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Inner Mongolia: To tour or not to tour

Meghan Horihan

China Daily/Asia News Network

Inner Mongolia  /  Wed, November 9, 2016  /  04:15 pm
Inner Mongolia: To tour or not to tour

Tourists get the opportunity to sleep in Inner Mongolian yurts in the Xilamuren Grasslands. (China Daily/Meghan Horihan)

Inner Mongolia autonomous region enchants people as a natural escape with sprawling landscapes, captivating culture and fresh air that city dwellers rarely experience. However, its gargantuan size also makes some travelers feel so overwhelmed by the spanning options they struggle to decide where to even begin in the region.

At least that's how I felt when trying to plan a trip to this destination. I’ve wanted to travel to Inner Mongolia autonomous region pretty much since I first arrived to China, and when I finally got the opportunity, there seemed to be two viable options: hop on a preplanned tour or try to figure out an alternative route by hiring a driver.

Commercial tours have opened the door for many who otherwise may be too intimidated to take on the vast region. Over 9.4 million tourists visited Ulanqab from January to August alone and 7.6 billion yuan ($1.14 billion) was spent on tourism, which is an increase of 11.1 percent from the year before, China Daily reported.

Inner Mongolia autonomous region also saw about 8.54 million tourists over the National Day holiday, an increase of 21.5 percent from last year. And those numbers are set to increase as more money is pumped into the tourism industry.

If you look at the Ulanqab government, they invested 5.98 billion yuan into 62 different tourism projects in 2016 alone. And Baotou has spent over 2 billion yuan on road infrastructure and tourist centers.

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Tourists ride camels in the Kubuqi Desert.(China Daily/Meghan Horihan)

With the growing focus on tourism, Inner Mongolia is becoming more accessible and convenient, yet many tourists still turn to tour groups to make sure they know what to expect from their trip. The question that remains is whether the ease of accessibility of tour groups leaves tourists with only a surface level experience of the region.

On my recent trip to the region, however, I decided to try my hand at one of the tours a friend recommended due to the lack of time to plan and the limited amount of days we could spend traveling. We would join a two day tour of the Xilamuren Grasslands and Kubuqi Desert then spend the last day exploring Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

My excitement when I first arrived in Hohhot was slightly dampened by the soggy weather, but that quickly changed as we got on the bus and made our way into the grasslands. Once we got past the highways we started the bumpy ride on dirt and gravel roads. The adventure really began when the driver took amusement in accelerating through potholes, causing people in the back of the bus to be flung into the air.

While transportation, accommodation and most meals were included, toilets in the grasslands were not, in the typical sense of the word at least. The tall grasses would be our restroom, which we let sink in as we explored our surroundings and checked out the yurts we would be sleeping in.

We were warned of the quick drop in temperature, but I don’t think we fully comprehended what that would mean. It was extremely cold, unbearably so at night, even in a yurt filled to the brim with occupants.

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The sun shines on the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia autonomous region.(China Daily/Meghan Horihan)

With some of these discomforts, we were also rewarded tenfold in natural niceties. The air was smog free and blue skies managed to push away the drizzly weather as we hopped on our horses and trotted through the massive grasslands. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city was a welcomed experience.

You could see stars by the billions that night and getting out of the city to enjoy wide open spaces and jaw dropping sunrise in the middle of Inner Mongolia was in itself worth the excursion. And we still had the next day to enjoy the desert with some sand dune sliding and camel riding, as well as a warmer climate.

However, many travelers in the group were left with the feeling that the price was too high for what we received. We had to pay extra for certain things like the horseback riding, and collecting cow pies for our own bonfire was an actual item on the activity itinerary. Not to mention experiencing quite little of the culture.

There were definite perks of convenience and having relatively little to plan, but the constraints of the tour overall just made me more curious for what else Inner Mongolia has to offer. It may have taken more time and effort to plan, and maybe experienced a few extra challenges along the way, but if we rented our own car or hired a driver and did a little more research, I think it could have been a richer, more personal experience.

This article appeared on the China Daily newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post