China Travel Guide
Inner Mongolia & Ningxia
This area comprises two autonomous regions, Inner Mongolia, stretching across northern China in an enormous arc, and Ningxia, China’s Smallest province after the island of Hainan. The region’s main attractions are its great landscapes and the unique cultures of its minority people.
Much of Inner Mongolia consists of rolling grasslands dotted with the traditional tents (gers or yurts) of the nomadic Mongols. The capital of Hohhot is the most convenient place to join a tour and experience their traditional way of life, while the more adventurous can head north to the towns of Xilinhot and Haila’er, where vast tracts of untouched wilderness lie waiting to be explored. The historic Mongolian homeland was made up of the independent Republic of Mongolia, Inner Mongolia (now in China), and parts of Siberia. Bordering Inner Mongolia to the south, Ningxia was first established in 1928. In the 1950s, it became part of Gansu, and in 1958 was designated an autonomous region for the indigenous Hui. Living in pockets throughout China, the Muslim Hui descended from Arab Silk Road traders, but are now largely assimilated with the Han culture. Despite some industrialization, Ningxia is a largely undeveloped region with a smattering of interesting sights. At the foot of the scenic Helan mountains near the capital of Yinchuan stand the crumbling tombs of the Western Xia dynasty. The Xumi Shan Caves near Guyuan are another key sight with a wealth of Buddhist carvings.
Sights at a glance
steppes of Inner Mongolia
Towns & Cities
Mountains, Grottoes & Caves
Monasteries & Stupas
Areas of Natural Beauty
A small Buddhist settlement since the Ming era, Hohhot became the capital of Inner Mongolia in 1952. Although it has expanded considerably in recent years, the city has kept some of its charm, visible in traditional mud-brick houses in the south, as well as a few temples and an excellent museum. However, the surrounding grasslands and the traditional way of life they support are probably the main interest. The greenery in summer makes it the best time to visit the city. Hohhot is largely inhabited by Han Chinese, with a small Mongol and Hui population.
Inner Mongolia Museum
Situated in the center of the new part of town, the Inner Mongolia Museum is definitely worth visiting for an insight into the history and traditions of the Mongolian people. The museum’s ground floor exhibits the paraphernalia used by the nomadic Mongols, including saddles, costumes, archery and polo equipment, and a ger (portable tent used by Central Asian nomads). The museum also has an excellent collection of fossils discovered in Inner and Outer Mongolia, including the complete skeleton of a woolly rhinoceros unearthed from a coal mine in Manzhouli, as well as several impressive dinosaur skeletons. The museum’s upper floor is dedicated to the life of Genghis Khan, who, in the 13th century, united the disparate Mongol tribes and established arguably the largest land empire in human history. Some of the maps and objects on display have English captions.
- Tongdao Nan Jie
In the old southwestern part of the city, the attractive Great Mosque (Qingzhen Da Si) is best known for its fusion of both Chinese and Arab architectural influences. The main building, dating from the Qing dynasty, is constructed in black brick, while its minaret has a Chinese-style pagoda roof. It is an active place of worship, which permits non-Muslim visitors, especially if they are accompanied by a local Hui worshiper. The mosque’s prayer area, however, is reserved for Muslims. The surrounding Muslim area is well worth exploring, with its narrow alleys lined with restaurants selling delicious noodles and kabobs.
- Tongdao Nan Jie
A short walk south of the Great Mosque in the old city, the Xilitu Zhao (Xilitu Temple) started off as a small Ming-dynasty temple and is one of Hohhot’s oldest shrines. This Tibetan-Buddhist temple became the spiritual home of the 11th Grand Living Buddha in 1735. Since then, it has served as the official residence of successive reincarnations of the Grand Living Buddha, who presides over Buddhist affairs in the city. This version of the temple was built in the 19th century, after its predecessor burned down. Xilitu Zhao was also badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been heavily restored. It is essentially Chinese in style, with a few Tibetan elements. Its dagoba (Tibetan-style stupa), for example, features Sanskrit writing, Chinese dragons, and tantric Tibetan murals that vividly depict the horrors of hell in gory detail. The temple is still active and the monks here are friendly and speak English. They are usually happy to show visitors around.
