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China Travel Guide

Inner Mongolia the Silk Roads

 
  • Inner Mongolia & Ningxia
  • Gansu & Qinghai
  • Xinjiang
  • Inner Mongolia the Silk Roads
    Inner Mongolia the Silk Roads

    This massive region, forming a giant northwesterly arc linking Siberia with Central Asia, takes up a third of China’s area. Geographically it ranges from forest to sandy desert to grassland, whilst ethnically these lands are home to several Chinese minorities, notably Mongolians, Uighur, and Hui, as well as, among others, Russians, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz. Three provinces – Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, and Xinjiang – are officially designated autonomous regions. The main attractions in Xinjiang and Gansu are the dusty oasis towns of the Silk Road, replete with Buddhist cave paintings, evocative ruins, and chaotic markets, whilst elsewhere the appeal is the beauty of China’s last great wildernesses.

    Tibet Area
    Buddha sculpture at Bingling Si, Gansu, still retaining some of its original color
    Buddha sculpture at Bingling
    Si, Gansu, still retaining some
    of its original color
    Nomads beside Qinghai Hu, the largest lake in China
    Nomads beside Qinghai Hu, the largest
    lake in China
    A monk prays at the Gao Miao, Zhongwei
    A monk prays at the Gao Miao, Zhongwei

    Getting around
    There are airports in the major towns and cities, whilst the rail network is confined to trunk routes linking major centers. Independent travelers will need to use local bus services, which are comprehensive but crowded and uncomfortable. Because of the distances involved, visitors are likely to focus on one area at a time – the Silk Road, or the Mongolian grasslands, for example.


    Tiled decoration Praying Hall, Ta’er Si
    Tiled decoration
    Praying Hall, Ta’er Si

    A Portrait of Inner Mongolia & the Silk Roads
    This vast region, comprising Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, Qinghai, and Xinjiang, covers a significant proportion of the total area of China. Although sparsely populated, the area’s appeal lies in its magnificent landscape, the distinctive lifestyles of its indigenous peoples, and its Silk Road past. This fabled route’s legacies are visible everywhere, from historic sights to the Islamic religion.

    Bordering the Mongolian Republic and Russia to the north, the Central Asian states to the west, and the Indian subcontinent to the south, this region is now indissolubly attached to China, as a result of vigorously pursued Chinese hegemony. Today, although the local population is largely Han, they have little in common with the area’s indigenous peoples. Only the eastern portion of Gansu seems naturally to form part of China proper. Gansu to the west of Lanzhou and the other provinces are at best indifferent to and at worst in uneasy thrall to the government in Beijing, which has often ruled with callous disregard for local sentiments. For the Chinese, there still lingers a historic suspicion of the barbarians living beyond the frontier marked by the course of the Great Wall. However, historic cultural identities have been retained, and this, together with the region’s distinctive geography, means that Inner Mongolia and the northwest have a different character to most of China. Because of this, these three areas – Ningxia, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia – are not officially provinces but so-called Autonomous Regions, where the Hui, Uighur, and Mongolian peoples theoretically have a measure of self-government. In practice, any autonomy is superficial, though local languages are spoken and religions practised reasonably freely.

    Dramatic sand dunes near Crescent Moon Lake, Dunhuang
    Dramatic sand dunes near Crescent Moon
    Lake, Dunhuang
    Statue inside the Fuxi Miao, Tianshui
    Statue inside the Fuxi
    Miao, Tianshui
    Tibetan nuns gathering outside their nunnery in Xiahe, Qinghai
    Tibetan nuns gathering outside their
    nunnery in Xiahe, Qinghai

    Although the communities are united by their ethnic minority status, the region is by no means an organic entity. For example, the Mongolians and Uighur are only connected by the fact of their inclusion within the political borders of China. Mongolia’s grasslands are inhabited by a traditionally nomadic people who obtain their livelihood through the grazing of sheep and horses. Xinjiang, the homeland of the Turkic-speaking Uighur, on the other hand, is a stony desert relieved by oases dependent upon an ancient but sophisticated system of underground irrigation channels. The one feature that links the region is the extreme nature of its climate and terrain. Whilst much of Xinjiang is flat and featureless, it is fringed by some of the world’s highest mountains, including the Pamirs to the southwest and Tian Shan to the northwest. At its center sits the Taklamakan Desert, an immense tract of sand dunes characterized by its name, which means “Go in not come out.” Summers here are unbearably hot, and its winters are dry and very cold. Qinghai is a mountain plateau whilst arid Ningxia and Gansu are rendered habitable only by the presence of the Yellow River. Inner Mongolia, composed of grassland, steppe, desert, and mountain, has short, pleasant summers but cold, windswept winters.

