my Mandarin skills — no matter how questionable at home — make it easy to break the ice by offering to translate for a hapless Westerner or a Chinese domestic traveller.
But it is winter in Hohhot, in the thick of low season, and tonight there will be no other travellers at Anda Guesthouse. My travel companion Sheena is due to arrive in two days, but for now it is just me and my journal, and the silence of the three storey hostel when Zorigoo and his wife retreat to their home next door. Before bed, I try to send a voice text home but it comes out as a croak, my voice rusty from unuse.
I am relieved to see Sheena when she eventually arrives, having already covered the best of what Hohhot has to offer. The capital of Inner Mongolia, like so many of its Chinese counterparts, is functional but unattractive.
I trudge through grey, uniform pavements sodden with slush, and try to enjoy the Inner Mongolia Museum, but really the best part of my two days alone is the China-made Bosideng down coat I buy for SGD50 which is extremely comfy despite the price. (What a name, though — apparently it’s a Chinese transliteration of “Boston”)
The coat comes in handy on a two-day overnight tour of the Inner Mongolia grasslands. In the front seat of Zorigoo’s van, I watch the thermostat dip steadily, and when we reach the grasslands he hops out of the van to secure snow chains on our tyres. The grasslands stretch before us, more ice than grass, not a soul (or a yurt) in sight. My smugness at arriving in Hohhot during low season quickly turns to apprehension.
It is my first time in sub-zero temperatures, and the wind gnaws at every sliver of exposed skin. A hotpot lunch of seaweed tofu and bony pieces of mutton warms me up a little, and a shot of vodka after lunch helps.
Still, when Zorigoo ushers us to our yurt, where we are to spend the night, I dive into the pile of thick mattresses and blankets. 我看你不行，he says, laughing. He thinks I can’t handle the cold. There are five girls on this tour but three of them are French, and Sheena had spent an entire semester on exchange in Russia.
We recline on piles of bedding and Sheena tells me about Russia, about the shitty heaters that didn’t work and how she worked illegally as a chambermaid because they paid cash by the day and she needed extra money. There is so much to tell because we know so little about each other — we’d seen each other around for years but rarely talked until we met for lunch one day, decided to go to Inner Mongolia, and booked tickets that same week.
When I think back on Inner Mongolia it’s not the activities I remember, even though our itinerary is chock full of them — horseback riding, archery, a campfire under the stars. Instead it’s how we swapped stories during that cold afternoon in the grasslands, how I stared for hours at the criss-crossing beams of our circular tent as we talked about school, work, dating; boys who entered briefly into our lives, and the ones who stayed. There’s no such thing as a toilet in the grasslands so we answer nature’s call in the great outdoors, taking turns to shield each other’s modesty with our coats.
I think, in the end, there’s no perfect travel companion. Either you’re lonely or you have to compromise to some degree, and usually I choose the former. But being with Sheena made me feel braver.
Back in Hohhot, we Couchsurf with Nick, an expat who owns an English language school. It was my first time, and I didn’t realise I would feel so unsettled sharing a stranger’s studio apartment, but Sheena had slept on couches and floors all over Europe. “I think it’s fine,” she said, settling into bed beside me, and it was.
We spend a few days in Hohhot, returning to Anda Guesthouse after our night at Nick’s place. On the last day, we have run out of sights to explore so we spend the afternoon singing KTV at an insanely well-appointed joint that puts all our local KTVs to shame.
It’s funny because we’ve come all this way to China to belt out Jay Chou classics, but I think of the road trip in Perth I took with old friends a few years ago, where we played ping pong and ate chicken drumsticks every night and joked about how we could have just stayed in Singapore to do that. In reality, this uninterrupted expanse of time together is a luxury.
At night Sheena and I return to the hostel, snacks in hand for a light dinner. We head past the kitchen to our dorm, but Zorigoo beckons us in. Join us, he says, 大家一起吃。His wife is laying out porridge and accompanying dishes of salted fish, hulking mutton bones, preserved vegetables.
They have a guest over to dinner, Zorigoo’s old friend from college, together with two German backpackers who arrived that afternoon. Already the alcohol is flowing — a clear, eye-wateringly strong liquor that’s a cross between vodka and baijiu.
Zorigoo is the man of the house, but his wife is the better drinker. He raises multiple toasts, so many that I struggle to keep up, and downs a respectable number of shots. But even when his face is ruddy and flushed, his wife is still going strong. She’s ethnic Mongolian, trained by her grandmother to drink for warmth rather than pleasure; she’s the more serious one between them. Still, when we egg Zorigoo on to perform a traditional Mongolian number, she joins in with little coercion,
Later, as the night wears on and merriment turns contemplative, Zorigoo asks each of us in turn — What shall we toast to? What are your dreams? I want to tell them I’m writing my best friend’s biography, but it’s early days and my drafts are still misshapen and ungainly, so instead I tell them about my freelance career, trying to convey in stilted Mandarin how much I want to make it work.
As we go around the table and everyone lays bare their dreams, it occurs to me how transient this feels. Years of travelling has taught me that times like these, when routes and conversations intersect, you stay as long as your body holds up because once you go to bed there’s no rekindling the magic of the previous night. Perhaps Zorigoo’s wife realises this too, when she turns contemplative. 这是个好日子，she says. This is a good day.
And it is true, tomorrow we will leave. We will wake up at noon for one last lunch in Hohhot with our newfound German friends, where they nurse a hangover while Sheena and I tuck into a spread of spiced mutton skewers. We’ll take photos; I’ll promise to visit one of them in Munich. Sheena will catch an overnight train to Beijing and I will go to Harbin, the open road a blank slate of strangers and friendships. But for now, in the warmth of Anda Guesthouse, it is a good night. It is a good day.