- Tongdao Nan Jie
The largest Buddhist temple in the city, the Da Zhao is located in a narrow alley just west of Tongdao Nan Jie. Similar in style and layout to the Xilitu Zhao, it was originally built in 1579, and most recently renovated during the 1990s. The shrine was dedicated to the renowned Qing emperor, Kangxi, in the late 17th century, and murals in the main hall commemorate his visit. An astounding 10-ft (3-m) silver Sakyamuni Buddha is amongst the temple’s many treasures. Da Zhao also boasts an extensive collection of musical instruments and dragon sculptures, and is the venue for Buddhist festivals held through the year.
Wu Ta Si
- 9am–7pm daily
Just south of Qingcheng Park, amidst the remains of the old city, the Indian-style Wu Ta Si (Five Towers Temple) is one of Hohhot’s most attractive buildings. It was constructed in 1727, as part of another temple that has now disappeared. The distinctive five pagodas surmount a solid-looking base that contains a smallish temple with 1,563 images of the Buddha carved into its walls, each differing slightly from the others. Inside is a rare Mongolian cosmological map carved onto a large stone, which illustrates a zodiac and the positions of numerous stars.
Founded in 1606, the predominantly Mongolian-styled Wusutu Zhao includes some Chinese and Tibetan features. Inside the monastery there are Ming-dynasty murals on display as well as some intricate woodcarvings with imperial dragon motifs. The name “wusutu” means “near to water” in Mongolian. The nearby grasslands and Daqing mountains make pleasant day-trips from town.
- 9 miles (15km) east of Hohhot
- 8am–5:30pm daily
Bai Ta (White Pagoda) is a seven-storied, octagonal structure. It was first built in the 10th century to house Buddhist scriptures dating from the Liao dynasty. Over 164 ft (50 m) high, and made of wood and brick, it has some striking carvings inspired by Chinese mythology and nature, including coiled dragons, flowers, and birds. A winding staircase leads to the top, from where there are panoramic views. Bai Ta is best reached by taking a taxi from town.
Mongolia’s history is linked to its grasslands, and for many people, the classic image of the Mongolian landscape is unbroken grassy steppe spreading to the horizon. The steppe provides fodder for the horses and sheep that support the Mongolians’ nomadic lifestyle. The three grassland areas accessible from Hohhot are Xilamuren, 50 miles (80 km) north; Huitengxile, 75 miles (120 km) west; and Gegentela, 93 miles (150 km) north. The easiest way to explore them is by taking a tour, which includes a stay in a village of traditional tents (gers), where visitors attend a banquet and watch Mongolian sports. Though obviously stage-managed, they do show something of Mongolian culture. One can also travel independently by hiring a horse, or negotiating an overnight stay in a ger belonging to a local.
- 105 miles (170 km) W of Hohhot
- from Beijing
- Baotou Hotel, 0472 515 4615
The largest city in Inner Mongolia, Baotou was once an arid and undeveloped region, inhabited by Mongolian herders of sheep and horses. Today, it is an industrial community, made up largely of Han Chinese, with a visible Mongol presence. The town is divided into three principal areas – Donghe, the oldest part of town lies to the east, while the western area consists of Qingshan, the main shopping district, and Kundulun, the industrial hub. While Qingshan resembles any modern Chinese town, with its tower blocks and array of shops, Kundulun is a depressing leftover from the Communist era, with large, bleak squares, and no sign of greenery. Donghe, a pleasant quarter of streets lined with mud-brick houses and their cluttered courtyards, lends color to this fairly drab city.
Zhao monastery, Baotou
The region’s best-preserved Lamaist monastery, Wudang Zhao lies 43 miles (70 km) northeast of Baotou in a tranquil valley. Built in 1749 in the Tibetan flat-roofed style, it quickly became an important place of pilgrimage, and was home to several hundred monks belonging to the Yellow Hat Sect. It houses a collection of Buddhist murals from the Qing era. Just 6 miles (10 km) south of Baotou lies a section of the Yellow River that inscribes a huge northerly loop enclosing an area called the Ordos, which was not conquered by the Chinese until the Qing era. The irrigation projects made possible by the Yellow River have made this area a fertile oasis. There is little to see besides the river, but its sluggish progress through the flat, cultivated landscape is impressive.
