About how I ended up in a ger full of schoolteachers in the remote area of Xilinhot in Innermongolia and tips for your own visit to Xilinhot!
Xilinhot, Innermongolia: How did I end up here?
In 2006 I was looking for a cheap way to visit China for a longer period of time. So I applied for a homestay program with ‘Insight China’. Insight China is an organisation that offers both homestay programs and internships to non-Chinese. According to Insight China I would stay at a modern Chinese family in a large Chinese city south of Beijing. However, the homestay turned out to be a little different (in a negative way) and the homestay organisation arranged a transfer. I would be picked up at the Beijing train station the following day to go to… Xilinhot.
Xilinhot in general
Xilinhot is the second largest city of Innermongolia and has approximately 200.000 inhabitants (mostly Han Chinese and Mongolians). It used to be closed for tourists, but since 1992 you can visit the region without a visa. A visit to Xilinhot is a popular with Chinese tourists, because the city is in the middle of the beautiful grasslands of Xilingol. These days travel agencies offer all kinds of so-called grassland tours that include horse riding, traditional Mongolian diners in yurts/ger, traditional Mongolian dance, visiting hotsprings, picking wild flowers etc.
Since my homestay father had a travel agency it was easy to join one of the grassland tours which was much fun. From playing ball games to singing traditional grassland songs during the busride.
What to do during your visit to Xilinhot?
– Go to the little park in front of Dekelong (a large supermarket) to read a book or for people watching. The park has some attractions for childeren and it’s a populair place for the old Chinese grandma’s and grandpa’s with their grandchildren.
– Visit the Xilinhot temple and temple square. The temple is one of the four big temples of Innermongolia. The entrance fee is relatively high (20 yuan) but it’s worth a look! When you climbed the high stairs you will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the city!
– Hire a boat at the lake
– Listen to grassland music or watch traditional Mongolian dance at one of the summer open air performances at the temple square
– Learn to play Chinese chess and practice your skills with taxi drivers (this is not typical for Xilinhot, but recommended in general of course ;))
– Eat at one of the street stalls around the square
– Visit the weekly Xilinhot market
– Go on a grassland tour and stay overnight in a ger (must-do).
What to eat in Innermongolia?
If you like meat and dairy, you will love the Mongolian cuisine. The Mongolian food consists mainly of diary products such as cheese, cream and chai. The chai can be combined with rice, bread or meat and was my favorite. I ate it every single morning for breakfast (and sometimes for lunch as well). The Mongolian meat is often served without herb, but with bones (yup…) giving it an authentic taste. Mutton is probably the most popular. At one time a sheep was killed and poached in front of me. A few minutes later all the organs where took out! And not too long after those organs were on a plate. You will understand I did not feel so hungry anymore… Anyway, Mongolian food is only for the real die hards.
Transportation within and around Xilinhot
Transportation: every taxi ride within the city will cost 5 yuan! They don’t use meters. This was however in 2006, so it may (probably) have changed since then. From Xilinhot airport you can go either to Beijing or Hohhot. A flight is only about 500 yuan! Buses also go from Beijing to Xilinhot and take about 10 hours.
I ended up having a great homestay in Xilinhot. However, my initial homestay experience was not that good (please read more in this post about the pros and cons of a homestay program). Xilinhot itself was an authentic and unique experience. The region is unspoiled by Western tourism, a mix of Mongolian and Chinese influences and has beautiful grassland scenery. So in the end: Go visit Xilinhot!!