INNER MONGOLIA (Hohhot, Xanadu, Gobi Desert)


INNER MONGOLIA is a Chinese province that shares the vast Gobi desert and an immense area of dusty grassland with the country of Outer Mongolia to the north. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Mongolian tribesmen who lived in gers (circular tents also known as yurts), Inner Mongolia is a desolate place with burning hot summers, frigid winters and huge, springtime sand storms that send gravel flying and sandblast cars. The grasslands were home to wild camels and herd of horses, but these are largely gone. These days the Han Chinese outnumber the ethnic Mongolians 6 to 1 and most people live in settlements in houses with tile roofs and mud-walls.

According to one old saying, Inner Mongolia is so barren, that if you want to hang yourself you have to walk a 100 miles to find a tree. Desertification caused by overgrazing, cultivation of the region's marginal agricultural land and erosion of soil by wind and rain has made some parts of the province more desolate than it would otherwise be.

Inner Mongolia map
Reforestation and anti-desertification projects launched after 1949 have had some success. To keep the desert from encroaching on vegetated land, sand dunes have been planted with lattice-like configurations of shrubs to keep them in one place. And, in what has been described as the world's most ambitious reforestation project, land-stabilizing shrubs and trees have been planted in rows across the entire southern part of the province. Stretching from Xinjiang to Heolongjang, this "Great Green Wall" covers a strip of land 4,000 miles in length and protects farmland in northern China from desertification and scouring winds.

Inner Mongolia is one of China's largest and least densely-populated areas. It is not province but an autonomous region like Tibet theoretically set up to give the Mongolians some autonomy. There are 3 million Mongolians living there (twice as many as in 1949) and 19 million Chinese (29 times as many as in 1949). About half of the Mongolians that live in China live in Inner Mongolia. The other half are scattered throughout northwest China. Average disposable income is around $800, about half that of Beijing.

A process of diluting the power of local people with massive migrations of Han Chinese was successfully carried out in Inner Mongolia as it developed and industrialized.Beginning in the 1950s, Inner Mongolia was developed for agriculture. Millions of acres of steppe and desert was plowed under for farm land and water was taken from the Yellow River for irrigation. Many Chinese settlers moved in and it wasn’t long before they outnumbered Mongolians. Towns on the Yellow River were turned into industrial centers with plants to process agricultural and livestock products.

Over times parts of Northeast China have been added to Inner Mongolia. Gansu province contains areas that have traditionally been part of Inner Mongolia.

The Yellow River cuts through northwestern Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia dominates the cashmere industry. Other products include wheat, millet, kaoling, soybeans, sugar beets, iron, coal, salt, soda, sugar and animal products.


Marco Polo in Inner Mongolia: After a three-and-a-half year journey, Marco Polo, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's summer capital, not so far from Beijing, in 1275, when Marco was 21. Word of the Polos journey had been relayed to Kublai Khan by Pony-Express-style messengers. Envoys of the Great Khan reached the Polos in central China. They escorted the Polos for the last 40 days of their trip to Shangdu.

Marco Polo met Kublai Khan soon after arriving in Shangdu. He called the great Khan a "Lord of Lords" and "the most powerful man in people and in lands and in treasure that ever was in the world"---and this was probably no exaggeration.

Marco Polo described great parties hosted by Kublai Khan with as many as 40,000 guests. He reported that the Khan once received "a gift of more than 100,000 whites horses very beautiful and fine" and employed 10,000 falconers and 20,000 dog handlers.


Hohhot (12 hours by train from Beijing) is the capital of Inner Mongolia. It looks like a typical Chinese city with wide roads, cycle lanes and squares. In old city you can find ancient mosques, white-bearded Muslims and markets filled with sheep heads and carcasses.

