Except for the grasslands – What to do in Inner Mongolia?

Some people going for the homestays have asked me about what else to do when visiting Inner Mongolia. Since there is already plenty of info about the two homestays on this site, they don’t need to be mentioned in this post too. Of course the same goes for the grasslands. Everyone knows about them already anyway! They seem to be included in every trip to these parts of China. I will just mention that if you have the time and energy to spend a few extra hours on transportation, it’s better to avoid the one’s just outside of Hohhot and other major tourist hubs as they are often overly crowded. You can read more about that and other things to be careful about in Inner Mongolia here. So instead of the grasslands and homestays, this post will focus on some of the more unexpected travel destinations in the area. There’s actually quite a few of them around and they range from sceneries, cultural heritage sites and hotsprings to bizarre Chinese ghost towns. And there are a few things worth mentioning that are difficult to visit but easy to enjoy – the vast open spaces, blue skies and views out of the night train window.

First one out…

  • Desert Poplars of Ejina Banner

One of the three remaining large desert poplar forests in the world is to be found in Ejina Banner in the far north west of Inner Mongolia. According to tour-beijing.com (which also has some very useful info for visitors) this is the farthest east such forest in the world, with the remaining two being located in Xinjiang and the Sahara. Formerly widespread these specialized desert trees have now largely disappeared due to the widespread use of them as firewood. Luckily they are now under protection here in Inner Mongolia. And they are quite a sight! Old, dry and gnarly – often partly dead – they give an at the same time rough and beautiful impression, growing straight out of the sand with leaves turning golden in autumn.

The forest is 300 square kilometers large and parts of the forest have been made into a nature reserve. There are dedicated boardwalks for the visitors, zigzagging through parts of the forest, giving a display of the variety – where there is more sand or less, where there are lakes or no water, etc. Leaving the path could probably cause you some trouble, including fines and getting thrown out of the park, but in the parts of the forest that are outside of the nature reserve it’s possible to walk around freely without any park staff interfering! It’s possible to visit some other interesting things freely (and for free) too, such as sand dunes, lakes and wetlands, but for the ancient silk road ruins close by rules are very strict and foreigners even have to apply for a special permit.

All in all this is a beautiful place and if you are close by, a nature lover or just don’t mind a bit of transportation (there are night trains from Hohhot to the small town Dalaihubu in which you can find accommodation and transportation to the nearby park) it’s definitely a place to check out! Since it’s a relatively popular tourist attraction, you’d better aim for weekdays and try to steer clear of any public holidays. This would help you avoid the crowds and at the same time keep prices for accommodation down.

  • Ghost towns…

Probably you have already heard about Chinese ghost towns. According to some, there are hundreds of them throughout the country. Some of them can be found in Inner Mongolia. And they vary in size from small to medium and big. Some of them just a jumble of residential buildings built around factories, as the factories are expected to attract workers. Others on the other hand are proper cities with parks, government buildings, museums, football stadiums, shopping malls and anything else you could ask for. The largest ghost city not only in Inner Mongolia or China but the world is Ordos City, built for an anticipated future population of two million. To call it a ghost city, however, is not completely fair, as it’s filling up and seems to have a population of a few hundred thousand by now.

If you want to see something typically Chinese, perhaps this is the best place to go. As someone, I don’t remember who, has noted these kind of cities are only possible in China, as China is the only communist country in the world that is rich enough to construct entire cities without having to take the market into consideration. And even though there are quite a lot of these places most of them don’t seem to be any interesting. And in som years the one’s who are may have filled up. And after these one’s have filled up, probably there won’t come more chances to visit large ghost cities.

There are some hotels to choose from, transportation options are many and the city itself is supposed to be about as strange as it gets. For anyone interested in visiting, plenty of information can be found online. Truckloads of articles has been written about this place.

For a slideshow of twenty surreal photos of Ordos City, click here.

