Monday, August 29, 2011

China Travel: Inner Mongolia

   I am finished with my travels around northern China and Hong Kong, and I am now back in the States. Sorry for the delayed blog post. I took nearly 2000 photos over the course of my 10-day trip, so it took a long time to sort and edit all of them. I was done around the end of last week, just in time for a family vacation to Bryce and Zion national parks (where I took 1000 more pictures). I want to do a full writeup of my trip to accompany my pictures, and I have been procrastinating the writing part. This post will cover the first three days of my trip, which I spent with a Chinese tour group in Inner Mongolia. I'm going to mix my "artsy" photos from the trip with some not-so-artsy photos that go with the story. To just see the "artsy" photos by themselves check out my Flickr.

The UChicago Beijing Program ended on Friday August 5th. I said goodbye to my teachers and classmates, ate a final plate of Kung Pao Chicken at my favorite local hole-in-the-wall Sichuanese  restaurant, and packed up my belongings. Most of my stuff went into rollaway suitacses that I left in Beijing with my host family. When I was traveling I only brought my school backpack, which I stuffed to capacity. Since I was traveling alone, I was planning on doing a lot of photography to keep myself busy. In addition to my clothes and other travel necessities, I managed to bring along my Canon S90, Canon 30D, Tamron 17-50 f/2.8, Canon 55-250 IS, and my cheap but moderately effective Dolica AX620B100. Before I left the states I bought a padded camera insert that can you can use to convert and bag or backpack into a camera bag. This allowed me to use carry my camera on the top of my bag for easy access without having to buy a whole new camera bag for this trip.

             I dropped my suitcases off with my host family and took them out to a quick dinner. We ate at the same restaurant they took me on my first night in China back in 2008. It was interesting to go back and think how much both my Mandarin and my tolerance for Chinese food had progress since then. Whereas the first time I was at this restaurant I could barely understand a word my host parents said to me, this time I was about to embark on ten days of traveling through China by myself. I also enjoyed every dish that we ordered, which definitely could not be said about the first meal I ate there. After we finished dinner and said our good-byes I made my way to the Beijing West Train station.
I took the overnight train to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, and then joined up with a Chinese tour group. The first day of our tour was on the Xilamuren Grassland – or what was left of them at least. 

The crowd boarding my train to Hohhot from the Beijing West Station.

Mr. Sunflower Seed
As I was walking around Hohhot, Inner Mongolia a man sitting on the side of the street called out to me in English. We started talking about America and how it compared to China. He inroduced me to one of his friends (pictured), and I asked if I could take his pictures. They were thrilled and the shot came out pretty well I think :) He is shoveling roasted sunflowers.

Grassless Lands
Parts of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia were pretty uninspiring.

     The bus from Hohhot dropped our tour group off at a Yurt encampment within eyesight of huge power lines and the main highway - not exactly the rugged wild Mongolian grasslands I had envisioned. I sort of knew that joining a tour group meant I was only going to see some of the more commercialized places in Inner Mongolia, but I had this persistent fantasy of spending the night in a Yurt on the Inner Mongolian grasslands, and you can only spend the night on the grasslands if you are part of a tour group. My Yurt was complete with electricity, a TV, a toilet, and running water. I imagine this was not what your traditional nomadic Mongolian Yurt looked like, but it was comfy at least.
Our group sat down in a large central Yurt for a “traditional Mongolian dinner”, which meant that there was one lamb dish thrown in with the other sub-par dishes. We also got to listen to a live performance of “traditional Mongolian songs” which were painfully loud and high-pitched. On the bright side, everyone in the tour group was interested in me (I got the impression that white guys traveling alone are rare in Chinese tour groups). Everyone was very curious and welcoming, and I made friends with a few of the families on the trip. 
I spent the afternoon roaming around the grasslands taking pictures. Even though the grass was not very high on this particular stretch of grasslands, it was still impressive to see the vast expensive of green rolling hills. I was treated to a marvelous sunset and got some good pictures of horses as the ranchers let their horses out into the grasslands for the night (apparently they then corral them back into the stables every morning). Nighttime festivities included a campfire with song and dance, and flying paper lanterns (see the picture below, they work like hot air balloons).

Scenic Grasslands
A horse grazes in the Inner Mongolian Grasslands.

An Inner Mongolian sheep.

Dramatic Camel
One of the camels they kept around the horse stables.

Stables 2
The stables near my Yurt encampment in Inner Mongolia.

Camel Chew

Mongolian Sunset
The sun sets behind my Yurt encampment in Inner Mongolia.

Mongolian Orange


Although the grasslands were a bit lackluster, the sunset in Inner Mongolia was spectacular. Luckily they also released the horses into the grasslands right at sunset, so I had a lot of good opportunities for horse shots. This is one of the Mongolians working to corral the horses.

Sunset Racers

This is one of the Mongolians working to corral the horses. I noticed him coming towards me and tried to get a few shots off quickly. They are blurry because my ISO was too low, but I think it gives you a nice sense of the horse's motion.



Purple Yurt
A gorgeous sunset behind my yurt encampment in Inner Mongolia.

Mongolian Skyfire

Yurt in Blue

Mongolian Campfire
After the sun went down we had a campfire with singing and dancing.

Flying Lanterns
These lanterns are classic nighttime village fun. They are fairly tricky to launch properly because it takes a while for the flame to produce enough hot air to fill up the balloon above it. After it fill up, though, these things can fly for a long way.

