Inner Mongolia = the BEST trip in China, thus far.
I honestly can't even put together words to accurately describe how incredibly awesome this trip was. TEAN (aka. The Education Abroad Network), orchestrated a three-day adventure in the never-ending sand dunes of Inner Mongolia. We rode on camels, swam in a lake, drove dune buggies and more. This past weekend was pretty much insane - in the best way possible, of course!
Our adventure began with an early-morning plane ride into "the middle of nowhere" Inner Mongolia. Below is a map of China and if you look to the north (towards the middle) you will see a strip labeled "Inner Mongolia".
The flight was about two and a half hours nonstop from Shanghai to Yinchuan. I think I'm officially getting better at flying, but this particular lift-off had me on the edge of my seat. I've experienced many different flights to various destinations, but never before have I lifted off at the same time that another plane was lifting off.
If you can see in the pictures below, in the distance (but still pretty close) there's another plane. I literally watched the other plane lift off from another tarmac parallel to ours at the same time and level as our plane. Needless to say, I was white-knuckling the seats.
The flight ended up being fine, though. I think it was more enjoyable because we were all flying together as one big group. Our program had organized this trip for about twenty of us students.
As we began our descent into the airport, the landscape was noticeably different.
Since TEAN has two programs currently in China (one in Beijing and the other in Shanghai), the "Shanghai guys" ended up reuniting with the "Beijing guys" for this vacation. It was really good to see some familiar faces again!
From the airport, we boarded a tour bus and drove about 2-3 hours to a random spot in the desert.
On the way, the bus stopped briefly at an old, dilapidated building in the middle of the desert so people could use the ground as a restroom if needed. I felt that it was appropriate to use my sweatshirt in a more useful way since it was so hot out!
Finally the bus dropped us off at destination #1: random spot in the desert. At this random spot, we were greeted by a fleet of jeeps ready to take us into the sand dunes. For the weekend we stayed in tents on a resort by a small lake known as Moon Lake. In order to get to the resort, however, we needed to ride through the dunes.
We were forewarned, multiple times, that this jeep ride could be a little bumpy.. nevertheless, we were all super excited!
The ride started out pretty relaxed. We were on a path that led to the sand dunes, and became mildly disappointed in the ride until our driver suddenly pulled off of the road. He then sped up really fast and started flying over sand dunes - literally!
I have never ridden a roller coaster before, so this experience was an interesting one. Surprisingly enough, I didn't feel the slightest bit ill! Instead, I wanted the driver to go faster!
The crazy thing about the jeep ride was that you never knew what to expect. We thought the car was going to turn over so many times, but the driver was really good - you could tell he knew his dunes!
The jeep was a stick shift, but it never once got stuck. It was fun racing with the other jeeps, but the best was when the driver would speed up a dune then plummet down the other side. What made the entire experience so thrilling was that it was impossible to see beyond some of the dunes when you're on them. The driver would have the jeep at almost a 45 degree angle climbing up these dunes, and you couldn't see the drop at all! We were literally just looking at the sky on the way up, not knowing what to expect on the other side of the dune.
Altogether the jeep ride lasted for about 30 minutes, but we loved every second of it!
Everyone was dropped off at the resort and greeted by locals. We were given blue scarves and a shot of baijiu as a welcome. Baijiu is a type of distilled liquor specifically made in China. It's not the best-tasting stuff, but no one said no to it!
After everyone had been given a proper greeting, we were led to our housing for the weekend.
We stayed in tent-like structures called "yurts". Our particular yurt held six of us, and to our surprise it had an air conditioning unit and a TV (you had to pay for the TV, though).
Once we were settled, we were given some free-time in our itinerary to explore our new surroundings.
A small group of us, therefore, decided to hike around some of the surrounding sand dunes.
As you can see above, there were little bugs crawling around in the sand. None of us ever got bit; however, they reminded me of those scarabs in the movie "The Mummy Returns."
After inspecting the bugs, I decided that for once I wanted a jumping picture.
More dune pictures... the view was just so amazing!
The sand was the perfect temperature: not too hot, not too cold, but it did get a little messy.
At one point we decided to be crafty with the sand and the wind, so we all took turns trying to throw sand into the wind on the top of a dune.
Below is a photo of the cool tracks that the scarab-like bugs made across the sand.
After exploring, everyone met up for a special dinner at the resort. We were all starved!
At one point in the dinner, some of the locals brought in the main course: lamb. They had an entire ceremony for the cooked lamb - which was delicious!