  • Hohhot

Obvious enough! The capital of Inner Mongolia and since it’s quite likely you will pass through anyhow, it could just as well be perhaps not recommended, but introduced! First things to sort out: why is it not recommended? Not because the city is a horrible place and travellers should stay clear of it. But also not because the city is exceptionally interesting. The city, all in all, is a decent place with a handful of sights such as temples, architecture, museums and parks. Some of these temples, such as the Five Pagoda temple, are pretty or interesting, while others – of course – are not. But the question is, why would anyone go to Inner Mongolia to visit temples? Wouldn’t it be better to go somewhere else entirely if it’s temples you are looking for? Because while this place has some interesting temples for Inner Mongolian standards, it would not stand a chance against many other places in China. Only in one way would it be able to distinguish itself positively. And that is because many of the temples here are small and humble, have no entry fees and are used more by local people than tourists. This is not often the case in China, where temples usually have been converted into simple tourist attractions – if they survived the cultural revolution at all, that is. So it may be that you will enjoy the charm of them.

Hohhot is known as an ethnically diverse place with hui people, Manchus, Mongols and other ethnic groups, but the vast majority of the population is Han and never does the city give the impression of not being a Chinese city. It tries, in order to attract tourists, but it doesn’t really succeed. And the same goes for that fake old town area – also built in order to attract tourists, as the custom is in China. Ironically enough, the city used to have a lot of old buildings (backwater as it was until the mining industry caused the great economic boom, making Inner Mongolia the sometimes fastest developing province in China) but most of them were torn down in order to modernize the city. Perhaps some of the pieces can be found recycled and integrated into the fake old town shopping district. It may sound strange but it’s quite common to build old towns (or even ”ancient” towns) in China and often the same pieces they are built with are taken from authentic old towns that have been torn down in order to modernize. Either way the old town area is not the place to go, unless you want one more of those unique China experiences. Ghost towns and fake old towns – what will they come up with next?

The mountains just outside of town are pretty and suitable for hiking. They offer great views of the city. If you anyway intend to spend some time in Hohhot, a day trip into the mountains could very well be the best way to spend the time.

For some more traditional advice for Hohhot you could try this article out.

And for more info about the fake old towns, check this one out. It’s quite hilarious.

  • Hexigten global geopark

Hexigten, or Heshigten, is one of two UNESCO global geoparks in Inner Mongolia. Geoparks are designated areas of geological interest. UNESCO global geoparks are areas considered to be of unique interest. They are supposed to tell something about the creation, history and diversity of the geology of this planet. It may sound dry and academic, bringing to mind more the periodic table than a travel experience, but actually this place is really cool and there are plenty of things to experience, even for those who really are not interested in geology. For example, there are natural hotspring baths, mountains, sand dunes, eccentric rockformations, extinct volcanoes and other geologically as well as aesthetically interesting things. It’s also one of the most biodiverse areas of Inner Mongolia and a place with a rich cultural heritage, with a local mongol tribe inhabiting the 1750 square kilometer large park.

With only one comment on Tripadvisor (a 4 out of 5, by the way) it’s perhaps not the most obvious thing to include in your Inner Mongolia itinerary, but since one of the things people most often complain about with nature reserves in China are the crowds, question is if the lack of interest for this one isn’t actually a big bonus.

It’s easy to reach the geopark from the large nearby city Chifeng.  Chifeng is a regional transport hub with great bus and railway connectivity and could be an option if you are heading from Beijing to either of the inner mongolian homestays or reverse.

  • All the other things.

Yes, last on the list: all the other things. Because really I don’t know what other title to list all these incoherent things under. The surreal atmosphere of the cities, the views out of the bus window, to gaze from one horizon to the other and not being able to spot a single building, to encounter more wild animals than people while in the grasslands. And the night trains! All those kilometers you have to cross to get from one place to the other! And that mongol guy on the train from Hohhot to Xilinhot who sat up singing until late. The strange flowers of the grasslands. The great big trucks overloaded with mountains of hay, driving through the middle of nowhere, looking hopelessly lost. Even the surreal landscapes created by the mining. It’s as if the mountains had been cut by giant razors. All these strange things are what I liked the most with Inner Mongolia.

It may very well be that I have missed mentioning a lot of things but hopefully at least this list was to some help for someone. And if you had a favourite place that you would like to recommend, you are very welcome to share it.

Annonser

One night in a yurt or two nights in a five star hotel?

