The Mongolian Ovoo


Along the long and winding country roads of Inner Mongolia, strange mounds loom at the roadside, bedecked with colourful prayer flags and piled high with smooth stones. Known as ovoos or “magnificent shrines”, these sacred heaps are typically fashioned from nearby rocks, wood, and strips of colourful silk. In areas where rocks are too few, they can even be made from soil, sand, or tree branches. They vary in size and are often located in high places, such as at the top of mountains or within mountain passes. According to traditional Mongolian shamanism[1], each ovoo is meant to be symbolic of a deity, so there are ovoos dedicated to heavenly gods, mountain gods, gods of nature, ancestral spirits, and any otherworldly entity you could think of!

Slaughtered animals, incense sticks, and libations all serve as worthy sacrifices when one is worshipping at an ovoo. If a Mongolian person happens to pass by an ovoo while traveling, it is customary to stop and circle the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, as it is believed this will protect them during their journey. After that, it is customary to pick rocks up from the ground and add them to the pile as an offering. Anyone who is specifically seeking a blessing from the gods will leave finer gifts in the form of candy, money, milk, or alcohol.

ovoo 01In fact, leaving an offering is such an integral part of the tradition surrounding ovoos that you’ll often find a variety of miscellaneous items underneath them, including old steering wheel covers, wooden crutches, empty liquor bottles, and even horses’ skulls! As modernity has crept in, these traditions have had to change, and it is now considered acceptable to honk your horn while passing an ovoo if you don’t have time to stop. While ovoos dedicated to the rich pantheon of deities in Mongolian shamanism tend to be for public use, those built for ancestral gods or village gods are often private shrines for a specific clan or shared by a certain village, banner, or league.

At the end of summer, ovoos become the site of Heaven worship ceremonies, where people gather to make offerings to Tenger, the God of Heaven according to Mongolian shamanism. They first place a tree branch or stick into the ovoo and tie a blue ceremonial silk scarf to it, known as a khadag. This scarf is meant to symbolise the blueness of the open sky and Tenger himself, who is regarded as the sky spirit. They then light a fire, burn incense, and make offerings of food before taking part in ceremonial dances and prayers. Food left over from the offering ceremony becomes part of a lavish feast that is shared by all of the participants. After all, maintaining that religious fervour must really work up an appetite!


[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

The Mongol Ethnic Minority

mongols 01

You might be surprised to find that Mongols, or Mongolians, are classified as one of the 55 recognised ethnic minorities in China. Yet there are approximately 6 million ethnic Mongols living in the country, nearly twice the population of Mongolia itself! While constituencies of Mongols are scattered throughout the northeastern provinces, the largest concentration can be found in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. That being said, what precisely defines the Mongol ethnicity is a subject that is under heated debate!

A Mongol is a member of an ethnographic group made up of a number of tribal peoples, who roughly share the same social structure, economy, culture, and language. Generally speaking, they are descended from nomadic pastoralists who lived on the steppes of Central Asia, were notoriously excellent horsemen, and travelled with their herds over vast grasslands. Frequent wars, tribal disagreements, and migrations caused a widespread diaspora, meaning communities of Mongols can be found throughout Central Asia.

Nowadays they can be roughly classed into a myriad of sub-groups, including: the Khalkha, the Dorbet, the Olöt, the Torgut, the Buzawa, the Chahar, the Urat, the Karchin, the Ordos Mongols, the Bargut, the Daur Mongols, the Monguors, and the Buryat. In spite of their shared ethnicity, each of these sub-groups has their own distinctive traits and customs. In China, even the Tuvan people are classed under the Mongol ethnicity, although their culture is considered to be wildly different from most Mongols.

Historically, the ancestors of the Mongols were small nomadic tribes, such as the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, and the Donghu, who roamed the regions surrounding the Argun River sometime between the 5th and 3rd century BC. They remained largely separate until the beginning of the 13th century, when an enigmatic warrior loomed on the horizon and threatened to irrevocably change the course of history.

