Encircled by the magnificent Daqing or “Great Green” Mountains and situated in the upper valley of the Dahei River, Hohhot is a city surrounded by nature. As the capital of Inner Mongolia, it’s heralded as the political and cultural centre of the region. Its Mongolian name of Kuku-Khoto translates to “Green City”, as it is one of the few urban areas completely surrounded by jade-hued grasslands. With the vast grassy plains before you, the endless sapphire sky above you, and the city’s numerous temples surrounding you, it’s easy to see why it earned such a prestigious title.

The city’s history began in 1557 when Altan Khan, the leader of a Mongol subgroup known as the Tümeds, began building the Dazhao Temple. He wanted to impress the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in order to gain access to valuable trade items such as iron, cotton, and crop seeds. After all, as the old saying goes, “if you build it, they will come”, and hopefully bring you gifts! In the process, he established the city of Kuku-Khoto and eventually managed to persuade the Ming imperials to make him their vassal.

hohhot 02During the 17th century, the Ming court renamed the city Guihua or “Return to Civilisation” and encouraged Chinese agriculturalists to settle there. It grew rapidly as a frontier trading centre, as well as a religious centre for Tibetan Buddhism, and the rich fertile plains allowed the local farmers to prosper. In the middle of the 18th century, a new city known as Suiyuan was established just 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) to its north.

These cities would eventually be combined and collectively named Guisui, which swiftly became a focal trading hub in Inner Mongolia. Originally the old Mongol part of the city served as the commercial centre, while the newer Chinese part was regarded as an administrative and residential area. In 1954 the city was renamed Hohhot and the two districts were merged completely. By 1957, it had developed into the cultural and academic centre of Inner Mongolia and was home to the region’s first university. In short, Hohhot is living proof that knowledge is power!

Thanks to its temperate weather, the city has become a popular summer retreat for domestic tourists and acts as a gateway to the nearby Xilamuren Grasslands. They are about 100 kilometres (62 mi) from Hohhot and are occasionally referred to as the Zhaohe Grasslands. These seemingly endless plains are resplendent with lush green grass and multi-coloured wildflowers, making them the perfect place to hike and relax.

Dazhao Temple HohhotThe Dazhao Temple was completed in 1579 and is the oldest Buddhist monastery in the city. Within its confines, a shrine dedicated to the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) takes centre stage and is flanked by murals commemorating his visit to the temple. Yet the temple’s major claim to fame is a spectacular 2.5 metre-tall (8 ft.) silver statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. It is considered one of the temple’s Three Treasures, alongside the murals and the golden pillars on either side of the statue that are beautifully engraved with carvings of dragons.

Just 100 metres (320 ft.) from Dazhao Temple sits the Xilituzhao Palace, the largest Buddhist temple in Hohhot. The term “xilitu” means “holy seat” in Mongolian as this was, and still is, one of the most important houses of worship in Inner Mongolia. It was built during the Ming Dynasty in honour of the third and fourth Dalai Lamas and in commemoration of the Lamas in general. The original temple was quite small but underwent a colossal expansion during the Qing Dynasty. In spite of extensive weathering over a period of 400 years, the temple has remained in relatively good condition.

Alongside these Buddhist temples, there are a plethora of Muslim, Catholic, and Christian houses of worship dotted throughout the city. Most notable of these is the Great Mosque, which was founded during the Qing Dynasty. With its elegant pagoda-style roofs and ornate Arabian windows, the mosque represents a unique blend of traditional Han Chinese and Central Asian architectural features. From the top of its 15-metre (49 ft.) tall minaret, you’ll be treated to a spectacular panoramic view of the entire city.

Similarly the Zhaojun Tomb is regarded as one of the finest attractions in Inner Mongolia and is only about 10 kilometres (6 mi) south of Hohhot. It’s the final resting place of Wang Zhaojun, a beautiful Chinese aristocrat who became the courtesan of a Xiongnu “Chanyu” or chieftain named Huhanye in 33 BC. According to local legend, when all the grass turns yellow in winter, the grass that covers Zhaojun’s tomb miraculously remains green!



Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region

Inner Mongolia, officially known as the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, is the third largest subdivision in China and accounts for over 12% of its land area but, with a population of just 24 million people, it makes up less than 2% of the country’s overall population. If you’ve ever experienced one of the bitterly cold winters in this region, then you’ll understand why it’s so underpopulated!

It hosts substantial constituencies of the Mongol, Daur, Oroqen, Ewenki, and Manchu ethnic groups and has two official languages; Chinese and Mongolian. This means all street signs, shop signs, and documents are written in both Chinese and traditional Mongolian script. So, if you can’t read Chinese, you just need to learn how to read vertical Mongolian characters; simple!

