With its beautiful landscapes and new wealth, Inner Mongolia makes for a fascinating holiday.
ONE rainy night, my sisters and I found ourselves butt naked, lying on a wet plastic sheet and being scrubbed within an inch of our lives by jovial burly women in underwear. And somehow they managed to persuade us to do a full body mask and massage, face mask, hair wash and opt for everything from milk to vinegar to soften our skins.
By the time the ladies were done with us, we were all scrubbed squeaky clean (no more dead cells) and so relaxed we just wanted to go back to our hotels and sleep, forgoing our soak in the onsen.
We were in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, and a friend had urged us to try the local bath experience in a clubhouse adjacent to a five-star hotel. The establishment was bright and beautifully furnished, with friendly staff who put us at ease with their banter and reassured us with their professionalism (they kept us updated on our bill – about RM200 each in total).
And we were happy we experienced that invigorating bath and scrub. Nothing like forgetting our inhibitions and submitting to all that scrubbing and massaging. The best part was being soothed by warm water gently poured over us after each pampering session.
Inner Mongolia’s revelations
We were on holiday in Inner Mongolia, China, and our bath experience was one of our many delightful discoveries. Earlier that day, we had spent the day at a desert resort where we rode on jeeps, cable cars and train, as well as on camels. We also caught a cultural performance and would have gone sand sledding except it rained in the desert. In the summer, tourists come to swim in the pools at the desert resort.
We had also visited monuments and museums which were well-curated, with professional guides who were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about local culture and heritage. All the tourist sites were well-maintained, with facilities such as ample parking lots, ramps for the disabled and clean toilets.
And Inner Mongolia doesn’t even depend on tourism as its major revenue earner. With mining, industries and turbine energy harvesting, as well as its thriving dairy agriculture and cashmere industries, the local population has the fourth highest per capita income in China.
Its economic boom is personified by Ordos, which gained infamy as a ghost town in recent years – a city in the desert built with money from the mining boon with no occupants. Our guide said the buildings are all bought up now. But as we passed by its lush park, she acknowledged that all that greenery were fertilised by cash because that landscape would otherwise not be possible in the desert.
The prosperity is evident in Inner Mongolia’s capital Hohhot, which emerged from the desert some 30 years back. It was planned as a green city with strict environmental laws … and it is proudly smog-free all year round.
The city also has the most number of public toilets, a relatively new development according to our local guide.
“In the grasslands, distances are such that we don’t see anyone for miles and miles. People are used to doing their business wherever they are, so the idea of a toilet was alien to the Moghuls. But a few years ago, the government started building public toilets in the city, and now people are used to them,” said our guide Chun Mei, who didn’t think we’d be able to remember her Moghul name.
She was most intent on acquainting us with her people and homeland, and by the end of the trip we knew everything from Mongolian women’s view on marriage (not the be-all and end-all) to their beef (couldn’t eat meat elsewhere) to cashmere (finest in the world). One of the first things she pointed out as soon as we entered Hohhot is the compulsory Moghul script on every signboard at the shops. She is a descendent of a proud race, with a rich history.
Escaping to the grasslands
The Mongolian Plateau is a huge area in Central Asia and is divided between three countries – Mongolia, China and Russia. In China, parts of Inner Mongolia, called Nei Mongku locally, and the Xinjiang autonomous regions lie on the plateau. Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region in China, and has one of the country’s largest land areas and is also one of the least populated.
Genghis Khan is of course the most famous Moghul, and he was born in Inner Mongolia. There is quite a few monuments and a museum to honour him, and he remains an icon that’s on everything from beer cans to tourist t-shirts. But there isn’t a tomb and it is said that Genghis Khan is buried somewhere in the vast grassland plains.
The grassland is very much a part of the Mongolian psyche and culture, and lots of money has gone into turning the grasslands into a tourist playground. The resort we stayed in at the Huitengxile Grasslands has a huge array of options, from container rooms to yurts with king-sized beds. Our accommodation was built like a traditional yurt, but not wrapped with animal felt. The upside is it’s got an attached bathroom and heater, so we pretended that we were glamping.
It’s a beautiful landscape, with its undulating fields and low lying clouds. We celebrated the mid-autumn festival in the grasslands and admired the bright full moon. Chun Mei reminded us though that the mooncake was used to pass messages that led to the Chinese defeating the Moghuls, so it wasn’t a celebration in Inner Mongolia. It certainly didn’t dampen the celebrations at the grassland resort where there was a rave party around a bonfire and firework displays.
You can ride horses on the grasslands, or you can hop on a train that chugs along to allow you to experience the vastness of the plains. My favourite experience was taking the chair lifts across the Valley of the Yellow Flowers, an alpine meadow at an altitude of 1,200m. It’s said to be a blessed land, and whoever passed through it will be bestowed happiness and good health. It was indeed a blessing to have spent our holidays in this magnificent land.
A traveler who likes to share stories with people from all walks of life.