Our alarms went off at 7:15 am, urging us to wake up for our 7:40 meeting time in a cacophony of rings and beeps that seemed to fill the hallways of the Yue Cheng Fashion Hotel in Baotou. We trickled into the lobby as Evan, and Long Yun told us that we could head to breakfast on our own and meet at the apartment at 8:30. With our stomachs filled with steaming hot wonton soup and sweet treats from the bakery next door, we headed over to our apartment complex for the second part of our breakfast, which consisted of toast, cereal, yogurt, and fresh fruit – all comfort foods that have made the transition to an almost fully Chinese diet manageable. With full stomachs, we headed to the orphanage for three hours of service before our afternoon excursion to the grasslands. At the Baotou Social Welfare Institute, we had a laid-back day, as many of the children were attending school in the morning and a fair number of the babies who remained were still asleep. After a fulfilling morning of helping the children at the orphanage, we returned back to the apartment and ate some Kraft Mac and Cheese for lunch, which was a relief for those of us who were missing many of the foods we eat back home in America. Although many of us elected to have mac and cheese for lunch, we still enjoyed some traditional Chinese food in addition to the pasta in order to maintain our quest for seemingly complete cultural immersion. Once we finished eating, we were given a couple of hours of free time, which we quickly passed by while playing card games at the apartment and stocking up on snacks at the convenience stores that line the bustling streets of Baotou.
Before we knew it, it was time for the three-and-a-half hour ride in the infamous tan van out to the grasslands, where we would stay in traditional Mongolian yurts for the night. On the van, we did word searches, made friendship bracelets, and marveled at the breathtaking scenery outside our windows, but we primarily used our valued downtime to take well-needed naps. After a seemingly short ride in the van through the rural Chinese countryside, we arrived at the yurt camp that we would call home for the night. As we stepped off the van onto the dusty ground, we were immediately greeted by the locals with blue silk scarves embroidered with ornate Mongolian characters. We then held bowls of homemade liquor that we held (but did not drink!) in front of us as a symbolic welcoming gesture and listened to customary songs that are common to the region. After the initial arrival in the camp, we were led to our yurt, which was big enough to hold all twelve of us. All of the adults stayed in a separate yurt, but the students were all grouped together in a real “bonding experience.” We decided to grab a Frisbee and head out to one of the expansive fields that surrounded the yurts, tossing it in a circle until we were called to dinner in the big yurt that sat in the center of the camp after an hour out in the field. At dinner, we were served three different types of mutton, along with some other meats and vegetables. After our meal as a big group, we went our separate ways and explored the area while the sun was setting over the horizon. Walking through the rolling fields as the colors of the sky flashed ethereal shades of pink and purple instilled a deep sense of calmness in all of us and allowed us to form an even deeper connection with the breathtaking views that surrounded us in the grasslands. As we returned to the camp once the sun had set, we were met with even more Mongolian music that filled the square in the center of the complex. We danced around the campfire, laughing and enjoying each other’s company as the light from the flame flickered and provided a source of brightness in the dark grasslands. Suddenly, loud pop music came blaring over the speakers, and the people who were dressed in traditional Mongolian outfits donned light-up cat ear headbands and glow stick necklaces. We danced with them in the square to the pop music, copying their dance moves and having a completely unexpected type of fun – who would have thought that we’d be listening to loud American pop music in the middle of the rural Inner Mongolian grasslands? After a few hours of excitement in the square, we returned back to our chilly family-sized yurt and settled in for the night, talking and laughing until we all gradually fell asleep. Our day of mixing both service and cultural exploration in the same day proved to be a valuable experience that was both mentally and socially enriching.