Theroux said it was "not really a city---it was a garrison that had been plunked down in the Mongolian prairie, and every building in it looked like a factory. It had been planned and much of it built by the Russians, but even its newer structures looked horrible." The main landmark is a "Chinese-style" mosque with a curved-tile roofs, red painted eaves and painted clock face permanently showing the time of 12:45.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Maps: China Map Guide China Map Guide China Highlights China Highlights Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Travellerspoint (click China and place in China) Travellerspoint Getting There: Hohhot is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide

Xilamuren Steppe

Xilamuren Steppe (80 kilometers north of Hohhot) located on a 5000-foot-high grassy plateau and is one of the first steppe areas to be set up for tourists, who stay in "yurt-hotels" and enjoy activities such as horse and camel riding and visiting nomad homes. Tourists are also often entertained with traditional Mongolian wrestling matches and camel races and taste Mongolian cuisine which features mutton prepared in a number of ways. At some yurt hotels the yurts are organized around a small central dining hall with a set or portable disco lights, a karaoke machine and sound system.

Gegendala Steppe (160 kilometers north of Hohhot) is another tourist steppe. The yurt-hotels here are cement buildings shaped like yurts. In additions to activities listed above, tourists can ride in donkey and camel carts and participate in a Mongolian version of a wagon train. They also can learn Mongolian archery and attend a nomad bonfire party.


Kublai Khan

Xanadu (320 kilometers northwest of Beijing) was the home of Kublai Khan's summer pleasure palace, immortalized in a poem by Samuel Cooleridge Taylor. All that remains of it are a few acres of mud walls as high as four meters and a few marble blocks. The Mongol name for Xanadu means "City of 108."

Xanadu (Shangdu) was established by Kublai Khan before he established Daidu. Xanadu was destroyed in 1368 and would likely have been forgotten were in not for Marco Polo's accounts of the palace and Samuel Tayler Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan.

Marco Polo estimated the length of Shangdu’s pleasure palace walls to be 16 miles around (Chinese archaeologists have estimated that the true figure is 5.5 miles) and described monasteries of Buddhist "idolaters" who supplied Kublai Khan's court with sorcerers and astrologers.

On Kublai Khan's pleasure palace at Xanadu, Marco Polo wrote: "There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment...Round this palace is a wall...and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of a ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gyrfalcons and hawks...The gyrfalcons alone amount to more than 200.

"At a spot in the park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane. It is gilt all over, most elaborately finished inside and decorated with beasts and birds of very skillful workmanship. It is reared on gilt and varnished pillars, on each of which stands a dragon entwining the pillar with tail and supporting the roof on outstretched limbs. The roof is also made of canes, so varnished that it is quite waterproof." For More on Xanadu, See History, Silk Road, Marco Polo in China.

Genghis Khan


Baotou (four hours by train west of Hohhot) contains one of the largest steel mills in China. Some 170,000 of the city’s two million people work in steel production. In the 1950s a 900,000-pound blast furnace was built to make it a major steel producing center utilizing local iron and coal.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide (click Baotou) Travel China Guide Hotel Web Site: Sinohotel Sinohotel Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Baotou is accessible by air and bus and lies on the main east-west train line between Beijing and Urumqi. Travel China Guide (click Baotou and then transportation) Travel China Guide

Genghis Khan Mausoleum Genghis Khan Mausoleum (accessible from Baotou in southwestern Inner Mongolia) is a 5.5 hectare site that honors the great Mongol leader. Built near a palace where the great Khan used to stay when he was away from his capital, it features three yurt- shaped palaces with yellow- and blue-glaze tile domes that look like samurai helmets. Leading to the gates of each of the building is a flight of steps flanked by pine trees. Yijininhuolou is a white concrete yurt built by the Chinese on the place where Genghis Khan was supposedly buried. Where he is really buried is still a mystery. Web Site: Travel China Guide (click Baotou and then attractions) Travel China Guide


The GOBI DESERT is not really a desert as much as it is a vast, changeless grassland with big thorny bushes, waist-high grasses, stretches of sand, gravel plains, sand dunes, red-rock cliffs, buttes, gullies, rocky canyons, and few trees and settlements. It has some 1000-foot dunes, but mostly it is a rocky, wind-scoured, gravel steppe. Occupying the southern third of Outer Mongolia and the northwestern third of Inner Mongolia, it covers 500,000 square miles, twice the size of Texas, and extends 1,000 miles from east to west, 600 miles north to south.


