Header courtesy of Rosslyn Sinclair
People tend to confuse Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) with the country of Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region in Northern China, vastly different from the rest of China. To the north, Inner Mongolia borders Mongolia and Russia; to the east and south, it borders other Chinese provinces such as Heilongjiang, Hebei, and Shanxi.
Since Inner Mongolia is a part of China and the Han Chinese outnumber the Mongols, many tour guides and locals can speak Mandarin, which definitely weakens the language barrier for visitors. Surrounded by various cultures, ethnicities, and languages, Inner Mongolia encompasses a little bit of everything. Its culture, food, and language all vary slightly differently depending on the region. The best way to think about the region’s intricate social workings is to compare it to Switzerland, which is categorised into Swiss-German, Swiss-French, and Swiss-Italian. Join us as we explore the unique culture and way of life in Inner Mongolia, where locals live nomadic lifestyles on sprawling grasslands and under twinkling night skies.
Inner Mongolia’s geographic landscape reflects the activities it offers as well as the people’s way of life. Northeastern Inner Mongolia offers us an opportunity to visit one of the world’s largest deserts, the Gobi Desert. And with any extremely arid environments, there is the chance to ride camels. While not the most comfortable nor the most efficient, camel-riding is one of the oldest and most traditional forms of transportation. It is a great experience to see how Mongolian nomads used to travel and besides, you only get to see and ride camels in the desert, so hop on!
If camel-riding isn’t really your thing, you can also choose to explore parts of the Gobi Desert on foot. However, walking up and down sand dunes is no easy task, so prepare to have lots of sand fill your shoes. But hey, it’s all part of the desert experience! We would suggest wearing a gaiter (a sleeve-like face covering) and sunglasses to protect your face and eyes from the sun and sand since the desert is incredibly dry and windy. Recommended times to visit are in late spring to summer (from April to September), when the weather is still dry and cool but not too cold.
One of the perks of travelling around Inner Mongolia is the diverse landscape and terrain it offers. A three-hour drive up north from Chifeng is Hulun Lake (呼伦湖), a great change in scenery after visiting the desert. Its crystal-clear waters will catch your eye and encourage you to dive in but don’t forget that the lakes are cold and definitely not very enjoyable without a wetsuit. People are also not encouraged to swim in these lakes to prevent them from being contaminated with foreign matters.
Hulun Lake is definitely any photographer’s paradise. Its lighting and magnificent views are ideal for those who crave the best shot. It also has an extended wooden platform for people to walk on to get further out onto the lake. It’s quite a windy spot so we highly suggest bringing a windbreaker of some sort. There’s also a brisk paved walk surrounding Hulun Lake for some aerial views and another chance to inhale the crisp air. Despite the windy walk, it is definitely refreshing and scenic—another great photo-op.
Because Inner Mongolia is so vast and spread out, the downsides are the long bus or car rides from one destination to the next. If you really want to explore all the wonders of this region, then enduring the long commutes will have to be something you’ll need to be prepared for. We recommend going for at least six days so you have enough time to enjoy each location at your own pace without any rush. It’s a good detox from the hustle and bustle that city life entails.
One of our favourite experiences was spending a night in a Mongolian ger (a portable, circular tent covered by skins or felt). It is the go-to form of shelter for numerous nomadic groups within Central Asia, including Inner Mongolians. It is still the preferred form of housing by some of the local people who raise livestock for a living and who are constantly on the move depending on where the best grass grows.
The spacious ger we stayed in could fit up to six people; it was elevated off the ground on a wooden platform and had one light so we could see during the night. Even though we were lucky enough to be provided with a mattress, pillows, and duvets, this is definitely a “toughing it out” experience for those used to more luxurious living. Restrooms were located quite a distance away from the ger for hygiene purposes, and no showers were available. Given that we’re on arid and dry land, water preservation is crucial.
Regardless of the time of year you visit, a thick sleeping bag and some warm clothes will definitely be necessities. Despite the warm days, it can get pretty cold at night and in the early mornings so don’t be surprised when you’re greeted with frost when you wake up! During the day to make full use of the spacious Inner Mongolian plains, and partake in some traditional Mongolian wrestling and archery!
To immerse in a more present-day yet rural Inner Mongolian lifestyle, opt for a homestay with locals in a native village. We stayed with an elderly couple, sleeping in one of their two bedrooms. The three of us shared a bed due to limited space, but we were still comfortable. The couple lived a simple lifestyle with a small living space and few personal items. Their main assets were clearly their farm and acres of land.
We noticed that there was no washroom in the house with a shower or toilet (as we are normally used to). We managed to find out, through some broken Mandarin, that the washroom was a toilet out back. At the time, that was very amusing to city girls like us. But that was the norm to locals, and showering was a privilege they could only afford to do once a week, and even then, it would be by simply splashing water onto their bodies, along with some soap.
The most heartwarming part of this experience was waking up to our homestay host preparing breakfast for us at 6 am. In the entire seven-day trip, her simple yet delicious breakfast was the most satisfying. She prepared boiled and fried eggs, freshly-made stuffed vegetable pancakes from scratch, and homemade yak milk tea. These are just a few dishes common within Inner Mongolia.
The pan-fried stuffed pancake (王小二酥饼) is a traditional Inner Mongolian food that is crispy and doughy and can be filled with both minced meat and cabbage, or just cabbage for vegetarians. The yak milk tea could be comparable to the classic Hong Kong-style milk tea (奶茶), as they are similar in colour and consistency, but flavour-wise, the yak milk tea is less pungent and slightly salty. It may be an acquired taste, but we quite enjoyed it.
However, one food that was unique in terms of flavour was yak yoghurt. Its taste is similar to regular cow’s yoghurt, but its scent and consistency are not the most appetising. Perhaps just a lick (at least) to see if you like it or not. Besides cattle, yaks are also common animals raised in the Himalayan regions and northern China due to their thick fur and skin which makes them more adapted to cold weather. Thus, dairy products and meat made from yaks are commonly consumed in these parts.
There used to be direct flights from Hong Kong into Chifeng (southeastern Inner Mongolia), but unfortunately, that flight route has been suspended. Your best options will be to connect flights via Beijing, Hohhot, or Shanghai. Some airlines you can take are Cathay Dragon, Air China, and Hong Kong Airlines. We recommend joining a tour to ensure your accommodations and transportation from each landmark are taken care of, and also because it’s pretty easy to get lost in this beautiful but dizzyingly vast region.