Postcards From Abroad: Inner Mongolia

Every year the Chinese mid-autumn festival is held at the start of October and lasts for about one week. The Chinese aren’t big on holidays. It’s pretty much only the mid-autumn festival and Chinese New Year that they get time off for. Beijing is full of people that aren’t actually from Beijing so every year they all go home to their native towns and cities to visit their family. The rest either stay put or go travelling. Needless to say we weren’t going to pass up the chance to do a bit of travelling so we decided to go to Inner Mongolia.We booked the trip with an agency for 1750RMB per person all-inclusive. We got it for 1600RMB in the end though because I bargained them down. Like everything in China, the price always has a bit of leeway. The only problem with this was that you had to be a student to go on the trip because we were given a student discount. This wasn't a problem for me obviously but three out of the five people in our group weren't students. We soon crossed that bridge though by buying fake student cards. China’s love of all things counterfeit comes in quite handy sometimes. It wasn't even difficult to get them. A group of women sell them outside the gate of Renmin University in broad daylight. They only cost us 25RMB each. A solid investment given that they've been getting discounts left, right and centre with them. A friend was visiting me from Ireland and got in to all the tourist sites using them so they’re even useful for short-term use.The tour bus left from Beijing Language and Culture University at five in the morning so as you can imagine none of us we’re shiny, happy people at that ungodly hour. On the upside I slept for the first few hours of the journey. We stopped in off in the Shanxi province for a day before heading to Inner Mongolia. The first place we went to was the Hanying temple. The only trouble was we couldn’t actually get into the temple because there was too many people there that day, a common problem in China because of their massive population. It’s even worse though during public holidays. All of the tourist destinations are ridiculously busy. The phrase ‘like sardines in a tin’ springs to mind. You wouldn't want to be claustrophobic. We got our money back for the temple though, as a result. We went to the Yungang Grottos in Datong which wasn't nearly as busy. I’d already been there but I didn't mind going back because it’s such a cool spot. China loves its Buddha temples.We spent our first night in some unknown city half-way between Beijing and Mongolia. It didn't have a bar or club in sight so we went to KTV instead. KTV is the Chinese equivalent of a bar basically. It’s a karaoke bar of sorts except you have your own private room. Our poison of choice for the night was vodka, which we had to buy by the bottle, as you do in most KTVs. The brand was called AK-47. When your vodka is the same name as a machine gun you know that the story isn't going to have a happy ending, and even more so when you get two bottles of it between five people. Hangover from hell does not even come close to describing the state I was in the next day. Let’s just say I got my full money’s worth out of the plastic bags I bought before I got on the bus that morning.When we got to Inner Mongolia, I'm ashamed to say that I still wasn't in a fit enough state to go horse riding across the grasslands. I didn't let the tour guide know that it was self-inflicted though so I got the money back from that too and avoided the downpour that the rest of the group got caught in. Silver lining, I guess.We spent the night in a Mongolian Yurt, the traditional Mongolian home. That was an experience, mostly because it was absolutely freezing and the temperature in the grassland was Baltic. We we’re told Mongolia was going to be cold but everyone on the tour (except the Koreans) underestimated just how cold it was going to be. Most people slept wearing a few layers of clothing.The next day we went to the Gobi Desert which was probably the most fun I've had in China so far. I say China because Inner Mongolia is officially owned by China. I'm not saying I agree with it but I'm not going to bore you all with the politics of it. We got to ride a cable car, go zip lining, sand-dune sliding, camel riding, quad driving and more. During all of this, I kept being constantly taken aback by the fact that I was in a desert in Inner Mongolia, somewhere that I’d never really imagined myself going.On the 10 hour journey back to Beijing, our bus started to smell of singe. Turns out the engine was overheating so our bus broke down and we all had to evacuate because it was steaming like a sauna. Everyone grabbed their things and stood far, far away from it in a clearing at the edge of the motorway. I got to ride in my first Chinese police car. They had to shuttle us all back and forth to the nearest gas station. A fitting end to what had already been an eventful trip.Read: Denis Vaughan's second Postcard from Abroad