Tall Tales: Travels in Inner Mongolia

As a journalist based in China, sometimes you are assigned to cover news conferences on the six-party talks, sometimes you cover natural disasters and sometimes you cover the wedding of the tallest man in Inner Mongolia.

The latter is bound to be much more fun.

According to the Guinness World Records book, the tallest man in the world is Xi Shun, a native of Mongolia. He is 7 feet, 9 inches tall.

Sure, that sounds tall, but you can't really grasp his height until you see him with your own eyes. He is massive, and his bride-to-be stands 5 feet, 5 inches. That makes great television.

Xi Shun lives in a town called Chifeng, and he got married in Ordos. A camera crew, a Chinese translator and I went to both. We are all young, all slightly aggressive and all of us were expecting Inner Mongolia to be nothing but sticks.


Chifeng is quite developed, with tall buildings, good restaurants and a four-star hotel where the rooms are nicer than my apartment and cost only $60 a night. On the first day, we arrived in the afternoon and went around the town to shoot video.

It was cozy and clean and the weather was perfect — the sky was blue and the air was clean. The locals were charming and as fascinated by us as we were by them.

Xi Shun is Chifeng's local celebrity, so everyone we met knew about him and his nuptials. Off-camera, many of them expressed doubt about whether the couple's love was true — he is 56 and she is only 28. They also questioned his ability to make her pregnant. But on-camera, they would only wish them the best.

When the sun went down, we had dinner with our local driver. I was worried there would only be lamb on the menu, but the food was typical for China, except for the abundance of local yogurt and cheese. I prefer brie, but our translator liked it.

We spent the next day with Xi Shun and his soon-to-be wife. Xi Shun makes his living by being the tallest man in the world. He does ads for local companies and he has sponsors. He is very accustomed to media attention and claims to like it.

His story is a great one. He was a sheep herder before he went into the military. He wanted to be a basketball player, but his rheumatism kept him from it. When he got out of the military, he had trouble finding steady work. He could not afford custom-made pants and shoes, so he walked around with pants that were too short and shoes that were too small, even in the cold Mongolian winter.

Xi Shun resigned himself to the fact that he would not find a wife. He was just too tall and did not make a good living. Then Guinness World Records Ltd. came along and he got an agent.

Now, of course, a tailor makes his pants and Adidas sends him shoes. His agent introduced him to a young lady and he found love. One of his sponsors is building him a home so the new couple doesn't have to live in his one-room apartment. You could say he has embraced his height.

Now it's a gift, instead of a very big annoyance. And unlike some celebrities, all the media attention has not gone to his head — he is a very sweet man.

After trailing Xi Shun for a day, we all went to dinner. The restaurant's menu was posted on the wall and was half the size of a football field with photos of every dish, which is helpful in figuring out whether or not your chicken or fish or duck or lamb will come with the head still attached. We ordered a lot of food.

Xi Shun sang us a traditional Mongolian song, then we got to the drinking. In China, when you are dining with new people, there are a thousand toasts: long, flowery speeches after which one must chug whatever is in the glass. This night it was the local beer, which is better for avoiding a hangover, but not so good for bloating. By the time our food came, we were so full from the beer that we didn't eat much. But by the end, we were all good friends, not to mention pretty drunk.

The next day, our group left for Ordos for the couple's traditional Mongolian wedding, which is extremely different from a Western wedding. The couple decided to get married in Ordos because the town paid for it — the government officials wanted the PR and Xi Shun wanted a free Mongolian wedding.

The city of Ordos, like many places in China, is developing rapidly with construction as far as the eye can see. Ordos' moneymaker is coal but luckily they don't burn so much of it in this part of China, so you can see bright, blue skies during the day and a trillion stars at night.

Xi Shun and his bride were married in the countryside, near a tourist area. The main attraction is the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian warrior who conquered half of Asia. He is not actually buried here as his tomb has never been found, but it serves as his memorial.

