Last week during the Dragon Boat Festival, Inner Mongolia happened. It was the coolest.
Grasslands, deserts, horse milk products, and more lamb dishes than you can shake a stick at. But the best part was the lack of pollution. We went from this in Tianjin…
… to this.
Destination: Inner Mongolia
Time: 4 days
Time spent on trains, buses, and taxis: 34 hours
Goals: ride horses and camels; drink strange Mongolian alcohol; experience tranquility away from people
Total Cost: 1200 RMB ($182)
At the Tianjin train station, my friend “Alanna” and I made a pleasant discovery: this little guy.
We were sitting down next to a pillar, and Alanna looked to her left… and there was this little toy statue, all alone. We asked around to see if it belonged to anyone, but no one claimed the pup. We named him 土豆(Tudou, which means “potato” in Chinese). He, along with two of Alana’s students, became our constant Inner Mongolia traveling companions.
Because we like to procrastinate, we bought our train tickets only a couple of days before the holiday. This meant that all of the sleeper tickets were sold out, which left only hard seats (150RMB) for our 12-hour train ride from Tianjin to Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. I won’t lie, it was miserable.
Sleep-deprived and starving, we arrived to this confusing mess at the Hohhot east station.
We decided that Starbucks would be the perfect solution to our exhaustion, so we followed Baidu maps’ instructions and took a taxi there. Unfortunately, Baidu is full of lies and deceit. It ended up being a tiny local coffee shop that was closed for the holiday. D’oh! So we loaded up on cans of Nescafe and gorged ourselves at a Chinese buffet breakfast restaurant for 5RMB per person.
Next, we took a local bus for 1RMB each to the long-distance bus station. After a bit of investigating, we found a bus that stopped by our first real destination, 希拉穆仁草原 (Xilamuren Grassland) for 20RMB. When we got off the bus, a woman immediately greeted us and took us to a little yurt village near the road. Our yurt, shared between the four of us, only cost 100RMB total.
It was early afternoon, so we had plenty of time for our first adventure: riding Mongolian horses! It cost 200RMB for a mini-tour around the nearby grassland. Although the grass was rather short and brown, and the horses were bony and weren’t the smoothest rides around, it was an invigorating way to see the blue sky and rolling hills that reminded me of the American Midwest. We made a stop to enjoy some horse-milk tea and eat some local milk products. Mongolian yogurt balls are the best, btw.
We shared dinner and two bottles of horse-milk alcohol with some Chinese tourists staying in another yurt and ended up talking to one of them, 迟浩 , for about two hours. He had never talked to a foreigner before, which still blows my mind. We discussed everything from differences in Chinese and American culture, to the environment, to censorship. We both got a little emotional when talking about certain issues, but we’re still friends 🙂
After sunset, we grabbed the big, green, military-style coats that were stowed away in our yurts and wandered out into the grassland to see the stars. No joke, that was the most beautiful starry sky I have ever seen in my life. STARS. EVERYWHERE. We laid out there, careful to avoid laying on horse poop, until the evening chill forced us back to our yurts. Our yurt was also quite freezing, so we spent the night sleeping like this.
The next morning, we caught another 20RMB bus back to Hohhot, then took a 40RMB bus to the city of Baotou. This was an industrial city–we were able to see a clearly-defined cloud of pollution surrounding the city and its factories. We got a hotel for the night near the bus station(50RMB per person) and enjoyed some outdoor BBQ.
The next day was the highlight of the whole trip. We got a bus toward 达旗 Daqi (21RMB), then got a taxi to 响沙湾, the Resonant Sand Bay. Silly name, awesome sand dunes.
We got half-priced entrance tickets for our student IDs (or in my case, my US driver’s license, 40RMB), and had to pay an extra 180RMB each for our “activities” tickets. The price was a little steep, but worth it.
As most parks in China, this one was heavily developed and ultra-touristy. Tourists have to travel around the park in a one-way loop… unless they want to travel the long-ish distances between attractions on foot.
Because we were too cheap to buy the extra cable car ticket, our first challenge was climbing up this monstrosity of a hill.
The pictures really don’t do it justice. We guesstimated it was about 10 stories tall, and let me tell you, climbing up a hill of sand is no easy feat. My sick friend Alanna almost died, but we were rewarded with a pleasant view of the valley at the top.
We took a desert vehicle to the next part of the park, where there was a strangely erotic Mongolian dance. Was it getting hot in there, or was it just me?
There were many more activities nearby, which weren’t included in our ticket, so we moved on to the camel riding!
These camels were much more comfortable than the horses we rode in the grassland, and there was no spitting, which was a definite plus. There is no better way to cross long expanses of sand.
When we arrived at the end, Alanna and I decided that it was time to find some peace and quiet away from the hubbub of the tourist attractions. We wandered into the middle of some sand dunes, found a deep depression, laid down, and all we could hear was the wind blowing in our ears and the shifting sands. Finally, we had achieved tranquility!
We had lost our other friends, so we continued on to the rest of the park. A tourist train and another desert vehicle brought us back to the beginning, where we relaxed in the shade and waited for our friends to show up (they had been watching a reenactment of a Mongolian wedding).
Extremely satisfied with our desert experience, we ran down the huge sandy hill that had given us so much trouble earlier and found our taxi driver from before. He drove us all the way back to Baotou, and because he was so happy to have such nice ladies in his car, he even gave us a discount (120 down to 100RMB).
We had a few hours to kill before our train back to Tianjin left, so we got some dinner, bought some Mongolian snacks, and hung out at an outdoor BBQ to enjoy some brews. We were just going to have a couple bottles of Tsingtao beer, but they had freshly-brewed 雪鹿 beer, which is my new favorite Chinese beer, for only 28RMB.
Quite silly at this point, we walked over to Baotou east station and found our sleeper car. Literally less than five minutes after we got on, they turned the lights off, which was quite disappointing and ruined our dreams of playing cards and generally making shenanigans. 15 hours and 207RMB later, we returned to Tianjin’s smoggy skies, delirious with our many Inner Mongolian travels. Best Dragon Boat Festival EVER!!