There has been a settlement at HOHHOT (呼和浩特, hūhé hàotè) since the time of the Ming dynasty four hundred years ago, though it did not become the capital of Inner Mongolia until 1952. Until relatively modern times, it was a small town centred on a number of Buddhist temples. The temples are still here, and although it’s now a major city, Hohhot manages to be an interesting blend of the old and the new, and a relatively green and leafy place in summer – which is fitting, as the town’s Mongolian name means “green city”. As well as the shiny new banks and department stores downtown, there’s an extensive area in the south of the town with old, narrow streets built of black bricks and heavy roof tiles. These days Hohhot is largely a Han city, though there is also a Hui and a Mongol presence; it’s worthwhile tracking down the vanishing Mongol areas, not least to try some of their distinctive food. The other reason for visiting Hohhot is its proximity to some of the famous Mongolian grasslands within a 100km radius of the city.
Mongolia isn’t all one giant steppe, but three areas in the vicinity of Hohhot are certainly large enough to give the illusion of endlessness. These are Xilamuren (希拉穆仁草原, xīlāmùrén căoyuán), which begins 80km north of Hohhot; Gegentala (格根塔拉草原, gégēntălā căoyuán), 70km further north; and Huitengxile (辉腾锡勒草原, huīténgxīlè căoyuán), 120km northeast of Hohhot. It’s hard to differentiate between them, save to say that Xilamuren – the only one of the three that can feasibly be reached independently – is probably the most visited and Gegentala the least. Bear in mind that your grassland experience in the immediate area of the regional capital is likely to be a rather packaged affair, and a visit to a grassland in another, remoter part of the region (such as Hailar) may well give you a more authentic flavour of Mongolia.
The most convenient way to visit the grasslands is to take one of the grassland tours, which Westerners rarely enjoy but east Asian tourists seem to love – or at least put up with in good humour. The tours always follow a similar pattern, with visitors based at a site comprising a number of yurts, plus a dining hall, kitchen and very primitive toilets. The larger sites, at Xilamuren, are the size of small villages. Transport, meals and accommodation are all included in the price, as are various unconvincing “Mongolian entertainments” – wrestling and horseriding in particular – and visits to typical Mongol families in traditional dress. Only the food is consistently good, though watch out for the local firewater, baijiu, which you’re more or less forced to drink when your Mongolian hosts bring silver bowls of the stuff round to every table during the evening banquet. The banquet is followed by a fairly degenerate evening of drinking, dancing and singing.
If you accept the idea that you are going on a tour of the grasslands primarily to participate in a bizarre social experience, then you’ll get much more out of it. Besides, it is perfectly possible to escape from your group if you wish to do so. You can hire your own horse, or head off for a hike. If your stay happens to coincide with a bright moon, you could be in for the most hauntingly beautiful experience of your life.