No need to rough it when visiting the homeland of the legendary Genghis Khan. Based at a comfortable hotel in Huhhot or Baotou, you can venture to the grassland, desert or historical sites in style. Yao Minji pays a visit.
Singing Sand Ravine
As wind passes by, the small and smooth grains of sand under the crystal clear sky start squeaking as the dunes are reshaped almost every second. Footsteps left on the sand soon disappear.
The area of Singing Sand Ravine is part of the Kubuqi Desert, one of the most easily accessible deserts for tourists. The desert is popular among backpackers who enjoy the challenge of crossing it.
This area, on the edge of the desert, has been built into an activities park with nearly all imaginable sand-related entertainment including desert jeeps, karts, camel riding, motorbikes, sand sliding, and many more.
In any of the vehicles, the experience of riding up and down seemingly endless and forever changing sand hills makes it even more exciting than riding roller-coasters, and makes you feel almost superhuman as you fly through the dunes. Sand sliding for 90 meters at 45 degrees also takes some courage that is rewarded with the thrill of speed.
Walking routes are paved with wooden boards and visitors can take jeeps or trains between faraway sites, but the sand is so fine that wearing a hat with a net to cover the face and shoe wrappers is recommended. Getting sand in your shoes makes it difficult to walk around the area.
Every winter, before the wind turns fierce and everything becomes buried under the sand in seconds, all the facilities are removed, to be installed again the next year, leaving only the area with sand sculptures. When we visited, all the sand sculptures from the year before had been buried or weathered away into some unrecognizable shapes, showing the relentlessness and wonder of nature when no human is around.
It is about an hour and half drive from Baotou City.
Genghis Khan Mausoleum
The great Genghis Khan died during a conquering march and his death remains a mystery, as does the whereabouts of his tomb. The Mongolians favored secretive burial — nobody was to know where he was buried and the secrets could pass only within the family responsible for guarding his tomb.
Archeologists and historians have long argued about the location of his tomb, while many places have claimed to be the site. But to the day, the question remains unresolved.
Legend has it that Mongols used hundreds of horses to trample and flatten the ground after he was buried in order to conceal the place, and it was guarded by hundreds of soldiers until the grasses grew back and the site became invisible.
The Genghis Khan Mausoleum, near the famous ghost town Ordos, is an officially recognized memorial site that contains the clothes and hats of Genghis Khan. It was said when the king passed by the grassland during his last military march, he was attracted by the rich fields and beautiful deer that his horse whip fell onto the ground. He told his followers that he would want to be buried at this site.
The site was moved a few times during wartime in the 1930s and 1940s and moved back to its original site and renovated in 1954. Since then, many antiques related to the great emperor, collected from all over the world, had been gathered at the mausoleum, and local Mongolians treat the site as a sacred place.
It is around four or five hours’ drive from Huhhot City.
Many say Inner Mongolia’s grasslands are the best places to take pictures that look identical to the default desktop photo of the Windows operating system — green grass under a blue sky and white clouds.
And it’s true. But what’s even more splendid is that the real-life version can be photographed during beautiful sunrises and sunsets or when crowds of horses gallop through the tall grasses. And at night, it’s possible to see some of the brightest twinkling stars in the sky that any city-dweller has ever had the chance to see.
The vastness of the grassland, the beautiful skies day and night and the heavy, rich meals of meat dishes all can be intoxicating after a day or two, especially after some horseback riding up and down the hills and, if you’re fortunate, the chance to observe local entertainment such as Mongolian wrestling, horseback racing and evening parties.
Worship of aobao, or cairn (man made piles of rock), is another tradition on the grassland. On the grand fields of grass, where no road names are to be seen, the cairns serve as directional guides and meeting points. An old folk song called “Meet at Aobao” talks about how young Mongolian men and women encounter each other and fall in love beside a cairn.
Large ceremonies are held every summer to pray for rain so that the grass will grow. And local Mongolians often stop at any cairn they see on the road to pay their respects.
It takes about three hours to drive from Huhhot City to the Xilamuren Grassland.
When Shanxi merchants made their way to the Inner Mongolia region from their home province some 400 years ago, the Yellow River was one of the main routes, but also one with many unpredictable dangers. Today, the river has largely dried up, as the Yellow River is known to carry heavy amounts of silt. It has become more of a tourist site than a practical means of transportation.
Some boat tours crossing the Yellow River offer a feast with a variety of fresh wild fish caught from the river which have a more pleasant savory taste than most fish dishes served in cities, even prepared with simple cooking methods and little spice.
One can board the ships at the city of Baotou.
The best season to visit the grassland is June to September, when it doesnÕt get too cold in the evening and the grass grows fast.
Be careful about temperature drops between day and night. Bring a jacket even when you visit in summer. It gets very cold at night on the grassland.
Be aware of mosquitoes and sunburn.
Pack light when riding a horse and never walk behind them. They might get scared and kick.
Some common Mongolian cuisines include intestines, so pay attention to the order if you donÕt want those.
Take the opportunity to enjoy the local specialties of Mongolian cheese, yogurt, horse milk wine and berries.
How to get there:
Huhhot: Daily flights are available from both airports in Shanghai to the Baita International Airport in Huhhot and it takes about two hours and 40 minutes.
T282/T282 train leaves Shanghai South Station at 7:35pm and arrives in Huhhot 6pm the next day.
Baotou: Daily flights are available from both airports in Shanghai to the Erliban International Airport in Baotou, and it takes about 2 hours and 55 minutes.
T282/T283 train leaves Shanghai at 7:35pm and arrives in Baotou at 8:11pm the next day.
The two cities are not far from each other and are connected by frequent trains, which take about an hour and half.
Where to stay:
Shangri-La Hotel in Huhhot is the city’s first international luxury hotel, opened in 2007. It is only 25 minutes’ drive from Baita International Airport and eight minutes from the railway station. The hotel offers great views of Qingcheng Park and is convenient for travel to nearby tourist sites such as Gegentala Grassland, Genghis Khan Mausoleum, Tomb of Princess Wang Zhaojun, and Dazhao Temple and others. The hotel also has Baotou branches in the downtown Yinhe Plaza and very close to the city’s grassland park, the largest city park in the country, where many locals ride bikes and observe deer. The hotel is only 15 minutes from the railway station and 30 minutes from the airport. It is also very convenient for travel to nearby sites such as Genghis Khan Mausoleum, Singing Sand Ravine and the Yellow River.
A few grasslands are close to both cities, about four hours’ drive, and many provide accommodation in Mongolian tent-like yurts. The hotels also offer travel packages that involve accommodation at hotels and in tents on the grassland.