    Incense burner in the inner courtyard of the Gao Miao, a multi-denominational temple in Zhongwei
    Incense burner in the inner courtyard of the
    Gao Miao,a multi-denominational temple
    in Zhongwei

    Historically, this area’s most significant period was during the great days of the Silk Road, when caravans carrying silk, spices, and tea crossed the inhospitable terrain, stopping at oasis towns along the way. Centuries later, this region became the domain of Genghis Khan, the Mongol warlord. These desert gardens are still markets where local products, from raisins to saddles and daggers, are traded just as they have been for centuries.

    The most significant Silk Road monuments are the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, perhaps the greatest repository of Buddhist murals, sculpture, and manuscripts. Other Buddhist sites such as the Labrang monastery in Gansu and Ta’er Si in Qinghai owe their origins to the influence of Tibetan Buddhism. Besides visiting caravanserais, grottoes, and monasteries, it is worth exploring the grasslands, mountains, and lakes such as Qinghai Hu, as some of China’s last great wilderness areas can be seen here. While it is true that some of China’s prosperity has begun to trickle west, it will take some time before the nomads and traders give up their ingrained habits and culture. Thus, despite its size, there are only a few large cities, in particular Lanzhou, provincial capital of Gansu, and Ürümqi, capital of Xinjiang.

    Mongols of the Steppe
    In the 13th century Genghis Khan united the steppe-land tribes into a confederation that briefly ruled the civilized world. Today, the Mongolian nation is divided into two parts: the Mongolian Republic to the north, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China. Traditionally, Mongols are nomadic herders who travel and work on horseback, mostly on the vast, grassrich steppe. Their diet consists largely of meat and many dairy products, including fermented mare’s milk, the in-toxicating airaq. In Inner Mongolia, most of the Mongol-ian minority now lead a sedentary life of farming. They are striving, however, to keep their traditions alive, by staging the annual Nadaam Festival, for example.
    The principal traditional garment, the deel, is a long gown tied with a brilliant sash at the waist. It is worn by both women and men and comes in different weights – lined with sheepskin for winter, quilted for spring, and made of light cloth for summer. Mongolian wrestling, a favorite event at the Nadaam Festival along with equestrianism and archery, has no weight classes and no time limits. The winner is the one who throws or trips his opponent in such a way that some part of his body touches the ground. Buddhism is the main religion among Mongols. Tibetan influence became very strong at the Mongolian court of Kublai Khan and by the 16th century Lamaist Buddhist images found a place in every ger. Inside is warm and comfortable. A stove sits in the center of the ger, whilst the back is reserved for the family altar and is the place for elders and honored guests.
    The principal traditional garment, the deel, is a long gown tied with a brilliant sash at the waist. It is worn by both women and men and comes in different weights – lined with sheepskin for winter, quilted for spring, and made of light cloth for summer. Mongolian wrestling, a favorite event at the Nadaam Festival along with equestrianism and archery, has no weight classes and no time limits. The winner is the one who throws or trips his opponent in such a way that some part of his body touches the ground. Buddhism is the main religion among Mongols. Tibetan influence became very strong at the Mongolian court of Kublai Khan and by the 16th century Lamaist Buddhist images found a place in every ger. Inside is warm and comfortable. A stove sits in the center of the ger, whilst the back is reserved for the family altar and is the place for elders and honored guests.


