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Looking for ugo—Forest, Snow, and Footprints

By Gu Xue

December 22nd, Tuesday, sunny

It was almost 4.00pm when we arrived at Genhe from Hailar by car. The halo of the sunset painted the mountain’s ridge. Facing the white snow, the mountain’s outline is like a background painting. It will be getting dark soon. It’s still more than 100 kilometres from Genhe to Alongshan. Considering the remaining road is rough and we will be driving on snow, I decided to stay and leave the next day.

 December 23rd, Wednesday, sunny

This must be the northernmost place I have even been. On the rooster-shaped map of China, Alongshan is located on the bird’s head. Along the road there were billboards saying ‘China’s Coldest Village: the Colder it Gets, the more Warm-hearted it Is’ and ‘Model Communist Forest’.

Billboards along the road

There are silver birch trees on both sides of the road. They stand there like proud soldiers. In the morning sunshine, the snow on the branches is shining like girls wearing jewels.

Yugo, 26 years old

Following the address Yugo gave me, I found him in the Jinxin Hotel in the town of Alongshan. He wore boots, black trousers with holes, a black padded jacket, and a black hat. He clasped a pair of gloves tightly and wore a pair of silver-framed glasses. He smiled as soon as he saw me, reminding me of the image of the kid in Yugo and His Mother (雨果的假期) (Watch the film here).

Yugo’s home, Rock Painting No. 24 at Nanniang

Walking north for about 24 kilometres we reached Yugo’s home. The Ayasuke Reindeer Ranch is one of only 12 ranches left up in the mountains now. Yugo’s home lies near Rock Painting No. 24 at Nanniang. As the road in the mountains was covered in snow and the night temperature would drop to 40 degrees below zero, the rental car could not remain on the mountain overnight. Yugo found an acquaintance, Uncle Zhang, to drive for us. The snow is heavy up in the mountains. As Uncle Zhang drove, he told a funny story about a high school student applying to overseas colleges who came to film Yugo with two bodyguards. After a ride of about 40 minutes, a big yellow dog appeared, and the car stopped. Hugo got off the car and moved beers into a plastic shed. This was their storage room. The cottage with a chimney was Yugo’s home. His mother, Liuxia, was waiting for us. I hugged her while she stared at the beers in Yugo’s hand.

Two rooms in the cottage

The cottage was separated into two rooms by a piece of plastic sheeting. It was 5.00pm and the temperature outside had already dropped to 30 degrees below zero. The storage room is cold because it is away from the stove. We all crowded into the dining room. We were served noodles for supper. Liuxia fried the meat and poured in water. The noodles were put in when the water was boiling. The meat soup was particularly delicious. In a place short of materials, food itself is precious.

Liuxia wearing a scarf I brought her

I brought with me a Turkish scarf and a bag of White Rabbit milk candy while my colleague had brought a bottle of whisky. Obviously Liuxia was more interested in the latter. Yugo and Liuxia had several rounds of negotiations over how much alcohol they should drink. They filled half of a white iron cup, then another half cup. After finishing the drink, Liuxia began to murmur to herself. ‘I do not want to be the scum of our ethnic group. I am the daughter of the Greater Khingan Range. I can find them [the dwwe. I will never live without them. Why? It is because I love them, generation after generation. Only heaven can bless me.’ The family’s deer have not returned for a month. A month ago, when Yugo and Liuxia went off the mountains to attend the wedding of a cousin. When they returned, all the deer had disappeared. Yugo plans to look for the deer tomorrow.

December 24th, Thursday, sunny

Mobile phones are totally useless up in the mountains because there’s no signal. People are subject to nature’s agenda here. It got fully dark at 6.00pm. Outside it is the boundless stretch of birch trees on the Greater Khingan Range. The falling snow and shinning moon looked cold, but not frightening. The yellow dog has also returned to the cottage at night for heat. It crouched under the bed waiting for us to sleep together. It was 7.00pm when we finished washing. Aunt Liuxia and I lay behind the stove while Yugo and his cousin stayed in the storage room. It’s cold just thinking about it. I feel sorry for the inconvenience brought by my arrival. Aunt Liuxia got up around 4.00 or 5.00am the next morning to prepare the breakfast, boiled aubergine. She was in a totally different mood when sober. She was so quiet now. After breakfast, she urged Yugo to go looking for the deer. Yugo took his favourite bow and arrows, and soon after we set off into the forest.