In 1206, this powerful and persuasive clan leader called on all of the other clan leaders in the region to gather at a specific location along the Orkhon River in order to hold an assembly known as a kurultai. At this assembly, he persuaded his rivals to not only form an alliance and unite their separate territories, but to make him their ruler. His name was Genghis Khan. From then onwards, these tribal peoples were known as the Mongols and the Mongol Empire was born. With the formidable Genghis Khan at its helm, it grew to become the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Even after the Mongol Empire collapsed, his legacy would live on in his grandson, Kublai Khan, who conquered the entirety of China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

It was the creation of the Mongol Empire that largely facilitated commercial and cultural exchange between China, Central Asia, West Asia, and Europe, while the Mongols openness to other cultures during the Yuan Dynasty led to an era of religious freedom where Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity were all allowed to flourish in China. Alongside the Manchu, the Mongols were the only non-Han Chinese ethnic group to have taken control of China proper. As such, their contributions to Chinese history, culture, literature, language, medicine, and astronomy have been invaluable.

From bright white gers glittering like pearls on the grasslands to the strange and haunting sounds of Khöömei or Mongolian “throat-singing”, their unusual lifestyle has been a source of fascination for centuries. Time may have passed, but they have remained much unchanged: formidable on horseback, deftly accurate with a bow, fearsome in their wrestling attire, and unparalleled in their toughness.

Read more about Mongol Ethnic Minority:

Mongolian Spirituality       Mongolian Ovoo

Inner Mongolian Local Snacks


It should come as no surprise that, while it does feature Chinese and Russian influences, Inner Mongolian cuisine is profoundly similar to that of its neighbouring cousin: Mongolia. This cooking style has been shaped primarily by the resident Mongol ethnic minority, who have adapted their signature dishes not only to reflect their culinary preferences but also to accommodate their lifestyle. The Mongolian people and many of the other ethnic minorities who populate Inner Mongolia are predominantly nomadic and pastoral. Historically, their diet has adapted to help them survive during the bitterly cold winters.

The extreme climate meant that spices and vegetables were not readily available, so they rarely feature in signature Mongolian dishes. Thus they have had to rely upon what they call “red foods” (fatty meats), “white foods” (dairy products), and wheat-based foods. Staple ingredients such as mutton, beef, milk, cheese, butter, buckwheat, oatmeal, and millet could all be easily produced in the hostile steppes and provided hearty fare for the nomads throughout the year. Nowadays the influx of Han Chinese immigrants has meant that Inner Mongolian locals have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but their traditional cuisine lives on in the form of their delicious snacks.

Hohhot Shumai (烧卖)

Hohhot ShaomaiThese delectable little dumplings may seem like an icon of Chinese cuisine, but they actually originated from Inner Mongolia’s capital of Hohhot! Shumai appeared in the region sometime between the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, and were usually served in teahouses as a side dish. It was thought that merchants traveling from Shanxi province introduced them to Beijing and Tianjin, which caused them to gradually become more widespread in China. They were originally called “shaomai” (捎卖), which literally means “sold on the side” and derives from the fact that they were often served as a tasty accompaniment to tea. While the pronunciation has been maintained, the Chinese characters for writing it have changed over the years.

Hohhot Shumai are usually served in small, specialty shaomai restaurants and are conventionally eaten at breakfast. The dumpling wrappers used are typically thin and, like other types of dumpling wrapper, are made simply from flour and water. These little parcels are then stuffed full of a delicious filling made from minced lamb, spring onions, and ginger. This gives them a dense flavour with a slightly spicy tang. The pastry is then loosely gathered around the filling to form the characteristic “flower” shape at the top of the dumpling. Depending on personal preference, Hohhot Shumai can either be steamed or pan-fried and are conventionally dished up in servings of eight. A small bowl of Shanxi black vinegar for dipping and a cup of tea are the perfect complement to these sumptuous little snacks.


TsuivanTsuivan is a traditional Mongolian dish made from noodles, mutton, and a variety of hearty vegetables. The noodles are prepared by hand using dough made from wheat flour, buckwheat flour, or oat flavour depending on what is available. Unlike Chinese noodles, which are generally uniform in shape, this dough is roughly cut into thick strips. These noodles are then sautéed in a pan along with bite-sized pieces of mutton, potato, carrot, a sprinkling of salt, and some water. The result is a robust, stew-like dish that is sure to warm you up during those frosty Mongolian winters!

Milk Tea (奶茶)

Mongolian Milk TeaWhen guests are welcomed into a Mongolian herdsman’s yurt, they are usually offered a traditional beverage known as Suutei Tsai or Milk Tea. After all, who doesn’t love a good cuppa! The type of tea used is either black or green and is referred to as “block tea” or “brick tea” because it comes from a compressed block made from lower quality tea, such as tea stems or inferior tea leaves. This makes the tea easier to store and means it will last for longer. When needed, tea is chipped off of the block and added to boiling water. Once the water has changed colour, milk is added along with a teaspoon of salt. The milk is typically very fresh and is usually that of a cow, although milk from camels, horses, yaks, goats, and sheep may also be used depending on availability.

