First, a word of advice: if you ever go to Beijing, you need to get hooked up with a group called Culture Exchange Trips (CET). This student-led group organizes trips across China for internationals and Chinese students, and they are amazing. I met some really wonderful people, went to some truly incredible places, and did it all for extremely cheap.
On our first major trip with CET, Nate and I went to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古). Quick briefer on Inner Mongolia: it is, in fact, a part of China, not Mongolia. China kept it when the rest of Mongolia gained independence from China in the early 20th century. Now, the culture of the region – food, language, traditions, etc. – is a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian cultures.
When you’re traveling abroad, hardcore travel is the only way to go. All the CET participants met up at 5 a.m. for the 8-hour bus ride to Inner Mongolia. The bus ride was long and bumpy, which made sleeping difficult. The get-to-know-you activities our group leaders (Amy and Marwan) started also made it difficult to sleep, but that wasn’t as much of a problem because Amy and Marwan were AWESOME. They really made this trip as memorable as it was (in a good way).
When we arrived in China’s northernmost province, we had a family-style lunch (about 10 Inner Mongolian dishes and a massive bowl of rice shared among 10 people at a table) and then headed out to the grasslands for horseriding.
Here’s how it works: You slap a blanket on top of a horse. You slap a tourist on top of the blanket. And then you slap the horse, and the tourist holds on for dear life as she bounces off across the Inner Mongolian prairie.
It was a lot of fun. Halfway through, we stopped at a tent in the middle of the grasslands for milk tea and some traditional Inner Mongolian milk candy before riding back to the main corral.
The next day, the whole group along with Nate, Tuscany, and I headed out to the Gobi Desert. On the bus ride, we got to see the Yellow River – China’s cradle of civilization! Known as “China’s Sorrow”, China historically has a love-hate relationship with this river: its frequent flooding is devastating, but is also the only thing that makes northern China farmable.
From the very touristy desert welcome center, we took a dune buggy into the heart of the desert. Truthfully, this was also rather touristy – it was set up like a county fair. But even the commercialization of a few dunes didn’t detract much from the unique beauty of the desert – just blue sky and yellow sand in all directions.
The sand was surprisingly soft. We walked around for a little bit, took a ride on a dune motorcycle, and finally made our way to the camels.
Out of all the forms of transportation I had experienced in the past few hours – horseback, bus, dune buggy, sand motorcycle – I would pick camel any day of the week. It was like sitting on a really soft, furry beanbag chair with a beanbag backrest. My camel was friendly to me, and the ride wasn’t bumpy at all as it plodded across the sand on its wide hooves. I’m pretty sure I could have slept on that camel’s back.
The next day was our last in Inner Mongolia. We went to the Museum of Inner Mongolia, home of the largest collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils in Asia. Nate and I got this picture next to the most impressive one – it was really quite colossal. There were also a lot of really interesting exhibits on Inner Mongolian history and culture.
After that, we went to another museum, this one more focused on the art of Inner Mongolia.
Attached to the museum was a massive mall-like emporium of extremely expensive Inner Mongolian handicrafts. It was actually rather unsettling – it was a veritable labyrinth of a place, very well-staffed by identically dressed salespeople, and the members of our group were the only people there. Still, the merchandise was very cool – like this wall of swords. Nearly everything cost more than I’m worth, but I did buy several small knives that were on sale for only USD $1 each!
And that was it. After another 8-hour bus ride back, we arrived home just in time for bed. Next up: Nate and I travel south!