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Why Touring Hohhot, Inner Mongolia’s Xilamuren Grasslands & Xiangshawan Desert Turned Out to Be One of My Most EPIC Adventures in China!
Yes! I finally toured Inner Mongolia! That's right, it was the 2017 Labor Day holiday in China, and having already explored many of the country’s top places to visit over the course of 5.5 years, it was finally time to cross those last few travel destinations—Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Yangtze River Cruise, and Yunnan—off of my bucket list.
Exploring Inner Mongolia excited me for two reasons. For one, it's renown for its sprawling grasslands. I had once caught sight of China's incredibly vast and picturesque grasslands during a high-speed train ride from Zhangye to Lanzhou and I promised myself then and there that I'd return someday for an up-close and personal experience trekking the remarkable landscape. And two: culture, culture, culture. I loved the idea of staying overnight in a yurt, snacking on delicious roast lamb, and meeting the ethic people of the region. Isn't that what living in China is all about?
Day 1 – Arrival Into Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
I landed in Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia on April 30th as a solo traveler and with nothing but a change of clothes and a hotel booked for one night only. 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. Not bad right? But first things first; after checking into my hotel I set out on a very important mission: finding a popular hotel chain in the city and inquiring about any tour packages they offered. Let's just say that it's something I've had to rely on throughout my travels in China, especially when trying to reach difficult places.
It was a holiday weekend so Hohhot was pretty crowded. Traffic jams, shoulder bumps, queues on stairways, you name it. And yes, that also meant long stares, the occasional "waigouren (foreigner)" call, and funny sounding "hellos" and "how are you?" every time I was just minding my own business.
Before long I arrived at Zhaojun Hotel, a large hotel I had seen from the airport shuttle bus into the city. Like clockwork, a Chinese woman was sitting at the sole tourist reception table across from the receptionist. To make a long story short, I found out that they provided a 2 day tour package that included roundtrip transportation via shuttle bus, food, overnight stay in a yurt, and stops at Xilamuren Grasslands and Xiangshawan Desert, for a basic fee of 350rmb. H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H, H-A-L-L-E-L-U-J-A-H! Did you see the bright light shine down through the clouds too? Of course I'd need to pay more for optional activities during the trip, but that was a great deal and far less than I originally thought. It was exactly what I was looking for, and like that, my trip was booked!
With the most important duty out of the way I set out to explore Hohhot. The first stop I made was to Five Pagoda Temple. Unfortunately it had closed 40 minutes prior to my arrival but I still managed to snap a few pictures from the outside.
Next up was a stop at Zhongshan Park, a massive recreational area brimming with beautiful natural scenery and a number of leisure activities including a skating rink full of teenyboppers, boat rentals, small amusement rides, and a large Ferris wheel.
It was late evening by then so I'd end up grabbing a bite to eat and strolling down the city's Muslim Street before calling it a night.
Day 2 – Xilarumen Grasslands
I met up with the tour group around 8am for departure. I was the only foreigner out of about 27 people so the first thing I made sure to do was exchange Wechats with the tour guide so I could translate her messages.
It didn't take long for us to leave out of the city and start passing through rugged terrain. I enjoyed the views; however, what I didn't enjoy was the fact that our tour guide rambled on nonstop for a full hour on a loud microphone. *Sigh*.
By the 3rd hour we finally got a glimpse of Inner Mongolia's sprawling grasslands. It was amazing. Nothing but flat, green land stretched out 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.
We arrived at our destination—one of those massive tourist spots loaded with hundreds of yurts, horses, and donkeys—just after 12pm and were greeted by locals donning traditional clothes, singing, and offering up small shots of alcohol.
"What an entrance!", I thought.
Lunch was at 1:30pm so the first thing we did was set off for some leisure activities. There were two options: trek across the grasslands for an hour by horse at a whopping 405rmb or traverse the grasslands on a 2 seat off road vehicle for an hour at 380rmb.
I felt that both prices were absolutely ludicrous and lucky I wasn't alone. A young local couple and another solo traveler—she could speak English—in the group also insisted that the horseback riding fee was too high, so we had joined forces on the negotiation for dropping the off road vehicle fee down to 200rmb per person and for an unlimited amount of time.
The worker couldn't help but acquiesce to our charm, and within minutes we set off in to the grasslands. Sweeeet!
The next hour we'd spend trekking Inner Mongolia's grasslands by ATV would not only serve as one of the most memorable moments of my adventure in Hohhot but also land a spot as one of the most unforgettable experiences of my travels across China. It was a WAY better method of exploring the grasslands than horseback riding could have ever offered. We had speed, power, control, an open aired cabin, and nothing but miles of land for us to ravage.
Additionally, during our exhilarating excursion we had the chance to stop at two attractions. The first was a type of yurt monument made of rocks, where in front of it two women offered pictures with baby lambs for 10rmb.
The second was a yurt shop where we sampled local treats such as milk candy, biscuits, and traditional tea. Awesome.
At 1:30pm everyone gathered in a hall to eat lunch. What was on the menu, you ask? Well, mostly an ensemble of traditional Chinese dishes and more free shots of the local 'alcohol'. The best treat we ate, though, was a large, succulent piece of Inner Mongolian roasted lamb leg, which cost an extra 480rmb that could be split by 5 people. Doesn't that sound incredibly delicious? I've come to absolutely love barbecue lamb since moving to China and I must say that munching on Mongolian roast lamb was definitely an experience worth shelling out 96rmb for!