Gobi is the least populated region outside the polar caps. It would be the world's second largest desert after the Sahara and the northernmost desert in the world, if it were a true desert. Even though its name is Mongolian for "the waterless place" it receives just enough rain to qualify as a semi-desert. Rainfall is often less than three inches a ear. Sand dunes cover only about 3 percent of Gobi.

Much of it like what New Mexico or Arizona would be like if they were cold. Travel writer Paul Theroux, described it as "a bare dusty landscape, with low, stunted-looking trees, and square sides settlements made of smooth mud, and goats and mongrels, and people hacking at furrows and bashing weeds, and here and there the occasional horseman."

The Gobi's aridness is caused by the rainblocking effects of the Altai mountains to the west and Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas some distance away to the south. The Gobi itself lies on a plateau. The average elevation is around 4,000 feet.

Gobi summers are very hot, with huge extremes between night and day. A typical summer day begins with temperatures around 40 degrees F at sunrise. By 3:00pm it is 100 degrees F. The hottest time of the day is around 5:00pm when the 110 degrees F heat is often accompanied by 40 to 50mph gale winds. During the harsh winters, Siberian winds can send the temperature plummeting to -40 degrees F and the landscape is often covered with a thin layer of crusty snow.

Winds howl most of the year and are particularly intense in the spring, when the Gobi is ravaged by periodic fierce sand storms. The great sandstorms in the Gobi are caused by turbulence caused by the collision of massive fronts of cold Siberian wind and hot winds coming up from Southeast Asia. If caught in a particularly nasty wind one should take shelter in a vehicle or ger. Backpacker tents often fly into the sky.

Nomads with gers, goats, Bactrian camels, sheep and horses inhabit many areas of Gobi. Chinese farmers tried to raise wheat and barley on the Gobi in Inner Mongolia but their efforts produced more erosion than food. Gobi wildlife includes wild asses, dzeran (Mongolian black and white tail gazelles), argali (wild sheep), snow leopard, steppe fox, Gobi desert bear, desert ibex, cranes, wild camels, eagles, hawks, and buzzards. There are thousands of gopherlike marmots and black tailed gazelles,

The Gobi is sometimes referred to as “Earth's Greatest Barrier.” In the old days, caravans with 200 camels took as long as nine months to cross it. Marco Polo described the Gobi in his chronicles. In the 1920s, an Englishwoman named Mildred Cable traveled through it in a horse-drawn cart and wrote about her experiences in the Gobi Desert. Today, the Gobi is known as one of world's premier dinosaur hunting sites.


Traveling in the Gobi: There are no roads or towns in Gobi. It consists primarily of endless stretches of gravel and grasslands, with occasion low barren mounds. Travelers often have difficulty finding their way because there are either no tracks or too many tracks to figure out which one to take. Dinosaur hunters often navigate their way around with global positioning devices and directions from nomads.

Travelers are mostly members of organized tours and hire a vehicle with a driver. Hohhot and other places a small group can rent a vehicle for or four or five day trip for $150. The meals are simple dishes made with noodles and rice. Many people sleep in sleeping bags under the stars. Water is drawn from wells were camels and goats drink. Some of the places listed below are not in the Gobi but are on the way there. There have been periodic, isolated outbreaks of the plague in the Gobi. Rabies is not uncommon.

Noisy Sand Bay is a 45 degree slope of sand in the Kubuqi Desert. On a sunny day, when a person slides down the slope with his or her hands stirring up the sand it makes a noise like a plane flying overhead. Three miles away from here is a dense forest with yurt-hotels.

Wudang Lamasery is the largest and best preserved Tibetan monastery in the Inner Mongolia. It covers 20 hectares and contains six temples, three Living Buddha palaces and an altar hall.

Tomb of Zhaojun commemorates a concubine of a Chinese emperor who went Mongolian to marry a chieftain and make peace between the Han Chinese and a horsemen tribe.


Alashan Plateau is a remote region in the Gobi Desert with stunning scenery that is virtually impossible to get to. It contains 1200-foot-high sand dunes, among the largest in the world, interspersed with valleys with spring-fed blue lakes and multicolored salt lakes and yardangs (snake-like rock ridges created by scouring sand-laden winds). For the Chinese government it was an ideal place to set up a missile testing range and desert research institute.