    Motorbike travel has replaced the horse for many families and it is not unusual to see an entire family astride a bike which is just as likely to be seen parked outside a ger as a horse. Gers (yurts) are the traditional felt homes of the nomads. They are found in the rural grasslands. Permanent encampments of gers are found closer to Hohhot. Tied down skillfully to withstand fierce winds, the outer and inner skins are made of canvas, with an insulating layer of felt between. The frame comes apart for easy transportation. The wooden poles (orange like the sun) are called uni, between ten and fifteen of which support each of the khanas, or sections of wall.
    Motorbike travel has replaced the horse for many families and it is not unusual to see an entire family astride a bike which is just as likely to be seen parked outside a ger as a horse. Gers (yurts) are the traditional felt homes of the nomads. They are found in the rural grasslands. Permanent encampments of gers are found closer to Hohhot. Tied down skillfully to withstand fierce winds, the outer and inner skins are made of canvas, with an insulating layer of felt between. The frame comes apart for easy transportation. The wooden poles (orange like the sun) are called uni, between ten and fifteen of which support each of the khanas, or sections of wall.

    Inner Mongolia the Silk Roads

    Equestrian skill
    The key to the Yuan Empire’s success was the Mongolians’ horse-riding prowess. Horsemanship is still valued, and many learn to ride before they can walk. The sturdy Mongolian pony remains an integral feature of life in the countryside for nomadic herders.

    Once-rich grassland reduced to infertile sand
    Once-rich grassland reduced to infertile sand

    Desertification
    The incursion of dry soil into fertile lands, desertification, is caused by overworking the soil and inappropriate irrigation, a major problem in China. In Inner Mongolia, it is severely affecting the traditional way of life, as it destroys grazing pastures. Poor farmers swarm to the area to harvest facai or “get rich” grasses removing the topsoil’s anchoring root-structure. Mongols have been encouraged to abandon the pastoral life and settle as farmers and so increase the pressures on the land.

    The final decline came with the large ships of the 15th century that could travel with less cost, harassment, and danger. Dwindling use saw the gradual abandonment of the caravanserais that had been the merchants’ refuges.
    The final decline came with the large ships
    of the 15th century that could travel with
    less cost, harassment, and danger.
    Dwindling use saw the gradual abandonment
    of the caravanserais that had been the
    merchants’ refuges.

    The Silk Road
    In reality several ancient trading routes between China and eastern Europe, the Silk Road – the term was coined in the 19th century by Baron von Richthofen – first became busy in the Han dynasty, exposing the Chinese capital Chang’an (Xi’an) and ultimately all of China to the influences and styles of an alien world. Technologically advanced, with a large workforce, and a monopoly on some highly valued products, China was well placed to benefit from a massive expansion in trade.

    Silk road commerce
    The merchants who used the Silk Road dealt not only in spices, silk, porcelain and jade but also in gold and silver, wool, Arab horses, and many other commodities. However, it was silk, a mysterious Chinese invention, that particularly captivated the west.

    The Silk Road was a series of routes linking China in the east with the Roman Empire to the west. The principal routes looped south and north of the Taklamakan Desert, to join with other branches from Siberia and India, as they headed through Central Asia and Persia as far as the Mediterranean. The route flourished in periods of calm and declined in times of war.

    The Silk Road
    Camel caravan crossing the daunting Silk Road dunes
    Camel caravan crossing the daunting
    Silk Road dunes

    Foreign ideas and religions
    Contact with foreigners meant traders brought back religions such as Buddhism, which eventually became the national religion, as well as philosophies and artistic styles.

    Gold and silver were not highly prized in China until after contact with the West. These precious metals became fashionable in the Tang dynasty, as shown by this gold teacup with Middle Eastern styling.
    Gold and silver were not highly prized
    in China until after contact with the West.
    These precious metals became fashionable
    in the Tang dynasty, as shown by this gold
    teacup with Middle Eastern styling.

    Emperor Wu & General Zhang Qian
    In the second century BC the Han emperor Wudi saw that his cavalry’s horses – better suited to pulling carts – were struggling against the fast horses of his enemy, the Xiongnu. Therefore he sent Zhang Qian, his general, to Sogdiana and Ferghana to obtain some of their legendary horses. Although the mission failed, the information Zhang Qian brought back about the riches he saw led to the development of trade along the Silk Road, and the Ferghana horses did eventually make it to China.

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