I had this wonderful opportunity to visit Inner Mongolia (In China) to experience the majestic grasslands in September of 2017. I traveled to Hulunbuir (呼伦贝尔市). I traveled solo with a car which I drove myself with no knowledge of Chinese and no hotel bookings. Information about this part of the world is quite sparse on the (English) internet. I am pretty sure there is a lot of info on Hulunbuir region in Chinese. Hopefully, this blogs helps fellow travelers. Give me a heads-up if you found this useful.
This photo-blog of my travel experience and some practicalities for those who would want to attempt this journey.
Understand that, it is unlikely that you would find anyone who can speak or understand English. In fact, the road signs are mainly in Chinese with Pinyin only on major highways. The best way to get around this is to write down on paper names of all major towns in Chinese and English so that you can match the characters as you drive around this place. For convenience, I have done it and can be downloaded from HERE.
Also understand that as of 2017 Google’s service (including maps, Gmail, search, youtube) are unavailable in mainland China. See my previous blog post on Apps to use in China. Also, I would highly recommend reading Travelwiki for China to understand how things work in China in general.
Understand – Hulunbuir
Located in the north-east of Inner Mongolia and named after Hulun Lake (呼伦湖), Hulunbuir Grassland is one of the three famous grasslands in the world with an elevation of 650 and 700 meters, an area of about 100,000 square meters and natural grassland coverage of 80%. Just for perspective, the entire region of Hulunbuir is about the size of England, so don’t expect to see it all in a few days.
Climatewise, the region is just next to Russia’s Siberia. Extremely cold and long winters and short summers. Winter minimums are in the range -40 Celsius (-40 F). Sunny weather dominates through the year. During my visit in Sept of 2017, the nightly low was already about freezing point (0 degrees Celsius). Although day temperature was about 15 degrees.
I have noticed there is a confusion amongst Chinese people (who are not from this region) about the name. In Chinese, the region’s capital, as well as the region, is called Hulunbuir in Chinese. However, amongst the locals here, the capital is known as Hailar (海拉尔; Hǎilā’ěr) and the entire region is known by Hulunbuir. There are two major urban centers in the region, viz. Hailar (海拉尔; Hǎilā’ěr) and Manzhouli(满洲里; Mǎnzhōulǐ). The main gateway is Hailar Dongshan Airport (IATA: HLD). Regular flights from Beijing, Tianjin, Hohhot, Harbin, Chita (Russia).
How I arranged Car Rental
I feel the most practical and convenient way to get around is by driving. However, if you feel apprehensive about driving yourself, it is also easily possible to get a car with a driver. In my experience, driving in China is not as hard. With some experience, it can easily be done. Driving habits in reality (at least in Hulunbuir) is not as bad as depicted in a lot of other blogs.
I used 1hai (http://en.1hai.cn/) for cars. Apparently, they are quite a big car rental service in China. Their English site has literally no info. Just go to the Chinese site to know more. If you do not want to book online, you can always book from their counter in Beijing Capital Airport. I booked from their counter at Beijing Capital Airport, paid about 250 RMB (~40 USD) per day for the car. Quite convenient. I opted for self-driver, but they also do chauffered cars.
Since China is not a signatory of the international convention on driving licenses, you need to get a Chinese driving license. For a tourist, you can get the provisional driving license from Beijing Capital Airport. Takes less than 30min and 20RMB to get one. See here, for the exact details on it.
So I arrived Hailar Dongshan Airport, with no hotel bookings and no idea where I can go. Although I roughly knew a thing or two on where to go. The car rental person at the airport was nice enough to guide me about where I should go and what the specialty is for each place. Following his advice, my itinerary for 5 days was: Hailar – Erguna – Heishantou – Manzhouli – Lake Hulun – Hailar. About 1000 Km in total. I did not end up going Arxan but seem like it is also an interesting town.
Day1: Hailar (海拉尔) to Erguna (额尔古纳)
The airport is about 2-3 Km from the town center. There is a massive shopping center right next to Ghengis Khan square. Good idea to top up on supplies here. Food is also really good here. After my tummy was done, started driving towards Eraguna (About 130 Km on S201). Along the way scenery was splendid, never before have I seen grasslands this expansive.
After a bit of driving reached Erguna. Very Russian looking town. Found a decent place to stay and headed to look for food. This is rather a small town. Two main streets. Came across this awesome restaurant with Mongolian hotpot on the main street. About 100 RMB per person. The style is slightly different from the usual Chinese hotpot. The food here is mostly lamb dominated.
Day2: Erguna (额尔古纳) – Heishantau (黑山头镇) – Manzhouli (满洲里)
Grasslands along this route is even lusher than the ones between Hailar and Erguna. It looks like a massive cricket field with a road across it. I ended up parking my car somewhere on the highway and started jogging on the fields. Awesome feeling. As I neared Heishantau, I noticed a lot of horse stables.
