Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kubuqi Desert (Resonant Sand Gorge)

View Inner Mongolia Trip in a larger map

Besides the grasslands, the next major thing to see in Inner Mongolia is the desert. Inner Mongolia is home to parts of the Gobi and other deserts. The desert occupies a large portion of land in that region. The nearest and most accessible section of the desert to the big cities in Inner Mongolia is called the Kubuqi Desert and everyone goes to the part called the Resonant Sand Gorge. To get to the desert, I went to the city Baotou, which is west of Hohhot. Before leaving Hohhot, I made sure to eat one last time on the restaurant street that had a lot of Mongolian and Muslim restaurants. Mongolian food and Muslim barbecue with lamb and spices is about as good as it gets for me.

Restaurant Street with Barbecue

Baotou isn't too far from Hohhot, but it definitely seemed a bit more wild and had less exposure to foreigners. Previously, when I went to a new and strange place, I'd get nervous or maybe feel a bit uncertain about things, but I've learned to embrace it and enjoy it as much as you can. After finding a hotel and booking my trip to the desert, I got a great dinner for the super cheap prices that can be found in the non-major Chinese cities.

Rack of Lamb

Bus Converted to Street Food Restaurant

The next day I headed to the Kubuqi desert. After taking about an hour and a half to two hours drive from Baotou, you reach an area of land that has a quick transition from farming area to sand and desert. I was shocked to see that literally within 100 meters of the desert they were building a huge rail line, which the driver said was mainly for shipping coal. Within the next 400 meter radius there was a huge coal electricity plant. To me it seemed like they were tempting the fates by building that kind of infrastructure right next to the desert. If the desert expanded to the point where it swallowed up the new rail line or destroyed their plant, there would be nothing they could do to stop it.

Coal Plant

Rail Line Next to Desert

People Getting a Ride on an Old Truck

For better or worse, the stretch of desert that they take everyone to is pretty touristy, but you don't really have a choice to go anywhere else. Before you enter the desert area, you can rent these big desert socks that keep sand out of your shoes. While they might not be the most fashionable, they are quite necessary if you plan on walking around much. Much like the grasslands, I had plenty of time to get out and do a little exploring on my own. I had never been to a desert landscape before and it was actually quite beautiful to see dunes stretched out as far as the eye can see.

Kubuqi Desert

My Driver
(He proves the stereotype that northern Chinese people are tall)

Wes and Stylish Red Desert Socks

Driver At Top of Dune

Desert Landscape

After walking around for awhile, I decided to partake in one of the tourist attractions and go on a camel ride. I had never ridden a camel before, so it was a good as time as any to give it a try. I have to admit that the camels were surprisingly docile and easy to ride. I'm not sure if it's because they are just good natured or if it's because they had bolts running through their noses connecting a string of camels together, but they definitely seemed friendly. Whereas the horses on the grasslands seemed to have a mind of their own, the camels just kind of plodded along wherever they were led.

Camel Corral

All Aboard (Notice Bolt Through Nose)

To get on the camel, you would climb on while the camel was lying down, then a Chinese guy helping you would kind of grunt and pull on the camel to get it to stand up. It was a surprisingly big jump to go from sitting to standing and normally the camels would stand up in stages: the back legs first, then the front legs. During the interval of time between when the back legs were going up and the front legs were still down, you would get rocked forward quite a bit, which caused quite a number of Chinese girls to scream.

After all the camels had been mounted in the group, one of the small, weathered Chinese men working there would lead the caravan for a walk around the desert. At first I thought those workers were friendly and helpful, that is until they demanded that you pay them when they took pictures of you on the camel. We rode the camels for about 20 minutes until we arrived at a little zoo, which mostly seemed to contain underfed and tortured animals that had no business living in the desert.

Tour Guide


Wes on Camel

My Friendly Camel

Anyone Heard of Desert Goats?

These Animals Probably Died at this Zoo in the Desert

After the camel ride, I took some more time to walk around and see the desert landscapes.

Desert Landscape with Caravan in the Distance


There were a few other tourist things to do, like a long zip line and a sled down a big dune. Of course everything is overpriced for tourists, so I decided to take the cheaper sled ride and then headed back to the city. Upon arriving in Baotou, I went straight to the train station to go to my next destination, Datong, in Shanxi province. That means my time in Inner Mongolia was over. I really liked Inner Mongolia and enjoyed the landscapes of the grasslands and desert. It was nice to get away from big cities and pollution for a little while. The only thing that might have been nicer is if I had gone during the summer time. During the summer the grasslands would have been greener and the weather a bit warmer. Besides that, it was a great trip.

Here are some final scenes from Baotou and Inner Mongolia:

Man With Donkeys Pulling Cart Down Main Road

Back to Crowds of People at the Baotou Train Station

Monday, November 2, 2009

Xilamuren Grasslands

View Inner Mongolia Trip in a larger map

The most famous parts of Inner Mongolia are the vast grasslands. After all, these are some of the very grasslands where Mongolian nomads gained dominant horse riding skills, which they used to attack the Chinese to the point that it necessitated the Great Wall of China. For those who don't know, Mongolians are definitely the cowboys of Asia. The whole area reminded me of the American West in many ways. These days the grasslands are pretty empty and a shadow of their former selves, but some Mongolian culture still remains.