The next morning I woke up at 5am to photograph the sunrise. To my dismay it was hazy out and sunrise was uninteresting. The previous night the tour guide had convinced me to come with the rest of the tour group to see the Inner Mongolian desert instead of exploring Hohhot (the capital of Inner Mongolia) as I had originally planned. She promised that I could ride a camel, slide down sand dunes, or ride an ATV. Suckered in by the prospect of riding a camel on the Inner Mongolian sand dunes, I agreed. Little did I know that the desert was a five-hour drive away, and was also three hours from Hohhot, where I had to catch a train later that night. It also hardly qualified as a desert – or at least it was not what I was expecting. At the gated entrance (since when did deserts have gated entrances?) there was a long row of concession stands selling overpriced food and water. There was a sand shoe rental business where you could buy knee-length boots to prevent sand from getting in your shoes. Of course, the shoes were completely unnecessary because as part of your entrance ticket you were required to buy a ticket for a tour of the sand dunes on a dune buggy, which dropped you off at the top of a sand mountain. On the top of the mountain you could ride an ATV on the sand dunes, ride a camel, zip line down the mountain, or slide down the mountain on a sand sled. Of course there were additional charges for all of these activities. The whole place felt like well-oiled cash extraction machine. The tour guides brought busloads of tourists into the middle of nowhere where the only activity is to pay for a ride up a sand mountain, pay to do something fun on top of the sand dune, and then pay again for a ride down. Edit: A friend showed me this news article, which names the "Inner Mongolia Resonant Sand Gorge" as one of China's "Scheme Parks" (although apparently they are "schemes" because they are somehow loosing money...)

Me on the grasslands at some unthinkably early hour. 

I opted to ride a camel; ¥100 (about $14) got me a half an hour ride on the back of a camel that moaned every time I got on and off. The camels were strung up in a line and a man walked us around the dunes to a small zoo, where we got off to rest. Either for educational purposes, or as a morbid joke, the inside of the zoo had camel skeletons on display. Still, it was kinda fun to ride a camel. Between the sand, the heat, and being on top of a camel, it didn’t take much imagination to feel like I was Laurence of Arabia riding in the middle of some endless desert.

"The Desert" (excuse the iPhone photo, I didn't bring my other cameras because I was afraid of getting sand in them). 
Me on top of some poor dehydrated and overworked camel. 

A camel skeleton. Just in case you were wondering what was holding you up...
By the time we got back on the bus I had fewer than two hours before my train was scheduled to leave, and we were still in the “desert” three hours away from Hohhot. Luckily, my tour guide managed to rebook my ticket for a later departure time. We drove back to Hohhot, and to kill time before our trains departed the tour guide took us to an Inner Mongolian souvenir market. Oh lord. If you want to buy a ten foot carpet with prancing horses woven on it, or a Mongolian dagger, or Mongolian “specialty” food, or really anything remotely Mongolian, this is the place to go. Once I entered the retail portion there was only one long winding aisle that led to the exit. Of course, the twists and turns prevented you from seeing how long it was going to take you to get out – clearly this was another cleverly thought out cash extraction machine. After walking for about twenty minutes without slowing down to look at what was being sold, I finally reached the exit and got back on the bus.
At this point I was furious at my tour guide. She had somehow convinced me to come to the desert, but failed to mention that going to the desert was going to require 8 hours of driving, or that the desert was a huge tourist trap. I essentially spent the entire day on a bus for a 30 minute camel ride. We finally arrived at the Hohhot train station and I practically ran off the bus, glad to be free of the grasps of the tour group. I managed to board my train to Datong, Shanxi smoothly and it left at around 10pm.
 I was in the hard seat section of the train, which is the cheapest class. It was a little bit loud and cramped, but was full of interesting people. I was surrounded by migrant workers except for a middle-aged woman across from me, who was a doctor coming back from a conference. Because I missed my first train, my train did not get into Datong until 2am. Half asleep, I made conversation with the woman across from me. When we finally arrived, she gave me directions to the hotel my travel agent made reservations at, which saved me from wandering aimlessly in downtown Datong at 2am. Exhausted from the frustrating day and from being awake for nearly 24 hours, I stumbled around Datong until I found my hotel. I thought the awful day had finally come to an end. But, alas, not quite. The lady at the front desk informed me that they did not have any reservation under my name, and that the only rooms they had left were the more expensive 3-person suites. Too tired to go exploring for a hotel with open rooms in Datong at 2am, I took the 3-person room for the night.
So Inner Mongolia wasn’t exactly how I had envisioned it. Being with a tour group, led me along a well-traveled path of tourist traps. That being said, I still had a great time exploring the grasslands and met a lot of interesting people on the tour. The second day on the desert sucked – it was just one of those days where everything went wrong. However, since the vast majority of tourist in China is done through tour groups, I’m glad I got to see what the experience is like, but it definitely will be a while before I sign up to travel with one again. Luckily, I had an amazing time in Datong and Wutaishan, the subject of my next blog post. Stay tuned…


Veasna August 30, 2011 at 6:13 PM  

Jamie! I think it's so cool that you just took off on your own and did this, even if you got caught up in a tourist trap. And those orange sunset photos are amazing.

Jamie Manley (金汉生) August 30, 2011 at 6:26 PM  

Haha thanks :) Luckily the worst of the tourist traps were in Inner Mongolia, and it got better after that.

Marty August 30, 2011 at 11:33 PM  

Fantastic! Great photos. And I can imagine that te camel skeletons are very motivating to the new, untrained camels.

Anonymous May 7, 2015 at 3:16 AM  

Hi! came across your blog while doing research for my upcoming trip. May i know your itinerary for this trip? looks awesome.

Jamie Manley (金汉生) May 7, 2015 at 3:28 AM  

These photos are mostly from Hohhot and the Xilamuren Grasslands. As mentioned in the post, I didn't have the best experience in the grassland, although I did get some interesting photos!

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Photographer, China enthusiast, climate & energy buff. Working in Delhi with the International Innovation Corps.

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