Tag Archives: hohhot

Datong – Part one

There was so much to see and do here that I have split this into two posts as the photos and blurb was just too much for a single post.

We left Hohhot on what turned out to be a nightmare journey…for me at least. It started with a swelteringly hot, jam packed bus ride to the railway station, which was under renovation. This meant that every departing passenger was wedged into a single waiting room, which would normally handle 2 trains worth of people but was forced to constantly rotate 4 trains worth of people along with the early birds for the next 2-4 trains. All of this in high humidity and no air flow.


The trains are 5 seats wide with three on one side and two on the other. We had seats 14 and 15 which ended up on opposite sides of the train, facing in opposite directions. Jill got the side with 2 on the window while I got the side with three. The first thing that came to our attention was that once the seats were all full there was an additional 30-50 people standing in the aisles as the train had clearly been oversold.

As the ones on my side were friends they decided to share…turning our 3 seats into four and at one point five. Jill on the other hand…happily sat reading her book with herself and the very civilised little Chinese man next to her. The normal Chinese transit rules applied…with the yelling into the phone, smoking in the aisles of the no smoking train, staff selling crap to supplement their incomes (and the spruiking that goes with it), the constant Hrrrccht ptooi, however this trip had the discordant music and singing of a child old enough to be stopped…but wasn’t.

Jill had done her research and found that the hostel in Datong was charging more than the five star hotels…for no apparent reason… So we boycotted, paid half of what the “supposedly” cheap hostel was asking and stayed in a magnificent 4 star hotel (Garden Hotel) where excellent service was the aim and was delivered beautifully. This place was great, fruit platters each day, turndown service with chocolates, super clean, bathtub, full toiletries, and staff that could not be politer or more accommodating if they tried.

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Datong is a city under reconstruction that is walking the line between old, new, renovated and original in an interesting manner. It is in an area rich in coal and is morphing its primary industries from mining to tourism and commerce. In winter the temperatures here get to minus 30 and in summer it gets to about 35 ( which it was while we walked the city walls). It was originally 4 walled cities in close proximity (one for the people, one for business, one for government and one for the military) but the old town section is the one being renovated and the wall is currently 3/4 finished but in the new China way. Some of the streets are done (the outer grid) but the middle sections remain untouched.

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The main streets are wide, clean and lined with newly manufactured, old looking, Chinese buildings. The pedestrian street is identical but without the traffic…but the inner part of the grids are the original town that once was. There are ratty little hovels, narrow alleys dodgy food stalls and street vans and all the best bits that China has to offer. Alas this is being systematically replaced by the new China.

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That said…this town is doing the new China in a semi-authentic manner. They are looking at old photos and are rebuilding with at least a semblance of what once was. LiJiang was a town that had undergone this form of transformation and it was obscene in its newness and blatant commerciality of what was there. At the moment…Datong is walking the line relatively well. There are examples of crassness but overall they are trying to do things relatively authentically.

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The inclusion of imitation medieval weaponry such as trebuchets will do little to aid authenticity but by the same token they have included other things such as the sculpture museum within one of the open courtyards which seems like fun. On one of the walls was possibly the greatest sculpture I have ever seen. It was a 70-100 metre long dragon snaking its way along the wall. As you got closer you found that the entire sculpture was made from Chinese bowls, cups, plates and spoons. This was an amazing sight and quite frankly unexpected.

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IMG_2016 IMG_2013The sculpture museum was not open yet but as we turned the corner we could see down into one of the courtyards and see some of the likely additions to the museum. In reality…we both saw the same sculpture and laughed outright. Obviously this was done by a person with a sense of humour…but the sculpture of a 10 metre obese naked person clinging from the wall broke us both up. To get a sense of scale as to just how big this thing was… Jill headed to the other side of the wall and stood above the hands…if you blow it up and zoom you can get a fair idea of just what we were confronted with. I know that this comment will hurt me later but…Jill’s the one in the hat.

The city walls were originally made of mud/clay…and in parts, remnants of this still remain…but what has been built over the top of the original wall is a magnificent (if fake) city wall. It is fake…but it is also really impressive. The new wall is the width of a 3 lane road and is 14 metres tall with towers and pagodas dotted along is length. From atop the wall you get great views over the renovated and un-renovated sections of the inner city. You can look down on the temples and pagodas and the renovation that is well underway. We hiked this wall for about 2 hrs in an attempt to do a lap before we found that the final section was not complete and we had to backtrack about a kilometre to the closest gate and set of stairs down.

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Having hiked for about 2.5 hrs in 35 degree heat with no shade we found the first shop and inhaled about 1.5 litres of fluid each…before setting off on the next leg of the exploration. The journey to the next point of interest (the Huayan Monastery) saw us passing the local Chinese car yards which just needed to be photographed. One of these little beauties will set you back between $5-7,000. They even have the police pursuit version.

