Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 21, August 13 - 19



Fresh air and Mongolian ruins are only
a day's drive away from sweltering Beijing


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 Beijing).

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 time.

Getting There
By car:
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.

By air:
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.

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