There are several grassland areas near Hohhot. The most common place to go is the Xilamuren grasslands. The typical grasslands trip will include spending one night and sleeping in a Mongolian "yurt," which is basically the Asian tee pee, as far as I can tell. It's not very easy to go to the grasslands and do any exploring on your own, let alone find a place to sleep, so most people have to go with a big tour group. These groups will probably bring you to a big tourist camp where there could be 50 to 100 people, or maybe more, staying in the same area in a big group of yurts. Since I normally avoid such touristy affairs, I decided to go with a smaller group through my hostel. They take you to stay with a Mongolian family with only two yurts with about 10-20 people and it might be a more "authentic" experience.

The group from my hostel set out in the morning to go to the grasslands. After a two to three hour drive, we pulled up to the Mongolian family's house and two yurts where we would be staying. When we first arrived, they basically just dropped us off and gave us some time to walk around and see some of the surroundings.

Small Town on Drive to Grasslands (Notice the pig eating garbage)

Little House on the Grasslands

House from Above

Mongolian Yurt

Inside of Mongolian Yurt, Presided Over by Genghis Khan

Wind and Solar Power Connected Directly to House

Dog Keeping Eye on Rock Barn

Herding Sheep

Nearby the Mongolian family's house there was a dried out lake that had left a salty bed, similar looking to a miniature salt flat.

Salty Lake Bed

Practicing the Art of Chinese Kung Fu (功夫)

Big Tourist Camp with Lines of Yurts

Dried Lake from a Distance

After going with the group to the dried out lake, I wandered around a little on my own on the grasslands. The grasslands stand in stark contrast to the constant noise and chaos of my normal daily life in China. Such a large expanse of land with few signs of human development and humans themselves is tough to find in the eastern coastal areas. If you walk around alone on the grasslands all you'll hear is the sound of the wind, whereas if I'm sitting alone in my apartment I can constantly hear sounds of honking, traffic, construction, yelling, and general noise. Needless to say I took the rare opportunity to have a few moments of solitude on the quiet grasslands.

Since it was already October, the grasslands weren't as green as normal, but the landscape and sky were still very beautiful. Blue skies with big puffy clouds are something I've come to truly appreciate, after living in a city where blue skies are uncommon. To be honest, a lot of the landscape reminded me of places in Wyoming (minus sagebrush), basically large expanses of windy and empty land.



As I was walking around, I came across something that I would later find out is a religious site for Mongolians. It's basically something that looks like the yurt we slept in, but made of rocks piled up. There are several of these sites in the area and they are all connected in some way that wasn't clear to me. In the old days they would conduct religious ceremonies at one of the sites and then ride horses to the next site.

Sacred Site

Sacred Site with Trail

After having some free time walking around, they brought some horses for our whole group to ride. Half of our group consisted of some Singaporeans and the other half had some English, Americans, and Canadians. Most people had never ridden a horse before, so it was quite the novelty for many of them.

Horses Approaching

My Horse

Mongolian Guides

Riding into the Sunset

Part of the Group

We rode for a ways to one of the Mongolian religious sites that I mentioned earlier. It was on somewhat of a hill so you could have a good view of the surrounding grasslands.

We stopped for a bit at the top and got off the horses. We were mixing it up with some of the Mongolian guides, who spoke no English and only some Chinese. They were really friendly and we had a lot of fun.

Mongolian Guides

Our Group with Mongolians

Horses Taking a Break

Ride 'Em Cowboy

We got back to the house about the time the sun was going down. We were on the grasslands during the full moon, so the sky was really amazing and I really couldn't believe the stars.

Modern Mongolian Traveling by Motorcycle

Full Moon at Sunset

Full Moon at Night

That night it was extremely cold on the grasslands. We had some Mongolian barbecue, started with horse manure as kindling, but despite the heat from the barbecue and some horse milk liquor, it was hard to stay warm. I hadn't really prepared enough warm clothes, so I had to sneak off to the yurt a little early to stay warm.

Heating Mongolian Barbeque

Mongolian Guy Wearing Chinese Mao Coat

Mongolian Barbeque

I slept pretty well in the yurt and stayed warm through the night. The next morning I woke up early to try and catch the sunrise. It was already feeling much warmer than the night before. They also had some breakfast going with Mongolian milk tea to warm us up, so I was feeling back to normal in no time. They even had some traditional Mongolian clothes for us to try on and take pictures with.

Sun Rise Over Dried Out Lake

Mongolian Man Using a Motorcycle to Herd Animals

Breakfast with Scone-like Bread and Milk Tea

A Menacing Mongolian

The trip to the grasslands was definitely cool. Going through the hostel to a smaller area with the Mongolian family was a lot of fun. They might not have had as much entertainment with the singing or wrestling that you might see at some of the bigger tourist camps, but the overall experience is probably better. The family was very gracious and cooked us great food and showed us a good time. It might have been better to go during the summer when the grass is greener and the weather is warmer, but overall I had a great time.