Looking for the deer

Ewenki people maintain a loose relationship with deer. The deer are free out in the wild feeding themselves. In the summer, the settlement will ignite fuel for smoke so when the deer sleep there in the day, the smoke will help drive the mosquitos and bugs away. In the winter, deer will return to the settlement when they feel hungry. Deer herders will feed them with bean cake. They will follow their footprint to look for them. Yugo showed me whether a footprint was of a rabbit, a dog, or a squirrel, or whether a footprint was made a long time ago. There were many footprints along the way. I suspected that they had always been around though I could not see them. They were playing a hide-and-seek game with me. When we got to the foot of the mountain, the camera battery stopped working because it was too cold. The camera itself had become an ice box. Yugo said he did not think the deer would be here and we should look for them elsewhere. He pointed at the mountains, telling me that if I lost my way, I should go in the opposite direction to find people. He said there was once an old lady who lost her way and ended up freezing to death on the mountain.

 Yugo talking about life in the forest

Yugo looked causal when he said that. But I was shocked. Nature looks peaceful yet it has a controlling and unpredictable power. I suddenly felt that I was enveloped by a huge, invisible power. I could not help being cautious. An unpleasant thing happened when we returned. Because of an article in Southern Weekend, ‘The Disappearing Reindeer: A Visit to Ewenki Reindeer Herders in the Great Khingan Range,’ which mentioned that aunt Liuxia had said there were moose thieves in the forest, somebody came to give Yugo and his mother a hard time. I could see Yugo was very nervous. He hinted to me not to film it. The guy brought two men with him. He blamed Liuxia and Hugo. Yugo said he would ask the reporter to remove the article when he got off the mountains and had a mobile signal. Yugo’s cousin had planned to leave for Genhe at 4.00pm. The car came so he could leave with Yugo. Otherwise Yugo would have to get off the mountains by bike.   

Liuxia strums the table

After Yugo left, Liuxia drank heavily. She pointed at the window and said she heard someone playing an instrument. She asked me whether I heard it. I said no. She started to strum intensely on the table . Sometimes she spoke Ewenki and cried. She pointed at me and said I was a good person deserving of god’s blessing. When Yugo came back and saw her drunk, he almost lost control. Things became troublesome because the reporter had said they would not remove the report; they would not bow to local gangs. Hugo knew this would make it hard to resolve their troubles on the settlement.


December 25th, 2020, Friday, Cloudy

I intentionally picked the Christmas season to visit Greater Khingan Range because it is an important holiday for the Ewenki. When Liuxia met me on the first day, she asked me whether I believed in God. She had a cross on her chest. She said that made her sleep better.

Yugo enjoys riding a bike in the forest.

Yugo took me out to look for the deer along another route. Only when he rode the bike in the snowy field did I think he looked his true self. For most of this visit to the Greater Khingan Range, he had been frowning deeply and seemed hostile. Sometimes it seems to be a way of survival to be nice. After that, he would retreat to a devastating depression. Yesterday, before he had gone off the mountains to deal with the reporter problem, he had gone out to shave ice to fill the water tank. Liuxia was still drunk. Below is what he said to me.

‘In a normal family, a mother would have a stronger sense of urgency than a son. Gu Tao said that I need to understand why my mother had become like this. But I do not need to know. I admit that some of Gu Tao’s words were right. But my mother has her reasons. She has suffered too much and lives in pain. But one must face the new instead of always being stuck in the past. You cannot change the past, but you can change the future. If you keep drinking, you will not change anything. I can change myself. The change I mean is that if I can earn some money in the future, I can improve life for the two of us. No matter whether its overseas in North America or in Greenland, we will have better lives. That’s one of my plans. I will follow this path. But she needs to make some changes herself. If she can’t stop her addiction to drink, it’s not going to work. Her body and soul will be trapped by it. After I’ve had a drink I feel a bit better and can from my difficulties. When I get drunk, I fall asleep without seeing and or hearing them. But when she and my uncle encounter problems, when sober they’re silent. But they will shout lots and fearlessly when they get drunk. What I need to do is discuss my problems with them when they’re sober. But my mother doesn’t dare do that without being drunk. I think they need to face reality. They have been avoiding it. I may be wrong because I have not really communicated with her about this. She is not willing to talk with me about it.’

