The nomadic tribes of the northern steppes have always been at odds with the agrarian Han Chinese, so much so that the Great Wall was built to keep them out. But it acted more like a speed bump than an actual barrier to the Mongol hordes.

Genghis Khan and grandson Kublai rumbled through in the 13th century, and after conquering southern China in 1279 Kublai Khan became the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty. But by the end of the 14th century the Mongol empire had collapsed, and the Mongols again became a collection of disorganised roaming tribes. It was not until the 18th century that the Qing emperors finally gained full control of the region.

A divide-and-conquer policy by the Qing led to the creation of an ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ Mongolia. The Qing opened up Inner Mongolia to Han farmers, and waves of migrants came to cultivate the land. Outer Mongolia was spared this policy and, with backing from the USSR, it gained full independence in 1921.

Now Mongolians make up only 15% of Inner Mongolia’s population. Most of the other 85% are Han Chinese, with a smattering of Hui, Manchu, Daur and Ewenki.

Inner Mongolia’s economy boomed in recent years thanks to extensive mining of both coal and rare earth minerals. That growth came at great environmental cost. The mines swallowed up pastureland at alarming rates and desertification has been the root cause of the dust storms that envelop Běijīng each spring. Only the far north of the region, where the economy is largely based on cattle ranching and tourism, has escaped heavy industrialisation.

A Yurt by Any Other Name...

‘Yurt’, the common name for traditional Mongolian tents, is a Turkish word. The Mongolian word is ger, and the Chinese call them ‘Měnggǔ bāo’ – literally ‘Mongolian buns’ – perhaps because the white structures with their conical tops resemble puffy steamed breads.