Some recipes also include butter, fat, and even fried millet. Talk about overegging the pudding, or should we say over-seasoning the tea! Historians believe that the tradition of drinking milk tea arose from a belief within the Mongol ethnic group that water was sacred and therefore should not be drank straight. Nowadays it’s often drunk at meals as a palate cleanser, since food in Inner Mongolia is notoriously fatty. Although its distinctive saltiness may come as quite a shock to foreign tongues, it’s a must-try if you want a taste of authentic Mongolian culture.

Airag (马奶酒)

airagFollowing the dairy theme, airag is an alcoholic beverage made from the milk of a horse! Airag is actually its Mongolian name, and it’s more often referred to as kumis. It is particularly popular among several of China’s nomadic ethnic minorities, including the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Mongols. That being said, milking a mare is no mean feat! Because of the difficulty involved in acquiring mare’s milk, it is a limited commodity, and so airag produced on an industrial-scale is normally made from cow’s milk.

Since cow’s milk has lower sugar levels than mare’s milk, when it ferments it has a much lower alcohol content. So if you’re looking to get a buzz on in Inner Mongolia, be sure to get the real deal. Although steer clear of unfermented mare’s milk, as it’s supposedly a potent laxative! Unlike beer or wine, where the alcohol content is derived from fermented grains and fruits respectively, the alcohol content in airag comes directly from the fermentation of natural sugars in the mare’s milk. Raw, unpasteurized mare’s milk is left to ferment over the course of hours or even days, while being stirred or churned on a regular basis.

Traditionally this would take place in a horse-hide container, which would either be placed on top of a yurt and turned over periodically, or attached to a saddle and shaken up during the course of a day’s riding. In some historical accounts, it was even said that this container would be hung at the door of the family’s yurt and that locals would punch the container as they walked passed, thus agitating the contents and helping the milk to ferment rather than coagulate and spoil. Who would have thought that you’d ever welcome a punch from your neighbour!

The finished product is typically served chilled and has a slightly sour flavour, with an alcohol content of between 0.7 and 2.5%. According to historical documents, it has been brewed in Central Asia since the 5th century BC and, during the 19th century, it even achieved a reputation as a cure-all. Historical figures like Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov flocked to “Kumis Resorts” in an attempt to cure themselves of their various ailments. So if you catch a cold during your hike across the Inner Mongolian grasslands, be sure to have a swig of this unusual liquor!


Inner Mongolian Cuisine


Unsurprisingly, the cuisine in Inner Mongolia has been heavily influenced by the Mongol ethnic minority, who make up a substantial proportion of the region’s population. Since Inner Mongolia shares its borders with Outer Mongolia and Russia, its cuisine has also incorporated features from traditional Mongolian, Chinese, and Russian cuisine. You could almost say it’s a real melting pot of cultures! Since the Mongolian people who inhabited the grasslands were conventionally nomadic and pastoral, they had to find a diet that would help them survive during the bitterly cold winters. Thus their cuisine places great emphasis on three categories of ingredients: “red food” (fatty meats), “white food” (dairy products), and wheat-based foods.

The extreme climate meant that spices and vegetables were not readily available, so they rarely feature in signature Mongolian dishes. Traditionally only a few native plants, such as wild spring onions and wild thyme, and hardy plants that grew on the steppes, such as buckwheat and millet, would be used in dishes, although nowadays the influx of Han Chinese immigrants means that other ingredients have been introduced to the Inner Mongolian palate.

Mongolian nomads typically farmed what they referred to as the “Five Snouts”: sheep, goats, yak, camels, and horses. Nowadays they also farm cattle, but cattle and goats are prized for their milk while horses, camels, and yak are considered valuable pack animals. This left the poor sheep with the task of providing most of the meat, which explains the marked preference for mutton in many Mongolian dishes.

Mutton from sheep raised on the grasslands is rumoured to be the best in China, as the sheep enjoy a diet of fresh grass and mineral water instead of man-made feed. Historically this hearty meat helped the local people to keep weight on during the winter, along with other “heavy” foodstuffs such as milk, cream, milk tea, butter, cheese, buckwheat noodles, and oat flour pancakes. So be prepared to pack on the pounds during your tour of the grasslands!

