In a splendidly monumental building, Inner Mongolia's provincial museum is educational, interesting and spacious. Although mainly a 'glass cabinet' museum, the mseum-keepers of Hohhot have done a great job with very little money.
On the ground floor, the two halls concentrate on the fossils and prehistory (left) and modern-day Inner Mongolia (right): with the massive deployment of hyperbole in the latter hall, the visitor can be forgiven for occasionally forgetting which hall they are in. The prehistory hall is just fantastic, with well lit exhibits, particularly of the incredible range of dinosaurs and fossilised mammals found in the province. I normally hate the dinosaur museums as much as my kids love them, but this was a real joy. Unusually for China, each exhibit inclues maps of where the fossils were found.
The highlight is the reconstructed skeleton of a nuoerosaurus chaganensis, which is so big it has its own hall out at the back. This is one seriously big beast, the height of a three storey building and longer than two city buses (but quicker). It was discovered in 1985.
The section panels in the museum are in Chinese, Mongolian and English, but individual exhibits are labelled in Chinese only.
As on the western ide of Dananjie, Anda Khan's city is fast disappearing. Modern buildings are arising from the ashes of Anda Khan's 450 year old city. New apartment blocks are encroaching on the alleys and squat brick buildings.
A ten minute walk from Wutasi to the Xilitu lamasery takes you through the heart of Guihuacheng.
Turn left outside the temple, walking west. Note that many buildings are built on a stone base. This protected the houses from flood water. This base, uncemented in the old days, also allowed air to circulate under the floor so keeping houses cool. In winter, firewood would be stocked against the walls so cold air would not flow through the cracks. A downside of this was that the cracks also allowed rodents to get in. These would be regularly smoked out!
Many of the buildings are constructed from red brick, but there are many walls made of mud and straw, and many more using the tamped earth.
Notice also the long overhang of the roofs on many buildings: this kept the high summer sun out, yet allowed the lower winter sun in.
Turning right at the T-junction you come into a square, with a ceremonial gate slowly decaying at the north end. All around are stores, pool tables out in the open, and food stalls. The new buildings are obvious on the western side. Note the Manchurian style of some of the entrances to houses on the east side.
At the north end of the square, a road leads away to the west (left). On the corner here, on the north side, is a really nice two storey building, still occupied.
On the last 200 metres to Xilitu there is a variety of building style. The buildings to the south face away from you, while the buildings to the right face towards you. Particularly notice the larger house on the left at the kink in the road: its roof line is classic Mongolian Chinese. It incorporates the barrel style found in the predominantly Mongolian north, with the offset ridge line (shorter on the north side) common in southern parts of Inner Mongolia. I saw no other examples of this blend of styles.
Xiletu Zhao (also known as Xiao Zhao - 'small temple') is to be found close to Da Zhao and not far from Wutasi.
It's hard to get information about it. It was built in the Ming dynasty, and accoridng to Lonely Planet it burnt down and was rebuilt in the nineteenth century - but other sources just refer to expansion and repair at this time.
The fourth Dalai Lama studied at Xiletu Zhao, and its still an active religious centre - a Living Buddha can sometimes be spotted in the grounds. My Yuquan guidebook has a picture of the Living Buddha Zamasu presenting a 'hada' to Jiang Zemin.
The main hall (Da Dian) is Tibetan, otherwise the architectural style is Chinese.
Perhaps the most interesting feature's the stupa (photo).
The grounds are full of prayer flags; I found the waving colours soothing, as I did the general sense of quiet and seclusion.
Check out the shops: one of them had Buddhist wall hangings so cheap that it was hard to believe we weren't paying the Chinese price, although this is unlikely!
This is not the only 'tomb' of the Han heroine - no-one really has any idea where's she's buried.
To many Chinese people, the phrase 'When Zhao Jun went beyond the Great Wall' is a resonant one. It implies being willing to take risks, to sacrifice comfort to achieve a socially important goal.
