Beijing Getaways: Inner Mongolia
North by Northwest: Sampling the great outdoors in Inner Mongolia
Once part of the massive Mongol empire, Inner Mongolia is a huge, banana-shaped strip of mostly wilderness bordering the rest of China, Mongolia proper, and Russia.
Although Mongol culture is not as strong here as in Outer Mongolia (a separate country), the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot still offers visitors a range of cultural attractions, and is a good place from which to explore nearby grassland and desert areas.
Hohhot, which has only been the capital of Inner Mongolia for about 60 years, is now growing rapidly - today only a small percentage of the population is indigenous Mongol.
Mongolian Buddhism (a branch of Tibetan Buddhism) still flourishes, and there are many working temples in and around the city. Most of Hohhot's Mongolian residents continue to speak the Mongolian native language, as well as putonghua (standard Han Chinese), and much of the city's signage is bilingual.
Hohhot's cuisine is strongly influenced by ethnic flavors, with the Inner Mongolian region renowned for its dairy products and mutton.
For large groups of meat lovers, roasted whole sheep, which used to be a strictly regal meal, is an interesting culinary experience offered by many traditional Hohhot restaurants. The mutton, filled with various spices, is first heated to high temperature in an airtight oven until tender, and then roasted until golden. It is served on a huge plate, and makes for a great communal night out.
Inner Mongolia's dairy products include cheese, milk curd, salty milk tea, and fermented horse milk, all of which are acquired tastes. Those who visit yurts (Mongolian tents) in the grassland (see last paragraph) will probably be offered fermented horse milk, which is supposed to drive away cold and invigorate circulation, although it has been known to bring on headaches in a few people!
Mongolian wrestling on the steppe
Mongolian for "green city", Hohhot was founded over 2000 years ago, and for long periods in its history it has been an important cultural center. The city's major attractions are the Dazhao Temple (Wuliang Si), Xilituzhao Palace, Five Pagoda Temple (Wutai Si), and the Tomb of Zhaojun (Zhaojun Mu), all of which are located inside the city or a short drive away.
Founded nearly 450 years ago, Dazhao Temple is the oldest Buddhist temple in Inner Mongolia. Although it was extensively rebuilt in 1640, much of the original architectural style was retained. The temple's list of honorable visitors includes the third Dalai Lama in 1586, and the Emperor Kangxi in the early part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). With its impressive buildings and statues, ornate frescoes, and fascinating collection of musical instruments and Buddhist scriptures, Dazhao Temple is a good place to wile away a morning or afternoon.
Xilituzhao Palace, which is located close to Dazaho Temple, is the largest Lama temple in Hohhot (Xilitu means "Holy Seat" in Mongolian). It was built in the reign of Emperor Wan Li of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) for commemoration of the third and fourth dalai lamas. The palace was expanded during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), with most of the well-preserved complex in traditional Han architectural style. The main hall, which houses a sutra hall and a Buddha-worshiping hall, is the main palace structure.
Mural in Ulaan Baator, Mongolia
The compact Five Pagoda Temple, which dates back to 1730, gets its name from the five small pagodas which decorate the main body of the temple. Check out the inscriptions on the base of the pagoda which are written in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. The Tomb of Zhaojun, a short taxi ride from Hohhot, is the resting place of Wang Zhaojun, a famous beauty and heroine of the Han Dynasty who voluntarily married a Hun ruler to keep the peace between the neighboring empires.
All visitors to Inner Mongolia should make time to visit one or both of the region's spectacular grassland and desert areas. About 3 hours by road south-west of Hohhot, the Kobqi desert is a simmering expanse of rolling dunes that rear up abruptly from the surrounding countryside. Access is by cable car (paid) or on foot (free), with camel or motorized tours available for intrepid exploration of the sandy interior.
Two hours' drive north of Hohhot, the Xilamuren area is the closest grassland region for visitors based in the city. In summer and autumn, when the rolling grassland is at its greenest and deep blue skies stretch toward every horizon, the yurts and herdsmen dotted across the grassy slopes provide a fascinating glimpse of a disappearing nomadic lifestyle. During the annual Nadaam Festival in July, which is celebrated across Inner Mongolia and Mongolia, visitors can watch the three Mongolian "manly sports" of wrestling, archery, and horse racing. And, after a few glasses of fermented horse milk, some may even be tempted to join in.
- Train K89/90 to/from Beijing West Station leaves in the evening and arrives the following morning. 170 RMB hard sleeper / 250 RMB soft sleeper.
- Flights from Beijing to Hohhot take around an hour - Hohhot's Baita Airport is around 15km from city. Check elong.com for cheap flights.
Hohhot's main places to stay are moving away from Hohhot Station area to more downtown locations along Xilin Guole Nan Lu.