Whole Roasted Sheep (烤全羊)

Whole Roasted SheepIn the past, this sumptuously meaty dish was a privilege reserved only for Mongolian royalty, since it was both expensive and complicated to cook. Nowadays, it is readily available throughout the restaurants and grasslands of Inner Mongolia. The main ingredient is unsurprisingly a whole sheep, which is filled with a mixture of spices before being baked in an airtight oven at high temperature for four to five hours.

Once the meat is medium to well-done, the carcass is removed from the oven and roasted over an open fire until it has turned a crispy golden-brown. The firewood used is typically from the apricot tree, as the smoke produced helps give the mutton its distinctive taste. After being roasted to perfection, the dish is served whole on a huge wooden platter. Custom dictates that, while the meat is being carved, a small triangular slice from the sheep’s head should be thrown in the fire as an offering. The two different cooking methods result in the mutton being mouth-wateringly crispy and flavourful, with meat so tender that it literally melts in your mouth.

Mongolian Hot Pot (涮羊肉)

Mongolian Hot PotHot Pot may seem like an iconic Chinese dish, but it actually originated from Mongolia! Sometime during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), it became a popular way of eating meat such as beef, mutton, and horse among Mongolian herdsmen living on the northern grasslands, but it didn’t spread to southern China until the Song Dynasty (960-1279). While several regional variations developed throughout China, the Mongolian Hot Pot or “Instant-Boiled Mutton” remained the favourite of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and is a popular dish in Inner Mongolia to this day.

According to local legend, the dish originated when Kublai Khan, the Khagan of the Mongol Empire and founding Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, developed a sudden craving for stewed mutton. However, he happened to be in the middle of a battle and the enemy’s troops were fast approaching! In order to satiate his hunger, a chef deftly cut off a dozen thinly-sliced mutton strips and placed them in boiling water. As soon as the meat had browned, he swiftly removed it and put it in a bowl with a little salt. Kublai Khan devoured these mutton strips with glee before heading off to battle and achieving a grand victory. At the subsequent celebratory banquet, he requested that the chef prepare this mutton dish again and its status as a regional delicacy was cemented.

The dish consists of the choicest slices of mutton, cut from the back, rear legs, and tail of the sheep. Typically this raw mutton is served alongside tofu, Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, and vermicelli. A pot of boiling soup is laid on a hot plate in the middle of the table, in which the raw ingredients are placed and left to cook. It is imperative that the mutton is removed as soon as it has browned. Each person is typically given a bowl containing a dipping sauce, which is made from sesame oil, chilli oil, spring onions, and soy sauce. Guests are then free to pick strips of the juicy mutton from the soup with their chopsticks and season them to taste.

Grabbing Mutton (手扒羊肉)

grabbing muttonThis traditional dish has been a favourite among Mongolian herdsmen for thousands of years, in part because it’s so deliciously simple! Meat from a freshly butchered sheep is first carved and then placed into a wok of boiling water with a little salt but no other seasonings. The mutton is thoroughly cooked but never allowed to over-boil, as this would make the meat tough and unpalatable. Once the mutton has browned nicely, it is removed from the water and should be eaten before it cools.

The name “grabbing mutton” derives from the fact that traditionally the mutton is eaten with the hands, kind of like barbecued spare ribs. If a local has treated you to this hearty dish, you must allow the host to select your piece of mutton for you, as customarily different parts are served to different guests. For example, the elderly are usually offered cuts from the leg and younger people will be given the ribs, while women get to enjoy the tender meat from the chest.

Roast Leg of Mutton (烤羊腿)

Roast Leg of MuttonBy now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern in the signature dishes of Inner Mongolia. We weren’t kidding when we said they loved mutton! Roast Leg of Mutton was supposedly a favourite of the infamous warlord Genghis Khan and is cooked in much the same way as Whole Roasted Sheep. A sheep’s leg is first scored across the skin before being seasoned with salt and placed on a tray with shredded carrot, celery, shallots, ginger, tomatoes, and peppers. The leg is then roasted in an oven for approximately 4 hours, until the skin has turned a rich golden-brown and the meat gives off an irresistible aroma. Nowadays this dish is a popular alternative to Whole Roasted Sheep, as it takes less time to cook and the leg is considered the tastiest part of the animal.


