When we returned to China in August this year, my family decided to be committed to exploring China rather than remaining in our expat bubble here in Beijing. I really did have good intentions of recording and sharing our adventures, but intentions are one thing . . . and (clearly) our actions might not match them in the long run. But now, here I am, remembering my commitment to record our adventures. The most significant one we took this year I absolutely loved, but it was ages ago, and I have yet to talk about it.
During the China National Holiday in October (yes . . . it’s taken me that long!), my children were released from school for a week and we decided to try something totally new and go on our first road trip in China to the city of Hohhot in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. We really enjoyed our time there. It was nice to see parts of China outside of Beijing where we live, and it was a trip that I would definitely recommend to other expat families here.
We traveled to Hohhot during the first week in October. Though I’d say the October break is a good time to go, this is the last week of the tourism season for Inner Mongolia. Any closer to the winter would be too cold; you would need to wait for the weather to warm up again. While we were there, we needed layers and jackets to stay warm, and there was a cold rain for one morning and one afternoon.
Because it was a national holiday, the toll booths along the highway were open and we did not have to pay any tolls. It was about a six-hour trip to get there and an eight-hour trip to return. Going there, once we passed the Great Wall, the roads were not congested and we were able to move at a steady pace. On the way back, we found ourselves creeping along the highway waiting in line for two hours due to a police check we had to go through.
The quality of the roads were quite good and there were plenty of rest stops along the way. Even though we could have flown there and arrived in about an hour, it was nice to do the long drive. The landscape was interesting—watching how they still harvest the corn in the fields by hand, seeing the factories with their huge smoke stacks billowing out smoke and nestled among the fields and country houses. I like road trips (as long as I don’t have to drive) and we drove through areas of China that don’t often see Westerners. At some of the rest stops, people were so intrigued by my family that they would actually lean into our vehicle pointing at my children and asking me questions I didn’t understand.
Though the driving to the city was pretty uneventful, driving within Hohhot was a unique experience. Overall, the driving within the city of Hohhot is even crazier than the driving within Beijing (if you can believe it). Expect other drivers to do unexpected things that make you scratch your head and wonder what they could possibly be thinking—like, for example, driving on the wrong side of the road at night with no headlights or like taking up two lanes of the road while the driver sits and decides what to do.
We had a GPS that guided us there. This is strongly recommended. Once you reach Inner Mongolia, most road signs will only have names written in Chinese characters and Mongolian writing. There is no Pinyin (the romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese) on the signs.
Hire an English-Speaking Guide if You Can
It’s not very common to see Westerners in Hohhot. In Beijing, even without speaking Chinese, my family can usually figure out how to get into whatever tourist sights we want to go to. That wasn’t the case in Inner Mongolia.
If you don’t speak Chinese (and perhaps even if you do), hiring a tour guide was worth the time and cost. We contacted Chinatravelkey, a tour agency that runs tours throughout all of China. We told them that we were driving to Hohhot and were booking our own lodging, but asked the tour agency if they could provide us with an English-speaking guide who could join us in our own car for two days. The fee was $100 each day. We paid part of it to the agency before we left and then paid our guide, Rocky, the remaining balance at the end of our trip. He spent all day (from 8:00 to 5:00) with us on both days. Without him we would not have known where to go or how to navigate the sights. He was an excellent guide and saved us a lot of time and confusion. He took us to the best places, acted as translator, and even helped us over the phone in the evening when we got stuck at a restaurant and had absolutely no idea what people were telling us.
We spent three full days in Hohhot and hired the guide for two of them. We were on our own our last day there, but our guide gave us ideas of how we might spend that time.
Book early if you want to hire a tour guide. There are not a lot of English-speaking guides in Hohhot.
What We Did
City Tour and Da Zhao Temple:
Our first day, Rocky rode with us in our car and explained the different areas of the city while we drove. He guided us to Da Zhao Temple. The extra history and stories Rocky was able to tell us about the temple and the beliefs represented there made the visit much more worthwhile and interesting. The temple is located in an interesting part of the city. We decided to come back to the surrounding area on our last day to browse the streets and shops. Our guide told us that pickpockets are common in the area and warned us to watch our belongings.
Horseback Riding at Xilamuren Grasslands:
During the afternoon, Rocky directed us to the Xilamuren grassland for horseback riding. This was another instance in which we were thankful to have a guide. No one there spoke English and it would have been incredibly difficult for us to make arrangements and pay for services without him. Also, along the way there were a number of people on scooters trying to get us to go to their own horseback riding services. Our guide knew the best place and knew how to tell the hustlers that we weren’t interested.
I have to confess that I wasn’t enthusiastic about horseback riding. Horses and I don’t tend to get along all that well. The last time I had been on a horse was about ten years earlier in Africa when I fell off while the horse was trotting. I could barely walk for the next two or three days and my back hurt for weeks afterward.
The Mongolian guides are very experienced riders. They basically put the tourists on horses and “herd” those horses for an hour-and-a-half or two-hour ride through the grasslands, calling out commands to the animals as they move along. You don’t need to know how to steer a horse, but the riders don’t understand just how novice some people might be with riding. They assume you are comfortable trotting. Don’t expect the pace to be a slow meandering walk the whole way. It won’t be. I was basically gripping the metal bar on the saddle the entire time praying that none of us would fall off and thinking, “Good God! How could anyone enjoy this?” I didn’t fall off this time, but my legs were sore and my butt was bruised for the next couple days.
