Except for the grasslands – What to do in Inner Mongolia?

Some people going for the homestays have asked me about what else to do when visiting Inner Mongolia. Since there is already plenty of info about the two homestays on this site, they don’t need to be mentioned in this post too. Of course the same goes for the grasslands. Everyone knows about them already anyway! They seem to be included in every trip to these parts of China. I will just mention that if you have the time and energy to spend a few extra hours on transportation, it’s better to avoid the one’s just outside of Hohhot and other major tourist hubs as they are often overly crowded. You can read more about that and other things to be careful about in Inner Mongolia here. So instead of the grasslands and homestays, this post will focus on some of the more unexpected travel destinations in the area. There’s actually quite a few of them around and they range from sceneries, cultural heritage sites and hotsprings to bizarre Chinese ghost towns. And there are a few things worth mentioning that are difficult to visit but easy to enjoy – the vast open spaces, blue skies and views out of the night train window.

First one out…

  • Desert Poplars of Ejina Banner

One of the three remaining large desert poplar forests in the world is to be found in Ejina Banner in the far north west of Inner Mongolia. According to tour-beijing.com (which also has some very useful info for visitors) this is the farthest east such forest in the world, with the remaining two being located in Xinjiang and the Sahara. Formerly widespread these specialized desert trees have now largely disappeared due to the widespread use of them as firewood. Luckily they are now under protection here in Inner Mongolia. And they are quite a sight! Old, dry and gnarly – often partly dead – they give an at the same time rough and beautiful impression, growing straight out of the sand with leaves turning golden in autumn.

The forest is 300 square kilometers large and parts of the forest have been made into a nature reserve. There are dedicated boardwalks for the visitors, zigzagging through parts of the forest, giving a display of the variety – where there is more sand or less, where there are lakes or no water, etc. Leaving the path could probably cause you some trouble, including fines and getting thrown out of the park, but in the parts of the forest that are outside of the nature reserve it’s possible to walk around freely without any park staff interfering! It’s possible to visit some other interesting things freely (and for free) too, such as sand dunes, lakes and wetlands, but for the ancient silk road ruins close by rules are very strict and foreigners even have to apply for a special permit.

All in all this is a beautiful place and if you are close by, a nature lover or just don’t mind a bit of transportation (there are night trains from Hohhot to the small town Dalaihubu in which you can find accommodation and transportation to the nearby park) it’s definitely a place to check out! Since it’s a relatively popular tourist attraction, you’d better aim for weekdays and try to steer clear of any public holidays. This would help you avoid the crowds and at the same time keep prices for accommodation down.

  • Ghost towns…

Probably you have already heard about Chinese ghost towns. According to some, there are hundreds of them throughout the country. Some of them can be found in Inner Mongolia. And they vary in size from small to medium and big. Some of them just a jumble of residential buildings built around factories, as the factories are expected to attract workers. Others on the other hand are proper cities with parks, government buildings, museums, football stadiums, shopping malls and anything else you could ask for. The largest ghost city not only in Inner Mongolia or China but the world is Ordos City, built for an anticipated future population of two million. To call it a ghost city, however, is not completely fair, as it’s filling up and seems to have a population of a few hundred thousand by now.

If you want to see something typically Chinese, perhaps this is the best place to go. As someone, I don’t remember who, has noted these kind of cities are only possible in China, as China is the only communist country in the world that is rich enough to construct entire cities without having to take the market into consideration. And even though there are quite a lot of these places most of them don’t seem to be any interesting. And in som years the one’s who are may have filled up. And after these one’s have filled up, probably there won’t come more chances to visit large ghost cities.

There are some hotels to choose from, transportation options are many and the city itself is supposed to be about as strange as it gets. For anyone interested in visiting, plenty of information can be found online. Truckloads of articles has been written about this place.

For a slideshow of twenty surreal photos of Ordos City, click here.

