Ayunga | Zheng Yunlong

84 HOURS • 500 KILOMETRES

A JOURNEY OF A DECADE

After ten years of friendship, Ayunga visits his hometown of Ordos with Zheng Yunlong. Thus begins the road trip of brotherhood. One car, two brothers, hundreds of kilometres. On the vast rolling plains, these two with vastly different personalities put on a performance of their duet between an old soul and a youth.


The Place Where Dreams Begin

There are many ways to tour Ordos, but taking the cable car of Whistling Dune Bay to enter the desert hinterland is probably one of the most fantastical ways. The cable network crosses the Hantai River, connecting the Gobi Plains and Whistling Dune Bay which is on the eastern end of Kubuqi Desert. As the cable car glides slowly forward, the scenic view of the sand sea glittering gold under the fiery sun enters the eyes of Zheng Yunlong. Ayunga points to the endless desert, “This is Ordos.” Zheng Yunlong questions with an exaggerated expression, “What happened to the grassland?”

Desert and grassland are two sides of Ordos. There are beautiful greens and flowing waters with herds of cows and sheep, but there are also giant barren plains that swallow everything. This seems to be an apt portrayal of Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong’s different personalities.

Ten years ago, when Ordos youth Ayunga and Tsingtao youth Zheng Yunlong met in Beijing Dance Academy for the first time, their personalities were already very different. Zheng Yunlong’s first impression of Ayunga was, “Ga-zi was especially thin. His skill during the examination was way better than us. But he couldn’t speak Chinese very well at the time.”

However, in Ayunga’s eyes, Zheng Yunlong, who hadn’t been hardened by society, still retained the keenness and simplicity of a high school student. “At that time, my impression of Da-long is a ‘silly big boy’. His eyes are empty, but always full of curiosity about the world. Yet when he sings, his eyes become extremely focused.” The steady Ayunga became class monitor, taking on the responsibility of supervising his classmates’ professional training. Da-long who was “a little difficult” was won over by this Mongolian man soon enough. “Ga-zi is like my old big brother and role model, always driving me on. Whenever I run into some difficulties or feeling down, I thought about the things he’s been through, and I’ll be able to power through again.”

Their shared dream towards musicals was what led to the two young men to meet in Beijing. Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong were both stunned by the musical actors’ performances after watching Cats (the musical), thinking “This is what I want to do”. Ayunga gave up a secure job in Inner Mongolia’s military-political corps, heading to Beijing to study. Tsingtao’s Zheng Yunlong also got into Beijing Dance Academy, setting forth on the road of musicals with resolute.

At their graduation, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong completed their campus career with the Broadway classic musical Rent as their graduation show. To them, the future path of musicals remained unknown. Hence, they made a pact: No matter what happened in the future, they must return to the stage, because that was where dreams began.

Roughened and steadied by life’s tests, Ayunga presented a contrast to the childish Zheng Yunlong -- akin to the colts and lambs of the grasslands, always in a lively state of play.

Reunion is Life’s Greatest Beauty

In Ordos, on the grass fields and in the desert, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong chatted about the herd and the sky, conversed about hometowns and faraway lands, and of course, the one thing that was always on their minds -- musicals. Da-long’s occasional witticism and emoji-like expressions could always bring about laughter from Ayunga and made him counterattack with his own. You would understand why Da-long said, “When the two of us are together, there will always be a show of a cat-and-dog war”, as Da-long chased down Ayunga, wanting to “catch a camel for him to eat”.

They also had their quiet moments, such as when Da-long strummed the guitar, singing casually while sitting on a dune, and when Ayunga sang Mongolian tunes that he used to sing while shepherding when he was younger. In these little moments, the two’s real brotherhood was forged.

Many years after graduation, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong reunited on the stage of Super Vocal, realising their original pact of familiarising more people with musicals.

