"Just sit right back and youll hear a tale, A tale of a fateful trip . . ."
The lyrics stretched out across the grasslands, powered by alcohol and punctuated by the tortured wail of the family watchdog. Everyones a critic. We sang for our dinner: a feast of lamb, slain by our host, spiced and simmered in a cauldron over coals, served in washbasin buckets. Life was good.
How we five came to Inner Mongolia belting out the "Gilligans Island Theme Song" was the barest of reasons, nearly too embarrassing to cite. Boiled down, we came to answer the burning question: Mongolian Pie: Fact or Fiction? Adventure occasionally comes in small doses.
Three foreigners: An American, an Englishman and me, a Canadiandoes this sound like the start of every bar joke ever told? joined two Chinese ladies for a day trip.
We worked in Shenyang, Northeast China, all teachers but at different locations and at various points in our tenure. Ben, from Wisconsin, and Robert, of Oxford, had been in China about one year and I was the grand old man, hailing from Vancouver, coming to the end of my two-year hitch. The ladies resided in the industrial city. We became friends through a potpourri of circumstances, but one thread that weaved its way through our personalities was the desire to eat as many varied foods the region offered.
Since Chinese school terms offer two six-week holidays a year, we all had our share of travel stories but this latest episode started when my colleague, a Chinese teacher, whose name (fittingly) translated to "Stonehead," in casual conversation asked whether I had ever eaten Mongolian Pie? (I expected a punchline but was disappointed.) Her boyfriend had raved about it so she suggested we gather some friends and travel to Huolinguole, an Inner Mongolian town about eight hours by train northwest of our home city and track some down.
Eight hours for pie? For one who routinely travelled overnight to near the Russian border for cheese, or twelve hours to Beijing for mayonnaise, whats eight hours chasing a gastronomical rumor? Sign me up.
The other member of our party, Jun, a music teacher who later became my wife (thats a whole different story) joined us just for fun.
"Five passengers set sail that day
For a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour."
And it was fun. We made some fast friends in Huolinguole, the way you know foreigners can if youve ever travelled in China. One Mr. Wong chauffeured our group into the vast grasslands where we stopped to chat with a few Mongolian families. They were incredibly generous with all they had considering the language barriertheir dialect differing greatly from Mandarin.
Through nods and smiles the patriarch of one clan suggested I hop on one of his horses so we could go rope dinner, an unsuspecting lamb quietly grazing with the rest of the familys flock. I declined for being raised in Vancouvers inner city, chasing ones dinner while on horseback wasnt taught in public schools. Perhaps it should. For those special interest groups out there, no humans were hurt in the creating of this story. This cannot be said for that poor, bleating lamb. Tasty it was.
We stayed for hours, exchanging songs when conversation faltered. The day was full of goodwill and when we finally said our good-byes, the entire group buzzed from the connection. We made our way back to the train station where our bags had been stored, content with our lot in life. That feeling, however, was short-lived.
The police met us there with some bad news: We were travelling in a "restricted" military area. Our bags were held ransom and through a mishmash of English and Chinese were told we must pay a fine or be arrested. It was just a matter of how much or for how long.
"So this is the tale of the castaways, Theyre here for a long, long time . . ."
Nice business the local gendarmerie ran. They changed the rules or set them as they pleased. Prospecting for Mongolian Pie would cost us. For each foreigner, it was a whopping 5,000 Yuan. ($625 US)-- the cost of a ski weekend in, say, Utah but several months wages in China. We refused to pay even one shekel believing our trip was aboveboard. The two ladies showed their sides, too. Stonehead immediately burst into fat tears, her layered makeup streaking like a geishas in a rainstorm. Jun stayed calm and became our prime negotiator. At stake were money, pride and, well, money.
Upon our refusal to pay, we were put under "house arrest," sequestered in the local hotel and forced to cough up for the "best" rooms. My four-star had no working lights, a backed up toilet, and cockroach carcasses in a few of the darker crannies. What were my odds if a cockroach couldnt make it?
We didnt take the detention seriously, even less so when ordered to write a self-criticism. Robert wrote in Latin (who said it was a dead language?) and I submitted an essay on what we had for lunch that day. Ben wrote bawdy lyrics to a rugby song. We knew the translators English was lacking and that he probably had, like so many others in these positions, secured his job through nepotismill-qualified for the task. He put up a decent front, staring in great concentration at the sheets of paper, nodded knowingly at appropriate intervals and ceremoniously discarding the self-criticisms one by one. One speed bump over and done with.
We had two choices for dinner: 1. Have one or 2. Dont have one. We chose option 1 thinking what the hell, maybe well finally get some Mongolian Pie. Official pumping of our pockets of cash continued as Y25 each was charged for our dining room meal. Dinner bell at six.
Now, Y25 could easily have paid for all of us at any local restaurant but that wasnt the kick in the crotch. When we arrived promptly for dinner, the police were sitting at a huge round table having a banquet, laughing raucously, already red-faced from drinking. They were having a good time all right . . . at our expense. Between swigs of baijiu, the costliest alcohol in China, we were told that due to our tardiness, they had to eat the meal, our treat. We went back to our respective rooms to stew overnight, hungry, and angry.
"No phone, no lights, no motorcars, Not a single luxury . . ."
I fell asleep listening to the party (our party!) extend into the night. We each had our own "cell," certainly, so our hosts could siphon our resources yet further. But we werent without entertainment. As day broke, I noticed my room faced a fenced courtyard where there was an enormous sow wallowing in the makeshift pen. I thought at first it was a half-buried Vee Dub Beetle but when it suddenly got agitated, I was surprised at how agile it really could be. The source of stress? The well-fed police had decided today was the day the giant pig was to be sacrificed and divided up for their families. Through my window, it was akin to watching a one-channel horror film.
Masters of multi-tasking. At once the cops were adept at graft and blackmail and with the flip of a new day, bam, they were in gumboots and aprons pig-wrestling. Was my respect for them to grow or diminish?
We gathered before the next tribunal, one of several, to rehash the situation. For one, Robert had read in a guidebook that though this sticky situation happens on occasion, dont get flustered, negotiate a fee that satisfies all and within a few hours, you will be free to move on, your wallet thinner, your load generously lightened by a small Huolinguole Hospitality surcharge. Ben wouldnt have any of that. He put in an anxious call to the American Consulate but the cold voice on the other end did nothing to quell our concerns. "Let us know if they move you." Click.
Stonehead and Jun, being Chinese, were not travelling illegally. Only foreigners were, but in magnanimous fashion, the ladies were fined right alongside us. Stoneheads waterworks were working overtime. Juns cool was our only chance.
Ideas were tossed around and if you can believe it, the best brainchild was, get this, "Just tell them we dont have the money and that well pay off our time in prison." knowing full well that Chinese wouldnt send foreigners to jail. If nothing else, we certainly must have given the police a stitch from laughing too hard.
"Dont have the money?" the cops questioned. "Prison?" grins widening so fast, their ears were in danger of being swallowed. "Well put the women in jail and escort one of you to Shenyang to get the money you owe."
Constabulary: 1 Three Stooges: 0
Forty-eight hours of cat and mouse negotiations and the matter was decided. The details are tedious but the usual tactics: threats, tears, cajoling, pleadingon our part--were used in varying degrees.
For Police Academy, their ace was the simple mantra: The longer we stay, the better food they will eat at our expense."
The cost for our adventure? Two days bloated hotel fees, meals we paid for but didnt eat; limited and monitored movement; having to watch a giant pigs demise; a fine that plummeted from the astronomical Y5,000 down to an irritating Y140 (17 USD).
No Mongolian Pie.