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.
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.