I just made a search on Booking.com. I wanted to find the most expensive place in Hohhot and compare it to a yurt advertised by China Culture Center (CCC). The reason that I wanted to compare the price of the yurt is that it cost 4000 RMB to visit it for two days – which should mean (the advertisement doesn’t say) that it’s a one nighter only. Except for the price, the description sounds a lot similar to any of the homestays offered at this site. It is a ”peaceful and authentic retreat compared to Huitengxile or Xilamuren resort tour” and you can ”watch and even participate in their farm and housework”. Meals you will ”share the meal with the family”. And you can ”ride their horses to roam on the grassland” with ”no other tourists there”. At first I didn’t see the price (it’s hidden up just above where the post begins) and I thought it was nice seeing someone trying to advertise a real yurt and not yet another karaoke yurt of the kind mentioned in a previous post about what to be aware of before visiting Inner Mongolia. But then I saw it. Two days for 4000 RMB. That equals 580 USDs with the exchange rate of today. And that’s without adding the fees banks charge for currency exchange, international withdrawals etc.

And back to the hotels in Hohhot. Strange as it may sound the most expensive double room I found was in Wanda Vista Hohhot – and it cost a meager 292 dollars. The room is a 94 square meters large executive suite that (judging by the photos) has been taken straight out of a science fiction movie. And it’s still less than half the price compared to one night in the CCC yurt. I’m not sure what to think. Are people really willing to pay this much? And even if they are, is it fair to ask such a price? It seems ridiculous to me. Sure, some people have more money than time, but to ask them 4000 for something that barely costs the operators anything either in work effort or expenses is just too much. The average income of rural Inner Mongolia is 2050 yuan. That is half the price of the two days in the CCC yurt. And I’m sure that the family is happy about the side income (whatever they get to keep for themselves – not necessarily a lot) but I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for everyone if CCC would lower the prices. They and the Mongol family would earn less per visit, but since more visitors would show up they would actually soon start to earn more, without CCC having to charge unreasonable prices. And of course the tourists would be better off too.

Half the price of a yurt in Xilingol

Somehow it makes me happy to see those ridiculous prices though! Because if people really are willing to pay ridiculous amounts like that, it must mean that what is offered is something they really want to experience and that by making it more accessible, us on Anthropolodgy are doing something worthwhile for everyone involved.

If you want to make sure others don’t have to get ripped off in order to have a genuine Inner Mongolian homestay in the grasslands, it would be great if you could recommend us and link to our website in some forum discussion or wherever you think it’s relevant. We are still very new and getting a hang of stuff. For most of the time we’ve been active we have operated entirely through a WeChat and an email account. So any kind of reviews or recommendations would make it a lot easier for people to find and put some trust in us.

Also, one of the ways we manage to keep or costs so low are that there are no fees or charges for the homestays to be marketed here. So if they find 250 yuans reasonable they only need to charge 250 yuan. Many agencies, especially in developing countries, charge fees that are much higher than what the locals get to keep for themselves. I do this basically for fun as a volunteer and so far I have had no income. In the future I would like to earn some money but for now the main concern is covering the hosting fees, domain name purchase etc. One way you could make things a bit easier for me is by using this link to book accommodation on booking.com. Not only will booking pay me a 15 euro bonus for referring them a customer, but they will give you a 15 euro bonus too for booking through them. You can use the link now or later.

People standing in line to buy luxury hotels after they sold their yurts

A few things that could disappoint you about Inner Mongolia…

It seems sometimes people get a bit disappointed by Inner Mongolia. There aren’t a lot of them but enough for me to start wondering. It’s quite unusual actually, because the same few people rarely get disappointed by for example Gansu, Qinghai or Yunnan. And so I have been thinking. And strange as it may sound, I believe the main problem is the name – ”Inner Mongolia”. From early childhood we are fed stories about Djingis Khan and his Mongol warriors. The Mongols are very much a part of the world cultural heritage. So when we read those two words ”Inner Mongolia” we already have some preconceived ideas of how it would be to visit. We get certain expectations. ”Gansu”, ”Qinghai” or ”Yunnan” on the other hand – they make people shrug and ask ”What is that?” And when they arrive, they are not surprised or disappointed that it is not as they had imagined, because they had not imagined very much to begin with.

