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By definition, just traveling to China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region counts as adventure travel. The area, which extends 2,600 miles along its shared border with Mongolia and Russia, is not set up for luxury travel, making it fertile ground for off-the-beaten-path exploration. Its striking natural scenery of desert and grasslands and its indigenous Mongolian people still practicing their traditional way of life are the area’s major draw.
This unforgiving land was once home to Genghis Khan from 1162 to 1227. A mausoleum, 70 miles south of the city of Baotou, contains the powerful leader’s clothing buried in his memory. The location of his body, however, remains a mystery. Honoring his wishes, Khan was buried without any markings.
Baotou offers easy access for travelers who want to travel the Gobi Desert. Organized tours often stay at the Qixinghu Desert Eco-Tourism Resort. Qixinghu means “Seven Star Lake.” Activities centering around the mirror-like lakes include motor boating, yachting, water bikes and fishing. Sand activities range from sand-dune sledding, paragliding and hot-air ballooning to horse and camel riding.
Other popular desert areas for adventure travel include Badain Jaran, Kubuqi and Tengger. The Tengger Desert — which means “sky desert” in Mongolian — offers camel and horse rides, sand-dune sledding and overnight camping in a traditional Mongolian yurt (tent). Yurts are made of hide supported by a pole and are easily taken apart — ideal for nomadic people. Deluxe yurts are more common at tourist destinations, adding a bathroom and other modern-day conveniences. Visitors who opt for a homestay in a yurt should avoid the cultural faux pas of sitting on the east side where the host’s sleeping area is located and choose instead to sit on the west or north side of the yurt. However, let visitors know that if they choose to sit on the north side, they shouldn’t block the hanging image of Buddha on the wall.
Among the most popular grassland areas — some with yurt homestay opportunities — are Gegentala Grassland in Ulanqab (Gegentala means “a place for spending summer” in Mongolian), Xilamuren Grassland in Baotou, Ordos Grassland in Hanggig Qi and Jinlianchuan Grassland in Zhenglanqi. Jinlianchuan is considered the most beautiful grassland in Inner Mongolia.
The popular time to visit the grassland is during the traditional Mongolian Nadam Festival. Inner Mongolia is located in a temperate continental and monsoon climate. While summers are relatively mild, there can be a big temperature drop at night, so casual layered clothing is recommended. Nadam means “entertainment and games” in Mongolian. Archery, horse racing and wrestling are the main sports of the festival. The history of the celebration can be traced back to the early stages of the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan held an annual gathering of clan leaders with shooting contests, horse racing and wrestling competitions. It was an opportunity for him to inspect his army and for his people to pray for and celebrate a good harvest. By the late Qing Dynasty, the Nadam Fair had evolved into a recreational activity. These days, the annual Nadam Fair is held in Gegentala Grassland in late July.
Visiting the lamaseries and temples are among the cultural highlights of Inner Mongolia. Wudangzhao Monastery in Baotou, once the residence of the highest-ranking lama in Inner Mongolia, is now the region’s only intact Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Dazhao Temple, first built during the Ming Dynasty and restored in 1640 during the Qing Dynasty, is one of the best preserved temples in Hohhot. Also in Hohhot is the striking Tibetan Buddhist Five Pagoda Temple. For those seeking a deeper understanding of the buildings and the culture that built them, a visit to the Inner Mongolia Museum in Hohhot is a must.
Food is an important aspect of experiencing a place and Inner Mongolia has a unique cuisine. Celebrations often include a whole baked sheep stuffed with seasonings such as shallot, ginger and salt and often washed down with sour milk or mutton milk tea.
Local bazaars feature food stalls and sell everything from cashmere sweaters and camel hair carpets to Mongolian knives. A popular Mongolian expression translates to “a man without a knife is not a man.” It’s likely that the world’s first famous travelers, Marco Polo and his father and uncle, must have acquired a few of these items to bring back home after they arrived in Kublai Khan’s summer capital in Shangdu (Xanadu) in 1275 near what is now the city of Duolin. Part of the mystique of Inner Mongolia is that, while modern cities now dot the landscape, they are few and far between, leaving vast areas where little has changed in the 736 years since the three adventurous Venetians ventured here.