The Bashang Grasslands

The thundering hooves of a thousand horses led by Genghis Khan as he raided northern China; the soulful songs of opera performers as they entertained Qing Dynasty emperors; the quiet trudge of the Chinese army as they marched off to another battle; these are but a handful of the many scenes that the Bashang Grasslands have played witness to over hundreds of years. Nowadays the gentle rolling hills and wide open plains serve as a place for cattle and sheep to graze, punctuated only by the Mongolian yurts that stand out like small pearls on the jade-green grass. Resting just 280 kilometres (174 mi) north of Beijing, it comes as no surprise that these magnificent grasslands have become a popular tourist location for the capital’s locals.

They cover a large portion of northwest Hebei province and rest at the junction where the North China Plain and the Inner Grasslands of Mongolia meet, making them part of the Inner Mongolia Plateau. Located at the foot of the Yan Mountains, the area is home not only to grassland but to wetlands, dense forests, shimmering lakes, and powerful rivers. With over 300 plant species growing throughout its meadows, the Bashang Grasslands have become known as a rich treasure trove for many of the ingredients used in Chinese medicine. So if you’re hiking through the plains and happen to develop a nasty headache, there’s no need to reach for that ibuprofen. You’re already surrounded by natural painkillers, panaceas, and even a few aphrodisiacs!

Overall the grasslands cover an area of 350 square kilometres (135 sq. mi) and can be split into four parts: Fengning Bashang, Zhangbei Bashang, Weichang Bashang and Guyuan Bashang. These parts rest in four separate counties of Hebei respectively, with Fengning Bashang being the closest to the city of Beijing.

Since the average altitude of the grasslands is around 1,500 metres (4,900 ft.) above sea level, it’s technically higher than many of the mountains in the Beijing area. This means that the temperature is, on average, about 10°C cooler on the grasslands and this is perhaps why the area has been a popular summer resort since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). When you’re sweltering in the 30°C heat of Beijing’s summer and are trapped in an underground train full of sweaty passengers, a rural paradise made up of expansive grassy plains and cool fresh air must sound too good to be true!

Yet by far the greatest draw to the area is the nomadic Mongolian culture. Imagine horse-riding or cycling through the grasslands all day, watching a local wrestling competition, sampling the tantalising fresh roast lamb after watching it cook on an open fire, and then settling down to a night of sweet sleep in an authentic Mongolian yurt. With only the sound of the lowing cattle lulling you to sleep and with the bright stars of the clear night sky twinkling above you, you’ll wonder why anyone would want to live any other way.

Ordos City


The term “Ordos” means “palaces” in Mongolian and reflects the grand plans that authorities once had for this region; plans that would tragically fall to ruin. It is one of Inner Mongolia’s twelve major subdivisions and is located within the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River. During the 17th century it was known as Ih Ju League, a “league” being the Mongolian term for prefecture, but was renamed Ordos in 2001. The prefecture itself has a population of nearly 2 million people but its administrative centre, Ordos City, has now become famous worldwide as “China’s Ghost City”.

The city rests near to the Ordos Desert, also known as the Mu Us Desert, which stretches out over a colossal 90,650 square kilometres (35,000 sq. mi) and is made up of two large deserts; the Kubuqi in the north and the Maowusu in the south. These are the 7th and 8th largest deserts in China respectively and together cover an area greater than that of Ireland!

The city was built to house over a million people but, due to financial problems and issues with deadlines, it remains unfinished and almost completely empty. In particular, the Kangbashi New Area, which was built in 2003 and is about 25 kilometres (16 mi) from Dongsheng District, is home to only 28,000 people with 98% of its apartment complexes left unused. While most visitors complain that Chinese cities are simply too overcrowded, the eerie silence of Ordos City’s empty streets is hardly preferable!

The city itself is littered with stunning monuments reflecting Mongolian history, such as the Genghis Khan Plaza and the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan. Gigantic statues of two rearing horses and the mighty warrior Genghis Khan rise up silently at the centre of the plaza and are some of the many “ghosts” that haunt the city. The Ordos Museum and Kangbashi Theatre are two exemplary works of modern architecture that can be found near the plaza, yet they too remain largely empty. The city is so unnervingly quiet that it has been made the subject of many articles by well-known publications such as Al Jazeera and TIME magazine. After all, as the old saying goes, “there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary”, and fortunately a Ghost City can’t die!



Mausoleum of Genghis Khan

Mausoleum of Genghis Khan

Only a handful of people get to achieve everlasting fame and still fewer maintain a large number of followers long after their death, yet Genghis Khan has managed to go above and beyond even that. To the Mongolian people, he is regarded as a godlike figure. The religion surrounding him has deep ties with Mongolian shamanism[1] and has managed to sustain its popularity over centuries. He is often equated with Tenger or “the Sky-Father”, the chief deity of an ancient Turkic religion known as Tengrism, and it is believed that his ideals were the founding principles of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Not content to be just another picture in a dusty history book, Genghis Khan’s exploits have managed to make him a god!


