Once upon a time, I headed to a train ticket office in Beijing with a list of destinations that I was considering traveling to for the National Holiday (国庆节 – guó qìng jié). My girlfriend hadn’t been in China for that long, and she really hadn’t seen much outside of Beijing. It being one of two Golden Week (黄金周 – huáng jīn zhōu) holidays in China, I knew that getting tickets wasn’t going to be an easy task. Thus, I had a list of ten places – written in descending order of the places we most wanted to go. The conversation with the ticket salesperson went something like this:
“I’d like two tickets to Shanghai, please.”
“No tickets to Shanghai.”
“Ok… how about to Hangzhou?”
“No tickets to Hangzhou.”
You may be noticing a trend here. Eventually, I wound up on the 9th place on my list – Hohhot (呼和浩特 – hū hé hào tè). The capital of Inner Mongolia (内蒙古 – nèi méng gǔ), an autonomous region in north China on the border with – you guessed it- Mongolia, Hohhot was not exactly high on my radar. I always figured that if I wanted to see Mongolia, I’d just go ahead and visit the country. With a lack of options and a line of agitated Chinese people behind me inching ever closer, the decision was made – Hohhot, here we come!
The Train Ride From Hell
I should have known better than to take a Chinese train during a Golden Week, but we really wanted to get out and do some traveling. I definitely should have known better than to buy hard seats for an overnight train, but there were no other options. With hordes of people pushing and shoving through the station – many of them migrant workers with large rucksacks and let’s just say below average personal hygiene – it was an intense experience to say the least. The fun was just beginning, though. Holiday trains are notoriously overbooked, and there were people sitting on the floors, sleeping standing up, and even hanging out in the bathroom. It was a miserable, sleepless ten hours, and it was the first and last time I took an overnight hard seat train.
Sightseeing in the City
It’s all about the temples.
Our main focus with our trip to Inner Mongolia was getting out to the grasslands and desert. As soon as we had our two-day trip planned out at the hostel, we headed out to explore the city a bit. There isn’t a whole lot going on here in terms of sightseeing, but there are a few nice religious sights to check out. First up, we visited the Temple of Five Pagodas (五塔寺 – wǔ tǎ sì), famous for its frescoes with over 1,5000 images of Buddha. We also visited Dazhao Temple (大召寺 – dà zhào sì), the oldest Buddhist monastery in the city and the Great Mosque (清真大寺 – qīng zhēn dà sì).
Inside one of Hohhot’s many temples.
Over 1,500 Buddha images are on here.
And another temple…
Aside from temple hopping, the only other thing we did in the city was take a short hike up a hill. It was pretty interesting, but the awful pollution on the top didn’t exactly make for great views.
Hiking out in Hohhot.
Desert and Grasslands Trip
The highlight of our visit to Inner Mongolia was definitely our 2-day trip out to the desert (沙漠 – shā mò) and the grasslands (草原 – cǎo yuán). First up, we got to feed some camels (骆驼 – luò tuó) and check out a bunch of other livestock out on the desert farm.
Hungry hungry camels.
Whole bunch of goats.
With the rest of our afternoon, we were free to explore the desert after we dropped our stuff of in the yurt (蒙古包 – méng gǔ bāo), a traditional nomadic Mongolian residence. Our group gathered to take in the sunset, and we managed to get some great pictures.
Our home for the night.
Going for a walk in the desert.
An amazing sunset.
In the evening, our group gathered around a campfire for an interesting dinner of mystery meat sticks and Chinese liquor. Needless to say a few people got sick. The next day, we had tons of fun in the desert – we rode camels, went down sand slides, and even played some alternative beach volleyball.
From the desert, we drove out to the grasslands where we set up shop in another yurt. This one was in the front yard of a nice family – they built a few yurts to house tourists as another source of income. A delicious home cooked meal with real food was very welcome, and we once again had a fire (this one fueled by cow dung). Passing around a bottle of bai jiu, we enjoyed listening to traditional Mongolian songs as sung by our host.
Feast in the yurt.
We got up super early in the morning to take in the sunrise, and then sat down for a tasty breakfast. The main activity for the day was horse riding (骑马 – qí mǎ). There clearly isn’t a sliver of Mongolian blood in my body, as I was horrendous at riding the horse and was in constant pain.
Home in the grasslands.
Not an equestrian.
Even though Hohhot was far down our list of desired holiday destinations and we had to deal with one of the most miserable train rides ever, we ended up having an amazing experience. It just goes to show you that the most popular places aren’t always the best ones. I did end up going to Shanghai and Hangzhou for a National Holiday a few years later, and the Inner Mongolia trip was a far better trip. If you’d like to see some more, check out these two videos from the trip: