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CHIFENG, China – It's no longer about the armed warriors, Genghis Khan and the robed nomads prancing through lush greenery on horseback.
In China's barely populated Inner Mongolian grasslands, what had defined Mongolian culture for outsiders have long been swapped for leather outfits, motorbikes, cell phones and tourism.
Five hours outside Inner Mongolia's southeastern city of Chifeng and deep in the grasslands, I chanced upon a local couple riding a mule-pulled cart on a quiet road, heading toward their coal-heated yurt. The old woman said she loves watching drama shows on TV, gesturing toward the dish propped up against her roof. On the freeway nearby, cars and buses seem to be the only other form of transportation, with horse-riding existing mostly for tourists.
The old storybook nomad life has dwindled, with most nomads now farming, living in compact brick huts, tending to tourists, or working in nearby cities. Desertification, too, is real and apparent, as you drive past yellowing grass where little livestock roams and sparse green shoots struggling through dried, gritty earth. The few who have maintained a nomadic lifestyle only camp on the grass during the wetter June to September months, making those the best times for travelers seeking an authentic glimpse of the old ways.
But while nomadic pastoral life is fading, echoes of it can still be found in some of the grasslands in southeastern Inner Mongolia. Windmills and nodding sunflowers dot endless expanses of rolling green fields, and there isn't a clearer blue sky to be found in all of China — although the view is occasionally interrupted by power lines or neon-yellow tour buses that honk relentlessly to prod the cows and sheep to the side.
On my trip to the region, I saw a lanky young nomad zip up a steep grassy hill on a motorcycle to herd his sheep. Looking like James Dean in his dark shades and black leather jacket, he leaned against the squeaking door of his yurt and let me and a traveling companion crouch inside.
With luck and patience, visitors may find a nomad farther inland who has room in his yurt for crashing overnight. Real yurts are unfussy versions of tourist yurt accommodations, with dusty, unpretentious exteriors and claustrophobic interiors packed with dishes, pots, a bed, an odd chair or two, and many small furry pets (like hamsters). Other elements of this simple Mongolian home, which matches the low-key culture, might include a dangling light bulb, a communal spread for the bed, and some simple kitschy decorations, along with the quiet cold.
Those staying in tourist accommodations miss out on an integral component of the grassland: cow dung. To get from the main road to a nomad's home, we selectively tiptoed over (and sometimes into) piles of cow dung, one of two main "banks," or income generators in Inner Mongolia (the other is wind power). Dried cow dung used to be the main source of fuel and heat for the chilly climate, and the amount of cow dung in a household is a measuring stick for diligence when it comes to a female candidate for marriage, as it demonstrates her ability to bring in fuel for the family.
The ubiquitous milk ads and sheer roadside cattle count point to beef and dairy production as agricultural mainstays. Upon arriving in Chifeng on the first day, we devoured a bowl of beef (meat, marrow, or joint) noodle soup. The small alley markets on Changqing Street offer a variety of fresh and pricey Mongolian beef jerky, sampled, weighed and wrapped on the spot. After sundown, the night market in Chifeng offers a smorgasbord of knick-knacks and necessities, from beef kebabs and toys to underwear and sheets, stretching many blocks. (Chifeng is the Chinese name for the city Mongolians call Ulanhad; both mean "Red Mountain," a reference to the mountain that abuts the city.)
Sensitive palates may not love the distinct gaminess of the local beef, so some visitors may prefer Mongolian lamb, which is known for its excellent flavor. Some say it's the quality of the air and grass, while others point to the traditional slaughtering method. In light of the Mongols' emphasis on an animal's spirit, rather than slitting the throat and waiting for the animal to bleed to death, the nomad reaches inside the animal and snaps the spine, a technique that is said to kill the creature in 30 seconds. The meat comes out tender and flavorful enough that it needs no sauce or spice. Lamb-eating used to be a mark of aristocracy, unaffordable among ordinary nomads. The price of a fresh whole lamb is still hefty today, and nomads say they don't eat it too often.
Something else for visitors to experience in the region is the Arshihaty granite forest in the Hexigten Global Geopark. Temperatures plummet on the windy mountaintop, where chilly visitors will find vendors renting much-needed green military jackets reminiscent of the Red Army's Lenin coat. The Arshihaty boasts wide views of rocky green mountains and natural stone columns molded by the wind into shapes of eagles, snakes, warriors, warrior's beds, turtles and castles — sure to inspire your imagination on the drive back.
If You Go...
INNER MONGOLIA: Two English-language websites offering information about tour groups and companies in Inner Mongolia are http://bit.ly/auvu0E and http://bit.ly/d3tQwP. Some of the best trip-planning websites are in Chinese; automated online translation services like Google Translator may be able to help you navigate them: http://bit.ly/amQHkG and http://bit.ly/9Ijjw6 and http://bit.ly/c6lXQC. For individual guides and drivers, try http://kaifeng.cncn.com/fuwu/74288147333 or http://huhehaote.cncn.com/fuwu/7310114376.
GETTING THERE: Train trips from Beijing to Chifeng take anywhere from six to 10 hours. The cheapest, slowest train costs about $19 (124 yuan). To go from Chifeng to the grasslands, most visitors hire a driver or join a tour. Drivers run about $30 (200 yuan) a day.
ACCOMMODATIONS: A tourist yurt costs $7.50-$30 (50-200 yuan) nightly, depending on the time of year, with June-August more expensive then other months. If you can find a real nomad to host you, the cost might run $7.50-$15 (50-100 yuan).
HEXIGTEN GLOBAL GEOPARK: http://www.globalgeopark.org/publish/portal1/tab133/info270.htm