The region is located in the north of China and shares most of its border with Mongolia, although a small part is shared with Russia. Historically, it has been a place of both conflict and co-habitation between Chinese agriculturalists and various ancient nomadic groups, including the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Khiten, Jurchen, and Mongol people. This has resulted in a fascinating mixture between these diverse cultures, which can be found in the region today.

Due to its bizarrely elongated shape, the climate varies wildly from region to region but is, generally speaking, subject to blisteringly cold winters. Spring arrives in April and is a short three-month affair, while summer similarly arrives in July and leaves but two months later. This gives way to winter around about mid-September, where icy winds and blizzards dominate the landscape. Temperatures drop rapidly to below 0 °C (32 °F) and this can continue all the way through till March. So if you’re planning on spending Christmas in Inner Mongolia, we recommend packing about ten jumpers, four pairs of gloves, three pairs of thermal trousers, earmuffs, and a hat!

inner mongolia desertThe region’s unusual shape means that the landscape varies greatly, from lush grasslands, dense forests, and misty mountains in the east to scorching hot deserts in the west. On the grasslands and wide spaces between cities, the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people is evidenced by yurts or Mongolian tents. Large portions of grassland are still used for grazing domestic animals such as sheep, goats, cattle, Bactrian camels, and the famous Mongolian horses.

Horse-riding, wrestling, camel-riding, rodeo and archery competitions are just a few of the ways in which these Mongolian families enjoy themselves. The best time to visit is during their Nadam Festival, when performances and competitions of all kind take place throughout July and August. Just don’t try to rodeo a camel!In terms of religion, it’s estimated that over 80% of the population continue to follow Chinese folk religion and Mongolian shamanism. In particular, the cult of Genghis Khan is still hugely popular and is evidenced by various temples dedicated to him, as he is not only considered a cultural hero but also a divine ancestor figure and the embodiment of the God of Heaven or “Tenger”. The venerated Mausoleum of Genghis Khan, located just outside of Ordos City, is an empty tomb built in his honour.

hohhotWith such a plethora of cultures, climates, and landscapes on offer, Inner Mongolia has some of the most tragically underrated tourist attractions in China. In the provincial capital of Hohhot, the Dazhao Temple is a local favourite and is known for three sites: its Buddha statue made entirely of silver, its elaborate carvings of dragons, and its magnificent murals.

Another beloved site is that of Zhaojun Tomb just 10 kilometres (6 mi) from Hohhot. It is the final resting place of Wang Zhaojun, a Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) aristocrat who became the consort of a Xiongnu ruler named Huhanye Shanyu. It is sometimes referred to as “Qing Zhong” or “Green Tomb” because, according to local legend, while all the grass turns yellow in winter, the grass surrounding the tomb always remains green.

Yet by far the most outstanding attraction of Inner Mongolia is its expansive grasslands and meadows, which provide visitors with a taste of idyllic, rural life. For the more adventurous traveller, the deserts in the western part of the region, such as Badain Jarain and Tengger Desert, can be visited during early autumn when the weather is still temperate.

The Gobi Desert

gobi desert

The Gobi Desert is the largest desert region in Asia and the fifth largest desert in the world. This huge expanse spans over parts of northern and northwestern China and heads deep into southern Mongolia. To the north, it is bordered by the Altai Mountains and the Mongolian grasslands, while to the west it is separated from the Takla Makan Desert only by the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains. The Hexi Corridor and Tibetan Plateau rest at its southwest and the North China Plain is to the southeast. Bordered by rugged cliffs, snowy mountains, and lush grasslands, the rich diversity of scenery that can be found throughout the desert is truly breath-taking.

It covers an estimated area of 1,300,000 square kilometres (500,000 sq. mi), making it larger than the countries of Germany and France combined! Though romanticised depictions of this colossal desert portray it as a massive expanse of golden sand, it’s mainly made up of bare rock. This means that, in a scene worthy of the film Mad Max, visitors can easily traverse large sections of the Gobi from the comfort of their jeep.

It can be separated roughly into several regions: the Gaxun Gobi, Junggar Gobi, and Trans-Altai Gobi in the west; the Eastern or Mongolian Gobi in the centre and east; and the Alxa Plateau or Ala Shan Desert in the south. The landscapes of these areas vary wildly from barren desert steppe to inhabitable semi-desert.

