Galloping across the grasslands of inner Mongolia
On any given weekend, hundreds of tourists pour through the autonomous region, and on a holiday, thousands.
Often confused with the neighbouring independent state of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia is a territory of the People’s Republic of China, and is a popular tourist destination for Chinese tourists and foreigners looking for an affordable and adventurous getaway.
A three-day group tour to this scenic region, including meals, transport, accommodation and outdoor activities, could cost you less than R2 000 per person. It’s quite a steal for a budget weekend away.
In a country where a work culture is prioritised, travelling is equally important.
China has a tourism industry worth $880-billion (R13-trillion), and this past National Day holiday and during the “Golden Week” holidays, Chinese citizens were expected to make 800 million trips, according to the country’s largest online travel agency, Ctrip.
Much of this would have been domestic travel, in honour of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Inner Mongolia is a popular destination for weekend travellers and offers a chance to experience grassland, desert, a volcano and a taste of its culture.
On entering the region, you immediately notice a cultural change. Alongside all Mandarin signage in the city of Hohhot are the vertical characters of traditional Mongolian script.
The Mongolian community makes up 17% of the population, and lives alongside the Han Chinese. Both languages can be heard while travelling in the region.
I began a recent group tour of the region with a night on the Xilamuren grassland. After a few warm weeks in Beijing, I was not prepared for the cold.
The fields are peppered with clusters of yurts - portable, circular traditional dwellings - which usually sleep two. Yurts for tourists are fitted out with modern facilities like air-conditioners, lights, solar power for hot water (during the night we spent there, the solar unit for heating water did not work), and satellite TV. A large floor-to-ceiling window offered a view of rolling hills and, of course, roaming horses.
A typical tour to the region includes an afternoon of horse-riding. Even the most inexperienced riders manage to get on, and stay on, for an uphill trip. The horses trotted in teams of about 10, obeying the instructions of mounted handlers. They sometimes galloped, but never too fast to unsettle us. We rode to a yurt and tasted Mongolian milk tea - a warm, salty treat.
The evening rounds off with a bonfire, beer and some barbecued sosaties. It is a good chance to make friends with fellow travellers. At the bonfire we were fortunate to bump into people who were guests at a traditional Mongolian wedding. They were in high spirits - and were happy to share their spirits.
The second day took me to the Kubuqi desert. This is the closest desert to Beijing, at a distance of 800km. Kubuqi means “bow off success” in Mongolian, and it is the seventh-largest desert in China.
The trip into the activity area begins with a desert cable car, Asia’s longest rope-way in a desert. It is an excellent way to admire the poplar trees. These are planted in an effort to push back desertification, and today there around 50 000 in Kubuqi desert.
At the centre of the desert park is another slick tourist operation. You start off by putting on desert shoes, and then you can ride a camel, all-terrain bikes, foefie slide and sand-slide to your heart’s content. After most of these activities, a printed picture is made available to you.
The weekend rounded off with a trip to the Chahar volcanic cluster. The last eruption was 10 000 years ago.
After a short climb up a hill to a grassy surface, you can see a little pond from where lava once flowed. Dark volcanic rocks around the edge of the summit remind you of the geological mysteries of the planet.
Half a day later, we were back in Beijing; a world away from the culture, natural beauty and vast scenery of Inner Mongolia.