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Field report: research stay in Inner Mongolia

Elke Scheibler spent three months in the Alashan desert working on a joint project of the University of Stuttgart and the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University in Hohhot. Elke Scheibler is a Margarete von Wrangell scholar at Stuttgart University and is currently working on her habilitation thesis on the plasticity of circadian rhythms under the influence of changing species communities. Here she reports on her stay abroad.

Elke Scheibler doing research in the Alashan desert. © Elke Scheibler

“The scholarship from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts enabled me to spend a few months in the Alashan desert, deep in the heart of China. With a number of Chinese language courses under my belt, I left for Inner Mongolia in April 2012. We did our project in cooperation with researchers from the Inner Mongolia Agricultural University in Hohhot, which is the capital of Inner Mongolia. Hohhot is around 800 km from our research station in the desert. Colleagues from Hohhot helped me to prepare for my trip into the Alashan desert and also spent the first weeks with me on the research station. I loved the evenings we spent together in the field or in our research station, cooking, eating and discussing our cultural differences, and political and everyday issues. 

After a few weeks, my Mongolian colleagues finished their experiments and returned to Hohhot. By then I had adjusted pretty well and was joined by another student from Stuttgart (thank you very much, Corinna!), and I can wholeheartedly say that we had an extraordinary time in China. The region doesn’t have a great deal in common with Shanghai or Beijing. It is a place where the traditional rural way of life and modern progress meet. You find solar power plants next to sheep and camel fields, and plasma TVs in mud huts. We were given a very warm, friendly welcome. Our knowledge of the English language was of little use. Knowing some Chinese was really helpful, as was Russian when it came to communicating with older Chinese and Mongolians. It was very easy to meet locals. Germany, and in particular German cars and cleanliness are very well known here. But I must confess, there were some issues that I found difficult to accept: I found the hierarchical structures very rigid; if you don’t drive the right car, so if you are a farmer, Mongolian or Hui (a Muslim minority) you have an automatic disadvantage. Social security, especially for the elderly, is unheard of. Local government is very much in Chinese hands, so it is the Chinese who make all the decisions on local or regional development. Environmental pollution is a huge problem and I think that waste disposal, the discharge of pollutants into the groundwater and the environment are, and will remain, big challenges in rural China. 

I have spent a long time thinking about my stay in China and I feel that my time there has broadened my horizons considerably. Just think of the distances that people have to travel, for example to find an ATM that is half a day’s journey away or to go to a market that is five kilometres away. I lived in a simple farmhouse and slept on a wooden bench, just like the locals. One learns to live without electricity for a few days, with water for just two hours or so a day and with sandstorms that can turn your schedule upside down. The key personality traits are probably calmness and confidence, especially when things take longer than expected, when the way cars and other things are repaired seems rather strange and when arguments never resolve an issue. I learned that there are other ways to make things work. During my three months in Inner Mongolia, I met many interesting people from different social classes, including shepherds, farmers, monks, artists, policemen and officials. What I experienced in China is as diverse as the country itself; something unexpected happens every day.”

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