For the National Day Golden Week in October 2010, we desperately wanted to get out of Beijing and do some traveling. The only problem with big Chinese holidays is that there are millions of other people who have the same idea as you. When attempting to buy train tickets, my first eight destinations were all sold out.
We ended up bound for Hohhot, Inner Mongolia with hard seat tickets. If you don’t know much about Chinese trains, I’ll just tell you that hard seat is not just a clever name. We were stuck in the incredibly uncomfortable and stuffy hard seat car. It being a holiday, the train was oversold, stuffed full of migrant workers and their rucksacks, sprawled out on the floor, sleeping slumped over on the sink, and chain-smoking in between cars. It may have been a legitimate cultural experience, but it sure was miserable.
After the train ride from hell, we were happy to be anywhere but crammed in those seats. In Hohhot, we checked into the Anda youth hostel and headed out in search of food. Right up the street, we found a handful of restaurants promising delicious Mongolian lamb. Inside, we ordered what has to be one of my favorite dishes I’ve had on the road in China – Mongolian pizza. Atop grilled bread sat a bed of chopped lamb, scrambled eggs, peppers, raisins, and more. While it was far different from the Chicago or New York style pizza we’re used to, it sure was delicious!
The afternoon was spent wandering around Hohhot, taking in some of the various temples: the Five Pagodas, Dazhao Temple, and the Great Mosque. It was a beautiful fall day, and we thoroughly enjoyed admiring the colorful Buddhist art and taking in the views from atop the pagoda.
Perhaps the funniest part of our day of temple hopping came at the Dazhao Temple, where we saw monks engaged in activities you wouldn’t exactly expect – playing cell phone games, taking a nap on a desk, and drilling alongside construction workers.
In the evening, we went out for dinner and then had some beers in a music bar. While the tunes were great – Mongolian style throat singing and the very interesting horse-head fiddle – a hammered local who wouldn’t stop trying to dance with Rachel led us to head back to the hostel early.
While Hohhot was nice and all, we hadn’t come to Inner Mongolia to stay in a city. As such, we joined a three-day, two-night group trip out to the desert and the grasslands. In the desert, we stayed in a yurt, rode camels, went sand-sledding, and played a bit of desert volleyball. As this trip was arranged by the hostel specifically for guests, it was much better than your typical Chinese tour group, which can be hell. There aren’t many other options for exploring the desert and grassland here, so the hostel’s trip is your best bet. I’d just recommend you bring some of your own food and drinks, as the night in the desert featured nothing but mystery meat sausages, apples, and horrible Chinese bai jiu to drink.
Out in the grasslands, we stayed with a family in the two yurts outside of their home. The locals have gone ahead and upgraded to a more modern house, yet they keep the yurts up to preserve their culture and of course to bring in some extra money by allowing groups to stay there. They cooked us a hearty and delicious meal, and then we all gathered around the cow shit fire to sing songs and have a drink. I made sure to be up super early to catch a stunning sunrise come up over the vast grasslands, where cows and wild horses roamed free. Later that afternoon, we’d get our chance at riding the smaller Mongolian horses. The experience left me hobbling around for the next few days, ensuring I would never become a Mongolian herdsman.
Check out the desert and the grasslands in this video.
Back in Hohhot, we explored the city a bit with some of our new friends from the trip. We wandered through neighborhoods attempting to find a trail up the hills. Our walk took us by an abandoned school, farmland, and a cemetery, until finally we reached the peak. Unfortunately, a typically hazy China day did not provide such a good view of the city. Such is life here.
That night, we begrudgingly headed back to the train station for yet another overnight hard seat ride back to Beijing. We did our best to tire ourselves out during the day and then go into a nice food and beer coma in order to get some form of sleep. Arriving back in the capital dead tired and worn out, we were greeted by a text from our former roommate – who we’ll further refer to as Shithead – alerting us that he had moved out of the apartment and moved our stuff out for us. We were officially homeless, and to top it all of we were exhausted from the trip and back in Beijing with hordes of other miserable travelers trying desperately to get a cab or bus back home. We had gone from a serious high point with our incredible trip in Hohhot to the lowest point we had been in so far in China. We wouldn’t stay down for long though, as good friends and plenty of good times pulled us back up before the end of the year. That, however, is another story for another day.
Transportation: As the capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot is a transportation hub. You can get here by plane, train, or bus. Learn from our mistakes, and don’t take a train during a Chinese Golden Week.
Get Around: In the city, you can walk around to visit the temples and if you walk far enough you can even climb a hill. Of course, there are public buses, taxis, and black cabs if you need a lift. For getting out to the grasslands and/or desert, it’s best to just join a tour.
Accommodations: We stayed at the Anda youth hostel for our two nights in Hohhot, and booked a 2-night excursion with them, where we stayed in a yurt for two nights.
Activities: In the city your options are basically: temple hopping, light hiking, people watching, eating and drinking. Get out to the desert for camel riding, desert volleyball, sand sliding, and more. Then head to the grasslands for horseback riding, singing and drinking around a bonfire.
Food/Drink: Mongolia food is of course present in Hohhot. As such, there’s a lot of tasty lamb to be found. You’ve also got all your Chinese standbys and plenty of street food here. There’s probably some bad Western food around, but we didn’t go searching for it. Our Mongolian pizza was pretty amazing. There are quite a few KTV and music bars here, and there’s actually pretty good music.
Recommended Time: You really don’t need to spend more than a day or so in the city, and then do a 2-night desert/grasslands trip.