So what do these people believe and in what way are they disappointed? I will try to list what I’ve heard below and I hope that this will lead to some upcoming visitors having less bad surprises. However, none of the problems mentioned are unique for Inner Mongolia, and none of them are really that bad if you are aware about them from the start and prepare accordingly.

  1. The mongols are an ethnic minority in Inner Mongolia

This may come as a surprise to a lot of people (it did to me too!) but Mongols make up only a small minority of the population of Inner Mongolia. According to a 2010 census Inner Mongolia was about 17% Mongol and 80% Chinese. So while a lot of people expect it to be very different from other parts of China, actually it’s pretty much the same. Especially the places you are most likely to arrive first are dominated by Han Chinese. Cities and transportation hubs such as the provincial capital Hohhot are even more Chinese than the province average! This applies to most cities. And of course that means that the opposite applies to most of the countryside, which is mainly populated by Mongols. The more remote, the more Mongol. And luckily, in this the third largest province of China – bigger than Spain, Italy and Germany combined – there are plenty of remote places. According to the census mentioned above some administrative divisions are as much as 84% ethnically Mongol. And East Ujimqin Banner where we have one of our homestays has as many as 72.5%. So while the population of Hohhot or Chifeng is similar to almost any other large Chinese city, Inner Mongolia is huge and has plenty of other places for you to visit if you want to experience Mongolian culture.

 

Inside of mongol yurt in xilingol
If you really love karaoke maybe this is not the yurt for you

 

2. scams and mass tourism

I will have to bring up the Han Chinese again. There’s quite a lot of them around. In China alone there are 1.3 billion or so. Many of them like the idea of going to Inner Mongolia. Blue skies, green grass, no concrete buildings as far as the eye can see. As you can guess, this means that in many places across Inner Mongolia, you will find plenty and sometimes a lot more than plenty of Chinese tourists. One good things about this is that the Chinese usually are really nice and easy to make friends with. But there are also some problems with all those people. Two of the main reasons people visit Inner Mongolia is the Mongols and that it’s one of the least crowded Chinese provinces. Then why go to a place crowded with tourists – tourists who aren’t even Mongols? It doesn’t make sense. One additional problem – and a worse one too – is that the mass tourism has attracted a lot of people interested in the tourists’ money. There are some cheats, small scams and instances where you will risk paying high prices for low quality. This ranges from the friendly guy approaching you in the street to government cultural heritage sites. Just have a look at the Genghis Khan Masoleum. It’s built at a site which most people agree is not the site where Genghis Khan is buried. It has none of his bodily remains. It has a few replicas of items which are said to have belonged to Genghis Khan. And it has a 150 RMB entry fee. Perhaps it’s better to go some other place. And about that friendly guy approaching you in the street it happened to me (and from googling i know that it has happened to others as well) that I was promised a stay in a yurt in some Mongol camp, while in reality I was herded of to some group of plastic yurts built on a big concrete floor out in the middle of nowhere in Ejina Banner. There were karaoke sets, plenty of tourists and only one place to eat which served bad food for unreasonable prices. And of course there were no Mongols to be found. However it was a fun experience and if it weren’t for that probably I would never have made the effort to start looking for a really remote and genuine homestay or started with this fun unexpected project to help other people have as great an experience as I had! So I won’t complain! But I will tell you to keep in mind that there are plenty of tourists in Inner Mongolia and that there are plenty of people trying to rip these tourists off! And with that you should hopefully be better off than me or this guy saying he was staying in a ”concrete cell “dolled” up in yurt fashion, with karaoke laid on in the evenings”.  Sounds terrible enough!

Yurt inner mongolia travel mongol homestay

3. Mining and environmental degradation

A problem that wont affect you as a tourist but is much worse than any rip offs or language barriers is what is happening to the Inner Mongolian environment. Perhaps most travellers don’t even notice but the province is one of the stone coal and rare earth mining centres of China. A staggering 95% of rare earth minerals in the world are mined in Inner Mongolia. It’s not only rich in minerals but perfect for mining in other ways too. It is vast, accessible and scarcely populated. This means that it is easy to reach the minerals and that there are few there to see or complain about what is happening. Many of the minerals are processed in industrial centers across Inner Mongolia and according to a BBC-article there are places where processing waste is pumped straight into the nature.

