On Monday morning we boarded the train to the ex-Mongol capital of Hohhot, now Inner Mongolia.
We hadn’t planned to visit Mongolia on this trip but after reading about it in our Lonely Planet guide we realised that we were too close to not at least visit for a few days. Due to time and visa constraints, Hohhot was our best chance at seeing a little bit of the ‘real’ Mongolia without detouring too far from our planned route. So, after walking across the building site outside of our hotel in the rain we boarded a rather squashed train to Hohhot.
Since boarding the train from Datong our time in Inner Mongolia was some of the best days that I’ve had since leaving England. I’m not sure why because looking back it was full of unfortunate events but I only have fond memories of my time there.
A series of unfortunate events
The toilets on the train to Hohhot were especially grim. Not only was there just a hole in the ground (which we’re used to by now) but the bin in the corner of the small toilet cubicle was overflowing with used tissues. I was bursting for the loo from the start of our four hour journey so had to bite the bullet and use the hole an hour into the journey, holding my breathe throughout the ‘experience’. This may be a weird thing to mention in a blog post but what happened afterwards is where the hilarity begins…
Due to the differing terrain of China, we’d been up and down mountain ranges and in and out of gauges, so we’ve been experiencing lots of changes in air pressure. Although Leah and I had been re-stabilising ourselves by popping our ears and sucking sweets, my Puril (hand sanitiser) hadn’t. The bottle had built up so much air pressure that when I opened it to clean my hands, the gel shot out of the tube and hit the lady opposite me! We just looked at each other, watching the gel drip from her forearm onto her trousers and burst out laughing! I tried to show the women the bottle, hoping that because it was anti-bacterial gel it would ease the awkwardness of the situation but the women just smiled at me… ❤
Once on the train we got a taxi to the hostel we booked a few days ago. The past few weeks in China we’ve had a few problems with booking hostels due us being foreign, so made sure when booking The Lucky Cloud Inn on booking.com that it did not specify mainland residents only…. you can tell where this is going… After being dropped in yet another building site (there’s either a lot of building work happening in China or we are extremely good at picking the fixer-upper areas…) we found our hostel on the second floor of an apartment block at the back of some shops. Our budget is pretty tight so location wise we weren’t surprised, but when we arrived we were informed that we couldn’t stay there- because we were foreign.
Over an hour later and we were taken to a hotel by one of the owners English speaking friends. The hotel was well over our budget but somehow Leah managed to barter the room price down to a more affordable level! The hotel and room was so nice compared to what we had planned on staying in.
We took the glass elevator up to the seventeenth floor, to our room which had an amazing view of the street below; the Mosque and the market stalls outside, as well as the Arab Palace (which we originally thought was the Mosque) which was lit up beautifully at night.
We went for a walk to find lunch. There were a few food streets recommended in our guide but somehow we managed to miss them all and instead ended up in a small cafe next to a primary school. The street was buzzing with lots of students on their lunch break, and as Leah and I passed by we were the centre of attention once more, providing the children and teachers with a topic of conversation for the afternoon.
The cafe we picked for lunch was really busy and specialised in noodles so we tried to order a few dishes to share. The people working there were so friendly and nice but clearly didn’t have a clue what I was trying to order when I said vegetable chow mein, making sure that they knew that I didn’t want meat or egg in my food. The chef came over and showed me his tomato fried egg – a very popular dish in northern China- but saw the horror on my face… Instead he motioned to the menu on the wall and I let him chose a dish for me, hoping he understood my request. Amazingly he did and cooked me braised aubergine. It tasted so good! Leah somehow managed to get vegetable fried noodles so we were able to share.
I love eating in places like this on our travels. Although you don’t always know what food you’ll be served – or if i’ll be able to eat it- the people that work there are usually so friendly that you don’t mind just ordering a bowl of rice to keep you going until you find a fruit stall afterwards!
Hohhot’s Great Mosque
After lunch we walked to the Mosque opposite our hotel and walked around the grounds. We were given a long chiffon blouse each to wear over our vest tops whilst we explored but were told that we were unable to enter the main prayer hall – we noticed whilst exiting the sign on the building which specified that women were prohibited. The buildings were beautifully decorated but were pretty run down and sparse on the grounds so we left shortly after arriving.
We walked to Quingcheng Park, stopping to visit the Five Pagoda Temple on route. We struggled to find the entrance of the temple at first- instead we found two side doors as well as the exit- but when we eventually made our way inside we were pleasantly surprised. All of the Buddhist Temples we have been visiting in China have lots of similar elements to them and although this site was no different, it was almost devoid of other tourists which made the whole experience extremely peaceful.
When we arrived at Quingcheng Park we heard English voices and saw a crowd of people standing on the pathway a few metres away from us. Naturally we went to see what was happening and were met with a group of school children and their teachers from an international school in Shanghai playing team games in the park. We left them to it and carried on strolling around the park for a few hours – it was deceptively large – walking in between and around the lakes and getting lost along the pathways through the trees. We found what we thought was a little tea shop on the edge of the lake but after inquiring for a cup of tea, we ended up with a bottle of beer and plastic cups, playing cards in the little picnic area until the sun began to set.
Our first evening in Inner Mongolia
We found the food streets that we’d looked for at lunchtime for dinner but were a little disappointed with what was on offer. Each restaurant on the streets specialised in one dish and that seemed to be all they would serve. Unfortunately, although the dishes were slightly different across the restaurants, they all centred around meat – specifically a hot pot filled with lumps of meat still on the bone.
Instead we walked a little bit further, past the Mosque, towards the building site by our original hostel (The Lucky Cloud Inn) and found a cute little side street filled with restaurants and market stalls. We chose a hot pot restaurant and hand picked the skewers to add into our dish but apparently didn’t order enough food (according to the chef) so instead of cooking our own ingredients in the soup pot at the table, the chef personally cooked it for us.
After dinner we bought a bag of dates from the market stall en route to the Arab Palace where we sat in the main quad by the Aladdins lamp, watching children playing games whilst their parents sat watching the movie that was playing on the outdoor cinema screen. After a short while we went back to the hotel room and sat on our bay window watching the people running around in the streets below us.