We spent the first day interviewing the couple and shooting video around the countryside. We had a traditional Mongolian lunch with them, complete with an entire roasted lamb, milk tea and a lot more weird yogurt and cheese. We stayed at the same hotel as the betrothed couple, because they asked us to and it was also the wedding site — very convenient.

But then the city's communist party officials asked us to leave the hotel and drive an hour to Ordos city to stay with the horde of reporters who were in town to cover the wedding.

They did this both because they like to have foreign journalists where they can keep an eye on them, but also because they wanted us to see how developed the town was by staying at a fancy Holiday Inn, rather than at our previous hotel in the countryside, with all the yurts and water that runs brown for 60 seconds after you turn on the faucet.

After a short protest, we did as they asked — you have to pick your battles in China. It was the best Holiday Inn I've ever seen. The water pressure was excellent and they had New Zealand sauvignon blanc at the bar.

Finally, the wedding day arrived. We got up at 5 a.m. and drove to the hotel with the yurts and brown water and staked out our space before the massive onslaught of reporters took over the place.

A traditional Mongolian wedding goes something like this: Xi Shun, dressed in a colorful costume, comes out and enters a yurt where his relatives are waiting for him. They say a prayer to their ancestors. Then, Xi Shun gets in a large yurt on wheels, which is pulled by two ornery camels. He rides half a mile to the other yurts.

He meets with the bride's family and they have a mock debate about whether or not he's the man for her. Xi Shun wins the debate and goes next door to his wife's yurt to pick her up. The two of them travel back to the first yurt in the camel carriage for the reception. Picture it: hundreds of reporters with cameras chasing a camel-drawn yurt down the street. It was both brilliant and ridiculous.

The reception was an elaborate to-do with colorful Mongolian dancing and singing, a Mongolian priest to guide us along and piles of food — including lamb and weird cheese, of course. After a version of "I now pronounce you man and wife," the wedding was over. It was then that I realized that Xi Shun had unintentionally invited a pickpocket to his wedding. My cell phone was gone, along with various other belongings from the other foreign reporters. At least he didn't get my BlackBerry.

We hung around the wedding site because Xi Shun's agent said we could get a little more video that we needed. After all the other media left, we were approached again by a local party official. This one was the head of public security. He said, quite harshly, that we had to leave with the other reporters. We kindly explained what we were doing. He was rude. It was now time to protest. There was an argument.

My gentle Chinese translator was in the middle of the yelling, trying to tell each of us what the other was saying. In the end, we got what we needed. Looking back, it is a good thing we did not end up in an Inner Mongolian prison. Something tells me there would not be New Zealand sauvignon blanc there.

At day's end, exhausted, we were invited by the organizers (the local government) to a media dinner. When we arrived, we were invited to sit at the head table with the officials. I turned to my right and there he was: the head of public security that I scuffled with earlier. It was awkward … until the drinking festivities began. This time it was bai jiu, a Chinese liquor that is 38 proof. You drink it out of tiny shot glasses but because you toast a thousand times, the size of the glass does not matter.

The head of public security toasted me. I toasted him. We made up. After the ridiculous but delicious 20-course meal (minus weird cheese), it was time to say goodbye.

Or not. A group of officials invited the four of us out for more milk tea and bai jiu, and we went along because it's very rude to say no. We were thinking karaoke, but they took us to a tiny teahouse/bar with a small band. We were the only customers. The band played. The officials sang. We ballroom danced. Our American cameraman got on stage and gave a long speech in English, which no one understood but us. The waitresses brought a big shot glass of bai jiu for everyone. Eventually, we said goodbye and got back to the Holiday Inn safely, or at least that is what my colleagues told me.

We arrived safely back in Beijing, tired and with hangovers. But Inner Mongolia was absolutely beautiful and the people were lovely, a nice reprieve from city life in China. And we got to witness the Mongolian wedding of the tallest man in the world and his bride. Everyone loves a happy ending.