If there weren’t a dozen people from Hunan TV’s Super Vocal team that persuaded Zheng Yunlong to participate in the show, if there wasn’t a reason of “a chance to promote musicals” to move him, then maybe there wouldn’t be a reunion on stage for Zheng Yunlong and Ayunga. And the warming up of China’s domestic musical market might also come even later.

In these ten years, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong quietly polished their musical skills, the two used a reunion to light a beacon for the domestic musical market. From an unpopular art form that was unknown to most, to musicals starring Zheng Yunlong selling out within a minute; even they admitted they did not expect that the market change would be so abrupt and swift.

Now, they were no longer like Don Quixote charging alone at windmills, but rather charging up the light of local musicals to be brighter -- together as brothers.

A Pact of A Decade

From when they first met in 2009, Ayunga had promised to bring Da-long to the pastures of Ordos, to savour the best mutton. From the Mongolian homes of Whistling Dune Bay to the tourist area of Ordos Grassland, from grilled lamb1 from a regular shepherd’s home to the celebratory feast of the highest standard - Zha Ma Feast, Ayunga probably had brought Da-long to see all of Ordos’ beauty and taste all of Ordos’ cuisine.

Actually, Da-long was no stranger to Mongolian culture. During their university years, he often heard Ayunga talking about his hometown on the grassland. He also frequently asked Ayunga about the ways to sing traditional Mongolian music. Being able to travel together in Ordos is like an opportunity to revisit it all. Just like Ayunga said, “Travelling lets one escape from the impetuous state of life, allowing the heart to quieten”.

The great beauty of life is not the encounter, but the reunion.
Ayunga is still the responsible old class monitor,
And Da-long is still the silly big boy to the old class monitor,
They kept their purity from when they first met,
In addition to holding fast onto their dream for musicals.

After the broadcast of Super Vocal and Singer 2019, the two had a huge surge in popularity and attention, but in their hearts, musicals transcended all other hustle and bustle. To them, musicals had always been their original resolution. Moreover, they had a more important identity as “musical actors”.

The only regret they had due to having to rush back through the night for the flight back to Beijing, was that Ayunga could not bring Zheng Yunlong back to visit his birthplace -- Sumitu in Otog Banner. However, they had regained energy from the vast plains on this journey. Just like the classic line in Rent: “No day but today”, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong had no intention to sing about grandiose plans, but only about not forgetting what they had first set out to do and living in the moment. Only before, when they first stepped into the world of musicals, they were resolute loners trudging in the desert; now, they brought boundless grasslands for musicals, waiting for more people to run freely, to chase their musical dreams.

To them, musicals have always been their original resolution.
Moreover, they have a more important identity as “musical actors”.

Q & A

Z H E N G   Y U N L O N G

  • Are you adapting well on this journey to Ayunga’s hometown?
  • Too dry, the days are too long. Food-wise, the first day was fine, mutton’s delicious. But the second day was…

  • What is your favourite musical?
  • My favourite is Jekyll & Hyde and Rent. In the vocal practices during university, a lot of songs came from Jekyll & Hyde. Rent was my graduation work with Ga-zi, so it has a lot of sentimental value.

  • How was Ayunga as a class monitor during university?
  • He took care of us very well, reminding us to practice daily. He is a very hardworking person himself, so he leads by example. That had a huge influence on me.

  • Did you have any travelling experience together with Ayunga in the past?
  • We didn’t travel together, but we did have a lot of experiences touring together for performances. When we were in university, I had often heard him say there will be a chance to go to his hometown. After so many years, this promise is finally realized.

    A Y U N G A

  • Did you have any interesting stories about life on the plains when you were younger?
  • When I was very young, I shepherded hundreds of sheep to graze alone. I had a small portable music player then, so I listened to Beyond’s songs while I waved my stick around, imagining myself to be a hero from a wuxia novel. Then when I herded the flock home, I discovered some of them were missing, so I got scolded.

  • When was your first time performing in a musical?
  • It was before university. I acted in a musical called Prison Break By Decree. There were also Qiao Shan and Chang Yuan in that production.