Of the many temples dedicated to worshipping him littered throughout
Inner Mongolia and northern China, the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan is arguably the grandest. It is located in Xinjie Town near Ordos City and is a cenotaph, meaning it does not actually contain the remains of the mighty warrior himself. After Genghis Khan died, according to his will, he was carried to central Mongolia and buried without any markings. The actual location of his remains is still unknown but, instead of a burial mound, portable tombs known as the “eight white yurts” were erected in his honour. These yurts had originally been palaces where he had lived but were converted into mausoleums on his death.

They were guarded by a Mongolian subgroup known as the Darkhads or “untouchables”, who were sacred shamans charged with his protection. So, when the Darkhads decided to move to Ordos, the mausoleums simply came with them! However, due to the disruption caused during the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and the Second World War, they had to be moved to the province of Gansu for several years. They suffered another upheaval in 1949 when they were moved to Qinghai province by the warlord Ma Bufang.

In fact, in a desperate bid to protect them, the Kuomintang[2] even hid them within a Buddhist monastery, twice! In 1956, they were replaced by the immovable mausoleum that can be found today and are still guarded by several Darkhads, who continue to carry out the rituals that have been passed down to them over 800 years. At least, as a Darkhad, you know you’ve always got a guaranteed job!

The complex itself is made up of three large “palaces” or halls that are designed to resemble yurts. The Main Palace is set at the centre and is the largest of the three, towering in at 26 metres (85 ft.). Inside there rests a 5-metre-tall (16 ft.) statue of Genghis Khan made of white jade, resplendent in his armour with his characteristically fierce face. At over twice the size of the average basketball player, Genghis’ statuesque form cuts an imposing figure!

Behind him there is a map of the vast territory he once controlled as part of the Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous empire in world history. Surrounding the statue are saddles, weapons, carts, and other relics believed to have belonged to him, although several of them are replicas. His empty coffin and coffins belonging to three of his wives are also housed within the Main Palace.

Within the East Palace are interred the coffins of Genghis Khan’s fourth son, Tolui, along with his wife. Of all of Genghis’ sons, Tolui enjoys the most eminent status as he was the progenitor of many Mongolian kings, including Kublai Khan. After all, when your dad was so famous that he’s now regarded as a deity, you have to be a pretty high-achiever to even get noticed!

The West Palace houses the nine banners and the Su Le Ding or “Iron Spearheads”. The nine banners symbolise the nine trustworthy generals who followed Genghis Khan and the iron spearheads were once part of the flags that he used to command his army during his many conquests. According to legend, his soul entered the spearheads on his death and still inhabits them, making them a sacred object among the Mongolian people. The corridors that connect the palaces are adorned with frescoes depicting scenes from Genghis Khan’s life and Kublai Khan’s establishment of the Yuan Dynasty.

Special sacrificial ceremonies take place at the mausoleum four times annually, the grandest of which happens on March 21st according to the Chinese lunar calendar. On this day, Mongolian shamans engage in solemn rituals and pile whole roasted sheep before the statue of Genghis Khan. The intricate procedures that surround these ceremonies have remained virtually unchanged since the 13th century. After the main ceremony is complete and the visitors have made their personal offerings of flowers, food, and incense, competitions will take place, such as wrestling, horse-riding, archery, and singing. During these ceremonies, the mausoleum comes to life in a glorious display of traditional Mongolian culture.

[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Kuomintang: Also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. They were the ruling party from 1928 until their defeat at the hands of the Communists in 1949. They retreated to Taiwan, where they still play an active political role.



Baotou is a prefecture-level city settled at the base of the looming Yin Mountains, on the north bank of the magnificent Yellow River. It’s about 160 kilometres (100 mi) west of Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, and is the largest industrial city in the region. Its Mongolian name, which translates to mean “place with deer”, has earned it the nickname “Deer City” as it is the only city in China to contain part of the Mongolian grasslands within the city itself. That being said, the deer are kept firmly in the grasslands, so there’s no need to worry about a rogue stag sneaking up on you and stealing your dumplings!

