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Why Touring Inner Mongolia’s Xilamuren Grasslands & Xiangshawan Desert Turned Out to Be One of My Most EPIC Adventures in China!
Yurts, grasslands, folk wrestling, camels, and dune buggies? Yep, it happened. I finally, finally, finally, got the chance to tour Inner Mongolia--Hohhot to be exact. That's right, it was 2017's Labor Day holiday in China, and having already hit many of the country’s top destinations over the past 5 and 1/2 years, I figure'd it was finally time to cross Inner Mongolia off of the bucket list. And guess what? It turned out to be one of my best China adventures yet!
And..here..we...go! I landed in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia, on a 4 day trip as a solo traveler with nothing but a backpack, a few changes of clothes, and a hotel booked for one night only. Now, I know what you're thinking: What kind of travel plan was that!? But just hear me out.
The plan was to explore Hohhot the first day, head out to a grassland the next day, explore more local attractions on day 3, then return to Shanghai by Wednesday. Simple, right? It was a quick backpacking trip, and truth be told, all I really cared about was getting to the grasslands--some of the famous in China by the way--and by any means necessary. Here's how I'd do it.
I'd check into my hotel and then set out on a very important mission: finding a popular hotel chain in Hohhot and asking about their tour packages. Many expats in China don't know this, but it's one of the easiest things you can do to see top attractions in most cities across the country.
With that, I hit the streets of Hohhot and in no time I ran into traffic jams, shoulder bumps, and queues on passageways--further proof that no city in China is immune to the swarm of crowds during the holidays.
And then it happened: I arrived at Zhaojun Hotel, this semi-grand hotel I'd seen from the airport shuttle bus into the city. Like clockwork, a Chinese woman was sitting at a tourist reception desk. I approached, I asked. A 2-day tour of Xilamuren Grasslands and Xiangshawan Desert that included roundtrip transportation via shuttle bus, lunch, and overnight stay in a yurt, for a basic fee of 350RMB? Are you kidding? Sign me up!
No joke. It was that simple, and that easy. And so let the adventure begin!
Day 2. The tour bus departed from Hohhot at 8am sharp. I was the only foreigner out of about 27 people onboard, but hey, this was China--it was just another day. Exchange Wechats with our guide, use its translation feature if I needed anything, and well, that was that.
It took about 3 hours before we'd finally catch a glimpse of Inner Mongolia's Xilumaren grasslands, and boy was it a sight for sore eyes. Nothing but flat, sprawling green grasslands for as far as our eyes could see. No skyscrapers, no traffic congestion, no shops lining the highway--just patches of yurt tourist centers and open road. Now this was the side of China I couldn't wait to explore!
By 12pm we arrived at our destination, this massive tourist "resort" jam-packed with horses, donkeys, UTVs, and what seemed like thousands of yurts--yeah, at least. And the best part? After ditching the bus we were immediately greeted by locals donning traditional Inner Mongolian attire. They were singing chants and offering up small shots of their own branded alcohol. Hey, if only every adventure started like this!
With lunch not until 1:30pm it was time to get the party started, and there were 2 options for doing so. The first: trek across the grasslands by horse for an hour at a whopping 405RMB. Or, go wild on a 2 seat dune-buggy for an hour at 380RMB. Hmm ...
Honestly, both prices were pretty ludicrous. And although I initially had every bit of intention to go horseback riding on the grasslands, several of us wound up joining forces and negotiating a price of 200RMB per person for keys to the dune-buggy. Best ... decision ... ever. And here's why.
Memories. Traveling is all about new experiences and creating the best memories. Trekking Inner Mongolia's grasslands by dune-buggy was one of the most unforgettable experiences I've ever had in my adventures across China. In fact, you could probably put it in my top 10.
We had speed, an open aired cabin, and nothing but miles of land for us to ravage. Plus it was a hop on/hop off type of deal, meaning we could stop and explore whatever we saw along the way. Smashing the dune-buggy on the grasslands was a way better method of exploring the terrain than horseback riding could have ever been. And you can quote me on that!
Then came lunch. On the menu? Traditional Chinese dishes, more free shots of alcohol, and a large, succulent piece of good ol' fashioned homegrown roasted lamb leg, which cost an extra 480RMB a pop that could be split between 5 people. I've fell in love with lamb since moving to China, so that was one particular item of the region I just couldn't leave without stuffing down.
By 2:30pm it was check-in time--finally. I was thrilled at the chance to finally stay in a yurt, but there was just one problem: the rooms were... too lavish. What do I mean? Well, first off, they were huge. Plus all were equipped with double queen-sized beds, walk-in bathrooms, chairs, and even a TV! This wasn't remotely close to what I imagined beforehand; you know, some small, cramped hut with a single twin bed, outfitted with incense, sculptures, and all kinds of decorative Mongolian artwork hanging on the wall. Hey, the more the tradition, the more I prefer authenticity!
