Dung sweeping festival

Forced labour on the Inner Mongolian grasslands – by Alec Ash


The blades of a hundred wind turbines chugged languidly, stirring the dry morning air over an expanse of cracked grasslands pock-marked with horse droppings. A klick away, inside our ger, we reluctantly pushed off our blankets to meet the morning and rubbed the sleep from our eyes. It was a grudging start to the day, but missing breakfast would be worse.

We were in the Huitengxile grasslands, Inner Mongolia – an Englishman, a French woman and a Russian, like the start of a bad joke. It was 2010, it was Qingmingjie – tomb sweeping festival – and we had the long weekend off from our language school in Beijing. None of us had been to Inner Mongolia. It sounded exotic. Horses and horizons, that kind of thing.

Our host, who had rented us the ger, gave us each a plate of flat noodles with chopped veg and a mischievous smile. I may have imagined the mischievous smile.

“Would you like to participate in a traditional Mongolian activity today?” he asked, stoking the dung-fueled samovar.

“Yes!” we chorused, eyeing the horses tied up outside. There were two traditions for Qingmingjie in China, we knew – sao mu, sweeping the ancestral graves, and ta qing, going for a nature walk. We wondered how they did it north of the Wall.

Noodles slurped, we loaded into our host’s pick up (no horsies for us) and drove out into the middle of the grasslands. Before, we were told, this land was a yellow-green sea. Now it was dry and barren, treaded clumps of lemon coloured grass spread thin. The wind farm sat around us, huge and lonely. Some turbines whirled energetically, others barely moved, a few were deathly still. It was them who had killed the land, the jeeps and workers that maintained the electricity station who had trampled the grass into dusty earth.

Still excited to be out of the city and in nature's tamed garden, we piled out of the jeep. Without ceremony our host gave each of us three things.

1) a wire basket

2) a trowel

3) a thick pair of gloves

This was ... unexpected. But what on earth were we going to collect? It was a wilderness. There was nothing around us but for a thousand buns of dried horse stool.

Oh. Crap.

Our host grinned and explained the rules. When your basket is full, dump it in the back of the pick up. There will be lunch break in a couple of hours. He set off without another word, trowel in hand, and started picking up shit. My fellow saps and I exchanged a glance. We were committed by our breakfat enthusiasm and couldn’t back out now. Our Qingmingjie would be spent collecting organic fuel for our host’s fire. He hadn't lied – this was a traditional Mongolian activity for this time of year. Not tomb sweeping, but poop scooping.

We annexed the field between us and got to work. It was a crisp day and the horizon was shimmering. We were in the grasslands after all, right where we wanted to be. There were no horses, but they had left behind gifts for us. That poop wasn’t going to scoop itself.

A dried horse faeces is by no means an unpleasant object. It is a satisfying size to hold, the shape (if thankfully not consistency) of a juggling ball, and has been in the sun for so long it is odourless. Of course, it’s not a pleasant object. I wouldn’t go out of my way to admire one. I wouldn’t rack up the finest specimens on my mantlepiece. But of all animal droppings, human included, it’s far from the most offensive.

The trowel was useless unless you chanced on a goldmine of dung, a mountain of cack, excreta jackpot, and shovelled it all up with great satisfaction. But these graveyards of brown gold were rare finds. Evidently, horses were solitary shitters, if thorough. It was much easier just to pick up the scattered turds in our gloves and throw them straight in the basket.

I looked across at the competition. My Russian classmate was already upending a full basket into the pick up. Our host was scooping at a terrifying pace. My French friend had retreated inside the truck for a nap, claiming she was feeling ill. Cheese-eating surrender monkey! This wasn’t helping my collective stereotype of her nation.

Back to the job, I thought. Focus, Alec. Don't take your eye off the poo ball. There's still lots of shit to do. It was nearly noon and we had barely carpeted the back of the truck. Would lunch break be soon? Just how long would we be out here? Until sundown? Surely we could leave at any point. If we asked then our host would drive us back whenever we wanted to. Right?

I looked up at the merciless landscape of earth and ordure. I was thirsty now, and wondered if there was water in the truck. At the far end of the field the wind turbines turned lazily. They were watching us, I was sure of it. From up on high, they were regarding us in their infinite ennui – three small bent figures, fleshy and mortal, inching steadily closer, picking up horse leftovers for fuel to cook our food and keep us warm when the sun set, like hunter gatherers of old.

And they were unimpressed.

Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing, and founding editor of the Anthill