Inner Mongolia in January is a different kind of beautiful – rugged, icy plains, ruler-straight horizons and an absence of tour buses. I soak it all in on my visit during the peaceful off season, and find it the best time to get acquainted with a region where the clash of the traditional and the modern somehow just works.

I’m on my way to the Xilamuren grasslands of China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the temperature, already sub-zero, continues to fall steadily.

“It will feel much colder now that we’re outside the city,” cautions guide and hostel owner Zorigoo. He hops out of the van to attach ice chains to its tyres for extra traction during the last part of our journey, where dirt road melts into a slippery blanket of ice and snow. Once he opens the door, the biting wind whips through our vehicle. In winter, temperatures in Mongolia rarely climb above zero, and can drop to minus 15 deg C at night. Still, it’s not until we disembark two hours from Hohhot city, Inner Mongolia’s capital, that I fully understand what Zorigoo means. I’m dressed for the frigid weather, yet the angry gale relentlessly batters my exposed nose and cheeks. I gasp involuntarily in response to the cold and the sparse beauty of the landscape.

Little wonder, then, that the peak season for visitors is between May and August, when temperatures hover around the mid-20s – perfect sweater weather. But the trade-off is worth it. The grasslands in the off -peak season are free of tourists and the large buses that take them there.

 

The first thing I notice is that the horizon is ruler-straight, the sort of view that’s possible only when there’s nothing in the distance to obscure the point where earth meets sky. Out here, there’s little besides the brown of the earth, a thick layer of snow on the plains, and the piercing blue of the sunny, cloudless day. It’s a perfect day for herding, Zorigoo tells me. While some in their culture of nomadic herders have relocated to the city for work, many families who live in the grasslands still rear livestock for a living.

As if on cue, a flock of sheep trots out before us, sure-footed on the ice. They seem to roam freely, but then I see a thin wire fence surrounding the compound. As it turns out, Inner Mongolian families, including the one we’re here to visit, are no longer the nomads they used to be.

“The government gave us land, so we have to stay in one place now,” one of the men in the family tells us over lunch as we tuck into a warming hotpot of seaweed and meat. We’ll be staying with this family for the duration of our time on the grasslands.

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The soup is comforting in the cold weather, if not particularly flavourful, and studded with bony pieces of mutton – the main source of protein here. It’s not a filling meal, and has to be supplemented with an assortment of biscuits and cheese. The biscuits are rock-hard but turn buttery with a little chewing. The cheese, stacked high on a plate, is dry and crumbly.

Our host tucks in too. For his family, home used to be anywhere on the plains – a new area each summer where they could set up camp and their livestock could graze. Now, they live in a brick house, with a pen for the sheep and goats, and a few traditional gers (portable round tents used by nomadic Mongolians) in the backyard for guests – when they have any – to stay in.

The head of the family concedes that their new life has its comforts, gesturing at the brick walls that keep the cold out and the gas stove that heats their small living room. Nearby, his teenage children watch a Chinese variety show on a small television set. 

The most striking indication for me that the grasslands have not escaped the trappings of modernisation is how our host’s children communicate with us via a translation app on their smartphones. “It’s our favourite show,” the two girls tell us, their fingers flying across the phone as they type out messages.

 

But some things are still done the old way. After lunch, Zorigoo shows us to our ger, where we’ll bed down for the night. It’s icy at first, but warms up quickly when he feeds dried dung cakes into a pile of smouldering ashes under the floor. They don’t smell, he explains, showing us the cow patties that have been flattened and dried in the sun.

Our sleeping quarters, shared by the five in our group, are simple but cosy. We make our own beds from thick mattresses and blankets stacked around the ger. When I ask Zorigoo about the toilet, he takes me outside and gestures behind a knee-high shelf of ice. I quickly realise that going to the toilet here means anywhere you can find that protects your modesty. I do what I have to do, and try not to make eye contact with the cows grazing nearby. If you’re the sort that loves the great outdoors, the grasslands are perfect – you could go horse riding, or combine a tour of the grasslands with a desert excursion, which means camel riding and dune-sliding.

If adrenalin-pumping stuff isn’t your thing, you can just sit and savour your surroundings – which I choose to do. You have time and space here to take in the little things – shaggy cows lapping placidly at the ice, and sheep huddling together for warmth, the little ones in the centre of the herd. The sky turns a gorgeous shade of candy-floss pink, melts into powder blue, and finally darkens into an inky backdrop for the constellations above.

 

After a night out on the grasslands, I’m back in Hohhot – with all its modern features contradicting the popular belief that Inner Mongolia is simply plains and grasslands. The city has shopping malls, a culturally diverse population, and restaurants selling barbecued skewers and spicy hotpot along streets that come alive after dark. A 20-minute bus ride takes me downtown, where Starbucks, H&M and Nike logos adorn the glass-and-steel exteriors of malls. Later, I visit the Muslim quarter. About one quarter of Hohhot’s three million residents are Hui – ethnic Chinese of the Muslim faith. The women wear headscarves, and the men, white prayer caps, but they are otherwise indistinguishable from the Han Chinese population. The buildings, however, stand out. Hohhot’s Great Mosque is a beautiful mix of Chinese and Arab architecture, with a pagoda- style roof and the crescent moon and star atop a minaret. Chinese characters and Arabic script are displayed side by side at the entrance. Women are not allowed inside the mosque, so I wander the narrow alleys nearby instead, pausing to sample sultanas and dried fruit from friendly street vendors.

There’s an impressive variety of food on offer, most of it halal. Grilled mutton skewers (mutton is the most commonly found meat here) arrive gently charred and served on frisbee sized flatbread while aside of shaomai (a traditional dumpling) is like a lighter, soupier xiao long bao. All the food is fresh and tasty.

When I rise to leave, I hear the muezzin’s call warbling. It’s hard to draw a parallel between this place and anywhere else in the world. Perhaps that’s what makes Inner Mongolia so unique – it has a slice of tradition, a healthy dose of modernisation, and a whole lot of character.

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This story was originally published in the January 2018 issue of Her World magazine.