Next up? Some electrifying entertainment. Did you know that wrestling is an important cultural aspect of Mongolian culture, along with horsemanship and archery? That they're considered the "three manly skills", and there's even a widely popular festival--the Naadam Fair--where men of the region can compete and showcase their abilities? Don't worry, I didn't know either!
But I did find out soon enough. Out on the grasslands, all of us tourists gathered and watched as some locals rolled up on horses like renegade western cowboys, hopped off, and went straight into wrestling matches. As random as it was, it was very exciting to look at. There were a couple of sweeps and pins to the ground here and there, but it was obviously more of a show than an actual UFC type cage match. Still, what a fun performance!
And the party didn't stop there. Over the next several hours several awesome things would happen. One, I'd meet up two girls I had befriended in our group--also solo travelers and English speakers--and we'd spend an hour just hanging out on the grasslands, cracking jokes, taking lots of photos, and admiring the hell out of Xilarumen's incredible views. I can't tell you enough how cool it was to have found other adventure-seekers to share Inner Mongolia with.
Two, we'd eat dinner. More Chinese dishes, more shots of alcohol. Enough said.
Three? By 7:15pm everyone had gathered outside to watch the sunset fall over the grasslands. In my book, China's Huangshan "Yellow" Mountain holds the record for best sunrise I've ever seen. As for the sunset over Xilarumen Grasslands? It definitely gets the award for quietest.
Last of all? The real party started promptly at 8:30pm. Don't think heavy drinking, club music, and scantily clad women. Instead, there was a bonfire, some live entertainment put on by the locals, and a huge dance celebration that, to my surprise, nearly everyone participated in.
I slept good that night. Actually, I slept great. Even as it was freezing cold, I couldn't have thought of a better way to cap off Day 1 of my Inner Mongolian adventure. And next up? On to Xiangshawan Desert!
Day 3. Breakfast on the grasslands. This time around the locals had put on quite the performance as we ate. There was some very energetic singing, playing of traditional instruments, and a showcase of a traditional Inner Mongolian marriage ritual. We arrived on a good note, and we left with a bang!
We arrived at Xiangshawan Desert by 1:30pm. It's crazy, after 30 years on this planet it was my first time ever seeing the desert. And Xiangshawan wasn't just some tiny, flat, man-made enclosure. Rather, it was this sprawling sand ravine loaded with hills and valleys. And on top of that, there were a bunch of cool desert activities waiting for us. Let the new adventure begin!
First on our list was crossing into the desert via cable car. I promise you, I had never taken so many cable cars in my life until I moved to China. On just about every other major trip across the country I've ended up on a cableway. But hey, I can't complain about the awesome views they bring!
And next? We'd hop in this huge, opened aired desert vehicle that looked like a ship straight out of the 18th century. It was like taking one of those City Sightseeing Bus Tours--something I try to do everytime I travel--but across the desert. Between the cable car and ride on this thing, I knew our trip to Xiangshawan was going to be epic!
And on to our first leisure activity: camel back riding. There must have been a hundred camels lying around--the most I'd ever seen in my life--and in no time we saddled up in groups of 5 and set off on a 15-minute trek over the desert.
And the party didn't stop there. They had a zip line--a freaking zip line--going over the desert. Cool, right? Wrong! It's funny, at 115kg I was dubbed too overweight to ride. And so here's the title of my next blog post: "The Misfortunes of a Fat Westerner in China." Yeah, I've got tons of material there!
Afterwards we'd smash through the desert in a jeep and on an UTV. Ravaging the grasslands was one thing, but at the desert? It was just way too fun!
We'd spend the next hour taking lots of pictures, tumbling down sand dunes, watching a few cultural dance performances, and creating the most memorable experiences we could.
And our final activity? A slide down this huge, steep sand dune on a wooden board. Some fell off, some screamed the entire way down, but from the look of it, everyone was having the time of their life, including me!
The last thing we'd do is catch a ski lift ride over the terrain and back to our shuttle bus.
And just like that, my epic trip to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia had come to an end. We arrived in downtown by 8:15pm, I'd catch a flight back to Shanghai the next morning, and make it to work by 4pm.
What an experience of a lifetime. I'm fortunate to have met such a wonderful group of people, learn traditional customs of the region, watch live performances of local songs, munch on Mongolian lamb, trek China's grasslands, and visit the desert for the very first time. And all that just in 4 days. Imagine if I had a full week!
I soundly give this one a 10/10. And you can too. What do you think? Up for the adventure? Safe and happy travels!