South of Baotou is the great Gobi, a desert that stretches across the northern reaches of Inner Mongolia and the Republic of Mongolia. The Resonant Sand Gorge, 37 miles (60 km) south of Baotou, is filled with sand dunes, some of which soar 295 ft (90 m) high. Visitors slip and slide on the dunes, and its name refers to the sound made by the falling sand. Paragliding and camel rides are also available, and a chairlift shuttles visitors from the main road.
Resonant Sand Gorge
- 62 miles (100 km) S of Baotou
pilgrimage for Mongolians
Reasonably attractive, the small town of Dongsheng serves mainly as a base for visiting Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum (Ejin Horo Qi), a rather uncomfortable bus trip 30 miles (50 km) to the south. It is almost certain that Genghis Khan is not buried here, as his real tomb is thought to lie in the Hentei Mountains near Ulan Batur in the Republic of Mongolia. However, scholars believe that this site contains a few relics of the Great Khan, and it has grown into a place of pilgrimage for many Mongolians. The mausoleum consists of three conjoined halls, each echoing the shape of a ger (Mongolian tent) decorated with murals. The middle hall has a large statue of Genghis with a map of his empire. Some of the halls are bedecked with hangings, and contain gers, altars, and other religious paraphernalia. Special ceremonies are held here four times a year to honor Genghis Khan, attracting pilgrims from all over Mongolia.
Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum
- 8am–7:30pm daily
Born in 1162 to the head of the Kiyat-Borjigen tribe, Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan) was given the name Temujin. A born fighter, as a teenager he killed his half-brother and in 1206 he was proclaimed Genghis Khan (meaning universal king). He unified Mongolia’s warring fiefdoms into a huge army of up to 200,000 warriors that invaded China and much of Asia, and eventually created one of the greatest land empires in history. The secret of his success was the skilful use of cavalry and the toughness of the Mongolians who could survive on very little. Their dietary needs were met either from their horses or from the countryside. Genghis died in 1227, before the capture of Peking, after falling from his horse. In fact it was after his death that the Mongol armies made most of their conquests, but it was thanks to his organization and determination in the first place.
Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum is perhaps reminiscent of a Mongolian ger or tent. After his death his body was carried by thousands of his followers and taken back to Mongolia. The site of his burial is unknown.
The empire of Genghis Khan’s successors at its greatest extent shown on a modern map
- 310 miles (500 km) NE of Hohhot
- from Beijing
- to Erlianhot, then bus
- from Hohhot, check with PSB if a permit is required
- Xilinhot Travel Agency, 0479 824 9165
Situated right in the heart of the province’s grasslands, Xilinhot’s main draw is a visit to the Mongolian wilderness, inhabited by nomadic sheep herders in their muchang jia (pastureland homes). The tours available here are quieter and cheaper than the ones around Hohhot. Independent trips can also be organized through private tour agents.
Close to the Russian border, Haila’er is Inner Mongolia’s northernmost town. This small settlement on the banks of the Amur River is a good base for visiting the grasslands in summer. The town’s main sight is the network of tunnels used by the Japanese army during World War II. Built by Chinese prisoners, they were used as defensive bunkers along Haila’er’s northwestern ridge, which marked the western boundary of Japan’s advance into China. Beyond Haila’er lie the Hulunbuir Grasslands, an expanse of rolling plains threaded by rivers and inhabited by herds of sheep and horses. Tours are arranged by the tourist office.
on the Trans-Manchurian railway line
For long inhabited only by nomads, the border town of Manzhouli became a permanent settlement in 1901, as a stop on the Trans-Manchu-rian and Trans-Siberian railways. Steam locomotives can still be seen in the shunting yards at Zalainuo’er. Russian influences are still apparent in the architecture, mainly the wooden cottages with painted shutters and stucco buildings in pre-Revolutionary style. The main attraction, however, is Dalai Hu or Hulun Nur to the south. Surrounded by marshy grasslands, it is one of China’s largest lakes, where migratory swans, geese, and cranes come to nest. The tourist office organizes grassland tours, where visitors can stay in gers (tents).
