Beijing - It wasn’t until my husband and I had already paid thousands of dollars to visit China that I saw our destination was “hideous”.
Our 16-year-old daughter had been invited to participate in a volleyball tournament in Inner Mongolia, with the opportunity to spend a few days touring Beijing, and we had decided to join her.
Then I started to look more closely at Baotou, the city of 2.5 million where we’d spend more than a week. Or, at least, I tried to. There wasn’t much information available and what I found was discouraging, not to mention disconcerting.
“Baotou sprawls across more than 20km of dusty landscape, much of it industrialised and polluted,” read a typical warning in the 2009 Lonely Planet guide to China. “Unless you’ve a particular interest in steel production, there’s little reason to stop.”
As for outside Baotou, the guidebook sniffed at the touristy sites in the grasslands and the desert, as well as the mausoleum for Genghis Khan that didn’t contain his remains. If one insisted on visiting the mausoleum, it said, the city of Dongsheng was a better option for overnight than “hideous Baotou”.
Things weren’t much better online where I found a YouTube video posted by an English teacher who asserted that Baotou, which is “run by gangsters”, is so dangerous most men carry knives. Then there was the Daily Mail story about the lake of toxic chemicals patrolled by guards.
Nevertheless, Darryl and I weren’t going to spend thousands of dollars and fly 11 200km to while away the hours between volleyball matches in a hotel room.
After a layover in Beijing, where everything was so grey and dingy it looked as if we’d landed in a dystopian movie, we arrived late at night in Baotou to a small crowd wearing bright yellow shirts and waving placards in English and Chinese. The girls were dropped off at the school where the tournament would be held, and we were bused to what one of the guidebooks had called a “stylish” hotel, but which proved so smoky and dirty we moved out the next day to a marginally better one.
The walk to Baotou Number 1 Middle/High School in the morning was an assault on our senses. We were in the old part of the city, called Donghe, with worn, squat buildings, cracked sidewalks, crooked electrical poles that held drooping wires and a lot of ugly signage, given that each building needs to be advertised in both Chinese and Mongolian.
The streets were full of zooming, honking, screeching vehicles – cars, motorcycles, carts of all shapes and sizes and wheel bases. The sky was grey, there was a strange chemical smell in the air and the haze seemed to trap the heat.
On the bright side: We didn’t come across anyone resembling a knife-wielding gangster. The most dangerous thing we could do seemed to be trying to cross the street. (We soon learnt, drivers routinely used the pavements, so we weren’t safe even there.)
On our walks, we’d see food carts churning out pancakes; men playing checkers; people working on bikes; vendors selling items we couldn’t recognise; stray dogs; nappyless toddlers; and people driving by with eggs or plywood and once, goldfish in bags.
Parents and chaperones would shop at the grocery store for salt and pepper and loo paper; visit a couple of department stores for foam pads for the rock-hard beds; try in vain to find cold beer.
Thankfully, the tournament officials had arranged for a mass outing: to Xiang Sha Wan, the Resonant Sand Gorge, which is a kind of desert theme park; think of golden dunes with an overlay of the tackiest aspects of Disney. Our bus of Brazilian, American and Chinese girls bonded via the universal language – songs by Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift – as the adults gazed out the windows. The only interesting site was the famed Yellow River, as muddy as its name would indicate.
The Resonant Sand Gorge is named for a “singing” sound that the sand allegedly makes, which you can most readily hear when sledding down the dunes, one of the activities our hosts strangely didn’t sign us up for.
As the girls played volleyball on a beach court, before repairing to the pools, I climbed to the summit of a dune and soothed myself with the sweeping expanse of sand and sky. So often during our time in Baotou, the moments of grace were there, if you pushed everything else aside.
After our rather inauthentic desert trip, we concluded a similar visit to one of the outlying grasslands wouldn’t be worth the time or expense. But Baotou is the only Chinese city that contains a grassland park, and I was determined not to leave without having seen a Mongolian steppe.
So Darryl and I joined two other restless adults and took a 30-minute cringe-inducing taxi ride through the unruly traffic, past traffic circles with massive statues, to Saihan Tala Ecological Park in the Qingshan District, which seemed a tad cleaner and more modern but still lacked English speakers.
The sign posted at the entrance to the park was almost poetic: “Every summer garden weeds characterising a fine firm cattle and sheep like stars in the green grass, endless green prairie disseminated with the blue sky white cloud exclusive to the Great Wall.”
We rode the whole way around, passing deer in a pen; Mongolian stone mounds called aobao; and, yes, the grassland we had come for, the effect marred by the buildings in the distance.
Exhausted and hungry, we got to our hot pot restaurant only by showing the taxi driver the logo on my iPhone, were only able to order vegetables because of the translation app I downloaded, and spent the ride back convinced that our driver, who was taking directions via her cellphone, was going to run over someone. Still, we were pleased with the success of our outing.
So pleased, we tried to talk the tournament officials into letting the girls visit the park the next day. It might have been easier to break them out of jail.
The organisers did supply a bus for the eight parents and chaperones to the Genghis Khan Mausoleum, which was more than two hours away. Though Lonely Planet had called a trip “a long way to see very little”, we weren’t going to look a gift bus in the mouth, and we were delighted we’d be accompanied by one of the tournament volunteers, a former Baotou volleyball player and current college student named Erica who spoke English.
