HEARING a commotion, I turn to see a young Mongolian horse herder pushing away a tourist.
“I’ve told you many times, stay away from the horses,” he shouted in heavily accented Mandarin. Apparently the stubborn traveler had been told several times to keep his distance, yet these exhortations fell on deaf ears as the tourist approached the animals for photo opportunities.
I can’t tell who is right or wrong, but the incident reminds me of where I was ­— the birthplace of Genghis Khan, the fierce 13th century Mongolian warrior who led his “devil’s horsemen” to rule an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Caspian Sea in Eastern Europe.
Mongols have been known to value their horses as much as men, with many even today being taught to ride horses at a very young age.
Inner Mongolia is the third largest province in China. It is bordered by the Republic of Mongolia (an independent country) to the west and Russia to the north.
I am lured here by images of undulating grasslands, pristine blue skies with fluffy clouds and horses grazing under the watchful eyes of nomadic herdsmen. Specifically, the Hulunbeir Grasslands (Hulunbuir in the local dialect) have been hailed as the most beautiful in China.
To get around this vast area, it is best to hire a local driver. Road conditions are good and quaint towns make for pleasant breaks along the way. The grasslands are sandwiched between two cities, Manzhouli to the west and Hailar to the east.
Manzhouli border town
The bustling border town of Manzhouli, which means “Luxuriant Spring Water” in Mongolian, makes a good first stop and is an attraction in its own right. The town is more Russian in character than Chinese with castle-like buildings and European-inspired architecture.
Shops display Chinese-Russian signboards while restaurants serve typical Russian fare such as beef stroganov, pirozhki (stuffed buns) and borscht soup. Most of the shop owners speak Russian effortlessly with tourists that drive across the border from neighboring Zabaykalsk.
The biggest attraction in town is the Matryoshka Doll Square, a colorful theme park that appears to have popped straight from a book of fairy tales ­— complete with 200 Russian nesting dolls, including the largest in the world at 30 meters in height.
Other attractions include the nearby Russian Art Museum and a relatively new Russian-style church. Just a short distance outside town is Hulun, the largest lake in the province ­— worth a day’s visit for horse riding along the water or just taking in the beautiful scenery.
At night, there are dozens of Russian-themed bars and nightclubs where one can party and almost forget one is in China. Some of the larger Chinese restaurants stage dance and acrobatic performances.
In December, Manzhouli is the venue for the Ice and Snow Festival and the China-Russia-Mongolia Beauty Pageant.
The road trip from Manzhouli to Hailar (Hailaer in Mandarin and sometimes also called Hulunber or Hulunbeier) is less than four hours (220 km) and traverses the undulating plains of the Mongolian landscape.
Here one can see miles and miles of grasslands populated with sheep and horses grazing peacefully. In a hired car, some may find it hard to fight overly frequent urges to stop for photo opportunities.
Hailar itself is a typical industrial town with few attractions. The only reason most visitors go here is because of the airport located about 15 minutes outside town. To be fair, there have been efforts to spruce up the city with colorful lighting along the streets, but few venture outdoors except during summer.
Jin Zhang Han tourist area
About an hour outside Hailar is an area called Jin Zhang Han (Golden Horde), where visitors can experience life inside a pseudo Mongolian yurt, a type of semi-permanent structure traditionally used by local nomads.
Here several establishments offer a variety of services for tourists — from horse and camel rides to nightly barbecues and traditional song and dance performances. Whatever one chooses, the vast grasslands are never far away.
To catch the spectacular sunrise during summer, one would have to rise as early as 3:30am. Locals call this area a tourist trap as most of the yurts are not authentic. Certain services can be practically non-existent thanks to the hordes of tourists passing through every day during peak months.
However, as a tourist, this is possibly the most convenient way to catch a glimpse of life on the grasslands.
Shiwei ­— the last frontier
If you have time and can endure a seven-hour (290 km) journey up north to Shiwei, you will be rewarded with a rustic experience at a border village inhabited by ethnic minorities whose forefathers were Russian.
The road ends literally at Shiwei and a small river separates it from Russia. Houses are mostly built from timber and resemble log cabins or cottages and the food served is typically Russian. You can spend a day here to explore the village on foot or horseback; or take a boat ride along the river.
On the way back from Shiwei, one can take an alternative route through towns such as Moerdaoga and Aoluguya. Moerdaoga is famous for its national forest park while Aoluguya is known for its Ewenki population, an ethnic minority group from Siberia who mostly engage in reindeer herding. Erguna is also worth a stopover for its nearby birchwood forest, the only forest of its kind in the region.
• Getting there & around
There are regular flights from Shanghai to both Manzhouli and Hailar with transit in Beijing. During summer months, additional flights are available. It is best to fly to Manzhouli first and then travel east to Hailar, exploring the grasslands in between.
In Manzhouli, car hire services are available with drivers who can help with route planning. Inquiries at hotel front desks, travel agencies or local shops might lead a traveler to cheaper prices.
• Where to stay
In Manzhouli, possibly the most luxurious hotel would be Shangri-La Hotel Manzhouli (www.shangri-la.com/manzhouli), which is located right in the middle of the town square, and within walking distance of several shops, restaurants and bars.
Others include the Ibis Manchuli Hotel (accorhotels.com) and the Manzhouli Grand Hotel (www.m-hotel.com.cn).
Cheaper hotels are usually located further away from downtown and during the peak summer months of July and August most rooms will either be booked or rates will be higher, so planning ahead is advised.
In Hailar, there are several business hotels downtown such as the Hulun Buir Friendship International Hotel which is located near local shopping malls.
At Jin Zhang Han, a no-frills yurt with six beds will set you back around 800 yuan (US$128.8) but some do have more upscale rooms with prices to match.
Most of these establishments have their own in-house restaurants and it is best to stay at least one night to take in the experience.
Shiwei village is so remote that you may not be able to find much information about it online, at least not in English.
One of the bigger hotels in the village is Lian Na Zhi Jia (+86 0470-6952-228; from 280 yuan). A cheaper choice down the road is Yun Ping Jiu Dian (136-2470-8492; from 150 yuan).
• When to go
The grasslands are best seen during the peak summer months of July and August ­— by September they start to turn yellow. While it may be warm during summer days, nights can be chilly so jackets are recommended.