  • Hohhot

Obvious enough! The capital of Inner Mongolia and since it’s quite likely you will pass through anyhow, it could just as well be perhaps not recommended, but introduced! First things to sort out: why is it not recommended? Not because the city is a horrible place and travellers should stay clear of it. But also not because the city is exceptionally interesting. The city, all in all, is a decent place with a handful of sights such as temples, architecture, museums and parks. Some of these temples, such as the Five Pagoda temple, are pretty or interesting, while others – of course – are not. But the question is, why would anyone go to Inner Mongolia to visit temples? Wouldn’t it be better to go somewhere else entirely if it’s temples you are looking for? Because while this place has some interesting temples for Inner Mongolian standards, it would not stand a chance against many other places in China. Only in one way would it be able to distinguish itself positively. And that is because many of the temples here are small and humble, have no entry fees and are used more by local people than tourists. This is not often the case in China, where temples usually have been converted into simple tourist attractions – if they survived the cultural revolution at all, that is. So it may be that you will enjoy the charm of them.

Hohhot is known as an ethnically diverse place with hui people, Manchus, Mongols and other ethnic groups, but the vast majority of the population is Han and never does the city give the impression of not being a Chinese city. It tries, in order to attract tourists, but it doesn’t really succeed. And the same goes for that fake old town area – also built in order to attract tourists, as the custom is in China. Ironically enough, the city used to have a lot of old buildings (backwater as it was until the mining industry caused the great economic boom, making Inner Mongolia the sometimes fastest developing province in China) but most of them were torn down in order to modernize the city. Perhaps some of the pieces can be found recycled and integrated into the fake old town shopping district. It may sound strange but it’s quite common to build old towns (or even “ancient” towns) in China and often the same pieces they are built with are taken from authentic old towns that have been torn down in order to modernize. Either way the old town area is not the place to go, unless you want one more of those unique China experiences. Ghost towns and fake old towns – what will they come up with next?

The mountains just outside of town are pretty and suitable for hiking. They offer great views of the city. If you anyway intend to spend some time in Hohhot, a day trip into the mountains could very well be the best way to spend the time.

For some more traditional advice for Hohhot you could try this article out.

And for more info about the fake old towns, check this one out. It’s quite hilarious.

  • Hexigten global geopark

Hexigten, or Heshigten, is one of two UNESCO global geoparks in Inner Mongolia. Geoparks are designated areas of geological interest. UNESCO global geoparks are areas considered to be of unique interest. They are supposed to tell something about the creation, history and diversity of the geology of this planet. It may sound dry and academic, bringing to mind more the periodic table than a travel experience, but actually this place is really cool and there are plenty of things to experience, even for those who really are not interested in geology. For example, there are natural hotspring baths, mountains, sand dunes, eccentric rockformations, extinct volcanoes and other geologically as well as aesthetically interesting things. It’s also one of the most biodiverse areas of Inner Mongolia and a place with a rich cultural heritage, with a local mongol tribe inhabiting the 1750 square kilometer large park.

With only one comment on Tripadvisor (a 4 out of 5, by the way) it’s perhaps not the most obvious thing to include in your Inner Mongolia itinerary, but since one of the things people most often complain about with nature reserves in China are the crowds, question is if the lack of interest for this one isn’t actually a big bonus.

It’s easy to reach the geopark from the large nearby city Chifeng.  Chifeng is a regional transport hub with great bus and railway connectivity and could be an option if you are heading from Beijing to either of the inner mongolian homestays or reverse.

  • All the other things.

Yes, last on the list: all the other things. Because really I don’t know what other title to list all these incoherent things under. The surreal atmosphere of the cities, the views out of the bus window, to gaze from one horizon to the other and not being able to spot a single building, to encounter more wild animals than people while in the grasslands. And the night trains! All those kilometers you have to cross to get from one place to the other! And that mongol guy on the train from Hohhot to Xilinhot who sat up singing until late. The strange flowers of the grasslands. The great big trucks overloaded with mountains of hay, driving through the middle of nowhere, looking hopelessly lost. Even the surreal landscapes created by the mining. It’s as if the mountains had been cut by giant razors. All these strange things are what I liked the most with Inner Mongolia.

It may very well be that I have missed mentioning a lot of things but hopefully at least this list was to some help for someone. And if you had a favourite place that you would like to recommend, you are very welcome to share it.