I have friends who used to work in Alaska fish factories in the summers. They would drive from Utah to Anchorage and we used to joke it was like Driving to Russia. It seemed an impossibly long distance to drive. The phrase “Driving to Mongolia” conjures up similar notions and even though it’s a scant 450 kilometers north of Beijing, the route is circtoutous, the roads are not always that great; You can guarantee you won’t be driving 100 km/h the entire time. Our destination was the BaShang Grasslands in Inner Mongolia, just across the border from Hebei Provincial border.
One of the interesting problems with driving in China in general and especially the grasslands area of BaShang is that the roads are very new. Petter Hessler writes in Country Driving : “Beginning in 2003, the government embarked on a major two-year construction campaign in the countryside, paving 119,000 miles of rural roads. During that two-year span, the People’s Republic built more country roads of asphalt and cement than it had during the previous half century“. Since that time construction has continued unabated. Often times the roads are too new for Google Maps or even a GPS purchased in China loaded with Chinese maps. A few years ago there was gravel and now there is blacktop. Knowing which way to go in these conditions is not easy. Even with friends along who speak Chinese, and even from China, we still had difficulty. Asking local’s for directions is also unproven as often they aren’t sure how to get to where your going as they’ve never ventured far from their area. All of this adds to the adventure, after all its as much about the journey as it is the destination.
We planned on departing Thursday evening from Beijing after work at 4:30 pm. Wednesday I’d come down with diarrhea. Of all the places you don’t want to have “the runs” China is one of them. Public toilets are most often nothing more than a cement hole in the ground. This is typical when your camping, but this is at every place in China from the restaurants to the gas stations; especially as you get outside of the major cities. Of all the activities you can imagine under taking with such a condition, camping is also low on the list. I stayed home from work on Thursday and rested and slept in hopes of improving my condition. We were joined on our trip by Zhang Chao, a friend of his Haibing and the Morris’s who we’d met at Church. As we departed Thursday felt around 60% of normal. I had my license for just over couple of weeks and I’d done one solo drive up to the Great Wall, for an overnight camping trip but I was feeling week and I let Zhang Chao drive. After passing the 5th ring road traffic lessened and we flew up the JingCheng Expressway and arrived in Chengde in a couple of hours. We checked into Super 8 (Chao said he was disappointed in the quality and I told him it was pretty much what I expected) and after settling in I went straight to bed.
Friday we woke and were up and fed at the hotel breakfast buffet (fried rice, pumpkin, steamed buns and hard boiled eggs) by 8am. It took another 30-45 minutes of wrangling to get everyone gathered up and we walked down the road a few blocks to the entrance to the Mountain Resort. In the last dynasty (Qing) the emperors would travel north in the summer to Chengde to escape the heat of Beijing. They built a huge imperial garden (5.6 square km) with a wall around its perimeter and a summer palace. There are large grounds with lakes, and pathways and buildings. The palace and grounds are “ok”, I didn’t find them all that impressive. Some of that could be that I still didn’t feel 100%, and that we probably only saw 3% of the entire grounds. What was impressive and I’d go back for again were the outlying temple compounds, 8 of them, that are built to the north of the compound in the foothills. The two most impressive were the Puning Temple, which houses the world’s largest wooden Buddha and the Putuo ZongCheng with its Great Red Pavilion that is modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet. Both of these could require at least a 1/2 day to adequately explore. We only spent 90 minutes at Puning before heading north for Inner Mongolia.
Driving to Mongolia
First things first terminology. We were headed for the grasslands north of Chengde. Many of these are actually located in Hebei Province, but the section we were heading for was across the border in Inner Mongolia. Chinese don’t typically refer to it as Inner Mongolia just as Mongolia. They also can’t understand why you’d want to visit Mongolia proper when you can just go to one that is in China. Needless to say from their perspective, as they are taught in text books this area has always been an integral part of China. Just as most people are taught that Hawaii and Alaska are naturally part of the United States. Today over 80% of the population in Inner Mongolia is comprised of ethnically Chinese with 17% being Mongolian. The majority all speak Mandarin, the common binding language that is the core of Chinese culture.
