Mongolia is an almost total mystery to the outside world, its very name synonymous with remoteness. Landlocked between the two Asian giants of Russia and China, it seemed to have been doomed to obscurity, trapped in a hopeless environment of fleeting summers and interminable, bitter winters. And yet, 700 years ago the people of this benighted land suddenly burst out of their frontiers, and for a century subjugated and terrorized almost all of the Eurasian landmass.

Visitors to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region will not necessarily find many signs of this today. The modern-day heirs of the Mongol hordes are not only placid – quietly going about their business of shepherding, herding horses and entertaining tourists – but, even here, are vastly outnumbered by the Han Chinese (by almost nineteen million to fewer than four million). In addition, this is, and always has been, a sensitive border area, and there are still restrictions on the movements of tourists in some places.

Nevertheless, traces of the “real” Mongolia remain, in terms of both landscape and people – and not just the Mongol script, used alongside Chinese throughout the province. Dotting the region are enormous areas of grassland, gently undulating plains stretching to the horizon and still used by nomadic peoples as pastureland for their horses. Tourists are able to visit the grasslands and even stay with the Mongols in their yurts, though the only simple way to do this is on an organized tour out of the regional capital Hohhot – an experience rather short on authenticity. If you don’t find what you are looking for in the Hohhot area, however, a whole vast swath of Mongol territory lies across the border in Dongbei province, much of it untouched by Western tourists – see To Russia on the Trans-Manchurian.

Brief history

One man’s name is synonymous with unleashing Mongol armies on an unsuspecting world: the great Genghis Khan (1162–1227), under whose rule much of China and pretty much the whole of Central Asia were conquered. After his immediate successors had wrested control of Eastern Europe, Mongol forces were poised in 1241 to make the relatively short final push across Europe, when a message came from deep inside Asia that the invasion was to be cancelled. The decision to spare Western Europe cleared the way for the final conquest of China instead.

The Yuan dynasty

By 1271 the Mongols had established their own dynasty in China – the Yuan. It was the first time the country had come under foreign rule, and the Yuan is still an era about which Chinese historians can find little good to say, though the empire was expanded considerably by incorporating Yunnan and Tibet for the first time. The magnificent zenith of the dynasty was achieved under Kublai Khan, as documented in Marco Polo’s Travels. Ironically, however, the Mongols were able to sustain their power only by becoming Sinicised, and abandoning the traditional nomadic Mongol way of life. Kublai Khan and his court soon forgot the warrior skills of their forefathers, and in 1368, after less than a century on the imperial throne, the Yuan were driven out of China by the rising Ming dynasty. The Mongols returned to Mongolia, and reverted to their former ways, hunting, fighting among themselves and occasionally skirmishing with the Chinese down by the Wall.

Post-Khan decline

Thereafter, Mongolian history moves gradually downhill, though right into the eighteenth century they maintained at least nominal control over many of the lands won by Genghis Khan. These included Tibet, from where Lamaist Buddhism was imported to become the dominant religion in Mongolia. Over the years, as well, came settlers from other parts of Asia: there is now a sizeable Muslim minority in the region, and under the Qing many Chinese settlers moved in too, escaping overpopulation and famine at home, a trend that has continued under the Communists. The incoming settlers tried ploughing up the grassland with disastrous ecological results – wind and water swept the soil away – and the Mongols withdrew to the hills. Only recently has a serious programme of land stabilization and reclamation been established.

Recent history

Sandwiched between two imperial powers, Mongolia found its independence constantly threatened. The Russians set up a protectorate over the north, while the rest effectively came under the control of China. In the 1930s, Japan occupied much of eastern Inner Mongolia as part of Manchukno, and the Chinese Communists also maintained a strong presence. In 1945 Stalin persuaded Chiang Kai-shek to recognize the independence of Outer Mongolia under Soviet protection as part of the Sino-Soviet anti-Japanese treaty, effectively sealing the fate of what then became the Mongolian People’s Republic. In 1947, Inner Mongolia was designated the first autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China.

Baotou

Inner Mongolia’s biggest and bleakest city, BAOTOU’s primary significance is as the chief iron- and steel-producing centre in China: if you’re arriving at night from the direction of Yinchuan, your first glimpse of the city is likely to be of satanic fires burning in the great blast furnaces, and the sky over the western half of Baotou glows a more or less permanent yellow, orange and purple. For visitors, there can be something magnificent about Soviet ugliness on such a scale, but otherwise, apart from providing a springboard to a few distant sights – including Wudangzhao, an attractive Tibetan-style monastery, and what is possibly Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum – Baotou has nothing to offer.

Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum

The first thing to be said about Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum – located around 150km south of Baotou – is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be: it probably isn’t the tomb of Genghis Khan, and it isn’t a particularly attractive place anyway, but nonetheless it provides a fascinating insight into the modern cult of the famous warrior. There are no English captions for the exhibits.

Special sacrificial ceremonies take place here four times a year on certain days of the lunar calendar – the fifteenth day of the third lunar month, the fifteenth day of the fifth lunar month, the twelfth day of the ninth month and the third day of the tenth month. On these occasions, Mongolian monks lead solemn rituals that involve piling up cooked sheep before the statue of the khan. The ceremonies are attended not only by local people, but also by pilgrims from the Republic of Mongolia itself.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan (1162–1227) was born, ominously enough, with a clot of blood in his hand. Under his leadership, the Mongols erupted from their homeland to ravage the whole of Asia, butchering millions, razing cities and laying waste to all the land from China to eastern Europe. It was his proud boast that his destruction of cities was so complete that he could ride across their ruins by night without the least fear of his horse stumbling.