The riding place where we went required the adults to wear helmets, but they didn’t have child-sized helmets, so the kids had to go without. Overall, it probably wasn’t the safest thing for us to do, but it all worked out okay for us in the end. Our guide told us that the place he took us to was the safest place to ride, saying that the other places are known to have “wild” horses. If that’s true, I’m certainly glad we didn’t find out what the “wild” horses were like.
The children were not allowed to ride on their own. Both of my children were required to ride in front of their own Mongolian rider. The kids loved this because it meant they went faster and maneuvered around the herd of horses like the adult tourists could not. They got jostled and bumped around a lot, but they seemed to be thrilled with the whole thing.
We made a few stops along the way—at a Mongolian prayer sight and at a Mongolian home that had a tea house.
The next day we went to the Xiangshawan Desert Resort in the Kubuqi Desert. This was my favorite day. Yes, the resort was very commercialized and touristy. You could argue that the rides were a bit cheesy, but the dunes were beautiful. My children exhausted themselves playing in the sand. And my kids love cheesy shows and rides. They tend to do best in the tourist-trap sort of places.
This was about a two-hour drive from Hohhot and was a tiring day, but definitely worth it. This was my favorite day of our trip to Inner Mongolia.
Inner Mongolian Museum:
My six-year-old son has been obsessed with dinosaurs for quite some time. When he found out we were moving to China, all he could talk about for months was how many dinosaur bones they find in the Gobi Desert, so when we found out there was a museum in Hohhot that had some good dinosaur displays, we were sure to take him there.
The Inner Mongolian Museum has a wide range of displays ranging from dinosaur bones to aerospace science and technology. If you have a passport, you can enter the museum for free, but (because there aren’t as many signs in English) it took us a while to figure out where to get the free tickets and how to get in. The displays inside are interesting and the kids had a lot of fun, but the English explanations are sometimes okay and other times a bit lacking. Overall, this was a relaxing way to spend our last morning in Hohhot.
Because we drove to Hohhot, we took a lot of food with us. The rest stops along the way did have food to buy, but when I don’t know what to expect, I usually pack healthy food I know my family will like. I’m glad I did. There was a small refrigerator in the hotel room where we stayed and the food that we brought served as our breakfasts. We had our lunches at the cafeteria-style restaurants at the parks we went to during the day.
For dinner, we had our guide recommend a Hot Pot restaurant in the city. It was absolutely delicious, but ordering was an adventure. Don’t expect restaurant staff to speak any English or to provide you with an English menu. The staff was wonderfully polite and patient with us as we (the idiot tourists that we were) tried to figure everything out. We used an app that provided us with a VPN so that we could use Google Translate on our phone, but it was a slow process. I’m just thankful that a smile says so much. Our smiles said, “We are so sorry for our incompetence” and their smiles said “Take your time. It’s okay. Your kids are really cute.”
Where We Stayed
Before we left I had a number of friends ask if we planned to stay in a yurt while we were there. I know people who have done this and was told that when you do, you should expect an experience that’s a lot like camping—no running water, an outdoor toilet, and linens that might not be clean. We decided we didn’t want to go the “authentic” route for our stay in Hohhot, so we opted to stay at the Sheraton Hohhot Hotel. Everything we did was a day trip from there. Even if it made for some long rides to get to our destination for the day (like the two-hour drive to the desert), it was worth it. We had a comfortable stay there.
Overall Experience and Other Things to Expect
Overall, this has been my favorite adventure in China so far. I have to confess that I didn’t really want to go at first. My hubby is the one who picked the destination for our October break and when he said he wanted to do it as a road-trip I doubted that it was a good idea. I’ve heard mixed reviews from friends who have gone to Inner Mongolia, some of them even saying that they came back early because they were disappointed. I think the key differences for us, though, were that we opted to stay in a hotel rather than a yurt with an outside toilet (never fun to use, especially when it’s so cold outside) and because we had hired an English-speaking guide who was such a big help. Based on my own experience, this is definitely a trip I would recommend to other expat families. (I’d maybe skip the horse-riding though if you’re not comfortable with horses.)
I’d like to stress, however, that you should be prepared that no one will be able to speak English to help you (except your English-speaking guide and the hotel staff if you stay at a major hotel).
Also, be prepared to be a novelty among the general population there. It doesn’t help that my daughter is so blonde. When we went to the museum, I stood back behind my family to observe how others were reacting to us. There were as many people taking pictures of my children as there were people taking pictures of the museum exhibits. As we walked through the mall, I did the same thing. People were craning their necks to see my family walk by.
Sometimes it felt like we were being followed by a paparazzi. There were countless strangers touching my children and wanting to take selfies with them. My kids tend to be good sports about this, but there always comes a certain point when my daughter has had enough. Now that she’s a bit older, she’s decided her “defense” against this is sticking out her tongue or acting wild and silly. I’m not sure that this reaction is better than the crying she used to do. My point is that the lack of personal boundaries can be frustrating. Everyone is friendly and they really mean no harm. They see themselves as one person; they don’t understand that they are the hundredth one-person to touch or ask for a selfie with the cute blonde girl.