During the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC), the area where Baotou sits belonged to the State of Zhao and part of the original Great Wall ran through one of its suburbs. Yet, in spite of these ancient beginnings, it is a relatively young city by Chinese standards. The region was initially colonised during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) but, by the 1730s, it was still just a small village. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the imperials resolved to strengthen their control of the territory along the border with Mongolia and began developing Baotou as a market town.

Yet its real period of growth occurred in 1923, when the city was connected to Beijing by rail. It swiftly became one of the major commercial centres for trade between Mongolia and northern China and overnight appeared to develop into a large city. Although this rail link was tragically destroyed in 1949, it was restored in 1953 and other lines were added to Lanzhou in Gansu province and to Ürümqi in Xinjiang, connecting Baotou to rail lines across central and southern China. During the 1960s, the city was expanded further to accommodate a monumental iron and steel complex, which made Baotou one of the major steel producers in the country. Unfortunately this did little to attract tourists!

包头鹿Though the city is largely industrial, it does contain a few attractions that are sure to entice some of the more adventurous tourists. The Saihan Tala Ecological Park in the city’s Qingshan District is the only grassland in China to be found within a city and is the perfect place to engage with traditional Mongolian culture. From relaxing in yurts and sipping milk tea to sampling some freshly roasted mutton and listening to a few Mongolian folk songs, the bucolic atmosphere and richly vibrant culture are a welcome distraction in this otherwise urban city. It’s a real country mouse meets city mouse kind of situation!

About 185 kilometres (115 mi) south of the city, the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan looms up over the grasslands and resembles three huge, beautifully decorated yurts. It’s a cenotaph or empty tomb dedicated to the mighty warrior and is considered a holy site by the Mongolian people. From engaging in their daily life to experiencing their spiritual practices, by the end of your trip you’ll practically be a Khan yourself!


Zhaojun Tomb

Zhaojun Tomb

The bitter rivalry between the Xiongnu tribe of Mongolia and the Han people of China is a defining feature of ancient Chinese history and no good history book is complete without a reference to at least one of their momentous clashes. Yet the story of Wang Zhaojun is one of the rare occasions when these two enemies found a way to get along. Zhaojun was born in Ping Village of Hubei province during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and, as she grew older, her almost ethereal beauty swiftly got her noticed. Heralded as one of China’s Four Great Beauties at the time, she was selected to become a lady-in-waiting for the Han court.

However, it appeared that her exceptional beauty wasn’t enough to earn the Emperor’s affection. The Emperor rarely had time to meet his concubines in the flesh, and so depended upon portraits to pick which one he wanted to see. There were many attractive women in the palace and several of them bribed the imperial painter to make their portraits stand out, but Zhaojun did not want to be dishonest and so refused to bribe the painter, who in turn made her look far uglier in her portrait. Years went by and Zhaojun lived a hopelessly lonely life within the palace, overlooked by the Emperor and everyone else.

In 33 BC a Xiongnu Chanyu or chieftain named Huhanye approached the Han imperials and expressed his desire to make peace by marrying a Han woman. Seeing an opportunity to escape her wretched life, Zhaojun volunteered to marry him and made the courageous choice to leave her ancestral home forever. When the Emperor finally took notice of her, he was overwhelmed by her incredible beauty but it was too late, she was promised to Huhanye. In one last attempt to make up for her awful life in the palace, the Emperor executed the painter who had wronged her. Talk about swift justice!

After her marriage, she was granted the title of Ning Huqueshi or Queen of the Xiongnu. She decided to adopt the local customs of her people and lived in a yurt, wore traditional blankets and furs, ate yak meat, and drank milk tea as a sign of respect for the Xiongnu. Her open-minded attitude gave new meaning to the phrase “when in Rome”!

Unfortunately, in spite of her selfless efforts, her life would end in tragedy. After only 3 years of marriage, her husband tragically died and her application to return home was denied by the Emperor. According to tradition, she was forced to marry Huhanye’s son but, after 11 years, he too passed away. She once again appealed to the Emperor for permission to return home but was refused and, facing yet another marriage to Huhanye’s grandson, she opted instead to commit suicide.

Wang ZhaojunIt is believed that she was largely responsible for the amicable relationship enjoyed between the Han and Xiongnu people at the time and, in commemoration of her achievements, the local people built a tomb in her honour. “Zhaojun Chu Sai” (昭君出塞) or “Zhaojun Goes Beyond the Frontier” is a phrase used to describe her departure from Han territory and her arrival in the Mongolian grasslands. It is regarded as a landmark event in Chinese history and is the subject of much poetry, theatre, literature, and music.

