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  Inner Mongolian City off the Beijing Path

The Calgary Herald (Alberta)

Nov 3, 2007
by Ben Blanchard, Reuters

Of the millions of foreign tourists expected to flood to China next year for the Beijing Olympics, many will likely want to venture beyond the usual well-travelled tracks -- and maybe to Ulanhot.

Never heard of it? Neither have many Chinese, despite its recent history as a minor hub of the revolution which swept the Communists to power in 1949 at the end of a bloody civil war.

This Inner Mongolian city even had its name changed from Wangyemiao in 1947 to mark its place in Communist history as the first seat of government of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Ulanhot means "red city" in Mongolian.

Taking an unusual city break from the chaos and pollution of Beijing is getting easier thanks to better rail and road connections, and a growing number of flights to obscure places.

Ulanhot's main tourist attraction is the Genghis Khan temple, which perches on a hill in the northern suburbs, though what the connection is with the fierce Mongol warrior is not explained.

Built in the 1940s and recently restored, the three main buildings have a shrine to the man -- notorious as the ruthless, bloodthirsty creator of an empire that spanned Asia and Europe -- and an exhibition of his successes.

For unusual language junkies, there are plenty of examples of the beautiful, swirling Mongolian script to feast your eyes on, including copies carved in stone of inscriptions supposedly dating from the time of Genghis Khan.

Yet for what is meant to be a top attraction, the gift shop is very bare, with not even a postcard on offer and staffed by two ladies who look genuinely surprised when anyone walks in.

That's a better situation than at the "red tourism" sites, however, where there are no gift shops at all and plenty of Communist propaganda.

Thoughtfully, some explanation signs in English have been included in these buildings, a few of which date back to the 1930s when Ulanhot was in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo.

Ulanhot is only really for the intrepid traveller. Foreigners are rare and there is almost no English spoken.

But this is a China not often seen by outsiders, and in many ways is more representative of the lives of the 1.3 billion Chinese than Beijing, Shanghai or mainstream tourist cities such as Hangzhou or Xian.

You can go off exploring the Mongolian grasslands from Ulanhot, where the air is crisp and fresh, a welcome change from the acrid Beijing skies.

Architecturally, apart from sites connected with the city's revolutionary past, barely any old buildings remain in Ulanhot, even those done in the minimalist and modernist "new China builds" style of the 1950s and 1960s.

Until this summer, the city's best hotel was a rather dingy, three-star establishment in the commercial centre. A new four-star hotel has now opened, but seems mostly to cater to government officials and it is not conveniently located.

Fortunately, the food in Ulanhot is very good and more than makes up for the paucity of sights.

Being in China's grain belt, dumplings, noodles and flat breads are the order of the day, along with lots of lamb, hearty root vegetables like potatoes and big, fruity tomatoes.

Evening entertainment options are limited. If you want to belt out a song, and save a bit of money, Ulanhot has outdoor karaoke, where for 2 yuan (27 cents) a pop you can sit in front of a television on a stool on a street near the train station and sing to your heart's content.

Getting there also requires planning, and patience.

Either jump on the overnight train or take one of the three weekly flights from Beijing, to an airport whose interior designer apparently had a weakness for the classical, judging by the faux Roman pillars and white, gold-flecked walls and floors.


From Yeke-juu League to Ordos Municipality: settler colonialism and alter/native urbanization in Inner Mongolia

Close to Eden (Urga): France, Soviet Union, directed by Nikita Mikhilkov

Beyond Great WallsBeyond Great Walls: Environment, Identity, and Development on the Chinese Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

The Mongols at China's EdgeThe Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity

China's Pastoral RegionChina's Pastoral Region: Sheep and Wool, Minority Nationalities, Rangeland Degradation and Sustainable Development

Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

The Ordos Plateau of ChinaThe Ordos Plateau of China: An Endangered Environment (Unu Studies on Critical Environmental Regions)
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