  • At thirty, do you have any special understanding of life?
  • I’m more determined than before, I know what I want, I’m also even more responsible. I hope I can be an artiste that stays real, to return to that feeling of when I first started chasing my musical dream, to not forget my original resolution, and do what I enjoy.

  • What is a common hobby you have with Da-long?
  • Both of us enjoy movies. We will discuss and ponder over movies together.

    The Big Shot’s Dining Table (Season 3)

    SINGING & TRAVELLING TO THE NORTH
    ENJOYING TO THE FULLEST

    From the Kubuqi Desert where
    “The lone smoke plume rises sheer in the great desert,
    the sun falls round beyond the long river”,
    To the Ordos Grassland where
    “The sky is as a giant yurt, sheltering the vast grounds”2,
    Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong drove the all-new Ford Taurus,
    Speeding through the scroll of the scenic North,
    Enjoying every moment spent on the grassland.

    On the road of life, everyone used all of their might to run forward and to chase. With the attitude to dictate their own lives, not following and not compromising, bringing extreme joy to their bodies and hearts. National Geographic Traveler collaborated with the all-new Ford Taurus, starting the third season of The Big Shot’s Dining Table in vast Inner Mongolia. Long-time friends Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong, who were both musical actors, had come to Ayunga’s Inner Mongolia hometown, starting a journey to enjoy themselves to the fullest. On the great desert, the grassland, they rode horses, roaming and playing, all while immersed in the ethereal Mongolian melody, enjoying this rare journey.

    D A Y   1
    THE DESERT’S GARDEN OF EDEN

    Setting off from Baotou City, the all-new Ford Taurus drove across Baomao Expressway through Dalad Banner, towards Whistling Dune Bay Tourist Area. Lush aspen trees disappeared behind them as the car sped forward. The boundless grassland in sight reminded one of the beauty in an ancient folk poem, “Chi-le Plain, by Yin Mountains; Sky as yurt, Home to vast grounds”3.

    On the northern shore of Yellow River sat the desert closest to Beijing -- Kubuqi Desert. Three thousand years ago, it was once a lush pasture with flocks of sheep and herds of cows, but now it was a desert with endless yellow sand. The first stop of this trip laid on the eastern end of Kubuqi Desert -- Yin-ken Whistling Dune Bay. It was located in the middle of the cities of Hohhot, Baotou, and Ordos, thus it was also called “the golden button on the Yellow River’s golden belt”. Yin-ken Whistling Dune topped China’s list of Whistling Dunes, hence being dubbed “The King of Whistling Dunes”. Yin-ken was a Mongolian term, meaning “eternal” in Chinese. It seemed akin to the feeling of being able to withstand massive changes.

    Dunes layered and stacked closely around Yin-ken Whistling Dune, building a spectacular view. In this vast sea of sand was a hotel built like a snow lotus -- Whistling Dune Bay’s Desert Lotus Hotel. While on the cable car, the full view of Desert Lotus Hotel could be seen, it was like a pure and holy snow lotus, breathing life that was hard to come by into the desert. Desert Lotus Hotel was one of the few green buildings that were built with eco-friendly construction that did not use bricks, tiles, sand, stone, cement, reinforced bars. Designers used metal plates to fix the building on the sandy lands, together with light-gauge steel joists for the structure’s external body. Not only was it light, but the sail-like design allowed it to function as a fixture, light and wind shelter, including rainwater collection. At the same time, the hotel also made full use of the desert area’s solar resources to be eco-friendly down to even the finer works.

    There was a transfer to a desert buggy after they alighted from the cable car, before finally arriving at Desert Lotus Hotel. Upon arrival, they were received with the highest form of welcoming ceremonies on the grassland. The people wore traditional ethnic costumes and gathered in front of the hotel, even the camels lined up. The music began, along with song and dance, and the passionate “Mongolian Great Khan” invited them to drink dismounting wine. They were also presented with a pure khata4. These were simple yet warm gestures of the grassland people.