- 280 miles (450 km) NE of Hohhot
- arranged by Xilinhot Travel Agency, 0479 824 9165
Close to inner Mongolia’s border near Duolun lie the remains of Yuanshangdu or Xanadu, the site of the legendary palace of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. One of China’s greatest emperors, Kublai Khan and his magnificent summer palace were exalted in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem which begins with the lines “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.” The palace was abandoned by the Khan during his lifetime, and eventually crumbled. There is little left to see, but those who wish to visit can contact Xilinhot’s tourist office.
in Yinchuan’s old town
- 326 miles (525 km) SW of Hohhot
- 15 miles (25 km) SE of Yinchuan
- 0951 672 7898
Situated in the north of Ningxia, in the lee of the Helan mountains, Yinchuan is well protected from the harsh desert climate, and makes a good base from which to explore the surrounding sights. Watered by the Yellow River, this lush and leafy city was the capital of the little-known Western Xia Kingdom from around the 11th century onward, which has left few traces of its short existence except for a set of dagobas, and a handful of imperial tombs located 12 miles (20 km) outside the city. This mysterious dynasty materialized in the early 11th century, in the area north of Han China. Following a period of expansion from AD 982 to the 1030s, the Western Xia empire included all of modern-day Ningxia, as well as parts of Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia. Although the Chinese considered them barbarians, they achieved a considerable level of sophistication, partly through the assimilation of Tang culture, until their kingdom was sacked by the invading Mongols in 1227.
Today, Yinchuan is a pleasant and lively city, with a handful of interesting things to see. It consists of two parts, the new town (Xin Cheng) to the west near the railway station, and the old town (Lao Cheng), 4 miles (7 km) east, where the city’s main bus station and most of the sights are located.
Jiefang Jie, the old town’s main thoroughfare, has two well-restored, traditional Chinese towers. One is the large Gulou (Drum Tower), while farther east lies the Yuhuang Ge (Yuhuang Pavilion), which dates back to the Ming dynasty. Just south of the Drum Tower, Gulou Jie is the heart of the city’s busy shopping district and is lined with department stores. West of Gulou Jie stands the 13-story, octagonal Xi Ta (West Pagoda), built within the grounds of the Chetian Temple. Originally built in the 11th century, the temple houses the Ningxia Provincial Museum which has a large collection of Western Xia artifacts. The museum also displays splendid items from the Silk Road era, and has a section on the indigenous Hui people. Followers of Islam, the Hui originally descended from Arab and Persian traders from the Middle East, who came to China during the Tang and Yuan eras.
Southeast of the museum, close to the bus station, is the South Gate (Nan Men) which resembles a miniature version of Beijing’s Tian’an Men. A short walk southwest of Nan Men, Nanguan Mosque is a modern building constructed in 1981 to replace the original 1915 shrine. It is an active place of worship that caters to Yinchuan’s Hui population. Unlike most mosques in China, it has hardly any Chinese features, and is built in a distinct Middle-Eastern style. In the northern reaches of the old town, the ancient Haibao Ta stands in the grounds of an active monastery. According to records, the 177-ft (54-m) tower, also known as the Northern Pagoda (Bei Ta), was first built in the 5th century AD. It was rebuilt in the 18th century in the original style, after an earthquake destroyed it in 1739. It is an unusually angular structure, with ledges and niches at every level. It is worth making the climb to the top of its nine stories, as there are terrific views across the city to the Yellow River and Helan mountains.