Mining makes up for a large chunk of the Inner Mongolian economy and has long been a source of conflict between Mongol herders and mining companies. It’s a sad situation with short term profits in the center. Mongol herders are sometimes forced from their herding grounds, given only a fraction of the land’s worth in compensation. For those who want to see how the coal mines can look there is a 2015 documentary with the title Behemoth. It’s very slow and unenjoyable but could be scrolled through in order to get an idea of how the coal mines can look. Because hopefully you will not get to see too many of them while visiting Inner Mongolia!

Personally I saw only a handful of mines and they were all straight outside of Xilinhot on the way to the homestay in Ujimqin. There were mines of various kinds. Open coal pits in the ground and mountains that appeared to have been shaved by giant razors. But slowly by surely the grasslands took over and in the end there weren’t anything but grass. However there are places where the mines wont be something you pass by on your way to wherever you are going. Things can change quickly. So just in case you use an old travel guide book or a forum post from 2008 as a recommendation, make sure that it still is what it was. Most likely it will be, but it’s better to make sure.

sheep in grassland in inner mongolia, travel china
Many farmers have problems with their animals getting sick. Luckily these are all healthy!

That was all I had to share right now. If there are any more things to think about or if you have any questions, you could either comment or contact me through the contact form. I hope I did not discourage anyone from visiting. Unappealing as some of these things may sound, none of them will necessarily have any negative impact on your trip, as long as you know how to get around them. And besides it could be good to know not only what is good and beautiful about the places you visit too. Perhaps it makes you appreciate the beautiful parts more.

Visiting the Nadaam and other festivals in Inner Mongolia

Both of the inner mongolian homestays currently listed on this site are just regular homestays. This means that there are usually no itineraries, planned events, trips or excursions. It is like this because we don’t have the aspirations of a typical tourist organisation, which wants to send people to a tour. Rather, we want to send people to another culture, to experience daily life, meet people, enjoy nature, sample food and so forth. There are of course possibilities for activities too, but they largely depend on you and aren’t scheduled or part of an itinerary. If you want to go horseback riding, learn how to cook Mongol food, go for a walk through the grasslands, help out herding the sheep back home or anything else, it’s just to do it.

The only things that are a bit scheduled are the festivals. These happen throughout the year, mostly in spring and summer, and may include things such as cultural shows, family gatherings, activities and special meals. One of the most popular festivals is Nadaam, celebrated in July. Nadaam is inscribed on the UNESCO list of human cultural heritage and you can read about it by clicking this link. The festival revolves around three traditional mongol games. Wrestling, horse racing and shooting with bow and arrow.

Last year we had a guest joining to one of the festivals and he shared with us some photos posted below.

Lots of people celebrating Nadaam festival. Only one tourist (behind the camera).

To celebrate one of these festivals would be a bit different from what is usual in Inner Mongolia. There are no tickets, tour groups, hidden charges or the like. Almost everyone attending will be locals and you and the handful other people arriving from the homestay will be the only tourists. You can enjoy watching the competitions and meeting the locals. Also there will be eating and drinking. The guest who took the pictures wrote: ”Generally this is an amazing experience, the Mongols are a nice people, extremely accommodating, both the host family and all the strangers I encountered on Nadaam. Whenever I went into a yurt I was given food and drink. Not because I am from the West. Everyone, even the Chinese, can count on such hospitality.You can read his entire post by clicking here.

The only problem is that because this is a real festival, it only happens when it’s supposed to happen, which is once per year. While many other places offers cultural shows on a weekly or daily basis, it’s not possible here. You have to sign up in advance and we will try to sort something out for you. There will be some additional info coming up soon about different festivals and prices. While it may be a bit more troublesome doing it like this, it will for sure also be more of an experience. Also, all the money you spend will stay with the locals, not some Chinese owned theme park with Mongol staff for the shows. And prices will be very reasonable.

The site of the Nadaam celebrations

Just remember to send an email well in time. These are not things that happen every week or month and we can not guarantee anything even if you contact us well in advance. It may be that at the time of your visit there are no festivals. It is even most likely that it will be like that, unless you have a flexible schedule and are intent on attending a festival.

