Back in Baotou, I had an early dinner at Little Lamb, a Mongolian hotpot restaurant that I wanted to believe was a local secret, a one-off gem, but that is in fact part of a chain with outlets across China, Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. That said, it was founded in Baotou, so that gave the meal a little more authenticity. Waddling out an hour later stuffed and in need of some exercise, I headed to Saihantala, the large grassland in the center of the city, and rented a bicycle. It was dusk, and locals had congregated to fly kites, take strolls, or feed the deer that roam free by day, but are corralled into an enclosure after 5 p.m. Rocky had earlier told me that 40 percent of the city is green space. I didn’t doubt it.
The next morning we left for Xiangshawan, a three-year-old theme park in the Kubuqi Desert. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and a camel trek and jeep ride over the sand dunes—both over barely after they’d begun—proved underwhelming, as did a stage show in a giant tent depicting a Mongolian marriage ceremony. But the landscape was unforgettable. Before leaving, I shuffled up the side of a steep dune, away from the tour buses and artificial attractions, to see golden sand rising and falling in a series of interminable mounds, with not another soul in site. The image has become a cherished memory.
The two-hour drive from Baotou to Hohhot along the Beijing–Lhasa Expressway came with its own remarkable views—a ribbon of jagged mountains lines the entire route. The Yin range, with peaks rising to 2,300 meters, forms the southern border of the eastern Gobi Desert and stretches 1,000 kilometers west to east with Hohhot roughly in the middle. Parts of the Great Wall follow its foothills, and Huns are said to have lived here before the wall was erected, at which point they packed up and hightailed it to Europe.
Hohhot, the regional capital of Inner Mongolia, proved much more energetic than Baotou, though checking in to my hotel gave me a twinge of déjà vu. The Shangri-Las in both cities were built by the same architect in 2007 and have similarly curving facades, fine health clubs (though the swimming pool at the Hohhot property is admittedly more impressive), disarmingly friendly staff, and immensely comfortable rooms. Perhaps also worth noting is that they are the only five-star properties I’ve ever stayed at in which the bath towel that I hung up—i.e. that I wanted to reuse—was not whisked away by housekeeping every day.
After my trip to the Xilamuren Grassland and Da Lai’s Mongolian Sacred Land Resort, I returned to Hohhot to explore the sites, starting with Dazhao Temple. Built more than 400 years ago, the city’s oldest building is also one of its few Buddhist temples to have survived Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The prayer hall is adorned with beautiful golden statues and a particularly humbling giant Buddha carved from a single 20-ton block of Burmese jade. Back outside, I followed a cobblestone street leading off the temple’s plaza. The shops flanking it flogged mostly tourist dross, including cheap costume jewelry and worthless stones passed off as semiprecious. But a few of the antiques shops were finds; at one I bought a small Mao badge commemorating the Great Helmsman’s 25th anniversary in office; at another I purchased a wonderfully aged People’s Liberation Army water flask. I then made my way to the city’s Muslim quarter and savored my spoils over a bowl of niang pi—cold gluten noodles with sliced cucumber, coriander, and garlic awash in an addictive spicy-sour vinegar sauce.
My last stop was the Five Pagoda Temple, named for the quintet of pagoda-like towers that rise from its chunky base. More than 1,500 small Buddhas decorate the exterior walls of the shrine. I found the architecture to be both surprising and enthralling, much like everything about my week in Inner Mongolia.
Hong Kong Airlines operates a twice-weekly service to Hohhot. From Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, expect to fly via Beijing or Shanghai.
Shangri-La offers a four-night Grassland Experience package that includes stays at its Hohhot and Baotou hotels and one night at the Mongolia Sacred Land Resort, as well as meals, transport, and various activities, for US$3,200, double.
This article originally appeared in the April/May print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Inner Beauty”).