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The Huayan Monastery was original but had recently been given a “facelift”. While not entirely authentic it has been the subject of a really nice renovation and is a beautiful place to kick back. The other key highlight in town was the Nine Dragon Screen which is a 600-year-old screen made of glazed tiles showing nine dragons which is apparently the oldest glazed screen in China. The town actually has a 3 and 5 dragon screens too.

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Hohhot – Inner Mongolia


The original plan for Hohhot was to look around while we got our visas to go to Mongolia proper…then head in to Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival this proved to be incredibly cost prohibitive with the visa and transport options adding up to a ridiculous amount. We would have had to get a train to the border (8hrs), hire a private jeep to cross the border then 10-11 hours on local train or busses on the other side to get to the capital.

Wiki travel tells us that “Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day”. Otherwise the flight would have been $700 each plus the visa costs. We both have the trans-Siberian railway on our bucket lists (Beijing to Moscow) which goes through and stops in Mongolia several times so we decided to skip it. We tried to arrange the trans-Siberian train on this trip but not having Russian visas we would have had to use a broker and the bill got over $10,000 very quickly.

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Having decided that Mongolia was out we had time to kill and plans to make. The hostel we stayed at had organised private tours of the desert, grasslands, Great Wall etc…but they were all very expensive. The Great Wall in this section is really just a mud heap, the desert involved camels which was an immediate no vote from me, and the grassland was just too dear.

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So we stayed in town and checked out the local sights. Firstly, this part of China is very different to the rest and is a little more like our Indian experiences. The street is often used as a toilet here and the sights and smells in certain areas of town reflect this. The development that is in the heart of town has not spread to the inner ring so the drainage, toilets, footpaths and the normal Chinese efficiency did not exist. There was a lot of construction underway to remedy this but alas we were not there yet.

The local busses were their usual cheap and efficient selves with a ride costing 1 yuan each and busses coming regularly enough that only peak times had the sardine squash. Our first ride took us to the museum which was in a complex of four of the largest buildings I had ever seen. The museum was built to resemble the Mongolian steppes so in a way was quite similar to Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra with the building and mountain merging into one.

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It was spectacularly huge with one of the greatest dinosaur exhibits…bear in mind that this part of China is dinosaur alley with lots of fossils etc located in the Gobi desert nearby. We normally don’t take photos in museums, as they tend to be dioramas, but here we found ourselves snapping away. Add to this the local culture exhibits and possibly most impressive of all was the China space program exhibit (with actual space suits and capsules) as well as the mock ups and back stories behind the evolution of the space program and its participants.

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After this we were off to the usual, temple and mosque run and of course our adventures in food land. My first find was the breakfast bao zi shop, then the supermarket where Jill found a semi reasonable muesli, and then GOLD…an imported food shop…with NZ tasty cheese, smoked oysters, pate, prosciutto…there is a god. The next night we hit the restaurant strip after a long day’s hiking in the heat and settled in for some cool ales.

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While drinking our refreshing beverages we watched the next table be delivered an entire leg of lamb on a spit…I went over and asked what it was and to point to it on the menu…being Chinese they immediately offered me some and the deal was done…we had to order this. The menu said it was 48 yuan ($8.23) so we ordered this, some mushrooms and some tofu and a mystery menu item that I randomly pointed at.

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Our lamb came and it was spectacular…alas we later found out it was 48 yuan per half kilo…so our leg was almost 4 times more expensive than we thought…but it was good. The mushrooms and tofu were fine but the mystery item I pointed at turned out being a toasted jam sandwich…don’t ask. This was now our most expensive meal in China at 304 yuan ($52.12) but we had a huge leg of lamb, 6 beers (600ml each) and some small nibbly bits.

Back to the hostel the next day for beers with the others and to watch the World Cup game between Germany and France washed down with many more ales and some pizza from the joint across the road…which actually wasn’t too bad. We met up with the guys we had met on our first day who had disappeared on the overpriced grassland tour and having chatted with them upon their return…we made the right choice as they claim that the tours were not worth the expense.

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It is quite interesting to see how our idea of value has changed during our time away…we always knew that Australia was expensive however the last 10 months has crystallised just how obscene the prices in Australia have gotten. Of course you can have fine dining here and pay through the nose for it…but within a 5 minute walk you can have a huge meal for two, with beverages, for under $20 and more often than not under $15. A single beer can be bought at the local store for between 50 cents and a dollar…everywhere…this will be hiked through the roof to about $2-4 in a restaurant and most main meals will cost about $2-8 depending on the venue.

