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Getting in Steppe

This off-the-beaten-track northern city provides a perfect gateway for adventures in the grasslands and deserts of Inner Mongolia

By Michael Jones Updated Oct.1

Horqin Prairie, the vast grassland in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, is a fascinating tourist spot

Xilamulun Park, Tongliao, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, July 3, 2015

China has numerous world-famous cities, regions, and tourist attractions, all of which are well worth visiting. However, in order to get a real feel for China and its varied interesting cultures, one needs to step off the beaten tourist path. I was fortunate enough to spend a week in the Inner Mongolian city of Tongliao, and was able to discover a fascinating, almost magical, world, which few international tourists are lucky enough to enjoy.  

Tongliao, an area in the far east of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, has a continental steppe climate, which provides long cold winters but also relatively hot and humid summers. That being said, summer temperatures are very comfortable. As Tongliao experiences less tourism than cities such as Inner Mongolia capital Hohhot, there are fewer hotels that can accept foreigners, and few that offer luxuries. Likewise, not many people speak English. However, for precisely the same reason, the locals go above and beyond to support strangers, and it is highly likely that you will be offered free food and drinks when frequenting bars and cafes by friendly locals keen to talk to you, learn about you, and find out why you are in Tongliao. I was even offered a job as an English teacher while I was randomly enjoying a beer there. 

City Sights 
The few tourists that venture to Tongliao typically do so as part of a journey to the natural landscapes of Inner Mongolia. Nevertheless, the actual city of Tongliao is well worth your time. The city center is Xilamulun Park, which is connected to Dalelin Temple. Both the temple and park are remarkably well cared for, and easily match the best parks and temples of more famous Chinese cities, yet they have one huge advantage – they can be enjoyed in peace and tranquility. The park includes a large lake surrounded by immaculate flower beds, forested areas and lily-covered ponds. The temple, which has undergone major renovation, includes a magnificent Buddha and spectacular prayer halls.  

Other highly regarded attractions within the urban area of Tongliao itself include the Inner Mongolia Khorchin Museum, Jirem Union Museum, and Xingyuan Temple. The Inner Mongolia Khorchin Museum moved to the current site in 2003, and contains a large collection of cultural relics. There are, of course, numerous relics from assorted Chinese periods and dynasties. However, perhaps unique is the section on tomb excavation. The museum itself has been at the forefront of archeology in the region, and as such is able to display a rich account of local history. 

Milk and Balls 
Ethnically, Tongliao is almost perfectly divided between Han and Mongol communities, and this is mirrored in the diversity of available cuisine. The region is the proud home of the Khorchin Mongolian culture and dialect, and there are some high-quality restaurants offering authentic local delicacies served in traditional yurts with accompanying music and dancing. It is common for visitors to be encouraged to wear traditional Mongolian costume, and while it may feel a little like cultural appropriation to a Western mindset, the locals seem genuinely honored when international visitors are willing to wear their traditional clothes, eat their traditional food, and join in traditional customs.  

Dairy produce features prominently in the local diet, especially butter, cheese, sour milk and most famously of all Mongolian milk tea. There are assorted lamb and mutton dishes including Mongolian hotpot, roast lamb, instant-boiled mutton, cooked mutton, and finger mutton, although even as a vegetarian I was not disappointed. My top recommendation are the unbelievably fragrant and delicious fried vegetable balls made with a local wild allium – the genus of plants that includes garlic and chives. These balls resemble falafel but with a stronger, richer flavor. I’m convinced that they would dominate the Western world’s music festivals and hipster communities given half a chance. The balls were almost worth the trip alone. 

Access to Nature 
No trip to Tongliao is complete without spending time enjoying nature. One of the most popular local destinations is the Daqinggou National Nature Reserve near Horqin Left Rear Banner. The nature reserve includes numerous walking paths of various difficulty levels. While not exactly roughing it they allow easy access to beautiful scenery, without any risk or severe challenge. The area itself is mountainous and forested, which is a refreshing change to the open grasslands and desert landscapes common in the region.  

The reserve offers fun and family friendly activities, including horse riding and whitewater rafting. The rafting course takes up to 90 minutes, with two people per raft, dragged naturally and gently along the river from the top of the valley to the bottom, with periods of still water and rushing currents. The journey can be peaceful in places, but be prepared to get very wet.  

Another brilliant attraction outside of urban Tongliao is Princess Xiaozhuang’s Palace. Although relatively small, it is very well designed and set out, with informative halls, well restored rooms, courtyards, apartments, and even an archery area. Princess Xiaozhuang was a Mongolian princess who traveled far from her homeland to marry a Manchu Emperor, who changed the name of his regime from Houjin to Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty. With her help, her son Shunzhi and grandson Kangxi laid the foundation for a long period of prosperity in Chinese history. The palace is located between the Zhurihe Grasslands and the city of Tongliao proper. For this reason it is a perfect rest stop on a regional road trip. Indeed, the journey through small towns, villages, farmland and expanses of wilderness is almost as fascinating as the palace itself. However, some of the roads are more than a little worn, to say the least. It happened to rain during our journey, leading to localized flooding, severe potholes disguised as mere puddles, and the abundant dust turning into sludge. In an appropriate vehicle such weather might add to the experience of adventure, however my host’s immaculate, recently polished sports car suffered a little trauma!  

Other highly regarded natural areas to visit in the Tongliao region include Moli Temple Desert Reservoir, the magnificent grasslands of Zhurihe Ranch, and Naiman Palace. Many locations around the grasslands and lakes offer activities such as horse riding, quad biking and traditional sports such as archery. Indeed, Inner Mongolia has not escaped the tendency for tourist attractions to merge tranquility with classless plastic tack. However, there is a lot less tack in areas such as Tongliao, and there seems to be a more genuine attempt to enjoy nature for its natural beauty, rather than to smother it with neon additions. Frankly, in a place so sparsely populated, and so full of nomadic tradition, could there really be anything better than the simple bliss of finding a quiet location to stand and stare at a vista of pure nature, unspoiled by man?