In 33BC, Zhao Jun left the security of Chang' an (modern Xi'an), one of the greatest cities in the world in her time, to marry the Emperor of The Xiongnu a 'barbarian' northern tribe. She was one of the Han Emperor's concubines, and legend has it that she was too honest to bribe the court painter, so he painted an unflattering portrait, and consequently the Emperor, who had far too many women to get round to them all, never saw her and was glad to put her name forward when the request came to provide a bride who would cement Han-Xiongnu relations. But most versions of the story stress that 'she married herself to the grasslands of her own free will'
She became hugely popular with her new people, and helped promote 60 years of Han-Xiongnu peace. All over this memorial complex the written material (plenty in English) draws the moral: co-operation between China's different nationalities benefits all of them.
The small memorial pavilion (photo) is set on top of a hundred foot high mound, and there are gardens, steles, a Zhao Jun cave-shrine, and various other things to do and see. You can, for example, get your photo taken wearing Mongolian costume, standing on a traditional chariot (Ifor some reason I did) or listen to traditional Chinese music (all but one musician refused to play because we were ignorant foreigners - one of our party understood their conversation, which was hardly an example of the internationalist spirit of Zhao Jun!)
But a trip out here (easily accessible by bus from the main station) is a pleasant way of getting to know about a Chinese heroine little known in the West.
Gegentala is the closest grassland from Hohhot, about 145 kilometers away or 2 hours drive by car. Once we past the highway, a winding main road spreads far into the grassland, passing beautiful rocky landscape appear to be untouched by man. Gorgeous gorgeous landscape that I've never encountered in China.
The scenery gradually changes from vast spread of colorful crops patches - the farmland of Inner Mongolia - to flat grassland with overlapping endless rolling hills in the backdrop.
It's sooo vast that makes me feel sooo small and insignificant. My first reaction was to inhale deeply as if trying to inhale the beauty around me. It's just so fascinating.
The Tabansuburga or Xiaozhao lamasery has disappeared, but we are left with the spectacular five-pagoda (or Wu ta) structure on its northern edge. It formed part of the Cideng temple of the lamasery. The whole complex was built during the time of emperor Yongzheng (reigned 1727 to 1732)
This is a rare structure because it is in the Indian Xumi style, and the only similar one in China is the Zhenyuesi in Beijing. The Diamond Sutra is carved on the stupa in Mongolian, Tibetan and Sanskrit. The whole structure is covered in carvings of Buddha. In between the Buddhas are an incredible number of other carvings of animals, birds, monsters, people and the whole array of Buddhist symbols. It is claimed that the monks of the lamasery would take the goldfoil offerings of worshippers at the lamasery and stick them onto the Buddhas so that the whole structure glittered in the sunshine. It must have been spectacular.
However, the absolute star of this stupa is much more discreet: on the rear wall are three marble panels. One of them is a circular panel showing the night sky. It contains all the constellations and individual stars with the legend in Mongolian. This is the only Mongolian star chart in existence. The version on the rear wall (the original position) is a copy, as the oriinal is now kept in the entrance lobby of the stupa, behind plexiglass. The copy is easier to read, but the original just makes the hairs on your arms stand up.
You can climb up to the main platform of the stupa, but ayone above 5' 2" needs to take care because the roof profile of the staircase is very low, especially towards the top. On the main pagoda are carved the feet of Buddha.
The shops in the remaining temple buildings are better than the average temple shops: the staff are friendly and unaggressive, and serve a good cup of tea and will bring hot water if you have coffee sachets!
Note that the shop on the left has some stunning little watercolours of the Mongolian grasslands for RMB40, one of the nicest souvenirs I know of Inner Mongolia.
This quiet secluded lamasery lies half way down Dananjie (not on Tongdao jie as suggested by Lonely Planet), in the heart of the old town of Guihuacheng, and its solitude and serenity makes it one of the nicest places in Hohhot. I can find little information about Xilitu lamasery anywhere.
