Yin Shan Yan Hua Ger Camp in Inner Mongolia // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): G Adventures’ new Hidden China and Inner Mongolia tour takes visitors off the beaten path. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
A horned sheep’s skull, flanked by a pair of half-empty liquor bottles, peered out at me from the small recess inside a hilltop stupa. Fashioned from thick slabs of gray shale, the Buddhist shrine was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and wrapped in an outer layer of evergreen branches and brightly colored prayer flags, which flapped eagerly in a building breeze while the day’s last light painted lavender across Inner Mongolia’s grassland.
I had hiked up the hill behind Yin Shan Yan Hua Ger Camp, some 45 miles west of the city of Ulanqab, to get some before-dinner exercise and a better look at the vast eastern steppe, when I came across the small stupa and its honored sheep’s skull entirely by accident.
Certain that was the only skin-free sheep’s head I would see for a while, I snapped numerous photos. It turned out, however, that another sheep was on the dinner menu. Our hosts at the remote ger (a Mongolian yurt) camp, an overnight stop on a new G Adventures tour, carried in the entire cooked animal — head, horns, teeth and all — garnished with decorative greens on a platter. While serenading us throughout dinner with traditional Mongolian instruments, songs and even throat singing, our hosts also offered up plenty of chances to sample some high-octane rice wine, which I suspect was probably the same stuff I came across in the liquor bottles up on the hill.
“We hope we take people out of their comfort zone,” said Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, of his company’s view toward travel. “You should not feel like you’re at home. If you’ve decided to travel because you want the comforts of home, we suggest you stay at home.”
Travelers staying overnight at Yin Shan Yan Hua certainly won’t find many familiar household luxuries. While the traditional gers offer a relatively comfortable padded floor to sleep on, there are no showers or bathtubs, and the toilets are literally just private holes in the ground for both men and women.
Still, the after-dinner intercultural exchange and rice-wine-fueled hijinks — including a lively starlit dance session around the fire with our ger hosts and other Chinese overnight guests — provided some of the most memorable moments of the 12-day China tour.
The itinerary was designed with more adventurous travelers in mind, according to Rachel Wasser, innovation manager for G Adventures, who developed the company’s new Hidden China and Inner Mongolia tour.
“I was thinking of people who really want a unique experience and maybe want bragging rights,” she said. “They want something beyond the normal stuff.”
Along with Inner Mongolia, which is an autonomous region of China, Wasser also added other lesser-known treasures to the trip, incorporating time at UNESCO World Heritage Site Yungang Grottoes, a series of Buddhist cave temples that are home to a collection of 51,000 ancient stone statues; and the Datong region’s Hanging Monastery, which lies at the foot of Mt. Hengshan.
The visit also allows first-timers to see some of China’s most iconic attractions, such as the Great Wall, Beijing’s Forbidden City and Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s 2,000-year-old Terra-Cotta Warriors.
Taking in such a diverse range of highlights does require a fair amount of travel, so those booking the new G Adventures tour should be prepared not only for several hours on a bus in Inner Mongolia, but also three overnight sleeper-car train trips throughout the rest of the tour. However, Wasser was quick to point out that she decided to focus heavily on rail transportation because it lets clients see firsthand how most Chinese people take domestic trips.
“When you are on those trains, you are not sheltered in any way from what life is like in China,” she said. “You get to meet people who want to practice their English. You get to see people wake up early and slurp their noodles for breakfast. Maybe it’s not all the best things in the world that somebody wants to experience, but it’s a story, and it’s an experience, and people come home knowing a little more about what life in China is actually like.”
G Adventures’ Hidden China and Inner Mongolia tour maxes out at 16 participants and starts at $1,499 a person, not including airfare or the cost of most lunches and dinners.