Since it rests at a high altitude far to the north, the temperature fluctuations between seasons and even throughout the day can be incredibly vast. Temperatures can soar to scorching heights of up to 45 °C (113 °F) in July but then plummet to icy depths of −40 °C (−40 °F) in January. The northeast enjoys a decent level of rainfall, which allows sparse vegetation to grow, but some of the more arid areas can go without rain for up to three years! The strong north and northwesterly winds whip up sand and snowstorms throughout autumn, winter, and spring so, in short, don’t buy a holiday home in the Gobi Desert!

SV-AS3  ImageDataIn the more hospitable semi-deserts, several large mammals such as wild camels, dzheiran gazelles, and Przewalski’s horses roam freely. There is even a subspecies of brown bear known as the Gobi bear, which is the only desert dwelling bear in the world, although it is estimated only approximately 50 remain in the wild.

With such an unforgiving climate, it’s unsurprising that the population density of the region is low. The vast majority of people living in and around the Gobi desert are of the Mongol ethnic minority, although there are now also large constituencies of Han people. Nomadic pastoral farming is the main occupation, with herders raising cashmere goats, sheep, large-horned cattle and Bactrian camels, as well as a small handful of horses.

These nomads migrate several times throughout the year and can travel upwards of 190 kilometres (120 mi) between grazing sites. To put that into perspective, if you were travelling about 95 km/h (60 mph) by car it would take you about 2 hours to get from one grazing site to another, so imagine how long it would take driving a herd of animals on foot!

Historically, it was part of the great Mongol Empire throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, and the southern part of the Alxa Plateau formed one of the major routes along the Silk Road. This gave rise to the magnificent Mogao Caves, which stand as a testament to the many travellers that passed through the Gobi in ancient times. This collection of Buddhist temples dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries can be found near Dunhuang City in Gansu province and were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Gobi desertThe Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park in southern Mongolia rests in the north of the Gobi and is home to several rare species of animal, including the Gobi camel and the snow leopard. A huge stretch of sand dunes known as the Khongoryn Els extend across 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the park and are up to 300 metres (980 ft.) in height. It’s also home to the famous mountain valley known as Yolyn Am, which is so deep that the ice at its base never thaws, even during the scorching hot summer!

Explore the Gobi Desert on our tour: Explore the Silk Road in China

Mulan Paddock

Stretching out over 2,300 square kilometres (888 sq. mi) of pure unadulterated grassland, Mulan Paddock represents the largest imperial hunting grounds in the world. It covers nearly twice the area of the city of London and takes up huge portions of both Hebei province and Inner Mongolia. Hunting in this huge expanse, it’s a small wonder that the Emperor ever caught anything! The hunting grounds are part of the Bashang Grasslands and belong to the portion known as Weichang Bashang. They rest about 450 kilometres (280 mi) away from Beijing and now make for a popular weekend retreat, albeit with a lot less hunting and a lot more hiking!

With Mongolian yurts dotted like small pearls across its expanse and with the vast blue sky above it, it looks like a scene from a watercolour painting. Its appearance is so idyllic that it’s hard to believe it was once a site of major political change and warfare. Mulan Paddock was originally established by the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) so that he could keep an eye on the northern borders and strengthen his control of the Mongolian region. Every year the Emperor would bring his ministers and royal army, along with his family and concubines, to hunt on these grounds and thus reassert his claim to the territory. In fact, it was these regular annual visits that eventually prompted him to build the magnificent Chengde Mountain Resort in the nearby town of Rehe (modern-day Chengde).

01Nowadays these jade-hued grasslands are a place to relax, enjoy the scenery, cycle, ride horses, and sample tantalising Mongolian delicacies such as whole roast lamb. The area has been sanctioned off into three core attractions known as Saihanba National Forest Park, Yudaokou Grassland, and Hongsongwa Natural Conservation Zone, although there’s more to these peaceful meadows than meets the eye.

Not far from Saihanba National Forest Park, Wulan Butong Grassland once played host to one of the most epic battles in Chinese history; the Battle of Ulan Butung. On September 3rd 1690, the Kangxi Emperor allied with an ethnic subgroup of Mongolian people known as the Khalka and successfully drove Galdan Boshugtu Khan, the leader of a rival kingdom called the Dzungar Khanate, out of the grasslands. Though no evidence of this battle remains on the site, the Hongshan Army Horse Farm is a small reminder of the military purposes that these grasslands once served.

The farm was first built in 1964 and was designed to breed and train horses that could be used in the border areas. Over a period of just 40 years, this farm supplied the Chinese army with over 15,000 trained horses. That’s over 350 horses per year! At an altitude of over 1,500 metres (4,900 ft.), it’s perched at the highest point of Wulan Butong and is thus at a military advantage. That being said, the only people who appear to be raiding the horse farm nowadays are curious tourists!