Published: October 24th 2011October 24th 2011
I spent a fabulous weekend hiking on the Mongolian Grasslands. The trip was arranged and carried out by Beijing Hikers who I’ve been with on daytrips before. I would advise anyone coming to Beijing to check out their website and go on a walk or hike with them. Apart from enjoying the beautiful scenery and seeing less-well-known places, it’s a great opportunity for visitors to talk to ex-patriots here about why they came and stayed in Beijing and what everyday life is like for an ex-pat. On this weekend there were returned Chinese people who have unique perspectives on life in China that ex-pats will never have.
We all met up on Friday midday and boarded the Beijing Hikers coach with Henjie (“Way-jay”), the woman leader and owner of the Beijing Hikers business. There were twenty-one participants including two Chinese families of parents plus a teenager who had returned after many years in Texas and California and were now working in telecommunications , two young Chinese women who grew up in Australia and New Zealand, another Chinese couple, three 30-something Germans, a Danish couple, two middle-aged Australian couples, an Australian builder who is writing a book, myself, the two trip leaders
the Great Wall
- we passed en route
and the driver. It was a real mixture and a great group.
As we drove north Henjie told us about the history of the area and pointed out aspects of The Great Wall that we might have missed, like look-out towers high on the cliffs. We passed through the Badaling gate in the Great Wall and she explained that at the time of the Ming dynasty (16th/17th Cen.) China feared an invasion by Mongols. Many Mongolians regularly brought horses, camels and goods such as food and fabric to trade at the border. There were very stringent security checks to ensure that only genuine traders could pass through the Badaling Gate because, once through, the person could go anywhere south in China.
The first railway in China was built during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) and ran from near where I live in Beijing to Badaling Gate. The engineer had studied abroad and brought his skills back to China. The train is still operating today.
Ju Yung Guan, the longest-serving emperor was part of the Ming dynasty and carried out the most Great Wall construction, during his 47-year reign from 1558. He built walled villages along the route where soldiers
working on building and maintaining the Wall could live in barracks, supervised by a General. From the highway we could see the ruins of some of those village walls. As we drove further northwest we saw the remains of lookout towers and sections of the Wall on the mountain ridges. (I was taking notes as Henjie spoke and the bus bumped along, so I am quite prepared to be corrected on these historic details.)
We went through the area known as “Ordos” between the Great Wall to the south and the Inner Mongolian loop of the Yellow River. For centuries it was the dominion of the nomad. Then in the Qing dynasty China took it over, plus more land north of the Yellow River. It is now thoroughly irrigated by the Yellow River and is very productive. It was amazing to see the agricultural land divided into so many small vegetable gardens, each to provide income for one peasant family. I have since learned that some of the best vineyards in China are along this part of the Yangtse River, not far from the Gobi Desert.
After a six-hour drive the sun was setting as we approached the village where
we would be staying. I have never in my life seen a sunset as blood orange as that one. Amazing!
We had been warned that temperatures would be cooler in the Bashang. We were to bring warm clothes and wet gear and expect highs of 17°C and lows of 3°C. But it was already 10°C when we arrived! For people who had been sweating in Beijing temperatures of 30°C for over three months, this was Arctic weather. Fortunately dinner was ready and after some post-prandial bottles of Chinese beer we all retired to bed to rest up for the 18km hike of the surrounding mountains the next morning.
I should explain that this area is called “Bashang” and is referred to as the Mongolian Grasslands but we were not actually inside the border of Inner Mongolia. We went almost s far as the border of Hebei province, China, which surrounds the Province of Beijing. I still haven’t been able to pinpoint on a map the area where we stayed.