    Staying in this hotel that stood tall in the desert was not as lonely as imagined. The hotel was filled with entertainment facilities -- outdoor swimming pool, small desert train, beach volleyball, appreciation of traditional activities such as an Ordos wedding ceremony. These made vacationing in the desert a rich experience. The majestic scene of the desert could be enjoyed even while they rested on the huge bed in the room with a view. The open balcony joined to the room was spacious, you could see the endless dunes as you sat on the deck chair. A picturesque view could be enjoyed during dusk, as the great desert sun sank, it coloured the sky with the sunset glow like an extraordinary oil painting.

    In this beautiful moment, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong enjoyed an amazing candlelight dinner on the hotel’s wide terrace on the second storey. The brilliant sunset was the best background for great food. Even after the sun finally set, the activities continued. Fireworks flew into the sky, blooming with the most gorgeous forms. The incredible show made the lively Zheng Yunlong put down his food, leaning against the railing to enjoy the display above the desert instead. As the night began, the sky full of stars was enough for them to empty themselves into a quieter state of mind.

    The next day, while sitting in the restaurant on the first storey, you could see the camels coming closer through the clear French window. In some moments, you seemed to be able to hear the jingle of camel bells, just like when caravans from hundreds and thousands of years ago journeyed through the desert on trade expeditions. In current times, the only way people could enter and exit Desert Lotus Hotel was by crossing Hantai River via cable car, going into the belly of the desert. This made the place seemed like a Garden of Eden within the desert.

    Climbing up to the top of a dune, or strolling on the sea of sand, or even taking a couple of desert golf swings, was enough to relax. It was only when Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong reached the top of a sand dune, that the origin of the name of Yin-ken Whistling Dune was realised. As the body slid down, the sand dune began its own musical performance. It was soft like calls of frogs, it was heavy like roars of engines, it was like a symphony that had everchanging rhythms. The dune was 110 metres tall and 400 metres wide, creating a huge echo wall. On the causes of whistling dunes, scientists had yet to reach a conclusion. Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong began discussing whistling dunes until it became a discussion of musicals. In the end, they returned to the car. Using the 14-speaker sound system designed by luxury Danish company Bang & Olufsen especially for the all-new Ford Taurus, they put on one of their favourite songs. Immersed in the 360-degree surround sound system, it felt similar to listening to a live performance at a giant theatre, allowing full enjoyment of the music’s atmosphere.

    D A Y   2
    A VISIT TO A MONGOLIAN FAMILY

    About a ten-minute journey on foot from the Desert Lotus Hotel, there were a few yurts around. A simple greeting of “sai-bai-nu”5 would grant you the herdsmen’ milk tea and kindness, passing the day in Mongolian manner.

    In the world of the Mongolian desert, there was a unique way of life and culture that came from being hardened by history and humanity. Walking into the yurt, the two’s eyes were first drawn to the Mongolian ethnic wear. The wide long robes, exquisite accessories and felt hat not only exudes the ethnic uniqueness but also showcased the refined handiwork of the craftsman. What made Mongolian embroidery impressive was the usage of camel thread and beef tendon strings to embroider on hard materials like woollen felt and leather, showing the ethnic style unique to the North.

    As the Mongolian tribes lived on the grassland, hence their ethnic wear were mainly robes to make it easier for riding horses. The Mongolian robes of Ordos area had its own features -- both sides had slits, the wide overlapping front was buttoned on the right, belts were the norm regardless of gender. The marital status of a Mongolian lady could be told by the belt. Single ladies would usually leave the fringe of the belt out after buckling. After becoming a “busgui”6 upon marriage, even if they didn’t have a belt, a tight short sleeveless jacket could be a replacement. When a woman wore the jacket, it meant that she was married and could give birth. Ordos Mongolians also gave particular attention to women’s headdresses. They were made with turquoise, agate, coral, in addition to gold, silver and other precious gems.