It is much quieter than the nearby Dazhao lamasery.
It is brick-built (unlike Dazhao which is a wooden structure) and the main hall is a particularly attractive (perhaps unique?) building, having a Tibetan form with a Chinese roof (why?).
This lamasery was known as the gem of the Hohhot lamseries, and it was here that the fourth Dalai Lama, Yundanjiasuo, studied. His presence certainly would have strengthened interest in Buddhism in the southern steppes of Mongolia.
Unfortunately, the rather unusual stupa on the east side has recently been painted so that the carvings and lettering is in bright paint. I do not know if this is authentic to the original (many other Buddhist carvings in this area are also painted), but I have seen early 20th Century photographs where the carvings are unpainted.
Local tour guides were just stunned to be introduced to this. One of the highlights of my visit to Inner Mongolia was the looks on their faces when I showed it to them.
Note that the state of the wall here makes it very difficult to photograph in a way that does justice to it.
Wuliang of the Zhao State built a fortified wall around 300BC, which extended east-west between the Huanghe and the Yinshan mountains. The wall was generaly built 150 to 300 metres in from the lowest foothills and at the most strategic point across long valleys into the mountains.
Near Hohhot, the most convenient place to see the Zhao wall is in the upper part of the Wutusu Forest Park in the long valley that runs northwards.
Ask your driver to take you to Wutusu, but when you come to turn right off the tarmac lane (by a big blue sign) continue straight on up the road, basically heading for the huge cliffs towering over the valley to the west. The road becomes a dirt road, but still well-used and more villages are passed. You should end up on the western slopes of the river, and eventually you will come to an enormous gravel quarry. The Zhao wall runs east-west straight across the valley. At the very west side of the valley, the wall forms the northern edge of the quarry. It looks like a grass embankment about 2 to 3 metres high with humps every 50 to 100 metres: these are probably the remains of watchtowers. Do not expect to see any stone or brick! The wall here ends (at the west end) where a mountain stream splits as it comes into the main valley. At the east end, it ends above the alluvial floodplain. It will continue on the other side of the valley: I didn't have time to cross over. At this end, there seems to be the base of a large fort extending *outside* the wall: this would be to stop marauders coming down the riverbed when it was dry.
Finally, as you stand on it, remember that this wall is 1800 years OLDER than the bits around Beijing!
The Dazhao lamasery barely merits a mention in the tourist literature (not at all in Lonely Planet either), and is not even shown on any maps, yet it is central to the history of this city. Without the Dazhao lamasery, there Hohhot would probably not exist, and Fengzhou to the east would probably be a flourishing village (see Baita entry).
Situated at the very centre of Guihuacheng, the Dazhao lamasery is a testament to the courage, guile and foresight of a man unknown even in China. Anda Khan (also known as Altan Khan) managed to reunite the local Mongolian tribes in the early 16th Century, and it is thanks to him that much of the Ming dynasty Great Wall was built all around Beijing: it was to keep him out, yet all he really wanted to do was trade with China! The Chinese court remembered the Mongolian Yuan dynasty and didn't want Mongolian's having access to the markets and cities of the Chinese empire.
In 1577, Anda Khan travelled to Amdo, in modern-day Qinghai, to visit Tibetan lamaists. He converted to Buddhism, and created the position of Dalai Lama. (And you thought he was a Tibetan incarnation, huh?). He returned to his city of Koke kota and started building a lamasery to hold a giant silver buddha that he had promised the monks he would build: and he did. The first Dalai Lama travelled to Dazhao in 1579 for the Ceremony of Heavenly Light for the silver buddha - both the silver buddha and the chair that the Dalai Lama used remain in Dazhao.
In the excitement, as lamaism grew in strength in the city, more lamaseries were built, and at one time, 10% of the city's population were monks. This naturally attracted more Buddhists, including the exiled White Lotus sect.
And then the legends kick in.