Here’s Wikepedia for you:
Bashang Plateau covers about 16,000 square kilometres (6,200 sq mi) of northwest Hebei. It is on average 1,300 - 1,600 meters above sea level and is part
of the Inner Mongolian Plateau. Though the plateau itself is high it does not have tall mountain peaks nor depressions. From a distance it appears to be hills, but it becomes a flat land when you come upon it. The plateau is dotted with hills and many lakes. The average annual temperature on the plateau is 2.6°C. Soil conditions are poor but the plateau is covered mostly by vast natural grasslands, a good environment for animal husbandry. (That means breeding more horses!)
Which reminds me that one of you asked me what’s the difference between Inner and Outer Mongolia. Ghengis Khan united all the Mongol tribes in 1206 but after that it was controlled by a variety of Chinese and Mongolian rulers. “Outer Mongolia” is the actual country of Mongolia that was part of the USSR but gained independence in 1992. They still use the Cyrillic alphabet to write their Uyghur language but they are planning to return to Uyghur script over the next ten years. That’s where I was last May.
Inner Mongolia is a part of China and was formed in 1947 by uniting five smaller Chinese provinces. It is referred to as “the Autonomous Region of
Inner Mongolia”” which has some vague meaning but refers to an area or province whose population was non-Han (Mongol, Tibetan, Uyghur, etc.) before China it an Autonomous Region.
OK, back to the hiking weekend. The hotel was new and very basic. So basic we actually had “Turkish” (squat) toilets in the rooms. We couldn’t get any hot water out of the bathroom taps in our room but learned the next day to let the shower tap run for a while. We tried that and got some lukewarm water. There were only light “summer quilts”, so I folded mine in half to cover me and slept fully-clothed. I was still cold – and stiff from sleeping curled in a ball under the mini-quilt. BUT I did bring my new self-inflating mattress to combat the rock hard Chinese mattress and that was a Godsend.
Breakfast was at 7:30am and the hotel’s concession to the Western participants was to have coffee, bread and peanut butter. The cook obviously believed that we would prefer a Chinese breakfast and made huge bowls of a watery white-ish gruel with kernels of rice floating in it (congee).
They also made lots of steam buns which look like
knotted white flour yeast dough which has been allowed to rise, then served up without being baked. I took a photo of the huge steamer in the kitchens so you’ll see what I mean. We could have all the pickled vegetables we wanted for breakfast.
Of course I brought my gluten-free porridge and sliced bread along so I was happy once I was left to cook it myself. I may have mentioned that in Kashgar, China I soaked the porridge in water overnight then gave it to the chef to cook. “Just cook this as-is for 3 minutes.” He must have presumed it was meant to be like Chinese “porridge” and added a bucket of water before boiling it up and serving it to me! Yuk.
The five-hour hike began in our village at 8:00am and we were so lucky to have dry weather. Although it was sometimes cloudy, it was dry the whole time, with a few short warm and sunny periods. It was great hiking weather though and clear enough for photos of the surrounding vistas.
When I heard we were gong to the grasslands I thought that meant tall grass. No, this is really just scrub grass
dotted with wild flowers. Apparently in June and July the mountains are carpeted with wild flowers. I’d love to see that. When we were in the middle of a long climb two kestrels flew out from behind a hill and swooped above us a few times before heading south. That was really exciting!
There were quite a few fist-sized rocks underfoot that added some difficulty to the hiking. Maybe I should say that from a distance the hills look smooth and grass-covered but when you are hiking your footfalls are not as steady as you’d imagine. But it wasn’t a major problem and the climbs and descents weren’t too steep.
Some hikers found two huge mushrooms. No one seemed to know exactly what they were. But Henjie said that if they are left on the grass they will eventually mature to a point where they explode, scattering their seeds to the four winds. We left them to do just that.
A local man brought two saddled horses along and we took turns riding the horses on the flatter areas. It was a bit ironic that the man said the horse couldn’t carry riders on the slopes. (Darn!) But I
thought that’s what horses were for. I think they were there in case a hiker injured him/herself or became overtired, but I can’t imagine asking the patient to get off and walk on all the ascents and descents.