Yugo was sent to Wuxi at the age of nine, though a Hope Project for ethnic minority poverty alleviation. He said his mother was drinking everyday back then and had to take care of the deer, so she was unable to raise him. Yugo was taken back to the forest in 2006 by Gu Tao. That is the story of the documentary, Yugo and His Mother.

A still from Hugo and His Mother

Yugo had not finished his college education when he returned to the Greater Khingan Range. Now his mother is old. To some extent it is hard for him to leave her behind. Since he was filmed by Gu Tao as a kid, and later often went to film with Gu Tao, filmmaking is not strange to him. In 2016, he made a documentary, Devoted Love, on his mobile phone. In the film are his grandmother’s responses to the current situation of the Ewenki, his uncle’s love story, and the story of his mother and the moose. It is a touching film. It’s very warming to observe your own family and their environment from the perspective of a family  member.

In fact, when he came home yesterday, Yugo had a fierce quarrel with his mother about the newspaper article. Liuxia was still under the influence of alcohol while Yugo felt helpless in the face of this situation. They swore at each other, which shocked me. Later Yugo went to sleep while Liuxia could not fall asleep and wanted more to drink. I suggested watching a film. So we watched the movie, Devoted Love, together.

Yugo’s documentary, Devoted Love

Liuxia’s mother, Balajieyi Keladanmu

When Liuxia saw herself in the film, she asked me who she was. I told her, ‘It is you.’

When she saw her mother in the film, she cried and said she missed her mother a lot.

After finished the film, Liuxia fell asleep quickly.

It was a very quiet night.


December 26th, 2020, Saturday, sunny 

We will leave the mountains today.

A sumptuous Christmas dinner

Last night was my happiest one at the settlement. Liuxia cooked ribs and potatoes. After dinner, she taught us to play Triple Bombs, an Ewenki card game. If you have three sets in a row of three of a kind, you score highest. For example, three Jacks, three Queens, and three Kings are the highest score. But multiple fours will reopen a round. If your opponent bids three twos, which are already high, you can take the three twos by calling two fours. And the game will continue for two fours. If one side wins, they get an ungrade, and if both people on a side win, they both get an ungrade. Liuxia and I were ungraded straight to King. She was a great player. It was a pity that we failed to win the last round.

The government launched an environmental migration scheme for the Ewenki. Many Ewenki were moved to the Ewenki Hunters’ Settlement at Aoxiang, Genhe. Because their hunting rifles were confiscated, the previous lifestyle has changed. The government arranged for them to start new life off the mountains. Liuxia and Yugo also wanted to get off the mountains because of the news report. We went to Genhe together. The first person they visited was Weijia, Yugo’s uncle and Liuxia’s older brother. Gu Tao’s documentary, The Last Moose of Aoluguya (《犴达罕》), is the story of Weijia. Once we entered his house, Weijia’s wife said filming was not allowed, and she began to accuse these ‘intellectuals’ of violating their privacy online and always coming over to disturb their lives. She used vicious language, painting them as culture-mongers. I could tell that Weijia cares for Yugo a lot. He gave Hugo a black wallet and his sister a drawing. Liuxia and Hugo felt embarrassed at his house. So we left soon.  

Ewenki Hunters’ Settlement at Aoxiang Village

We got to the settlement at Aoxiang. Hugo told me the place used to belong to Han people. The government allocated it as a settlement for the Ewenki, which made some Han people unhappy. There was an Ewenki museum at the entrance to the settlement. There were deer moved from the mountains for display. As Weijia has a job, he was not assigned a house. Aunt Liuxia was jobless; she qualified for a two-storey house. She said she had never visited the second storey. The first thing she did when she got home was to carefully open the drawing Weijia had given her. There was a girl and moose in the drawing.

Weijia’s drawing

After I said my farewells to Yugo and Liuxia, I was not sure whether my focus on them would bring them trouble. Reality is never a pretty thing wrapped in soft paper. I could only try my best to make my words and images follow my true feelings. On the way back, I would think of the beautiful afternoon on Christmas day when I lay together with Liuxia and she told me a story about her ‘devoted love.’ I cannot go into details because she said it was a secret between her and me. What I can tell you is that the story happened in 1980s, when the girls would wear bell-bottoms and young people danced in the forest……

Liuxia Suoluogong, Yugo’s mother

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