By 2:20pm everyone went to check into their hotel room, err, yurt. We were all quite surprised at how clean, cozy and nicely decorated they were on the inside. Each yurt had two beds, a bathroom, and even a TV! What they didn't have, though, was Wifi and toiletries such as tissue or soap. Ouch.
By 2:30pm we made our way back outside to watch a show put on by the locals. All the tourists gathered up on the grasslands as locals rolled up on horses like renegade cowboys, hopped off, and went straight into wrestling matches. Sure, it was nothing on the scale of Mongolia's infamous Naadam Festival, a special ceremony held every summer that includes competitions between locals in sports like wrestling and archery, but it was an interesting performance nonetheless.
Additionally, by 3pm the wind speed had picked up dramatically. All of us wound up caught in the sudden burst of sandstorms and dirt. By the time it was over my whole body had been pummeled. Thank God I brought shades!
About an hour later I returned outside with two solo travelers I had befriended. The wind had settled, the weather was perfect, and the campsite was incredibly serene; all the precise tools needed to tour the grasslands and take amazing photos. And that's just what did.
I must admit, I was very fortunate to have met these two girls on the trip. They were just as outgoing, funny, and adventurous as I was, and to add icing on the cake, they could both speak English very well. We all made our way to Inner Mongolia as solo travelers but ended up finding great joy in experiencing the adventure together.
By 6:30pm we gathered around for dinner, which included more delectable Chinese food and more shots of alcohol.
By 7:15pm many of us had gathered outside to watch the sunset fall over the grasslands.
The real party didn't begin until 8:30pm. There was a bonfire set at the campsite center in front a stage and for 45min. we'd be entertained by a group of locals performing songs, dancing, and playing traditional instruments. At the end everyone even gathered on the stage to dance and celebrate. What an awesome way to end the night!
Day 3 – Xiangshawan Desert
Day 3 in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia began with breakfast at 7am. This time around the locals had put on a lively performance for us that included some very energetic singing, more playing of traditional instruments, and an example of a local marriage ritual. By 8am we were on the road again and heading towards our next destination: Xiangshawan Desert.
After a brief stop for lunch at 12pm we finally arrived at Xiangshawan Desert by 1:30pm. The desert was huge! And as it was my first time venturing out to the desert I was absolutely thrilled by all the leisure activities awaiting us.
The first thing we did was cross into the desert via cable car. I promise you, I have 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 cable car, seriously.
Afterwards we'd put on long socks to cover up our shoes and then make our way out to a large passenger vehicle that would transport us across the desert.
Oh by, talk about riding in style! This vehicle, opened aired and shaped like an 18th century ship, was the perfect way for a 1st timer to trek the desert. Doesn't it look awesome!?
Afterwards we arrived at our first leisure activity: camel back riding across the desert. I had seen plenty of camels throughout my life but never had the chance to ride one so I was more than thrilled at the opportunity.
There were dozens of camels waiting for tourists; in fact, it was the most I had ever seen in one place. With no wait we saddled up on the camels in groups of 5 and set off into the desert.
The ride would only last a mere 15-minutes, but I tell ya, trekking the desert by camel in Inner Mongolia was an absolutely unforgettable experience. This trip just kept getting better and better!
Next up we made our way over to a zip line, which along with taking cruises, was something that I've always loved to do. And well, it's just too bad that I couldn't actually do it. That's right, at 115kg I was dubbed too "fat" to zip line, something I had already long suspected would happen on account of being denied from other fun activities—waterslides, parasailing—on previous travel occasions. Luckily two other Chinese guys in our tour group were also given the boot and so we set out for the next activity: off road vehicle riding.
Smashing through the desert in a jeep and on an ATV at high speeds was nothing short of a thrilling experience. Like the grasslands it was just nothing but land all around for us to wreak havoc on. I just wish that they had let us drive!
Afterwards we arrived at the top of a small hill that was just waiting for us to roll down it. And although none of us were actually brave enough to do it nor willing to have our clothes covered in sand, I did manage to muster up some courage and I ran down at top speed.
After an hour we arrived at our finally activity: sliding down a huge sand hill on a wooden board. Now THIS was an activity! Though the size and steepness of the hill was quite intimidating, EVERYONE in our group participated, and some even fell off their board right before they made it down. It was hilarious!
The last leg of our trip to Xiangshawan Desert was well spent with a scenic ski lift ride over the terrain that led us back to our shuttle bus.
It was surely one of the best travel experiences that I’ve ever had!
By 3:15pm we were on the road and heading back towards Hohhot. At 6pm we made a brief stop at a huge tourist center shop that offered everything from Mongolian fabrics, clothing, paintings, and artifacts to candy, wines, and meat snacks. I wound up buying a scrumptious bag of Mongolian beef as a treat for the road.
And just like that, my trip to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia had come to an end. We arrived in downtown by 8:15pm, and I'd spend the night at Zhaojun Hotel, catch a flight back to Shanghai the next morning, and make it to work around 4pm.
Exploring Inner Mongolia was an experience of a lifetime. I'm very fortunate to have had such a fantastic trip and have met such a wonderful group of people as a solo traveler to the region. I learned traditional customs of the region, viewed Mongolian wrestling in action, watched live performances of local songs, munched on delicious Mongolian lamb, trekked the grasslands and desert on camels and off road vehicles, and made friends along the way.
I soundly give my trip a 9/10. If you're interested in having your own adventure, make sure to read up on my tips for visiting Hohhot. Safe and happy travels!
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