As we munched on sheep ribs our host, Mr. Zhu, said, "In Beijing you
can inhale half way down your lungs; in Inner Mongolia you can inhale
all the way down." Our outdoor table sat on the rise of a hill catching
wild-flower breezes, overlooking gentle green undulations that faded
to purple at the horizon.
"As far as your eyes can see, I've rented." For his 10,000 hectare ranch-motel,
Mr. Zhu pays a rent of RMB12 per sheep per year for each of his 900-strong
herd. The only structures in this vast expanse were his large dining
hall yurt and a dozen baby yurts, each of which can sleep two guests.
To get there, we drove 20 kilometers on dirt roads, lightly etched in
the grasslands, from the city of Xi Lin Hao Te (about 650 km north of
Mr. Zhu is part of the emerging tourism industry of Inner Mongolia.
He and his wife came here from Beijing as Cultural Revolution (1966-76)
volunteers, fresh out of high school. They lived for many years with
shepherds, learned their language, and stayed. Zhu's wife, Chen Pengshan,
is now the governor of Xi Lin Guo Le (or Xilingol). She is the only
woman, and the only one of Han descent, to hold such a position in the
region. She is responsible for 920,000 people living in an area of 200,000
square kilometers, two-thirds the size of Italy.
When our meal ended, a young man who had slaughtered the sheep we
were just eating, offered us milk wine in a shallow silver cup. The
cup was cradled in outstretched hands draped with a Buddhist scarf and
presented with an ululating Mongolian song.
On our way back to Beijing we stopped for a day in Zhenglanqi. We followed
our guide's jeep in our own Cherokee as he headed off on dirt roads
into rolling hills. Several kilometers later we arrived at a small mountain
called Wu Er Ri Qin - Mongolian for Cattle Herders' Hill - which was
surmounted by an 'Ao Bao', a monument of stone with a spray of branches,
a place to make offerings to the Heavens. Just after we reached the
top, half the sky blackened and a driving cold rain with flickering
lightening engulfed us.
We huddled in the lee of the Ao Bao and got soaked to the skin. I remembered
to make my offering but it was hard to progress much beyond, "Please
God, get us out of here!"
The rain left as quickly as it came and we were dry by the time we got
to the bottom of the hill. "Local people," our guide explained, "believe
a rain-shower while you are on the mountain top is a sign of strong
welcome by the powers above." We continued our now blessed journey twisting
and turning over sandy trails.
Two long, high mounds appeared before us. We had come to the back door
of Xanadu. The grass-covered ruins of the city walls and palace foundations
are all that remains of Kublai Khan's famous 'pleasure dome.' The Chinese
name for this ruined city is Shang Du (Upper Capital), or Yuan Shang
Du, where the Yuan Emperors held summer court. Construction was started
in 1256 by the Mongolian emperor Khublai Khan (1260-1294) who used the
palace as a summer retreat from the stifling heat of Beijing - then
called Da Du (Big Capital).
Xanadu was torched by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644),
but not before the name 'Shang Du' had been transported by Marco Polo
to Europe, suffering mutations through the centuries to become "Xanadu".
Centuries later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, waking from an opium-induced
sleep, wrote "without any sensation or consciousness of effort" the
poem that made Shang Du famous:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
In feng shui fashion, with hills to the north and a river to the south,
this 2200 square-meter city dominates the plain. Although we were told
the best of the city's unearthed artifacts have been transported to
a museum in Hu He Hao Te (Hohhot), Xanadu is worth visiting just for
the strong ambience. Khublai Khan's reasons for trekking up north in
the summer are as valid today: thirty-two degrees is considered hot
here, no-one installs air-conditioning and the nights are cool enough
to wear sweaters.
My first taste of the grasslands and exposure to Mongol culture, while
brief, left me feeling I had just scratched the surface of a beautiful
world just a stone's throw away from Beijing.
When to Go
The best season is early June to late August, when the grass is green.
Nadamu, an annual festival of culture, sports and trade occurs during
This is definitely jeep country. The best way is to drive up and hire
a local guide. Good maps in book form are available at Beijing bookstores.
Someone on board should be able to speak at least basic Mandarin to
ask directions. There is no 93 octane gasoline, but our jeep seemed
content with 90 octane.
Drive past Badaling to the town of Zhangjiakou in Hebei Province. From
there go north on road 207 to the border of Inner Mongolia. About 110
km north of the border, turn west and drive 28 km to the county town
of Zhenglanqi near Xanadu or continue straight north another 220 km
to Xi Lin Hao Te, where you can eat sheep ribs with Mr. Zhu.
On the return trip you can go back the way you came or continue west
from Zhenglanqi through Duolun, Fengning and, finally Shunyi in the
northeast suburbs of Beijing. This alternate way home has much less
traffic, no big trucks, and breathtaking mountain scenery. There are
a lot of hairpin bends in the descent from the Mongolian plateau down
into the hot plain of Beijing.
In July and August there are daily 50-minute flights from Beijing to
Xi Lin Hao Te (RMB 800).
Places to Stay
There are several hotels in Xi Lin Hao Te that accept foreigners. Rooms
at the Xi Lin Guo Le Hotel are RMB 240 a night. You can also stay at
various Mongolian Yurt "motels" such as Mr. Zhu's. There is one on road
207 in Zhenglanqi at marker 147. The county town of Zhenglanqi has a
hotel that costs around RMB 120 per room. For more information about
the locations of yurt accommodation and local scenic areas try the Xi
Lin Gou Le Travel Service.
Tel: (0479) 824-1165 or 822-4797.