Rolling grasslands, golden deserts, and tributes to its Mongol past are just some of the highlights awaiting travelers in central Inner Mongolia.
The Mongolian Sacred Land Resort (in Mandarin, Meng Gu Ren Sheng Di) comprises a scattering of yurts—some authentic with wooden frames and felt-and-canvas covers, others more permanent concrete structures—clustered around a dome-shaped dining hall. Its owner, Da Lai, a moon-faced man with a seemingly limitless capacity for alcohol, has also re-created a fierce-looking 13th-century Mongol military garrison nearby. Squarely aimed at Chinese tour groups, complete with choreographed demonstrations of wrestling and horseback riding, it’s an impressive sight nonetheless, with a 400-year-old obo (sacred stone cairn) at its center.
But for me, a resident of densely crowded Singapore, what stood out the most was all the space. Here in the Xilamuren Grassland, about 100 kilometers north of Hohhot, the empty, rolling plains of Inner Mongolia stretched away in every direction in a boundless tableau of green steppe under a big blue June sky. And it was blissfully quiet. The loudest sound was the clacking of grasshoppers as they flew from one patch of turf to another.
Organized by the Shangri-La group as an add-on to my stays at its hotels in Baotou and Hohhot, my night at the Sacred Land Resort included a banquet dinner hosted by Da Lai. At one point, after knocking back countless shots of local high-proof vodka, he motioned to a man in a traditional Mongol robe to sing. On cue he broke into Hong Yan, a song about a man who leaves home and misses the grasslands and dreams of being reunited with his girlfriend. I didn’t understand the lyrics, but the wistful tune and the singer’s unexpectedly emotive voice stirred something in me. The grasslands had won me over.
Not to be confused with the country of Mongolia, with which it shares a 3,200-kilometer border, Inner Mongolia is one of China’s five autonomous regions. It’s a huge place, about three-quarters the size of Mongolia proper and accounting for 12 percent of China’s total land area, with a not-as-huge population—a hair under 2 percent of the nation’s 1.36 billion. Though inhabited predominantly by Han Chinese, the region is still home to more Mongols than Mongolia, and their traditional script is everywhere, from road signs to logos for Burger King and McDonalds. (By contrast, Mongolia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, leading some to posit that Inner Mongolia is more Mongolian than Mongolia). And while there are also giant factories, steel mills, and coal-fired power stations, the landscape is dominated by deserted plains and steppes that embody the grassland image associated with the name Mongolia.
My trip started a few days earlier in Baotou, a city that has flourished in the last decade on the back of heavy industry and rich deposits of coal and rare-earth minerals. Like other Chinese boomtowns, it has that just-sprung-from-the-ground feel about it, with traffic-free multilane boulevards crisscrossing town; willowy, newly planted pine and poplar trees still trying to establish themselves; streets constantly covered with a fine layer of dust from the incessant construction of apartment blocks; and grandiose government, office, and hotel buildings that light up extravagantly at night. Before 1960, Baotou was home to 20,000 people. Now, there are close to 2.5 million.
Despite all the growth, the city center remains sedate; most of the action takes place at the industrial parks on Baotou’s outskirts. My Hohhot-based guide, who goes by the name Rocky, explained that one local steel manufacturer employs 100,000 people and makes the rails that China’s high-speed trains run on. Defense is big business too, with factories here producing artillery and tanks. “Baotou is nicknamed Deer City because of all the wild deer that were once here. Now we also call it Steel City or Weapons City,” Rocky added dryly.
More compelling for tourists are sights like the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Ordos, a two-hour drive away past huddles of industry, power plants, prairies, and the Yellow River. Built in the ’50s and redeveloped in 2008, the mausoleum houses bas-relief maps of the erstwhile Mongol Empire and yurts that contain a gold-embroidered saddle of the great conqueror and coffins of his first and second wives. It was the closest I’d ever been to a marauding vanquisher. Rocky informed me that the mausoleum was manned by the 40th generation of Genghis Khan’s personal security detail, and as we walked around I kept expecting a saber-wielding warrior to confront us. Instead, I encountered a middle-aged man in a blue tunic and straw hat who looked like he’d just finished his morning shift in the fields. Mind you, I still wouldn’t mess with him.