Towards the beginning of October, we used our one-week national holiday to take a trip up north to the desert and grasslands of Inner Mongolia! This trip had everything. FCN was our guide once more up to the area just south of the country of Mongolia on our 3-day excursion.
We had tried to go on this same trip offered by FCN before in July, but unfortunately the second wave of Covid cases in Beijing shut that trip down before it started. We were so excited to see that they were once again offering the 3 day/2 night trip during national week and for such a low price of 1150 rmb ($170) per person! We knew that going in the the fall would make the northern areas a little cooler than the summer trip would have been, but these Inner Mongolia trips were probably going to be the last ones given until Spring and we leapt at the chance to go. We were joined by a few other Kaiwen teachers that were hoping for a good time, so that made it all the more enjoyable! Because Inner Mongolia is still a far journey from Beijing, we had to show up at the bus pickup at 5 am. We were told we would stop for lunch, but we wouldn’t get to our first stop until around noon that day! Our first stop after lunch would be to the area outside the city of Ulan Qab, the site of the Wulan Hada Volcano.
There were a few different volcanos in this area (no longer active) but we hiked up No. 5 with our group. The sides of this volcano were extremely steep! It seemed to be almost a 65 degree incline on a very unstable surface, due to all of the pumice stone and other kinds of volcanic rock. This 10,000 year old volcano was a pretty difficult climb. Everyone in our group ascended slowly and took frequent rests. The wind was really picking up as we climbed but we didn’t notice over the burning in our calves. Some in the group had to call it quits halfway up because of the gravel that would sometimes slip beneath our feet. There were no established pathways, so everyone was charting their own course to the top. I made the mistake of bringing my 20+ lb backpack with me off the bus, which made me a little unsteady. I would say it took my family nearly 20 minutes to get to the top, with other groups taking a little less time. The view from the top was great! You could see Mongolian horses in the fields some distance away and could look across the relatively flat land for miles. The wind was super bad up there though! Many were losing their hats and the windchill made our fingers extremely cold. But we were able to catch some great pictures of the view and the inside of the volcano.
Usually on hikes, the trip down is the easiest part! You just go and let gravity do the work. However, on this particular hike, the trip down was the most nefarious. There are no trees, trails, or large boulders as you make your way down. Nothing but a steep decline, loose rocks and some patches of grass. This made the trip down a bit scary and dangerous, especially since we were warned by the guide that injuries often happen as people cut themselves from falling on sharp volcanic rocks. My family and I decided to take the trip together, holding hands almost all of the way down. We didn’t realize it until afterwards, but my genius husband also took us down the steepest part of the volcano (still love him though). It was almost like a family exercise in trust, as my husband led us down and I was the anchor in the back. We slid back and forth along the mountain, opting not to go straight down and risk losing traction. The only one that slipped was me, it was a little scary but so worth it to hear my son scream “MOMMY!” as he thought I would roll down the volcano. Luckily, I didn’t go far since my husband still had my hand. Once we finally got to the bottom, we kept commenting on how we couldn’t believe we got down uninjured. It took just as long to get down as it took to get up, but it felt like ages!
After 2 hours at the volcano, we got back on the bus to head to our next city for dinner. FCN treated us to a lovely Mongolian Hotpot dinner in Hohhot. The hotpot was slightly different than what I have had before in Beijing. The flavors of the pot itself were different, many more spices! Many of the guests actually started to cough once the pots came to a boil because the spice levels were so high. The items to eat were fairly typical, like meat and vegetables. However, there were a few items that we have never tried before. They had duck blood, pickled seaweed, and the tofu. All of those things I am sure we have the ability to order in Beijing, but they weren’t items we have had before. It was good but gone too quickly! We checked out the city a little bit while we had some time, stopping at convenience stores and taking pictures of the street. The people were interested to see so many foreigners walking around. It took another 10 minutes or so to get to our hotel, which was lovely. we stayed for one night and then checked out early the next morning.
The bus ride the next morning was about 2 hours to the Kubuqi Desert. It wasn’t yet noon, but we were all in heavy jackets to protect ourselves from the mix of cold wind and sunshine. All of our days in Inner Mongolia were windy, but it felt even more so on this day because you could see the sand move along the desert landscape. This part of the desert has been sort of transformed into a desert theme park of sorts! The company here offers many desert-theme activities such as camel-riding and sand sliding. We were so ready to move around after being on the bus! The company gave us these really cool fabric stockings to wear over our shoes and jeans to prevent too much sand getting into our shoes. They really worked too, although the kids ones are a little to small for Calvin! After we entered the park, we were lead to these giant off-roading vehicles that could seat 50+ people. It felt like a ride just to get into the park! We were bouncing and swaying on the four wheel drive and you could hear everyone screaming every time we went over a dune too quickly or bumped someone too high into the air!
After everyone got off the first vehicle, we needed to choose what our first activity would be. We just followed the rest of the crowd up the nearest sand dune and ended up at the sand zip-lining area. I have zip lined before and so had my family, but we had never done so in a desert setting. The harnesses were different than what we had used before and I had my big, giant backpack to lug around again. I wore my backpack on my front and put on the harness, so I looked like a big ole pregnant lady about to zip line! The zip across was fairly fast and I didn’t drop my backpack! The park even had some photographers waiting at the end to snap some shots of the guests with the dunes in the background. We ending up buying the photos of Korey and Calvin because my big backpack belly was less than aesthetically pleasing. We quickly moved on to the nearest activity which was camel riding!