Again, we didn’t pass much on the drive except for the “ghost city” of Ordos, where a skyline made up of partially constructed gap-windowed high-rises bears unsettling testimony to how quickly a building boom can turn to bust in China. We stopped for lunch at a small strip of shops and restaurants, where Erica ordered us traditional Mongolian food, including milk tea (too salty), fresh yoghurt (amazing), dried beef (very good), a few vegetable dishes, and of course, mutton.
The mausoleum, which the Chinese government erected in the 1950s to curry favour with the Mongolian minority, is built on a grand scale. Behind a huge white gate and a gigantic bronze statue of Khan, 99 steps lead to a building that looks like three gers, or yurts, with blue and gold roofs, linked together. The central yurt holds a white stone statue of Khan in the beautifully painted and tiled entryway; the wings house the so-called artifacts.
When we moseyed into the back room, which features an altar bearing a golden statue of Khan, we came upon an extended family on a pilgrimage. The jumble of bony items in front of the statue, Erica found out for us, were pieces of 21 sheep, on which the relatives would dine. Incense was lit, and various family contingents seemed to be called up for prayers as the others chatted and babies cried.
Then a group of men, most of them wearing black felt hats, began singing a sutra. It was mesmerising. I let myself be pulled away, but I was grateful for a glimpse of something real and a bit ashamed I hadn’t wanted to visit a location that clearly has deep meaning for many Mongolians.
The site I really wanted to see was the Tibetan monastery in the nearby foothills, about 70km away; the question was how to get there and back in time for the girls’ 4pm game. Erica suggested our tiny group of three parents hire a car and driver from a travel agency. It was genius: extremely reasonable, about $100 (R1 100); the car was a new Mercedes SUV; and the driver was willing to make whatever stops we requested.
On the way to the monastery, we paused at the ruins of what is perhaps the oldest section of the Great Wall: a rammed-earth divide built during the Warring States period by King Zhao Wu-ling. There was a huge statue of Zhao on a rearing horse, but the wall itself, constructed in 300BC, was harder to find; the signs not explicit.
We went on to the 18th century monastery, a series of whitewashed, red-edged buildings terraced into the hills, full of elaborate paintings and rugs and Buddhas. Monks guarded the entrances to the buildings, punching tickets.
We had read that the once-vibrant temple usually hosted more tourists than monks, but on this day, the grounds weren’t crowded, and the sky was clear and a striking blue background for the white buildings fronted with intricate murals and draped with colourful banners and streamers. It was possible to spin every prayer wheel we passed and imagine 1 200 monks praying together, the hills reverberating with their chants.
Later that afternoon, we would watch our team’s last game and the tournament’s closing ceremonies, and the players would swop T-shirts and trinkets and hugs.
But first, we would have enough time to ride to another Baotou district, Kundulun, full of sleek, modern, finished high-rises, because Erica wanted to show us her family’s new flat.
Her doting parents, abruptly summoned from their jobs to entertain some unknown Americans, would bustle home bearing soda and beer and some welcome Pizza Hut pizza. Erica would show us the furniture she’d picked out, and we would all crowd on to the new couch for photos. Like most of our experiences in Baotou, we could not have imagined it, but it definitely wasn’t hideous. – Washington Post News
If You Go...
There are plenty of buses and taxis. Take a business card from the hotel to show a taxi driver so you can return easily. Download on to your phone or ask someone to print out the name of the place you’d like to go in Chinese characters.
WHERE TO STAY
Donghe, the older section of town, has the convenience of the airport and bus and train stations but doesn’t offer much in terms of hotels. We stayed at the Super 8 Hotel Bayantala Xi Da Jie (www.super8hotels.com), but the nicer hotels seem to be in the Qingshan district.
WHAT TO DO
Saihan Tala Grassland Ecological Park
Qingshan, Baotou, Inner Mongolia
Xiang Sha Wan (Resonant Sand Gorge)
Ordos, Inner Mongolia
Admission starts at about $13; (R143), but there are add-on fees for each activity. 8.30am to 6pm.
Genghis Khan Mausoleum
Bulage Road, Ejin Horo, Ordos, Inner Mongolia
Admission about $33 (R370). 8am to 6pm.
Wudangzhao Town, Shiguai District, Baotou
Admission about $10 (R110). 8am to 5pm.
Drink only bottled water and don’t consume ice. Don’t eat uncooked fruit or vegetables.
Bring Pepto-Bismol and Imodium. It can be helpful to take a couple of Pepto-Bismol caplets a day as a preventive measure. Ask your doctor to prescribe antibiotics in case of severe traveller’s diarrhoea.
If you have breathing difficulties, bring respiratory masks.
Make sure you have an international data plan. WiFi is spotty at best.
Download a translation app such as KTdict C-E. You’ll come into contact with few English speakers.
Carry toilet paper and hand wipes. Not all restrooms will be stocked with paper or soap.
Consider bringing a pillow (the pillows were as flat as the proverbial pancake) and a towel.
Avoid using the “facilities” at highway rest stops at all costs.