    Zheng Yunlong developed quite an interest for these unique ethnic costumes. He couldn’t help himself and tried on piece after piece. In the end, the two changed into Mongolian costumes they took a fancy to and took photographs for each other. Living like the locals was also an important reason for travelling.

    In the sheep pen outside the yurt, a lamb of just a month old caught the attention of Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong. Playing with the little lamb, sitting atop woodpiles, watching the faraway sand sea and Yin Mountains felt like time returned to childhood times, where the beautiful scene was enjoyed without a care in the world.

    As the day gradually passed, a special Mongolian feast was about to begin. Only after wearing the khata that the people presented with both hands, and having drunk a cup of mellow milk wine, then they could enter the yurt to wait for the arrival of good food. Yogurt, milk tea, fruit strips were Mongolian desserts used to introduce the feast, but it was enough to excite the taste buds. Immediately after, the highlights were served in order, shallot pockets and grilled lamb among them. A hearty feast was about to truly begin. Melodies flowed from the old fathers’ horsehead fiddles. The host held up the wine and sang a zealous song to toast. Under such wonderful kindness, it was hard not to down the glass in one shot. Several cups of milk wine later, everyone had already gone deep into the intoxicating night with the host, laughter and jokes filling the empty desert.

    The traditions hardened by time could often help people abandon vexing thoughts and reflect upon themselves. Perhaps, this was the reason people often paid tribute to classics and traditions. As a tribute to renowned Italian Designer Alfredo Vignale, the current all-new Ford Taurus introduced the distinguished Vignale model for the first time. The Ford Taurus Vignale model carried the sentiments of forerunning craftsmen, having the iconic V-design element throughout the car’s finer details. From the flying V-grilles to the flowing bodyline, they presented a super modern form of structural aesthetics. The car design’s intentions could also be seen from the door, seats, glove box, in addition to the Vignale’s welcome light and V-shaped knobs.

    D A Y   3
    INTOXICATING MONGOLIAN LIFESTYLE

    The next day, the trip from Whistling Dune Bay towards Ordos Grassland Tourist Area was done in the all-new Ford Taurus. With the surging power of the Ford Taurus that had zero-delay 8AT, the desert soon fell far away while endless grassland scenes started appearing before their eyes. Hundreds of years ago, countless trade caravans traversed between the grassland and farmland areas. Now with the all-new Ford Taurus driving along the old trade route, not only did the strong engine power provide amazing speed, but together with 12.8-inch wide control panel screen and SYNC+ smart technology, the Ford Taurus allowed carefree roaming among the grassland as if you were one with the vehicle.

    As a camp formed by nearly three hundred yurts appeared before them, it meant they had reached their destination for the day. In the auditorium, sumptuous food and a performance of traditional Ordos wedding ceremony awaited. The traditional Ordos wedding ceremony had been passed down for more than seven hundred years, but its ancient and delightful style remained intact. From engagement khata, marriage bow, welcoming door-block, sacrificial lamb and toast, to asking of the wife’s name, breaking the sheep’s neck, combing of hair, snatching of hats, welcoming worship. Then back to newlywed celebrations and also returning home. The entirety of the Ordos wedding ceremony and the harmonious dances and songs were the most wonderful atmosphere.

    Night arrived with another special Mongol experience especially for grand events -- Zha Ma Feast. Zha Ma Feast was a celebratory feast unique to the Mongolians, often hailed as “Mongolians' Number One Feast”. Zha Ma, in Mongolian, meant a whole animal that had been removed of its hair. In other words, it meant slaughtering a cow or sheep, before using boiling water to remove hair and entrails. After which, it was either roasted or braised before it was presented at the feast. Zha Ma Feast that originated from the palace during Yuan dynasty had long disappeared but in modern times, large amounts of historical texts and records were referenced, thus enabling restoration of the original ceremony. To better enjoy the Zha Ma Feast ceremony, everyone wore Mongolian costumes of lords and khans before taking their seats. Zha Ma Feast not only had a grand meal of a whole lamb but also moving music and dance. The solemn ceremony also had everyone in awe. After three rounds of wine, the excited crowd proceeded to the bonfire party. With the kindling of the holy fire, the old fathers started singing a long blessing. People gathered by the bonfire, doing the An Tai dance7 along with their family and friends, praying for a good life.