Since we were staying by a lake, we were warned that there would be a ton of mosquitoes. "A ton" of mosquitoes is an understatement. Everyone literally got eaten alive by those things at night! I highly recommend bringing bug spray and long pants/sleeves for the evenings.
To avoid the annoying mosquitoes, a couple of us did some old-school karaoke.
By the time we finished singing we realized that some of our "yurtmates" had already gone to bed. Our beds consisted of a thin mat with a pillow and blanket included. It was not the most comfortable sleep, but it definitely wasn't horrible.
The next morning we were up and about by 7AM.
The plan was to ride a herd of camels through some dunes in order to get to our breakfast. Below is a picture of our camels!
I hopped onto one of the first camels in the bunch because I was so excited! I didn't think they smelled too bad, but we were all so close together that sometimes the camels would sneeze onto us by accident.
I turned my cell phone on for literally one second to check the time and I happened to get a few text messages. Don't judge!
Instead of riding the camels, some students chose to ride the horses. I think both were pretty legit.
The camel ride was fun though, but maybe a little short. At one point I put in my iPod to play a crazy techno song. The upbeat tunes made me feel extra cool as I rode the camel through the desert.
We arrived at a sweet little setup of tables and chairs with a breakfast buffet. It was so nice eating our breakfast in the desert while watching the sun rise over the lake!
After breakfast, everyone threw their shoes into the back of a jeep and began walking barefoot in the sand. The plan was to walk about 3.5km to another lake called Sun Lake.
The walk was way more ambitious than we thought. Climbing up sand dunes is no easy task, especially when the sand keeps giving way under your feet. A pair of jeeps did follow us to make sure that nobody got too lost.
You can see from some of the pictures below how spread out and massive this place was!
Next time I climb sand dunes I will bring a scarf to tie around my head and mouth. There was a ton of sand blowing up from the wind.
A failed attempt at a handstand...
Finally, after almost 3 hours of hiking in the sand we had reached Sun Lake! Jeeps awaited our arrival to take us back to Moon Lake. It felt good to sit down in the shade.
Our particular jeep ended up getting stuck in a pile of soft sand. All of the other jeeps passed as they watched us unload. For a hot second I thought that we would need to walk back! The driver ended up successfully digging out his jeep, and we were on our way again back to the yurts.
Once back, everyone had some lunch together then headed out to the lake. The lake is swimmable, but in order to get to the section where we were allowed to swim, all of us had to take a boat across the lake. Below you can see the walk on the dock.
Eagerly awaiting a boat...
We ended up fitting about ten people in the tiniest boat ever!
But we did make it safely to our destination without capsizing! I didn't take many pictures of this side of the lake, but basically there was a beach area (the water was freezing!) and other rentable items such as: dune buggies, four wheelers, bows & arrows, horses/camels, jeeps and more! Everything seemed so cool and fun, but the activities were all a little expensive.
For instance, my friends and I paid RMB30 to ride dune buggies two times around a prefabricated course. It was fun while it lasted.
A friend of mine ended up riding a horse through the sand dunes. He paid RMB50 for what was supposed to be a 30-minute ride. Not only was he not allowed to ride by himself (a guide rode next to him), but they originally gave him about 10 minutes of ride time. Make sure to be assertive when renting items from this resort. The people were very nice, so when confronted, they allowed my friend to take another ride on the horse with no extra charge.
That day was my good friend from Beijing's birthday, so we all celebrated!
The next morning you can see a picture of all of us dead tired. The plan for our last day was to have brunch at the resort, then take the jeeps back to the bus, which would then take us into the city and finally to the airport.
I loved every second of the jeep rides and would do it again in a heartbeat; however, this last ride made me and a few others a little sick.
Since both the Shanghai and Beijing flights weren't until later in the evening, we were convinced that a local museum would be enjoyable entertainment for the meantime. The museum itself was pretty cool, but the most fun we had was entertaining ourselves with the artifacts.
Everything was interesting-looking. I didn't read any of the facts, but the statues and scrolls, etc. were fun to stare at!
After our brief museum trip, we headed into the downtown area for a quick bite to eat. The plaza we ate by was a little older but still pretty cool. It kind of reminded me of Kunming.
For now that is all of the pictures that I have to post. There are some really funny videos from the trip, so I will try to update the site with those at a later time. All in all, I wanted to get this post out as quick as possible (we just got back at 2AM this morning!) since I had such an amazing time.
If anyone gets the chance to visit China, I definitely recommend going to Inner Mongolia. It's an experience that I will certainly never forget. Thank you TEAN!