Secondly it is very confusing finding decent information on the internet about what exactly is the name of the place we were going to. Most of it is in Chinese and difficult to follow. What is in English uses terms are overlapping, sometimes used interchangeably and often translated differently. As far as I can tell : The general area of the grasslands is known as the Bashang (literal translation is dam) Grasslands, these are also often called Mulan Weichang (see untranslatable website : http://www.mulanweichang.com/) . WeiChang means hunting ground and this sometimes translated as Paddock, so you’ll also see the term Mulan Paddock. The area is also listed as Mulan Weichang National Forest Park in Wikipedia article on the protected areas of China. There are also several other smaller national forests/parks within the larger Mulan Weichang area, such as Saihanba. Confusingly enough there is also a town called WeiChang though its not really in the BaShang/Mulan Weichang Grasslands but merely on the way. There also a myriad of other teeny little towns within the grasslands themselves that you can stay in at a local hotel. Needless to say there isn’t a straightforward description to be found on the internet (at least not one I could locate). There are no maps with defined borders of these areas. And theoretically you can also camp, but again no clear guidelines on this either. There are also a ton of different websites offering tours of the BaShang Grasslands/Mulan Weichang but none of these are very informative on exactly where your headed either.
So in the beginning none of us were a 100% sure where we were headed and which road to take exactly. Our first destination was the town of WeiChang. I was relying on Zhao and the new Garmin GPS that I had purchased. I had found in driving that while Google Maps on the iPhone is very very good, it doesn’t give great directions. First of all they are in Chinese, since my phone was purchased in Beijing and secondly even with the map its very hard to figure out which side road to get on and off of to get on to the major ring roads. At some intersections, like the JinTong Expressway interchange at the 3rd Ring Road, iPhone Maps is like staring at a trace of spaghetti on 2-D plane. But as I was to find out on this trip the Garmin can give great directions from point to point but it’s not easy to zoom out and get a context of where your heading and which direction your traveling in. If you’ve never used an iPhone and maps you won’t understand, but if you have you’ll immediately know the gesture of zooming out to see “where to” and then zooming in to see “where your at”. Sadly I still didn’t have an iPhone car charger so I was in “conserve-battery-mode” and I didn’t record a GPS track of our route. This was a mistake that cost us 2 hours on our return and a step I’d highly recommend, the intersections and turns are not always straight forward. With a GPS to guide us and a way to double check with the iPhone it would have been even tougher than it was.
After the fact I’ve made a Google Map that shows the driving route we took and the major points along the way. We had identified a guide that Zhao had found on-line who would meet us at the town of WeiChang and lead us to Mulan WeiChang. The GPS took us on S254 to the north east of Chengde to WeiChang, alternatively it looks like you could take S256 through DaMiaoZhen but we never were on that road. The S254 is not a good road, at least as of June 2011; it’s bumpy, full of pot-holes and often gravel in spots. The route is 140 kilometers and it took us around 2 hours to make that distance. From there you would “normally” head north to Mulan Weichang. But entrance into the grasslands requires a ticket : 175 per person, with 12 people this would be a very steep entrance fee. (2100 RMB or $323 USD). However our guide took us west to the town of Dàhékǒu (大河口) through the west entrance to the park. He had connections (关系 guānxì) at the crossing we were able to pass through for a carton of cigarettes. We drove into the town of Ulan (as in Ulanbator the capital of Mongolia) were we pulled into a small hotel called Another Village (又一村 yòu yī cūn). The owners were extremely nice, their phone number is : 1383145136 or 13731421832.
The entire town was pitch black when we arrived including the hotel. They said they usually have electricity but it often goes out for unknown reasons or maintenance. We didn’t feel like finding a campsite and setting up in the middle of the dark so we opted to spend our first night at the hotel. The fact that the rooms had private sit down western toilets pretty much sealed the deal. I was actually shocked to find such accommodations, especially so far out in the middle of nowhere. We had already planned out meals though so we pulled out the stoves and Kent started cooking up Chilli for dinner. Rebecca had forgotten a can opener; we asked the owners if they had one and they had nothing. In fact Chao didn’t seem to even know what one was. In China there just isn’t really any canned food. Everything is bought fresh at local markets, and cooked fresh that day, to order. The few things that I saw preserved were in bags or plastic bottles. Only at western grocery stores would you actually find cans of food. So using the knife blade on my gerber multi-tool I opened the cans of beans and tomatoes. The owners and guide gathered around us, unsure of what to make of a bunch of foreigners fixing food in the dark on portable stoves. They powered up their generator and we ate inside in their restaurant. Chili never tasted so good.
Camping in Mongolia
I was tired and still not feeling 100% so using candles we all went to our beds and settled in for the night. Given how hard the beds in Chinese hotels usually are (rock hard), I brought Stac’s and I’s pads in and inflated them. I didn’t want another night of sore hips. The next morning my alarm went off at 3:45 am and I was up and out the door by 4am. My plan was to drive back down along the road to a small lake we’d passed on our way in. But the inner courtyard where we had parked for the night was locked and there was no one stirring inside the house. I just put my two cameras underneath the gate and climbed over the side. The town of Ulan is quite small, its only two main streets with 4-5 cross streets. I walked out of town (only takes about 5 minutes) towards the grasslands. I saw a group of horses grazing and made my way toward them. Surprisingly they seemed nonplussed by my presence and let me walk within 5 feet of them.