The scenery was spectacular and, because there are almost no trees, you can see for miles across the surrounding valleys to miles of mountain tops. I’ll leave the photos to speak for themselves. At one point the main group had gone on ahead and Henjie took out a harmonica and played a slow tune. As the melody enveloped us and wafted over the hills I was spellbound with the blend of visual and tuneful beauty. It was magic!
What really added to the hike for me was the conversations I had with the other hikers. Each person’s life is an interesting story. I was particularly interested in the views of a Chinese couple who had returned ten years ago from living in the United States. Their son attends an international school and is very Westernised. I was surprised when he said he couldn’t read a Chinese sign we passed. He said he wouldn’t know the characters and I’m sure he was being
old poster of Mao
- with PM Chou En-lai
honest. It was so interesting to talk to others in the group and hear their views of life in China.
The last three kilometres of the hike were a dusty roadway through a village and then to our own village. I enjoyed that because I could take my time and take photos of ordinary village life. A woman asked me to come with her and she brought me to a cottage that seemed to have a For Sale sign outside. It was abandoned so it may have belonged to her parents. It had a thriving vegetable garden out front and inside there were cobs of corn hanging on the walls to dry and an old weaving loom. Each of the two bedrooms had a high, concrete block bed. I’ve seen these in films before and I know they usually have fires burning under them in winter. I couldn’t see an opening for the fire but I later was told I should have looked in the entrance hall where there would have been a large fire. It would have been easier to shove logs, etc. through a hatch there to the fire burning under the bed. My God, I thought
the hotel bed was hard! I’d never last on one of them with the thin “mattress.”
Lunch was ready when we got back to the hotel and the plan was to go dune-buggy or horseback riding in the afternoon. (Everybody has to ride horses in the Mongolia region where there are 13 horses to every person.) We had been told that we were having a barbeque dinner and we spied a local young man skinning and disembowelling a small sheep (or big lamb?). Then it began to rain heavily so the activity plans were cancelled. The cold rain went on and on all afternoon so my German journalsit roommate, Eva, and I retired to our room to chat, read and sleep after the exhausting hike. Mid-afternoon Henjie sent the message around that there was a big flask of hot Coca-Cola with ginger slices in the diningroom. It was so-o-o good, it’ll have to be a must for cold winter nights.
Later we roused ourselves for dinner which was that whole lamb, barbequed, plus the local liquor – fermented horse mare’s milk. Gam bei!
Every meal at this hotel had the usual ten or more different dishes. They are brought out
one at a time so when you think you have finished, the waitress brings yet another dish that you can’t resist tasting. Later they made a bonfire in a covered area. A Danish woman had brought marshmallows so we had fun toasting them, a real trip down memory lane for me.
Breakfast was early again on Sunday morning because some of the group wanted to take the shorter, but very difficult, hike up the Spirit Wall Mountain at the other side of the village. Luckily that had nice, warm sunny weather. I decided to give that a miss and took a walk around our village. Some of the fellows discovered big marijuana plants in gardens. They said, “So that’s how they get through these long, cold winters!”
At 10:30 we went in the coach to pick up the hikers and drive to Lightning Lake for a walk around the lake to the dam. After the big hike on Saturday, this walk was suitably non-challenging. Whew.
We went back to the hotel for lunch of leftover BBQ’d lamb and another ten dishes. Oh! That reminds me to tell you that the cost of the weekend trip, including the bus, hotel,
guides, all meals with unlimited beer, trail snacks and bottles of water, was 1600RMB/€180/$250. I think it is great value, especially as I don’t have to do any thinking, planning or problem-solving. Bliss.
Then we packed up and had a five-hour drive back to Beijing on a different route than we had gone on Friday. This was a winding road down through the mountains, and onto the highway, so we arrived back in Beijing at about 7:30pm. The whole weekend had been great – the food, the company, the hiking, the fun … I can’t wait to do it again somewhere else!
There are more photos below