Xanadu

One of the great things about this site is that we get to meet great people, like the ones who submitted this entry below. The Spencers traveled the length of the Silk Road from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Hohhot by train, then the rest of their journey is recorded below. We hope it will be helpful to future Inner Mongolia travelers.
Just a few notes:
  • Xanadu (shang du) is an ancient Mongolian Empire capital located in Lan Qi (zheng lan qi, blue banner in Xinlingol)
  • The Spencers have some Chinese ability. This is important to consider if you plan to make your own arrangements in the rural countryside.

by Joanna Spencer
We made it to Xanadu and it was the most fantastic place to visit – the highlight of our trip I would say.
We had bus tickets to Zhenglanqi after an amazing scrum at the ticket office.  We arrived at the bus station in good time on 1 May and there didn’t seem to be any more crowds than usual, even though it was the May holiday.  The bus was clean, if not in the first flush of youth, and well organised with driver and co-driver who went round checking everyone had seat belts on before we left.
we left at 7 on the dot and it took over an hour to get through the traffic of Hohhot and it amused me to see that the route out was Ghenghis Khan Avenue!
After a couple of hours we stopped at a service station for a loo break – Robin said it was spotless!  The road was really good.
Around 11 we stopped for a meal at a roadside restaurant – we were all told to leave the bus – no option!  The restaurant looked a bit dodgy from the outside but inside was perfectly clean and extremely well organised.  Stew, noodles and omelettes were out of the kitchen and served in no time with delicious bread rolls.  Loo was an outside pit, very cozy ladies side by side.  It was much cleaner than Uzbek loos  I visited but still I can’t manage without privacy – I’m too westernized!
Back on the bus and I noticed that all tollbooths and embankments have lovely painted scenes of rural Mongolian grassland life – cows, horses, yurts etc. Very attractive,  The countryside is lovely too – open rolling grasslands and hills. Lots of herds of horses, cattle, sheep.
We arrived in Zhenglanqi around 3pm.  The bus station was more rural and workmanlike than Hohhot and not at all busy.  There are plenty of taxis outside and we find a brilliant young man who is absolutely charming!  Robin negotiated with him for a day out to Yuanshangdu (Xanadu) the next day – we agree to pay him about 250 yuan for the day.
Our hotel was the Shangdu Hotel which I had found from the internet and there is also a brief mention on Tripadvisor but no means of booking, we got our son to book it for us by phone. 340 yuan which is not that cheap.  There is quite a useful website on Zhenglanqi in Chinese which seems to be the local town council site,  It lists available hotels but I can’t find the link at the moment.  The hotel was clean and comfortable, if  rather faded.  Our room was huge, but rather dirty stained carpets and seemed to cater for businessmen off on a jolly away from home.  The restaurant was miles and miles away down a long long corridor – lots of families with children seemed to be staying and they all had their rooms doors open watching television!  The restaurant menu was enormous – it took us half an hour to read through!  Food was excellent – we had a huge meal of 5 dishes plus soup for 150 yuan
We arrived in a snowstorm and it had turned really cold and nasty so I was worried our trip out the next day would be a disaster.  We walked into town, there is a very good supermarket and various shops.  We had asked in the hotel whether there were any other places to visit in the locality if our visit to Xanadu didn’t take much time.  The receptionist was most unhelpful and said there was nothing to see around the town – however we went into a small toy shop looking for a map and the lady there was very helpful. Not only did she have a map of the area (not a town map) but she said that there is a lake nearby worth a visit and a Buddhist temple.  In the event we never got to see them but worth mentioning.
Next day was beautiful, sunny but a very strong cold wind. Our taxi driver arrived at 11am and drove us out of town down a mud road – we were parallell with an impressive highway for a bit with big tourist signs for Yuanshandu and we saw lots of construction for road building.  But the way we went was through unspoilt grassland (apart from a cement works) little farmsteads, lots of sheep, horses and cattle on a rough an bumpy track.  We arrived at a yurt and wire fence with a newly laid out car park to one side (with no cars in it) – this is the ticket office.  Entrance fee is about 30 yuan but we’ve lost our ticket stubs.  There is a huge relief modern carving of Ghenghis/Kunblai Khan and a collection of yurt like buildings that may be the small museum I read about (it was closed) and a proper flushing loo block – spotlessly clean.  A few tourists about who mostly took the golf cart transport to the city.
We were offered bicycles at no charge to take the long gravel track into the city.  It is stunningly beautiful there – unspoilt open grassland which, according to our taxi driver, is covered in flowers in June and July.  Low hills in the distance surround the plain – it was breathtaking!  So we rode into Xanadu on bicycles – what would Marco Polo have made of that!
xanadu 1
xanadu 2
The walls of the city are covered in grass and remain about 10 – 20ft high.  The gateway has been excavated and there are traces of beautiful carving.  There has been some attempt for English speaking tourists, there are several plaques in various places outlining the history and what each mound/building would have been.