There were 50 or 60 camels at this place and most of them looked pretty well-cared for. The one Calvin was riding was particularly affectionate as he kept nuzzling Korey’s leg looking for pets! The camels were all seated as we got on, which I found a bit odd because I rode a camel as a kid and we had to board them from a tall platform. As we rode around, I noticed that the camels were tied to each other through a sort of nose peg. I was deeply concerned about it and couldn’t focus on anything else the whole ride. Was the peg hurting the camel? I had no idea, but it seemed really unsafe for the camel to be tied to another camel with it. I did some research on the subject when I got back and found that many cultures all over the world use these same pegs. Many people are for or against them for good reasons. One article I found says that not all camels need nose pegs, but those used commercially are almost essential. All in all, reading the article made me feel better afterwards but I am pretty sure I will not be riding a camel anytime soon. Here is the article for those who are interested: https://camelconnection.com/camel-nose-pegs-to-use-or-not-to-use/
We then went and payed to shoot some arrows on the archery course and Korey got a bullseye his very first shot! Calvin and I were struggling a tad more against the wind and our general inadequacy. I was happy to get 6 or 7 of my 30 arrows to stick into the target. Calvin fared a little better with some instruction from the archery coach. We spent some time afterwards taking pictures of the dunes and then headed over to the ATVs. I was a little worried about riding them without a helmet (none were provided) but everyone rode with someone, they didn’t actually drive the ATV themself. I was whooping and hollering all over the dunes as we rode and gave the ATV driver a good chuckle. I think the ATV was one of my favorite parts in the desert.
To finally leave, we need to take the sand slide down the biggest dune to get to the train back to the entrance. I was a little intimidated because I was concerned this flimsy plastic and wooden sled would flip me over with my heavy backpack! So I made Korey take it down. It was awesome and you used your hands behind you to slow down the sled so that you didn’t descend too quickly. We took the train back to the bus and started driving….and driving..and driving. I swear, we travelled over 7 hours with 2 or 3 stops to the Xiramoren Grasslands. When we finally arrived, it was after 8 pm and it was FREEZING. It was -5 degrees Celsius and we were bundled up in jackets, gloves, etc. If it wasn’t cold enough, the wind made it WAY colder. We tried to move into our 3-bed yurt, but it smelled awful. The bathroom must have been backed up because it was bad. We asked to be moved to another yurt and we got split up, Korey and I in one and Calvin in another. Thank God that they were not cloth yurts, these were actual buildings in the shape of yurts or we would have not made it through the night. The dinner was not bad, but the roast lamb they had a full ceremony about was a bit overcooked and under seasoned. After dinner, we quickly got back to our yurt to avoid the cold.
We woke up the next morning to horses outside on the other side of the gate! We put our belongings onto the bus and headed over for our last event, the horseback riding in the grasslands. Getting the helmets was easy, but that was probably the easiest part of this whole venture. It came time to get onto the horses and you are being yelled at by a bunch of different men on which horse to choose. You don’t speak the language, so you have no idea what they are yelling at you or why. I tried to follow Korey and Calvin to a bunch of horses, but they got snatched up pretty quickly. Luckily Korey and Calvin got their desired horses and I tried to walk up to a larger one that no one was near. Well this horse was WAY bigger than the Mongolian ponies. I could not get on this thing and the men in charge of the horses were loud and rude. Our group had over 70 people and the rest of them were on the horses and gone before I was able to get on my horse. Myself and a kid that had never ridden a horse before were at the end but caught up after 20 minutes.
Even though we were bundled up in our winter gear, the wind on the grasslands was brutally cold. I kept trying to shield my ears with my scarf but it would just get blown away. We were fortunate that halfway through the ride, we stopped at a yurt for some hot milk water tea (?). It just tasted like hot milk and water but they said it was a tea. While we waited for others to finish their tea, we got to take a few pictures of the untamed grasslands. I had been looking forward to seeing the grasslands, with the grass going as high as my elbows. It was even better because there were some legitimate Mongolian yurts there and some people walking around. We had to get back on the horses and were told that we needed to get back on the same ones, the horse wranglers KNEW who was on which horse. I asked our guide if my husband and I could switch, because he was on a little pony and I was on the giant horse. The guide said it was ok but the horse wranglers disagreed. Apparently, they get paid based on whose horses get ridden and they couldn’t figure out which horse my husband rode. It took a lot of yelling and negotiating between our guide and them for them to let him ride my gigantic horse and to find me a random horse leftover. It worked out though, they assumed I couldn’t ride because I needed a smaller horse and one of the horse owners rode back with my horse attached to his. This guy had us trotting the whole way and it was the most fun part fo the entire ride.
The buses began to head back for our roughly NINE HOUR bus ride back to Beijing. We stopped for lunch and a few pit stops but it was a painful ride back. It was not made clear to me, but about 20 of our group members were aware that they could take a train back to Beijing instead of the bus. They took a DIDI to the train station and made a little more room on the bus, which was a consolation. I found out from another trip goer that this same tour was offered but with trains and I definitely wish we had taken that option. The only real downer of this trip was the roughly 20 hours of bus riding over 3 days. I would recommend the trip activities, BUT TAKE THE TRAIN! Thank you FCN for another great one!