As I was waiting for the light to break over a distant hill and trying to work out some compositions with the horses in mind I heard a motorcycle off in the distance; a man was herding a distant group of horses by motorcycle with a well placed yell now and then. After pushing them near the road he came towards me, waved and then herded my subjects off with the rest of them. I guess the new “steed” of modern Mongolia is the motorcycle. As the light finally spilt out across the grasslands, my shadow lit out long across the prairie. I was overcome with an almost surreal giddy sensation that one of my dreams of coming to China and seeing Mongolia was actually coming to pass. As I walked back into town across a hilltop it truly felt after a long long day of driving the day before that we were out there, like way “National Geographic” out there.
5:30 am with sun brightly lighting up the day, the town of Ulan was already well on its way to waking up. People were sweeping the streets, morning busses rolled into town blaring their horns a half a dozen times announcing their arrival and imminent departure. Ten years ago the village only had three families living in it, now its a town of 5-6 streets with a few hundred families, a gas station, dozens of shops and a soon to open Crouching Dragon Hotel. I wandered back into the courtyard and started prepping for breakfast burritos : chopping onions and peppers. At 6:59:45 am a loudspeaker tuned to some radio station started counting down and chimed it was 7am and then kept on blaring some talk show all across the town. I guess no one gets to sleep in past 7 in Ulan. Kent soon joined me and we had the sausage cooking. The cheese was grated and eggs added. We served up some tasty burritos and then began packing to head out for the day.
The goal for the day was to locate and set up camp for the day and let the kids play around. Unfortunately our guide who was supposed to meet us at 8 had other things to take care of in the morning and wouldn’t meet us until later. Later we came to find out he had a chance to rent out one of his SUV’s for the day and had been waiting in line. Meanwhile we drove out of town a short distance and drove the vans across the dirt road onto a hillside. Bluebird skies were full of huge white puffy clouds that stretched out endlessly in front of us. The wind was blowing strong and the clouds were rolling over the hillsides. We got out and walked around enjoying the beautiful scenery. Amazing how much Mongolia looked like Montana, high plains and big sky.
We drove to another location that had a lake. The road was predictably blocked to cars but you could rent one of their SUV’s for 500 RMB a day, or one of their horses to go down to the lake. No thanks. So we headed out on another road seeing if we could reach another lake that should have open access. The road abruptly ended and we thudded off the end of the pavement onto the gravel and the ruts began. We turned around again and headed up yet another road. By now I was getting frustrated with the random driving around searching for a campsite. Everyone said : “You can camp anywhere”, just dont drive on the grassland (unless there is a road). But there weren’t any real designated campsites. Sometimes there were fences, where there was private land and other times everything was open. We finally parked on a small hill and let the kids out to run around while we waited for them to locate the guide who could better advise us on the location. Eventually the guide arrived he said we could camp at the spot we were but that it might be a little windy and that in the morning the cows and sheep would probably pass by and it could be loud. He suggested we camp on a friends farm next to a lake. When we inquired how far he said 10 kilometers+ (meaning 10 or more), when I asked for more precision if it was 10 or 20 he replied : we’ll maybe 20, no one can say for sure there aren’t great measurements but it wouldn’t take more than 30 minutes driving.
We decided to give it ago and we all piled back into the cars and set off again. We drove across paved roads and then turned off on a gravel road through a small settlement and then just set off driving across the grasslands. I guess its ok to drive on the grasslands if your following a local guide, road or no. At times the “road” became deeply rutted grass furrows where I had to carefully balance the right or left wheels on the upper side of the rutt to keep from bottoming out. Other times the “road” turned to rocks and hardpan and I teetered up and over seemingly unpassable precipices. Finally after about 25 minutes I came down a hill onto a particularly bumpy section of road with deep rocky rutts. “I knew this was a bad idea, I am going to mutiny” yelled Stacey. I have this bad habit of pushing my family just to the edge of insanity in my attempts to get to locations out of the beaten path be it 40 miles on a dirt road through Canada to put the boat in at Ross Lake, or a 3 mile hike in the mud to get to Shi SHi beach or a 20 mile drive down a bumpy gravel road to Tucquoala Meadows in the dark.
At just that moment we came up the hill and we could see the lake in the distance. We drove to the shore and stopped on the bluff a few hundred yards from the farmers two houses. The water rippled in the wind as the big white clouds blew across the horizon that stretched out forever. Cows and horses grazed on the other end of the lake. This place also had livestock and wind, but I’ll admit the view was pretty sweet. One of Stac’s big concerns camping out is having a private location for a bathroom. Nothing but grass and sky here, but there was a bluff towards the lake. Our guide got a shovel and dug a nice pit toilet into the hillside where you could have a bit of privacy when taking care of business.