Instead of going straight through as most (all Chinese) tourists were doing, we walked around the inside perimeter of the city.  Pottery fragments are lying everywhere –it must be an archeologist’s paradise!  It was certainly ours.  The city is vast and the walls stretch for maybe more than a kilometre square.  We had a little picnic we took with us on the South West guard tower!  We slowly went around the whole site and it took us over four hours – it was just magnificent and all that I had hoped for.  The Chinese tourist seem to dash through without looking at anything properly and disappear off again.  Robin tried to point out the carving on the gateway to a group of lads and they were not the slightest bit interested – oh that mongolian stuff,  they said!
Our patiently waiting driver was there when we finally arrived back and we went back to town as it was too late to visit anything else – but we were entirely satisfied.
Our bus to Beijing next day was at 9.30 (we had bought the tickets when we arrived) there is another that leaves at 4.30, in the event we were glad we went for the 9.30 bus. the whole trip took nearly 10 hours!  It cost 110 yuan per person.  The bus station at Zhenglanqi was totally relaxed – no security bag check – the machine wasn’t even switched on.  There is a little provisions shop within the station with a skylark in a cage – poor thing.  We were entertained to a huge screen featuring traffic accidents in computer generated video format!
Only four passengers got on and we drove to Duolun 49 k away,  the road is a new modern highway.  There was stayed for about an hour and a half.  Bus station much bigger and the town is bigger and busier altogether.  Quite a few get on and we set off around 11.30 stopping at several petrol stations to pick up more passengers and very brief loo stops.  Needless to say I didn’t try!  About half an hour outside Duolun the new road suddenly stops – earth barrier heaped up on the new motorway which snakes away into the distance and we lurch up the embankment to join the old provincial road!  We remain on this for the rest of the journey although it crisscrosses the new motorway all the way.  As we find out later on – they are still constructing tunnels and flyovers through the mountains.  There are some fairly hairy hairpin bends but our driver is very slow and steady although it doesn’t seem that there is a relief driver for the whole trip.  All the passengers who get on pay the ‘co-driver’ for their tickets – he seems to be there purely as a bus conductor.  At one point the bus has several extra passengers than seats – about four or five young people are sitting on stools down the centre aisle.  They are made to go to the back at one point.  A police check maybe?
We did come to one police check where all passengers have to get out and show id.  We are waved through in front of the others as they don’t seem to be at all interested in us.  All the passengers are mainly students it seems.
We arrived in Beijing as the sun was setting – about 7pm.  The conductor, as we drove through the outskirts of Beijing, asked us our destination and after consultation with a young lad who spoke a little English – we were dropped off under a flyover.  Apparently you can ask to get off anywhere that is most convenient for you and this place was the nearest to our hotel for the night.  It must be a regular drop off place because a taxi was there within seconds!
Our flight to Hailar next day from Nanyuan airport although delayed by two hours was uneventful.
Our son met us with his friend, we were very impressed with Hailar.  A very nice town on a broad river, some lovely buildings and statues and beautifully lit at night.  It doesn’t seem to have any of the terrible traffic problems of Hohhot.  However the grasslands outside were a disappointment.  Our son had arranged a trip on the advice of a friend of a friend who works in the Hailar tourist office (bad advice sadly).  He had hired a car and driver (the driver allegedly being an expert in the region) and the driver was to have arranged a place that we could go horse riding and then a hotel out on the grasslands for the night (a yurt being too cold).  In fact the driver had arranged nothing at all and we only went a few miles outside Hailar calling at a few places to ask if they had horses.  It is very touristy and obviously geared up for summer Chinese visitors who want a holiday camp yurt experience.  All we saw was numbers of these camps and the grassland was all enclosed with fences.  I’m sure if the driver had been any use we would have driven for a few hours into the wild grassland and found something like we saw at Zhenglanqi.
It didn’t really matter to us as the purpose was to spend time with our son and I was delighted to find him well and happy.  He had arranged meetings and meals with all his friends and it was lovely to meet them.  But I think if we hadn’t seen Zhenglanqi we might have been rather disappointed with the grasslands!
In all, I would say, perfectly possible and it went without a hitch.  Zhenglanqi does not appear to be set up in any way for tourism (as with the unhelpful receptionist) but attempts are being made to attract tourists from Beijing, although I have found a reference in a book published on Xanadu that the road building has been going on since 2004 it hasn’t really progressed much!.  It is a magic place and I sincerely hope that it is not ruined with, it seems, Chinese enthusiasm for re-construction making it into a Disney theme park.  As yet the infrastructure is not there but it will be soon.  Go as soon as possible!
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