Gulou & Yuhuang Ge
- Jiefang Jie
- 8:30am–5pm daily
Ningxia Provincial Museum & Xi Ta
- Jinning Nan Jie
- 9am–5pm daily
- separate fees for the temple grounds, pagoda, & museum
- Yuhuangge Nan Jie
- 12 miles (20 km) W of Yinchuan
- or taxi
- Yinchuan Tourist Office, 116 Jiefang Xijie, 0951 688 9276
Looming over Yinchuan, about 12 miles (20 km) to the west, the 11,667-ft (3,556-m) high mountain range, Helan Shan, has some interesting historical places to visit. At the foot of its eastern slopes lie the Xi Xia Wang Ling, the royal tombs of the Western Xia dynasty (1038–1227). Spread over a large area, these crumbling but still impressive mounds commemorate the 12 Xia kings. The Gunzhong Pass, farther west, makes for pleasant hikes in the surrounding hills if the weather is fine. Located 5 miles (8 km) north of the pass are the 39-ft (12-m) twin pagodas, Baisikou Shuang Ta, decorated with Buddha statues. Nearby, at Suyu Kou, are hundreds of rock paintings, of uncertain age, depicting animals and human figures. These sights can all be visited in a day by hiring a minibus or car from Yinchuan.
Tombs) in Helan Shan
Xi Xia Wang Ling
Set in the desert near the town of Qingtongxia Zhen, the 108 Dagobas stand in twelve gleaming rows, spread out in a perfect triangular formation overlooking the Yellow River. A Buddhist monument, it is not clear exactly what their purpose is. Traditionally it has been thought that they were placed here during the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368) but recent thinking is that there may be some link to the Western Xia Empire. 108 is a significant number in Chinese numerology: there are 108 prayer beads in a Buddhist rosary – the same number of possible sins or worries.
- 50 miles (85 km) S of Yinchuan
- or from Yinchuan to Qingtongxia Zhen, then minibus or taxi
Viewing the dagobas
The best view is from a boat on the river – if the water level is high enough. The site is in excellent condition as a result of an over-zealous restoration.
Impressive as the dagobas are, a good reason for visiting them is to get out in the quiet surrounding hills and do a bit of walking. Here you can find quiet temples at the top of some testing steps as well as some inspirational graffiti.
Like the Indian stupa, the dagoba is a deeply symbolic icon. In early Buddhist art, Buddha was never shown in human form, instead a stupa became his symbol.
Western Xia Empire
This mysterious dynasty materialized in the early 11th century when they established the Great Xia empire in the area north of what was Han China. Known as Tanguts – and probably from Tibet – they were briefly strong enough to build up a small empire and force tribute from the Song rulers in China. However, they were so thoroughly defeated by the Mongols in 1227 that little evidence of their existence remains except for some coins, books, and a famous stele covered in their feathery script (now in Xi’an).
- Hillside Location
- The Dagobas
- 106 miles (170 km) SW of Yinchuan
- Zhongwei Travel Service, Yixing Dajiudian, 0995 701 2620
The pleasant town of Zhongwei lies between the Tengger Desert to the north and the Yellow River to the south. This small settlement can easily be explored on foot or by cycle-rickshaw. At its center lies a traditional Drum Tower (Gulou) dating to the Ming era. Zhongwei’s main sight is the 15th-century Gao Miao, a rather bizarre temple which serves Buddhists, Daoists, Confucianists, and Christians alike. It was originally built for Buddhists, but somehow developed ecumenically, which is reflected in the welter of well over 200 chapels and rooms. Rebuilt several times, the temple, in its present form, is an interesting amalgamation of architectural styles.
About 9 miles (15 km) west of Zhongwei, the spectacular resort of Shapotou lies on the banks of the Yellow River, between riverbank vegetation on one side, and the striking sand dunes of the desert, on the other. Accessed by minibus from Zhongwei, the Shapotou Desert Research Center was founded in 1956 to reclaim fertile land from the desert. It has met with some success, as seen in the groves of trees and surrounding cultivation. It is now a resort, offering camel rides and trips down river on traditional rafts that are kept afloat with inflated sheep skins. Sand sleds are available to rent for those who wish to speed down the sand dune slopes.
Gao Miao, Zhongwei
In the southern part of Ningxia, Guyuan serves as a base for visiting the Xumi Shan (Treasure Mountain) Caves, 31 miles (50 km) to the northwest. Set in dramatic sandstone hills, these Buddhist grottoes – numbering well over a hundred – are relics from the greatest era of the Silk Road, mostly the period covering the Northern Wei, Sui, and Tang dynasties. They contain more than 300 well-preserved Buddhist statues, the most famous being a colossal Maitreya (Future) Buddha, which stands 62 ft (19 m) high in Cave 5.