Baotou in Inner Mongolia offers blue skies, pristine nature and cultural discovery for the adventurous traveller.
Draped in fluttering prayer flags, incense sweetening the brisk alpine air, a wander among its prayer halls and monks’ residences is a uniquely spiritual experience.
A few miles out of Baotou, the largest city in Inner Mongolia, we saw our first yurts. Hugging the rolling foothills of the Yin Mountains, a snow-dusted plateau that cuts a 1,000-kilometre swathe through the province, these cosy, portable homesteads have endured here since the days of Genghis Khan.
Ours was a pilgrimage to somewhere far grander and more permanent. The Wudangzhao Lamasery, in a lonely mountain valley 70 kilometres north of Baotou, is the largest Tibetan Buddhist temple in Inner Mongolia. Constructed 250 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it owes architectural and spiritual allegiance to the magnificent Tashilhunpo Lamasery in Tibet, founded by the first Dalai Lama in the 15th century. Draped in fluttering prayer flags, incense sweetening the brisk alpine air, a wander among its prayer halls and monks’ residences is a uniquely spiritual experience. It’s still home to about 60 maroon-robed monks who study the scriptures every morning at dawn, long before the first tourists arrive.
The Wundangzhao Lamasery is one of many reasons why Baotou is increasingly the target of tourists from China and beyond. With fresh air and nature in abundance, it’s a land of sweeping grassland vistas and blue skies. Situated on the fertile plains of the mighty Yellow River, the city developed as a settlement relatively recently; its abundant wildlife made it a centre for the fur trade in the 19th century.
More than 2,000 years earlier, this green and cloudless land was so prized that one of the earliest of China’s Great Walls was built to defend the kingdom of Zhao during the Warring States period. Remains of these ancient battlements can still be found, an almost imperceptible scar of tamped earth cutting through the Yin Mountains. Returning to the city after our visit to the Wudangzhou Lamasery, we stopped at a statue of a mounted warrior, King Zhao himself, erected in modern times by the roadside to mark a stretch of his wall. Now little more than a raised path on the landscape, revealed by a crown of snow, it stretches for miles over the empty plateau.
Today, the city has grown prosperous from steel production and rare-earth minerals, with wide, leafy boulevards and an unhurried pace of life. However, the grassland doesn’t stop at the city limits. It boasts its own unique expanse of ‘inner-city grassland’, a green haven for walkers and cyclists, and home to hundreds of deer that give Baotou (‘place of deer’ in Mongolian) its name. The Saihantala Inner City Grassland also features yurt restaurants serving traditional nomad dishes and a ski hill in the winter months.
A short taxi ride from this unique public space is Shangri-La Hotel, Baotou, the city’s most luxurious accommodation, its upper floors on the Horizon Club level affording spectacular views north to the mountains. One of the city’s most popular destinations for high-end cuisine, the hotel has two acclaimed dining outlets under the stewardship of Italian Executive Chef Francesco Rizzo, a Chinese speaker and colourful local personality. Xin Café (http://www.shangri-la.com/baotou/shangrila/dining/restaurants/xin-cafe/) dishes up a global spread of gastronomy, while Shang Palace serves Cantonese specialities alongside the hotel’s luxurious take on local cuisine, like meltingly soft Cumin-Spiced Lamb Ribs served on hand-painted wooden trays.
For more everyday fare, most locals start the day with the city’s best-loved breakfast: steamed, golf-ball sized shaomai dumplings filled with lamb, ginger and green onions. Gamey, rich and delicious, they can be found all over town, but the most sought-after have pastry skins so thin that they are almost translucent. A steamer of shaomai is almost always accompanied by a pot of zhuan cha (brick tea), a bitter black tea compressed into geometric slabs that is favoured by nomadic people over the centuries for its taste, health benefits and portability.
While Baotou is rightly acclaimed for its shaomai, lamb hotpot shines as the city’s greatest culinary star. Baotou is home to the original Little Sheep Hot Pot restaurant, now a global culinary brand with outlets as far afield as the US, Japan, the UK and South Korea. However, most Baotou locals swear allegiance to the newer Xiao Wei Yang chain; families and friends visit in droves for the delectable lamb and beef, sliced wafer thin and cooked at the table along with countless other fixings in cauldrons of bubbling soup.
After a hearty Inner Mongolian feast, the natural landscape around Baotou provides ample opportunities to burn off the calories. A short drive south across the Yellow River, the Xiangshawan Desert is a vast, sandy playground known as the ‘singing sands’ that produces a peculiar noise – some say like a car engine, others croaking frogs – when disturbed; scientists don’t yet understand why. Thrill-seekers can slide down the soaring 90-metre-high dunes on sleds. There are also camel and horse rides for a more sedate sand dune experience.
Though theirs is a thriving modern city, Baotou folk are proud of the region’s nomadic past and its close association with the landscape. The city manages to strike a pleasing cultural balance between the largely Han Chinese population and its Mongol roots. Street signs and shops are inscribed with both Chinese and Mongolian, but there’s an even bigger clue that shows folk here hold the local customs close to their heart: they take salt with their tea, a practice unheard of almost anywhere else in China. Another reason that makes Baotou just that little bit special.
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What a great! I didn't know "The Wudangzhao Lamasery", also have a mystic atmosphere... would like to go very much, but take a long drive from hotel.