Khitan Road, day 1: Beijing to Dolonnuur

The Khitan Liao was a medival dynasty on China’s northern frontier. Just like the Mongols, the Khitan (契丹) were pastoral. They had a unique script, a very cool aesthetic, and were devout Buddhists.

I was recently invited along on a research trip to visit some archeological sites along one of the main trade routes–what these scholars are calling the Khitan Road. Now my own research is nearly a thousand years away from the Liao, but my work on Mongolian cattle drives exactly in this spot–and it’s not an easy spot to get to. So when they invited me, I jumped at it.

It was only six days, but it was all pretty action packed. And by action packed, I mean spending about eight hours each day driving around narrow mountain roads, stopping to peek inside empty archeological sites, climb up mountains to see where spots where future archeological sites might be hiding, and see some historical sites that I would not otherwise have seen in a million years.

Plus, we met with a lot of local officials and scholars, which meant an obscene amount of eating and drinking.

Beijing to Fengning to Duolun

June 19: We started off a little late, but by noon we were on the road from Beijing (they had started five hours earlier in Baoding) to Fengning. This took us a few hundred meters up into the mountains, so Fengning was already a huge improvement over muggy Beijing. In Fengning we met up with a second Hebei University group, and had the first of our many banquets.

Like all of our meals, this one featured a giant pile of lamb–in this case it was boiled ribs–but the one that stuck with me was a simple dish of cubed buckwheat starch (凉粉) tossed in sesame paste. Starch dishes are common, and they aren’t supposed to have any taste, but buckwheat actually did have a really pleasant nuttiness that matched well with the sesame.

I liked it so much, I made it myself!

There was also drinking, by which I mean baijiu. Now I have wrestled with that particular beast before, and always came out badly bruised. So this first time, I proceeded carefully, which meant only a few shots.

After lunch, we all piled back in our minivan and headed out to Duolun, also known as Dolunnuur (Dolun lake 多伦诺尔). Duolun was once a major center of Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the main stops on the cattle and sheep route from Hulunbuir to Zhangjiakou. Seriously, I wrote a whole paper on it.

This was the one part of that road that I had never visited, so when we got there, I was giggling in sheer joy. Also, I was still a little drunk from lunch.

To my surprise, Duolun was really lush and green. Since the areas I did visit were all a lot more dry, I had expected something of an oasis where you could water your animals before heading south. But the whole area was all tall green grass, with the sort of bright sunshine that you only see at high altitudes.

Look kids, grass!

Our hotel was absolutely swish, but I didn’t have time to think about that, since we were now off to dinner, featuring yes–lamb and baijiu.

“Oh no,” said I, “I shan’t. I musn’t!”

And then I did.

Long story short, I met a lot of new friends, learned a lot about the local cattle markets, and now have a plan to come back to learn to make whole roasted lamb.

The kind of kitchen you need to prepare a whole lamb

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