Inner Mongolia is a region of China which borders the country of Mongolia. The region is known for its grasslands and Chinese take excursions to the grasslands. While in Inner Mongolia, we encountered more Chinese tourists than others. In fact, that was the case for every destination we visited. China still isn’t one of the top destinations for Western tourists. We enjoyed China a lot and thought that the huge cultural difference was amazing to witness. It’s a journey we won’t likely forget!
Hohhot is a great hub city for visiting the grasslands. It’s a city of millions, like so many other cities in China. We were traveling from Beijing and took a night train to get to Hohhot. It was our very first night-train ever and we were still taking in impressions of this culture so different to ours. We arrived at 7 AM and were picked up by a guy from our hostel. Coming from Beijing, Hohhot had a quite different vibe to it. It’s visibly less touristy and we still weren’t able to read anything.
The Blue City
Hohhot itself wasn’t the most charming city we ever saw, but it was still a very interesting place to roam. The city is known as ‘the Blue City’, because of the open and blue sky the city has almost year round. Hohhot has shopping malls, street food, and other restaurants. Many of the residents of Hohhot are Mongol descendants and there is a lot of Mongol culture in this city and on the grasslands.
Our hostel was close to one of the famous food streets in the city. At night, the entire street lighted up with bright neon and the street filled up with barbecues and the smell of meat being roasted. We found this great eatery on the corner of the street where we managed to express my dietary restrictions through international sign language and a note with some Chinese signs.
Booking a tour to the grasslands
There is a lot of difference between the different tour organizations. Most agencies work with Chinese tourists only and we were very glad we didn’t take one of these. We past of few of these on our way to our camp. Big buses filled with hordes of Chinese tourists arrive at huge walled cities with hundreds of yurts. At the entrance, the buses are greeted by massive lion statues that guard the gate. These yurt camps look like a Disney World attraction. The high walls prevent you from seeing the vast grasslands that are the reason we wanted to go there. We were so glad to arrive at a very small tent camp with wide open views. We booked our tour with our hostel and were very happy we did that. But then again, if you want to go to the real grasslands and be surrounded by nothing but great nothingness, this wasn’t exactly that. But it was very close.
Our hostel offered different tours of different lengths and with different activities! Besides the grassland tours, they also offered day trips to an ancient part of the Great Wall. We thought about this excursion but decided not to do it, since we were short on budget and we had another trip to the wall coming up. After all, we were there for the grasslands! You can combine your grassland tour with a visit to a strip of the desert or a Buddhist monastery. We visited the monastery but didn’t go to the desert. Other folks in our hostel did go to the desert and they were quite disappointed since it’s only a few hundred meters of the desert and it’s very crowded. If you’re looking for a desert trip, this might not be the right place to do it. We ended up taking a two day tour, spending one night in a yurt, and we had the best time!
The Grasslands Tour
After being picked up by a minivan and switching different minivans a dozen of times, we finally drove into the vast grasslands. Knowing that this was the first kilometers into a wilderness of sloping meadows, we enjoyed watching the city disappear in our rear mirror. The air started feeling cleaner while we drove past the walled tourist cities. We didn’t go too far into the grasslands because 40 minutes later, we arrived at our camp. It was made up out of 6 or 7 yurts and a stone house. The Mongolian family that lived here, didn’t really live in a yurt, which confirmed once more that this was just a tourist attraction. Still, we enjoyed our time a lot.
After choosing our yurt and laying out our beds of mattresses and blankets, we were invited to pick up horse shit for the campfire later that night. I have a certain barrier that keeps me from picking up shit from the ground, but it ended up being hilarious after all. And I must admit, it doesn’t smell when you burn it! :p We had a nice evening by the fire and wandered away from the fire to pee in the bushes and watch the stars. The further away from the city, the more stars you’ll see. If you want to drink a few beers, you should buy them before you leave town.
Sleeping in a yurt
Our group was small enough to have a pleasant experience. There were nine of us and we had to split up into two groups for the yurts. Since part of our group were four Polish friends, we didn’t have a hard time doing that. They took a yurt and the remaining five people took the other yurt. From a big pile of little square mattresses, we formed our beds. We ended up putting our feet in the middle of the yurt and our heads in the outer area of the yurt. I’m not sure if this is the right way to do it. It felt a lot like we were doing it wrong and it wasn’t very convenient. I had a good night of sleep anyway! We got up before sunrise so we could see the sun as a dark red ball, rise from the walled camp further down the field. It was very beautiful, even if we could see the other camp. A little later, we were surprised with the view of horses drinking at a small watering hole close by.
The second day of our tour, we were taken to a small town which housed the Buddhist monastery. It was very different from the sacred temples we visited in Beijing. Most important, it was very quiet, as I supposed it should be. We felt as if we were invading in the peaceful life of the monks who were praying and singing. The whole experience had a very intimate feeling to it and I walked out being quiet and serene. Tip: you’re not supposed to take pictures of the Buddha statues or inside the temples!
In the afternoon of the second day, we had a chance to play a little with bow and arrow. They were more of play sessions than lessons, but it was great fun. We aimed at this pole with a sack of straw attached to it. When we finally hit the thing, we were over the moon!
Ride a horse on the grasslands
After an hour of old school play, we left for a horseback riding activity. We already did some horseback riding in Patagonia and were looking forward to this. We were surprised to see that the horses we were supposed to ride were more close to being donkeys than horses. There was maybe one horse that actually looked like one. Being 1m75 I hoped to be assigned to ride the real horse. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Our group had 3 men, me, and 5 women. Size and weight wise, I could be counted as one of the men. So there were 4 tall and heavy people, while the others were more feather-like. The guy who was in charge pointed at someone and then gave that person a horse. He first picked the tallest guy and gave him the tiniest horse. Everyone was amused to see him get on the horse and almost touching the ground with his feet. The other guys also got little donkeys and they all looked stupid sitting on them. I was up next and you can already guess that the stallion wasn’t for me! I could see little stars of joy and suppressed laughter in Lobkes eyes when she ended up climbing the stallion. We walked a small tour with the horses, being chased by a guy on a motorcycle who was whipping the horses so they would move. The horses were frightened to be hit and seemed to be panicking quite a lot. Some considered the horseback riding as very scary since the horses were rushed and frightened the entire time. It was a weird experience as it was very wobbly for me and it wasn’t very relaxing nor enjoyable. I’m very glad we did this activity, but I thought the experience was totally different than what I expected.
Booking these tours
We booked our grasslands tour with our hostel, Anda Guesthouse. At the time, this was the best method of booking it, because booking the wrong tour could land you in a walled yurt camp. Even though we booked this hostel during spring cleaning time, it looked a bit cluttered and messed up. But they are one of the only backpacker hostels in Hohhot and they have the best tours. You can book the tours while you’re there or you can email them and book the tours before you go. Traveling to China is a cultural experience that can leave you confused at times.
A few tips
Take warm clothing. There’s a lot of wind and it can get very cold.
Prepare to take a wee in the wild.
Take snacks, especially if you have dietary restrictions.
Take a couple of beers with you if you want.