Northern Inner Mongolia's largest city, Hǎilā’ěr (海拉尔) is a busy, rather ordinary place. Don't fret, the city isn't the draw: surrounding the town range the expansive Hūlúnbèi’ěr Grasslands, a vast prairie that begins just outside the city and rolls northwards towards the Russian and Mongolian borders, seemingly forever.
This thriving border city, where the Trans-Siberian Railway crosses from China to Russia, is a pastel-painted boomtown of shops, hotels and restaurants catering to the Russian market. Unless you look Asian, expect shopkeepers to greet you in Russian. Mǎnzhōulǐ (满洲里) is modernising at lightning speed, but a few Russian-style log houses still line Yidao Jie.
In the far west of Inner Mongolia, Bayanhot (阿拉善左旗; Ālāshàn Zuǒqí; also called 巴彦浩特; Bāyànhàotè) is most easily reached by land from Yínchuān in Níngxià. If coming from Níngxià, it can serve as a handy one-stop introduction to Mongol culture, its language, food and the vast deserts and high blue skies of far western Inner Mongolia.
The largest city in Inner Mongolia, booming Bāotóu (包头) is no oil painting, sprawling across more than 20km of dusty landscape, much of it an industrialised smear. However, if you’re heading to the Wǔdāng Lamasery and Genghis Khan’s Mausoleum, you may find yourself passing through and maybe stopping for a night.
Far West Inner Mongolia
The golden deserts, shimmering lakes and ruined cities of western Inner Mongolia are fantastic places for adventures far from the beaten track. With new airports in the three major towns across the region now providing links to Hohhot and Xī'ān, the Badain Jaran Desert and ancient town of Khara Khoto are far more accessible than before.
The 'very fine marble palace' described by explorer Marco Polo and eulogised and immortalised by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a 'stately pleasure-dome' is today little more than a vast prairie with vague remnants of its once mighty walls, but it continues to have an allure that is far greater than the sum of its remaining parts.
A small Russian-style town of log cabins located right on the É'ěrgǔnà River, which marks the border with Russia, Shì Wěi (室韦) is deep within the glorious grasslands. Shì Wěi itself is no longer the backwater it once was and the commercial summer tourist season gets busy with domestic visitors, although very few foreigners make it up here, especially out of season.
The small township of Ēnhé (恩和), located 70km north of Lābùdálín en route to Shì Wěi, is one of the area's unsung villages brimming with an unhurried and authentic atmosphere. Surrounded by hills and acres of lush grass, the village only recently opened to tourism, so a low-key vibe survives. Many residents are of Chinese-Russian origin; some could easily pass for Russians.