Long story short is that we will suffer a huge culture shock when we finally decide to return…


After leaving the desert of Dunhuang on an overnight train we landed in Yinchuan having slept very little and checked into a cheapie hotel (which was about five times better than our supposed 4 star number a few towns back). On the way in we spotted the wet market directly opposite and food stalls aplenty along the way…we were clearly in the right part of town.

The place is close to the Ningxia section of the Great Wall and is yet another of our stops along the Great Wall of China. In addition to the wall, there are mosques, drum towers, monasteries, pagodas and the normal Chinese parks and gardens etc. The real reason for the stop was to break the journey as we head to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to get our visas to go to Mongolia proper.

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We basically did not see any westerners the whole time here but the place was great. On our first night we headed out for a meal and on our walk back we came across about 1000 locals dancing in the park and guys giving shoulder massages in the park near the drum tower…a 20 minute massage for $3.40…bring it on…walking about 100 metres further we came across a free Chinese acrobatic show with all the flipping, jumping, human towers and pyramids that you would expect from a highly priced show. Watch this with a gelato from across the road and a good evening was had by all. Two days later and our Acrobatic show was replaced with free Chinese opera and all the squawking and discordant noise your ears could handle.

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The next day we were off…we had been fairly sedentary post Tibet…but apparently we needed to get moving and make up for our lazy days in one hit. So it started…a wander to the bell and drum towers, past the old gate, to the monastery and pagoda…up the pagoda…because all things with stairs must be climbed (the gospel according to Jill). The pagoda was 11 tiers high but each tier was about 2 storeys high…so we basically climbed the stairs of a 18-22 storey building…both ways…but the staircase was only one person wide, dodgy wood and the head height meant that you sconned yourself at every turn if you were not careful.

Having emerged from the pagoda we found the rain had started…so we embarked on an 8 kilometre walk in the rain to get to the museum. Needless to say I did not know that it was that far or I would have boycotted or at least got a bus or a taxi. Walking past the parks and squares was quite nice (if a little long) but the museum at the other end was worth the hike. I had never really gotten into museums etc before this trip but I am a convert…the information, displays, exhibits and histories are fascinating.

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Sanity (Richard) prevailed and we caught a bus back most of the way to our hotel. A fantastic lucky dip meal down the road next to the park…followed by another $3.40 massage (for me) and home to bed. We found possibly the best coffee shop in all of China… it is called ego coffee and has good coffee at (relatively) reasonable prices and has an awesome menu…we have slotted into a morning ritual of bao zi (pronounced bowser…which are steamed bready meat buns…dipped in chilli and vinegar) and followed by our coffee at ego. Sadly we get 20 bao zi for 12 yuan ($2) and 2 coffees for 58 yuan ($10). In fact the food that we have encountered the entire time we have been in Yinchuan has been incredible. The pick had to be the Duck Pancakes…which we have always loved…but there was a mushroom and chilli salad, that was too heavy on the coriander for my tastes, but Jill just simply inhaled while I picked around the evil weed that is coriander.

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Bao zi and Jiao zi (bowser and jowzer) are our staple breakfast foods since arriving in China…the bao zi is the bready one and the Jiao zi is the dumpling (pastaish) one…every now and then you can find these both done on a sizzling plate with beaten (scrambled) egg poured in between them…these are awesome. The bao zi in Shanghai are filled with soup so add a whole new level of difficulty to the uninitiated (as Jill found out when I bit into one sending a stream of hot soup shooting across the table and onto her…she was very happy). Each area has their own versions of both of these…but so far they have all been excellent… and are cheap. Add to this the occasional Gem Bean (Phonetic) which is an eggy thing.

We have actually found our feet when it comes to most of the foods in China…however ordering still poses the various “lucky dip” problems that it did in the beginning. Jill downloaded a child’s game that gives you the name and symbols of various meats so we can sometimes make sense of those. Add to this the rice and noodle symbols and we at least wont starve…nirvana is still a picture menu… Street food is king…it is cheap as chips and awesome tasting…we have progressed from our early meat on a stick forays to being educated pointers…Alas the key issue with china and its provinces…is that the yummy local delicacy may never be seen again which sadly has happened more than once.

The next day we found ourselves (after our breakfast ritual) riding the short bus…we hopped bus #1 and followed it to the end…then got back on and followed it to the other end…then we got on #3 and did pretty much the same thing…after arriving at the largest while elephant of a shopping centre on the planet we decided that we were feeling like special school kids…no more licking of bus windows and off we got…a cold beer and a coffee then back for a cheapie dinner. The last day was spent wiling away our time in the coffee shop as we waited for our 8pm departure on a 10 hr overnight train to Hohhot.