It seems sometimes people get a bit disappointed by Inner Mongolia. There aren’t a lot of them but enough for me to start wondering. It’s quite unusual actually, because the same few people rarely get disappointed by for example Gansu, Qinghai or Yunnan. And so I have been thinking. And strange as it may sound, I believe the main problem is the name – “Inner Mongolia”. From early childhood we are fed stories about Djingis Khan and his Mongol warriors. The Mongols are very much a part of the world cultural heritage. So when we read those two words “Inner Mongolia” we already have some preconceived ideas of how it would be to visit. We get certain expectations. “Gansu”, “Qinghai” or “Yunnan” on the other hand – they make people shrug and ask “What is that?” And when they arrive, they are not surprised or disappointed that it is not as they had imagined, because they had not imagined very much to begin with.
So what do these people believe and in what way are they disappointed? I will try to list what I’ve heard below and I hope that this will lead to some upcoming visitors having less bad surprises. However, none of the problems mentioned are unique for Inner Mongolia, and none of them are really that bad if you are aware about them from the start and prepare accordingly.
- The mongols are an ethnic minority in Inner Mongolia
This may come as a surprise to a lot of people (it did to me too!) but Mongols make up only a small minority of the population of Inner Mongolia. According to a 2010 census Inner Mongolia was about 17% Mongol and 80% Chinese. So while a lot of people expect it to be very different from other parts of China, actually it’s pretty much the same. Especially the places you are most likely to arrive first are dominated by Han Chinese. Cities and transportation hubs such as the provincial capital Hohhot are even more Chinese than the province average! This applies to most cities. And of course that means that the opposite applies to most of the countryside, which is mainly populated by Mongols. The more remote, the more Mongol. And luckily, in this the third largest province of China – bigger than Spain, Italy and Germany combined – there are plenty of remote places. According to the census mentioned above some administrative divisions are as much as 84% ethnically Mongol. And East Ujimqin Banner where we have one of our homestays has as many as 72.5%. So while the population of Hohhot or Chifeng is similar to almost any other large Chinese city, Inner Mongolia is huge and has plenty of other places for you to visit if you want to experience Mongolian culture.
2. scams and mass tourism
I will have to bring up the Han Chinese again. There’s quite a lot of them around. In China alone there are 1.3 billion or so. Many of them like the idea of going to Inner Mongolia. Blue skies, green grass, no concrete buildings as far as the eye can see. As you can guess, this means that in many places across Inner Mongolia, you will find plenty and sometimes a lot more than plenty of Chinese tourists. One good things about this is that the Chinese usually are really nice and easy to make friends with. But there are also some problems with all those people. Two of the main reasons people visit Inner Mongolia is the Mongols and that it’s one of the least crowded Chinese provinces. Then why go to a place crowded with tourists – tourists who aren’t even Mongols? It doesn’t make sense. One additional problem – and a worse one too – is that the mass tourism has attracted a lot of people interested in the tourists’ money. There are some cheats, small scams and instances where you will risk paying high prices for low quality. This ranges from the friendly guy approaching you in the street to government cultural heritage sites. Just have a look at the Genghis Khan Masoleum. It’s built at a site which most people agree is not the site where Genghis Khan is buried. It has none of his bodily remains. It has a few replicas of items which are said to have belonged to Genghis Khan. And it has a 150 RMB entry fee. Perhaps it’s better to go some other place. And about that friendly guy approaching you in the street it happened to me (and from googling i know that it has happened to others as well) that I was promised a stay in a yurt in some Mongol camp, while in reality I was herded of to some group of plastic yurts built on a big concrete floor out in the middle of nowhere in Ejina Banner. There were karaoke sets, plenty of tourists and only one place to eat which served bad food for unreasonable prices. And of course there were no Mongols to be found. However it was a fun experience and if it weren’t for that probably I would never have made the effort to start looking for a really remote and genuine homestay or started with this fun unexpected project to help other people have as great an experience as I had! So I won’t complain! But I will tell you to keep in mind that there are plenty of tourists in Inner Mongolia and that there are plenty of people trying to rip these tourists off! And with that you should hopefully be better off than me or this guy saying he was staying in a “concrete cell “dolled” up in yurt fashion, with karaoke laid on in the evenings”. Sounds terrible enough!
3. Mining and environmental degradation
A problem that wont affect you as a tourist but is much worse than any rip offs or language barriers is what is happening to the Inner Mongolian environment. Perhaps most travellers don’t even notice but the province is one of the stone coal and rare earth mining centres of China. A staggering 95% of rare earth minerals in the world are mined in Inner Mongolia. It’s not only rich in minerals but perfect for mining in other ways too. It is vast, accessible and scarcely populated. This means that it is easy to reach the minerals and that there are few there to see or complain about what is happening. Many of the minerals are processed in industrial centers across Inner Mongolia and according to a BBC-article there are places where processing waste is pumped straight into the nature.
Mining makes up for a large chunk of the Inner Mongolian economy and has long been a source of conflict between Mongol herders and mining companies. It’s a sad situation with short term profits in the center. Mongol herders are sometimes forced from their herding grounds, given only a fraction of the land’s worth in compensation. For those who want to see how the coal mines can look there is a 2015 documentary with the title Behemoth. It’s very slow and unenjoyable but could be scrolled through in order to get an idea of how the coal mines can look. Because hopefully you will not get to see too many of them while visiting Inner Mongolia!
Personally I saw only a handful of mines and they were all straight outside of Xilinhot on the way to the homestay in Ujimqin. There were mines of various kinds. Open coal pits in the ground and mountains that appeared to have been shaved by giant razors. But slowly by surely the grasslands took over and in the end there weren’t anything but grass. However there are places where the mines wont be something you pass by on your way to wherever you are going. Things can change quickly. So just in case you use an old travel guide book or a forum post from 2008 as a recommendation, make sure that it still is what it was. Most likely it will be, but it’s better to make sure.
That was all I had to share right now. If there are any more things to think about or if you have any questions, you could either comment or contact me through the contact form. I hope I did not discourage anyone from visiting. Unappealing as some of these things may sound, none of them will necessarily have any negative impact on your trip, as long as you know how to get around them. And besides it could be good to know not only what is good and beautiful about the places you visit too. Perhaps it makes you appreciate the beautiful parts more.