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On the grasslands trail

Xiao Zhong ( China Daily )

The magnificent Five-Pagoda Temple in Hohhot. [ China Daily ]

The huge statue of a leaping horse on top of a museum, the ribbed vaults of modern buildings resembling the arched roofs of yurts, and boulevards lined with lawns and flowers - the influence of the grasslands is everywhere to be found in the "City of Green."

This is Hohhot, capital of China's Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, most of which is pastureland.

Our tourist group arrived at the city, the first leg of our Inner Mongolian tour, on an early August morning. The cool, gentle breeze presented a sharp contrast to the stifling heat in Beijing, where we had started our journey the previous day.

The visit took us first to the Tomb of Wang Zhaojun, a Han princess who married the chief of the Xiongnu (an ancient minority nationality known more familiarly to the West as the Huns, whose descendants live in present-day Inner Mongolia) during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24). Covered with ancient trees and dotted with pavilions and an exhibition hall, the 33-metre high tomb is one of the city's eight major scenic spots, and is about nine kilometres from the city.

Inside the city is the famous Five-Pagoda Temple built in the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735) of the Qing Dynasty. The 13-metre-high stupa, the temple's main building, is decorated with 1,119 gilded Buddha reliefs and carved with scriptures in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. Inlaid on a screen wall behind the stupa is a carved astronomical diagram, 144.5 centimetres in diameter. It is said to be the world's only star map annotated in the Mongolian language.

Hohhot boasts more than 70 temples, a reflection of the Mongolian nationality's belief in Lamaism. The earliest is the Dazhao Temple, which dates back 400 years, almost as old as the city itself.

But the most impressive sights can be found in the grasslands. Two days after our arrival, we were taken to the Baiyin Hushao pastures in Siziwang Banner (a banner is an administrative division corresponding to a county), a 170-kilometre bus ride from Hohhot, to attend the traditional Nadam Festival.

Nadam, a Mongolian word meaning "recreation" or "playing games," is an occasion when people turn out for sport, entertainment and trade.

The scene was spectacular: a boundless stretch of grassland dotted with groups of yurts, a grand gathering of thousands of people, flying flags of various shapes and colours, and a line of neighing horses waiting for a race.

The opening ceremony started with the sponsor's speech to greet all the participants, who, at the close of the ceremony, would donate to the Nadam such things as oxen, sheep, horses, televsions, radios and cash.

The seven-day Nadam involved wrestling, archery contests, horse races, song and dance performances, acrobatic shows and trade fairs.

Tourists were not only onlookers. They could also ride horses or camels or shoot arrows at archery targets.

A night on the grasslands can be cold if you forget to bring enough clothes. Seeking warmth, many of the elderly tourists huddled into a yurt, a circular wooden framework covered with felt.

A convenient invention by herding families leading a nomadic life, the yurt, usually four metres in diameter, can be erected or dismantled within an hour, and can be easily carried away by a single ox cart.

The beds, pieced together by planks, were only a few inches above the ground, and through the small opening in the dome roof, stars were twinkling in the sky.

Young people were still in high spirits late into the night. A group of Hongkong youngsters and Japanese students gathered around a bonfire, singing and dancing in their silk Mongolian gowns, hired for one yuan a day. The bonfire of burning cow dung was another novelty.

"Cow dung is fertilizer elsewhere, but fuel on the grasslands," a local guide explained.

Next morning, we were treated to a typical Mongolian breakfast: fried proso millet, cheese and milk tea with salt. Then it was off to the Xila Mulun pastureland, where we found a new type of yurt, which had behind it a tinplate washroom equipped with a flush toilet and shower. From a distance, the yurts looked like snails.

Improvements and modernization to the original yurts seem inevitable. Each household now has a wind-driven generator. In one home, we saw a sewing machine, a tape recorder and an electric lamp.

"What if the wind stops?" I wondered. Our guide replied: "There are only two gusts of wind a year, but each lasts six months."

On the fifth day of our trip, we drove to Ih Ju League (a league is an administrative division corresponding to a prefecture), by way of the industrial city of Baotou, to see the sandy desert there, and to visit the amazing Xiangshawan (Noisy Sand Bay).

This is actually a small sand slope measuring 100 by 90 metres, at an angle of about 75 degrees. When a person slides down the slope from the top, the sand hums, and when more people join in, it thrums like a plane flying overhead. If you scoop up some sand with your hands, it croaks like a frog.

Stranger still, the sand produces no sound at all when taken elsewhere, but if sand from elsewhere is brought to the Noisy Sand Bay, it does make the odd sounds.

After we had returned to the reception station specifically set up for the Noisy Sand Bay visit, a "complete sheep banquet" - a great honour - was held for us.

A young Mongolian in local costume first placed a whole boiled sheep, which had been sliced, onto the table. Then he walked outside the yurt holding a small piece of mutton cut from the head and a full cup of wine. With a shout, he threw the meat and the wine into the air as an offering to the sky and the earth. It was a fantastic banquet.

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