Nowadays her tomb rests just 9 kilometres (6 mi) from the city of Hohhot and is one of the city’s major attractions. It is sometimes referred to by its Mongolian name of Temür Urkhu or “Iron Wall”, as well as its nickname of “Green Tomb”. This nickname evolved from a local legend which states that when the wintery frost sets in and the plants are reduced to a withering yellow, the grass on Wang Zhaojun’s tomb miraculously remains green!

Although her body does not actually rest beneath the 33-metre-high (108 ft.) burial mound, this honorary tomb is noted for its magnificent scenery and stunning statues. After all, how could you not be flattered to have a burial mound that’s taller than Buckingham Palace, even if you’re not necessarily under it!

In front of the mound, there rests a 4-metre-high (13 ft.) bronze statue depicting Wang Zhaojun and Huhanye on horseback riding side by side and leaning in to talk with one another. Though the figures are obviously inanimate, the statue is so vivid that the intimacy between them is undoubtedly palpable. It serves as a testament to their marriage and what it meant for the Han and Xiongnu people. This is further evidenced by the many steles[1] behind the statue, which were engraved by notable people from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) onwards and all praise Wang Zhaojun.

Beyond the steles, a stone staircase leads to a platform where visitors can marvel at the panoramic view of the scenery surrounding the tomb and the silhouette of the misty Yin Mountains rising up in the distance. Recently an Exhibition Centre was built on the tomb site, which houses magnificent displays of paper cuttings, local artwork, and other charming artefacts, as well as live performances of traditional Mongolian ceremonies.

[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

Dazhao Temple

Dazhao Temple

Dazhao Temple is one of the oldest temples in Inner Mongolia dedicated to the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, throughout its long history and in spite of its beauty, it remained largely ignored for a number of years. Like the overlooked middle child, Dazhao simply wasn’t good enough to earn the kind of respect its older brothers in Lhasa enjoyed! Yet that would all change in 1586, after a visit from the 3rd Dalai Lama.

“Dazhao” literally means “Big Temple” and the temple itself was originally built in 1579, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in the city of Hohhot. In fact, Hohhot may not even exist if it weren’t for Dazhao. Altan Khan, the leader of a Mongol subgroup known as the Tümeds, began building the temple in 1557 in an effort to impress the Ming Court and established the city around the temple as a sort of hugely costly afterthought! Yet it didn’t reach the pinnacle of its fame until 1586, when the 3rd Dalai Lama visited the temple and dedicated a colossal silver statue of Sakyamuni[1] to it.

Silver Buddha DazhaoOvernight this appeared to elevate it in status from relative unknown to perhaps the most important Buddhist site in Inner Mongolia. The statue is so integral to the temple’s identity that many people still refer to it as Yinfo or “Silver Buddha” Temple. Thereafter it became a hotspot for ancient Chinese celebrities and was even blessed with a visit by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) during the late 17th century. His visit was commemorated by a series of stunning murals, which have been beautifully preserved. Yet surprisingly this magnificent statue only narrowly escaped destruction!

During the Cultural Revolution, the temple was converted into a factory and all religious artefacts were meant to have been destroyed. However, at that time, the hall in which the Silver Buddha rested was being used as a storage room. When Red Guards came to ransack the remaining relics in the temple, they didn’t notice the statue behind all of the other stored goods and thus it was spared a gruesome fate!

Dazhao HohhotThe temple complex itself predominantly follows the Han-style of architecture, although the main hall represents a wonderful intermingling of Han and Tibetan features. The complex is separated into three parts: a two-storey hall at the front, the Jing Tang or Hall for Chanting in the centre, and the Fo Tang or Hall for Worshipping Buddha at the rear. The silver statue rests in the Fo Tang and has done so for the past 400 years. Towering in at an impressive 2.5 metres (8 ft.) in height, it is the largest of its kind in China and is about the same size as an Asian elephant!

It is considered one of the temple’s Three Treasures, along with the remaining murals and the vivid carvings of dragons engraved on two golden pillars that sit either side of the statue. Several of the murals, including those related to the story of Buddha, are now stored in Hohhot Museum in the interests of preservation. The entrance to the Fo Tang is flanked by two lifelike stone statues of lions, and delightful exhibitions of traditional musical instruments and Mongolian dragon sculptures can be found scattered throughout the complex. Just in front of the temple, an old well supposedly boasts the freshest and coolest spring water in the region, further adding to the mystical qualities of this ancient place.

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.