Even before Genghis exploded onto the scene, the nomadic Mongols had long been a thorn in the side of the city-dwelling Chinese. Construction of the Great Wall had been undertaken to keep these two fundamentally opposed societies apart. But it was always fortunate for the Chinese that the early nomadic tribes of Mongolia fought as much among themselves as they did against outsiders. Genghis Khan’s achievement was to weld together the warring nomads into a fighting force the equal of which the world had never seen: the secret of his success was skilful cavalry tactics, acquired from long practice in the saddle on the wide-open Mongolian plains. Frequently his armies would rout forces ten or twenty times their size.

Led by Genghis, the Mongols unleashed a massive onslaught on China in 1211. The Great Wall proved no obstacle, and with two hundred thousand men in tow Genghis cut a swath across northwest China towards Beijing. It was not all easy progress, however – so great was the destruction wrought in northern China that famine and plague broke out, afflicting the invader as much as the invaded. Genghis Khan himself died (of injuries sustained in falling from his horse) before the capture of China had been completed. His body was carried back to Mongolia by a funeral cortege of ten thousand, who murdered every man and beast within 16km of the road so that news of the Great Khan’s death could not be reported before his sons and viceroys had been gathered from the farthest corners of his dominions. The whereabouts of his tomb is uncertain, though according to one of the best-known stories his ashes are in the mausoleum outside Dongsheng.

Hohhot

Although it’s now a large city, with a majority Han population, HOHHOT manages to present an interesting blend of the old and the new: as well as the shiny modern banks and department stores downtown, most of the historic buildings are crowded into the interesting – though fast-disappearing – old southwestern part of the city, where you can enjoyably spend half a day simply ambling around. Fittingly, Hohhot is a relatively green and leafy place in summer – the town’s Mongolian name means “green city”.

Naadam in Hohhot

Summer is a good time to be in Hohhot, coinciding as it does with Mongolia’s famed Naadam festival. Shows of horsemanship, wrestling and other games take place at the gigantic Inner Mongolia horse racecourse, 2km north of the train station; built in the shape of two circular Mongolian yurts, adjacent and connected to each other to form the elongated shape of a stadium, it’s the biggest racecourse in China by far. The dates vary, but Naadam usually falls between late July and early August. Outside the holiday, displays of Mongolian riding and dancing sometimes take place here too.

Touring the grasslands

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, except 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.

Most people visit by taking 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 all follow the same 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 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 by hiring your own horse, or heading 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.

Practicalities

A two-day tour (with one night in a yurt) is definitely enough – in a group of four or five people, this should come to around ¥450 each. Some travel services can tack smaller parties onto existing groups. Bear in mind that you may find yourself sleeping crushed into a small yurt with six others who don’t speak your language, and that the tour may not be in English, even if you’ve requested that it should be.

Travelling independently to the Xilamuren grassland can work out a good deal cheaper than taking a tour. Store your luggage at your hotel in Hohhot, and catch a bus from the long-distance bus station (90min; ¥20); these set down adjacent to the grassland. When you get off you will be accosted by people offering to take you to their yurts – try to negotiate an all-inclusive daily rate of about ¥80 per person, for food and accommodation, before you accept any offer. You aren’t exactly in the wilderness here, but you can wander off into the grass and soon find it. Return buses to Hohhot run regularly throughout the day, though if they’re already full they won’t even pass through town. If this occurs (which it often does), enterprising taxi drivers will take carfuls of people to the scruffy mid-point town of Wuchuan (武川, wŭchuān), then buy your onward ticket and pop you on the bus for Hohhot – meaning that you don’t usually spend any more than you would have done for the direct bus.

Staying in a yurt

In regions that still harbour semi-nomadic herders, such as Inner Mongolia’s grasslands and around Tian Chi in Xinjiang, it’s often possible to ask a local family to put you up in their yurt (蒙古包, ménggǔ bāo). The genuine article is a circular felt tent with floor rugs as the only furniture, horsehair blankets, a stove for warmth, and outside toilets. Though it’s a well-established custom to offer lodging to travellers, remember that few people in these regions have had much contact with foreigners, and misunderstandings can easily arise. You’ll need to haggle over the price with your hosts; around ¥80 should cover bed and simple meals of noodles and vegetables. In addition, it’s a good idea to bring a present – a bottle of baijiu, a clear and powerful vodka-like spirit, rarely goes amiss. Liquor stores, ubiquitous in Chinese cities and towns, are the obvious place to buy the stuff, but you’ll also find it on sale at train and bus stations, restaurants, hotels, shops and airports. You might also want to bring a torch and bug spray for your own comfort.

Local tour companies may be able to arrange yurt accommodation, though where Chinese tour groups are commonplace, you may be treated to a very artificial experience – often basically just a concrete cell “dolled” up in yurt fashion, with karaoke laid on in the evenings. If you want something better than this, it’s worth at least asking to see photos of the interior when making a booking.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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