Yumenguan is near some impressive yardangs.

Badain Jaran Desert (western Inner Mongolia) is home of some of the largest sand dunes in the world, up to 500 meters high. It is also very dry, with rainfall of only averaging 40 millimeters a year. It also home to 72 lakes.

In 2004, scientist reported that the sand dunes contain large amounts of moisture. The moisture is often just 20 centimeters below the surface and acts as cohesive agent for the sand and explains how the dunes could get to be so big in an area that is so windy and dry and where the evaporation rate is five times the rainfall amount. The source of the water is snow melt from Mt. Qilian, which lies 800 kilometers away,

The 17,000 square mile sea of mega-dunes is called Badain Jaram or the Miraculous Lakes. The lakes are unique and have rarely been seen. Some lakes are vermillion red from salt-eating bacteria. They people that live here live just like the Mongols of old. They rely on camels and horses for transportation and sheep and goats for meat and wool. Many are practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. The few monasteries that remain have only a handful of monks. Nearly all the people that remain here are old, The young people have moved away. [Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, January 2002]

Gobi dust storm

Khara Khot was a thriving Mongol city, until, according to legend, the Black River was diverted by the Chinese. It is now home to a fortress surrounded by dunes. The 12-foot-thick walls are still standing. They form a 450-meter-wide square. but mostly all that remains of the buildings are foundations.

Heiching in Inner Mongolia is the largest and best-preserved Silk Road archeological site in China. It is known for its 10-meter-high city walls and a pagoda that dates to the Xixiady nasty of 1038-1227. Deterioration of the nearby Juyan oasis has create shifting sand dunes that are in danger of swallowing up the site.

Xi Ujimqin is one of the few regions in Inner Mongolia with a majority Mongolian population. Herding families make up 71 percent of the population.

Ordos, China’s Modern Ghost Town

Ordos, Inner Mongolia is a beautiful modern city. It was built from the ground up in just five years. The streets are clean. And the neighborhoods are quiet. But something is missing. The city was built to accommodate nearly one million people. Yet, no one lives there.

The city of Ordos was a government project. It was likely conceived as an economic stimulus. Building is a sign of economic growth. So, local officials started building. But five years later no one has moved in. It’s a ghost town without any ghosts.

Ordos lies in the deserts of southern Inner Mongolia and near coal-mining area of Shaanxi province. It is home to the world's biggest coal company and the planet's most efficient mine. The extensive coal and gas deposits below Ordos has turned this arid, northern outpost into a boom town. The local economy grew eightfold between 2004 and 2009 while the population has swollen almost 20 per cent.

Ghinggis Khan Mausoleum
Ordos offers some insight into what happens when planned cities don’t work out as planned. Ordos had grown rich suppling coal and minerals to the rest of China. As of late 2010 the average per capita income was around $21,000, the highest in the nation and nearly triple the national average. Kangbashi (near Ordos in Inner Mongolia) is known in China as “the empty city.” Between the 2004 and 2010 it was transformed from two villages in the grassland to cluster of grandiose buildings, including an opera house shaped like two traditional Mongolian hats, a library that resembles three massive books and museum that looks like a giant copper boulder. Many of the units in the apartments blocks have been bought up by investors. The only thing that is missing is people. The city has a capacity of 300,000 people. As of 2010 it had about 30,000.

Bill McKibben wrote in National Geographic, “Ordos may be the fastest growing city in China; even by Chinese standards it has an endless number of construction cranes building an endless number of apartment blocks. The city's great central plaza looks as large as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and towering statues of local-boy-made-good Genghis Khan rise from the concrete plain, dwarfing the few scattered tourists who have made the trek here. There's a huge new theater, a modernist museum, and a remarkable library built to look like leaning books. Coal built this Dubai-on-the-steppe. The area boasts one-sixth of the nation's total reserves, and as a result, the city's per capita income had risen to $20,000 by 2009. (The local government has set a goal of $25,000 by 2012.) It's the kind of place that needs some environmentalists. [Source: Bill McKibben, National Geographic, June 2011]

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4); 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6); 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) poco pico

; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.