I randomly walked into one of them and asked if someone can teach me how to ride a horse. These are not tourist-oriented establishments. I managed to convince the person to teach me to ride. He agreed for 200 RMB for a 3-hour lesson. Long story short, I ended up on a 3 hours horse tour. More than 10-15 Km I think. It gets quite scary when the horse gallops.
After a long horse tour, the instructor invited me to his home for lunch with his family. We ended up chatting for 2 hours post lunch. All though google-translate / Wechat. They were a Mongolian family. He refused to accept any money from me for the lunch. A quite hearty lamb meal.
3-hours is a bit short to learn to ride properly. If I get a chance again, I would totally stay in Heishantau for like a week and learn to ride.
After this, I continued to drive towards Manzhouli along the Russian border. This section of road is not marked on Google maps, but it does exist. This section of China-Russia border is literally unguarded.
Day3&4: Manzhouli (满洲里) and Lake Hulun (呼伦湖)
This is really a stunning city. I loved this place so much, ended up spending 2 nights here. It is right next to the Russian border. The architecture is impressively unique. Russian looking building with a unique Chinese charm. The town center is very pretty. A lot of Russians around. On the street seem like 20-30% people are Russians. All boards in Chinese, Russian and Mongolian.
The city is extremely walking friendly. It is a fantastic place to shop for unique Russian wares. Russian styled utensils to Siberian fur caps. Lots of Russian restaurants, Russian styled clubs. It doesn’t feel like China. It gets even prettier by night. I bought a Soviet-era coin. Something very unique I think.
The Matroska doll square is really nice. There is a duty-free shopping area at Russia-China border. But they didn’t let me go there. Chinese and Russians only. Nevertheless can always walk around the doll square.
I stayed at the Manzhouli Super Nine hotel (found it through booking.com). A nice hotel literally in the heart of the town. A lot of food around. I really miss this town. Want to be here again hopefully.
Next day went to Lake Hulun which is a short drive away from town. It is a massive lake (5th largest lake in China). Be sure to try a fish BBQ from a shack near the lake.
Overall, Manzhouli is exotic!
Day5: Stay with Mongol Family at their Farm
As I was driving along the G301, I stopped by at a farm by a lake. I courteously asked them if I can stay with them for a day to experience their way of life. To my surprise, they said YES to me.
They were a joint Mongol family, about 15 people. They were more excited to have me than my excitement to stay at a Mongol farm. Their farm was several kilometers long about a kilometer in width. As far as you could see, just grasslands and far at the horizon windmills. They had 50 horses, 2 camels, and several sheeps. They stayed in those Mongol yurts (Mongu Bao in Chinese). The real ones, not the tourist-oriented ones.
It was extremely windy that day. They took me into their yurt and gave me their Mongolian milk tea, which is prepared from camel’s milk. Interesting beverage, looks pinkish in color. Then they took me on a short horse riding expedition. I got some more tips on horses. It really gets scary when the horse starts to gallop. My instructor’s name was Barthel.
After having a meal with them, we rested a bit. Then they asked me if I wanted to see their camels. Then went for camel riding for a bit. At a certain level, riding a camel is no different than a horse. The command to go faster, slow down, the turn is exactly the same. Only thing is camel is a bit more stable to ride. However, the way to mount a camel is a bit complicated.
After we were back from the camel riding, some of the people from around got dressed up in their traditional dresses to take pictures with me. Celebrity feeling!
Now by evening, they need to take the horses to a nearby lake for drinking water. So my self, Barthel, and his sister, we three on horses along with 20 loose horses and a camel went over to the lake. This is was an amazing experience. The Mongolian life!
Along the way, they both had to constantly rescue me when I let my horse wander off randomly. The thing is if you let loose your grip on the horse it starts to eat grass and starts to take you for granted. It is important to hold a tight grip. After we were back, they let go off the horses for the night. I helped them a bit to undo the horses. Although I don’t know how helpful was I. I am more of a spoilt city bratt.
Their family had prepared a nice hot pot for me for dinner. They were asking me a lot of question about Hong Kong, India, our festivals, family etc. Barthel was a fan of Hong Kong’s jockey club, so he was asking me more on that. Was an interesting experience. The night sky was simply too amazing, absolute beauty. It was cold and windy though. Had another round of pink colored milk-tea and went to sleep.
Woke up next morning like 6am. In the morning, they asked me to join in to fetch their horses and camels. With some effort, we found all their horses and again it was time to take them all to the lake. Then, after having a porridge breakfast with them, I asked him how much I need to pay in total. I was expecting it to be 500 RMB, but to my surprise, he refused to take money from me. He said we Mongolians treat our guest like a god. And you are a guest from far lands so he won’t take money. I was quite moved. After a lot of insistence, he accepted 200 RMB from me. Overall an interesting experience!
After this, I was on my way towards Hailar. Was driving around the city and had to take a flight back in the evening to Beijing and then to Hong Kong. This was the end of an amazingly amazing trip!
Barthel really is an expert horse rider. Below is a stunt video of him. Please don’t try it at home.
Camels and Horses do sometimes misbehave and throw out the rider. This can be injurious, so beware. Some clips from Barthel.
Hopefully, this was informative!