    D A Y   4
    THE MAN ON HORSEBACK

    Ordos Grassland Tourist Area is located in Hanggin Banner. It was already a grazing area during the Shang-Zhou times for the tribes that included Qiang-fang, Long-fang, Xian-yun. About a decade B.C., Count Ji Chang8 sent great general Nan Zhong after Xian-yun in the north and built Shuofang City on the northern border of Hanggin Banner. Although those were historical stories that had long faded like smoke in wind, Hanggin Banner continued to keep their ancient traditions.

    Every year in summer, Hanggin Banner would see thousands of performers gathered for Naadam9 to participate in various competitions. Horse racing, archery, and wrestling, these “three games of men” were always the focus of the crowd. Events such as camel racing and tortoise-and-hare racing also appealed to the audience with their uniqueness. Additionally, Hanggin Banner was one of the few places in Ordos City that still had “gu-ru-ge” that had passed down more than a hundred traditional music pieces. “Gu-ru-ge” was Mongolian royal music. It showcased the music of Mongolian royal ceremonies and religious rituals since Yuan dynasty, before finally being given new life among folks of Hanggin Banner.

    When you set upon the vast grassland, the age-old desire to wander leapt forth naturally in your heart. The moment Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong got onto horses, all confining chains seemed to be ripped off them, leaving only a simple yearning to gallop freely. The flock of sheep that had been grazing nearby were scattered by the sounds of horses galloping. Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong were as Mongolian men riding horses through the grassland, or shooting arrows, or even if it was just swinging on the handmade swing of a shepherd’s home, they also had a sense of rare satisfaction.

    After playing to their hearts’ content, Ayunga and Zheng Yunlong had their afternoon tea before embarking on the return trip. The Ford Taurus’s spacious interior and outstanding NVH provided a quiet ambience, comforting the body that had been running about for days. Especially the front and back seats that were made from real leather, as they also had functions like massaging, cooling, heating, ventilating, which were helpful in restoring the body.

    Halfway through the ride, they happened upon the sun setting on the grassland. Stopping the car, they walked deep into the grassland. Another line of poetry popped into their hearts then, “the youth is courageous, hunting alone by the Yin Mountains”. This area of land no longer heard whinnies of war horses nor saw signals of smoke since thousands of years ago, but the vastness between sky and ground gave everyone a heart of pure passion. The wanderers embarked on yet another journey, yet the self-discipline to persevere, the consistent attitude towards life, would be their limitless energy source to face the future.


    FOOTNOTES | TRANSLATOR'S NOTES

    1 Grilled lamb (手扒羊肉) | It could also be braised mutton, but the main idea is eating it with hands.
    2/3 天似穹庐,笼盖四野 | Both are the same in Chinese but I opt to structure and word them differently due to the different paragraphs and context they were used in. It’s part of a poetic folk song called “Chi-le Song”. You can listen to two renditions from CCTV’s Everlasting Classics here (by Tan Weiwei) and here (by Tengger).
    4 Khata | A traditional ceremonial scarf.
    5 “sai-bai-nu” | Mongolian greeting, similar to “ni hao” in Chinese, or “how are you” in English. Informal.
    6 “busgui” | Mongolian term, referring to married women or wives.
    7 An Tai Dance | A traditional Mongolian dance from Hure Banner, one of China’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage.
    8 Count Ji Chang | More famously known as King Wen of Zhou
    9 Naadam | A traditional Mongolian festival also inscribed on the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

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