We set up our tents and the kids set off exploring. Playing in the water, using sticks to fight battles. Dane even found an abandoned empty tire that he rolled across the prairie and into the lake. After setting up camp the lake beckoned. Given my penchant for jumping into cold water. I dared Chao to join me and Kent was game. On 3 we ran into the water and dove in. Cold and refreshing, but way warmer than an ice cold lake in the mountains of Seattle. As evening arrived our guide delivered to us a whole roasted lamb with a couple of vegetable dishes. The food was delicious, though on the the 30 minute drive out of town it cooled down quite a bit. The guide brought over a half barrel full of wood for a fire and we roasted the leg of lamb over the fire along with fixings for smores.
As the sunset waned, the light slowly ever so slowly faded across the long flat horizon, we sat around the fire laughing and telling ghost stories until the kids got freaked out. Miles had originally planned on sleeping in a tent by himself but announced he’d now be sleeping with me. We sung camp songs as the sliver moon slowly sunk behind the hill, the sky turned inky black and a million stars appeared overhead and the milkyway shone bright. Some constellations were new, some familiar though they were all upside down from our normal view; the big dipper hung upside down directly overhead. The kids were tired and we made our way to bed. I stayed up for 30 minutes or so taking star photos before heading to bed.
Given my experience on yesterday’s Dawn Patrol, I set my alarm for 3:30 am. Out on the flatlands, sunsets last forever and sunrises come even earlier. I woke up to dark sky above and below split in between by a ribbon of light that grew brighter by the minute. The lake was still, the wind was gone as I watched the world wake up. The sunrise show was pretty much all over by 5am and so I went back into my tent to go back to sleep. By 7:30 am the sun was fairly high in the sky and the tent was hot. We woke up and had pancakes for breakfast and then slowly worked on breaking down camp. On our way back into Ulan, we stopped at the farmers and paid them 300 rmb : 200 to camp and a 100 for the fire and wood. We headed back to the hotel to settle up with the guide and hotel owner for their services. The guide was 400 to lead us into the park without paying entrance fees and a 100 to guide us to the campsite and arrange everything. The hotel rooms cost us 120 rmb a night and the lamb was a 1000 rmb. (We could have done with only 1/2 a lamb but its hard to slaughter just a half of lamb).
As we headed out of town we stopped at a local store to ask directions for which road led back to Beijing. With an assurance we headed out of town driving down the blacktop roads. The roads are narrow black strips that wind through the grasslands, around the gentle hills that grace the landscape. They are just wide enough for two cars, and there are often sections under repair where the potholes have been filled and the road is still curing. To prevent people from driving over these sections they will leave a large pile of rocks in front of the repair. You spend time weaving around these repairs, along with the occasional herd of cows, sheep or horses. 45 minutes into our drive out of Ulan the scenery wasn’t looking too familiar, we’d arrived in the dark and we stopped on a steep hillside to ask some farmers, who were picking ferns, if this road led to Beijing. Yes they replied just keep on going. A quick check on the iPhone map showed we were heading north and this road didn’t lead anywhere close to Beijing. Sadly we turned around to retrace our path to Ulan where we finally got on the right road heading south back to Beijing. I suppose to someone who has never been all roads lead to Beijing.
The Morris’s, Chao and Haibing all wanted to return to Beijing that evening. We were tired of driving and I wanted to see more of Chengde so we separated. We arrived back in Chengde at 8:30 and checked into a nicer hotel and got some dinner and a shower. The next day we visited the Putuo ZongCheng Temple with its Great Red Pavilion that is modeled after the Potala Palace in Tibet. Afterwards we got some fried noodles for lunch and headed back to Beijing. Two last driving adventures, the GPS showed a adjacent road that led to the JingCheng Expressway as we reached the end just before the on-ramp the road was under construction and we had to detour. We drove down toward the river where a huge bridge sat unused, unconnected and led to nowhere. We had to follow the river and make a hair pin turn to finally get on the freeway. As we passed through tunnel after tunnel heading back to Beijing we started running low on gas. I punched in “gas” on the iPhone maps and sure enough the next exit showed gas. We exited and paid our toll (many freeways in Beijing’s are toll roads) and drove to the gas station. After filling up we retraced to the exit only to be informed that you could get off but not get back on. So back into town and past the gas station we drove down narrow village lanes until we finally came to an onramp back to the freeway.
In another hour we were back home to our home away from home to relax and repack everything back in its place. Mongolia had been visited and we’d grown to know the place a bit better; I hope this blog helps someone else experience the great grasslands to the north. The world is shrinking, China is shrinking and before too long you can tell that the crowds will come even to Mulan Weichang.