Wrestlers lining up for a wrestling competition

 

 

Xilinhot homestay

A great place to visit for anyone interested in experiencing some genuine Inner Mongolian culture on their trip through Inner Mongolia or China! The homestay is located in the Abag Banner just west of Xilinhot. It’s an arid region with a population density of less than two people per square kilometer! The density of Inner Mongolia as a whole is more than ten times higher! So it’s an area abundant in nature. Most people here support themselves through keeping animals. In the settlement of the homestay lives a group of five people. They are herders and keep horses, sheep and cows. There are permanent buildings as well as yurts, one of which you will get to stay in.

Two of our guests made a video of their visit which will show you what you could expect

The experience will be very different depending on what you want to get out of it. If you want to try horseback riding, go for walks or just relax, it is entirely up to you. Also, there are possibilities to visit mongol festivals and celebrations, but for this you have to contact well in advance and check for availability.

 

You can reach the homestay either by car or taxi. Regrettably there are no busses. Taxi is about 350-400 yuan one way. You can call and ask for help finding the way.

  • Cost per adult per day is 300 yuan. For a 50 yuan discount per person and day, read here.
  • This includes three meals per day and accommodation.
  • Small children may join for free.
  • Children age 7-14 may join for 150 yuan/day.
  • An additional 50 yuan each needs to be added for horseback riding and special barbeques.

Contact us with any questions and comments. You can use Whatsapp +8615334792931, WeChat grm5943 or the contact form.

If you need to book accommodation in Xilinhot or any other city, you can use this link for a 15 euro discount.

East Ujimqin Banner homestay

The homestay in East Ujimqin is located in one of the most Mongol areas of Inner Mongolia. While Inner Mongolia itself is less than a fifth Mongol, East Ujimqin is more than 70% – making it one of the most Mongol parts of Inner Mongolia.

It’s located straight at the border to Mongolia and is well known for its beautiful grasslands. The host family here, as most of those who have not moved to the cities, live a semi-nomadic life. During parts of spring and summer they are out herding the animals through the grasslands, but for the colder parts of the year they are stationary.

You will stay in a yurt, which is set up for most of the year. There is no electric grid, so you need to rely on a small wind power plant and a diesel generator for electricity. It is possible to charge the phone, laptop etc.

The yurts are made out of wool fleece and are rain and wind proof. They have one electric lamp each connected to the electricity stations. This will make it possible to for example read, play chess with the father of the family (hard to beat!) or just sit and socialise.

Parts of the family inside a yurt next to the stove. The chess playing dad in the foreground.

A few minutes walk from the homestay lies a lake. It’s a beautiful spot, often with some migratory birds stopping by. There is cattle and other animals there too. With some luck you can see foxes, weasels or hares. There are plenty of weird plants and insects too for those who are interested in such things.

Horse and cattle by the lake in autumn

One of the main activities is to go horseback riding. As the horses are semi-wild, this is not as easy as you might imagine! First your hosts will herd the horses together using mopeds (you can sit on the back – it’s great fun!), then get them into an enclosure and snare one of them. When caught, the horse will calm down and behave as any other horse. They don’t want to get caught, but when they do they stop resisting. Here’s a shaky video of the herding of the horses:

Prices are 300 yuan per night and adult. Small children go for free and youth for half price. Included in the price are meals and a bed in the yurt. Horseback riding costs an additional 50 yuan per person and a Mongol barbeque also costs an additional 50 yuan per person.

A few things to take into consideration before booking:

  • The food is not suitable for vegetarians. Most meals will consist of meat and dairy products with some bread on the side.
  • There is no wifi and no internet connection on the telephones. It is possible to make phone calls from a small hill close to the homestay.
  • If you have any special requests, for example to attend to a festival or try the nomadic existence out, you need to contact us in advance to make sure it is possible.
  • The English language skills of the host family is limited!

It is possible to reach Ujimqin by direct busses from several places, including Beijing and Xilinhot. Ujimqin is a night bus ride away from Beijing. From Ujimqin you will need to travel the last stretch by a taxi for 150 RMB.

Contact us at Whatsapp +8615334792931, WeChat grm5943 or through the contact form.

If you need to book accommodation in for example Beijing or Hohhot you can use this link for a 15 euro bonus.