Monday, November 2, 2009

Xilamuren Grasslands

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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.


Phil Dawsey said...

Definitely looks like Wyoming! Those blue skies are pretty cool. Wild stuff man.