On reaching the Daheihe (Big Black River) on the Tumdchuan Plain, the land was frozen and deep snow lay everywhere. The young princess got her pipa out and began to play sweet music, whereupon the snow melted, grass sprouted and the area became hospitable. The Khan and his men were wel impressed with this display of musical talent, and decided to settle down in the area. This began the settlement of the area now occupied by Hohhot, and Wang Zhaojun's mausoleum is just three kilometres south of the bridge over the Daheihe.
The legends continue apace, usually involving the princess - Chinese remember - playing music and everything turning out wonderful. There is absolutely no mention of the - barbarian - Khan. Wang Zhaojun is credited with the "endless and boundless harmony between the Mongolian and Chinese people" (sic). There is a message here: I can understand it, and it reads as chronic and unnecessary insecurity.
The mausoleum provides great views over the plain for as far as the day's factory smoke output allows, but the most poignant view is of the Mongolian tomb lying just 500 metres away to the north-west. What story lies behind this unknown and unvisited ancestor?
Weekends seem to be the best time to explore a bit more of the city - temple hopping, only this time, we were busy drooling over beautiful antiques down the antique street right behind the temple.
Antique hunting can be such a great fun. We found 4 piece of wooden scripting, just beautiful.
About 7 mnts drive from the hotel there's this Dazhao Temple, easily spotted from a distant thanks to its bursting colors of its walls and roofs. According to the guidebook, it was built in the 1580 and also known as the Infinite Temple.
The open worship halls are as always, packed with people, hot and sweaty.
But once we set foot in the chanting hall, we could feel the difference almost instantly - the room almost vibrates its own energy from many chantings day and night, high ceilinged with gigantic incense coil hung down from above, rows of worn out chanting mats, ceremonial trumpet, tingsha and ceremonial garbs.
This is about 15km out of town. You can hire a taxi - 60 RMB would be a fair price for the roundtrip plus waiting time - or get a local bus (buy a tourist map and show the people at the bus station information hut the picture of the pagoda). Don't try to get there by train unless you speak fluent Chinese and can ask for directions when you get to the station (and LP's train info is all wrong).
Also: bring a torch if you can, as the pagoda's dark inside.
The pagoda's considered one of the best remaining examples of the religious architecture of the eleventh century Liao Dynasty. Inscriptions in various languages - including Mongolian, Tibetan and Western Xia - illustrate the way in which Buddhism helped to bring about cultural interaction in the Chinese territory.
It's a white painted, seven storey octagonal building with Buddhist sculptures on the outside of the first two stories. Climb to the top and you'll find a chamber with a small altar, and on it a Guan Yin (Boddhisattva of compassion), a few other figures, and probably some scanty offerings. Legend has it that the pagoda once contained 10,000 volumes of scripture, but there's nothing of that kind here now.
You'll also get views of the grasslands, although really you're only on the edges.
It's worth spending a little time walking in the gardens. Funny thing: every time I looked at the pagoda I thought it was leaning over, but I couldn't decide in which direction!
If you're returning by bus, just wait outside the pagoda and one'll be along
The temple was known in the early days as the Hongci temple, but has also been known as the Wuliangsi (at the end of the Ming dynasty).
In the main hall, as well as the sacred and famous buddhas, there are two additional spectacles: the Yueminglow painting and the curious gilt dragon carvings on the two main central columns. The former is painted with mineral paints and has remained fresh down the centuries; the latter must be unique as a specifically Han Chinese feature in a Mongolian lamasery. If it was there from the outset, it is yet another poignant symbol of Anda Khan's conciliatory approach towards the sensibikities of his southern neighbours.
Dazhao is spectacular, and is really a symbol of Mongolian and Chinese friendship more than any other more obvious symbol in Inner Mongolia.
Behind the new buildings lining Danan jie lies the 450 year old city of Guihuacheng. A quick look at any street map of Hohhot shows the outline clearly, with the circular walls - clearly out of synch with the grid layout of the rest of the city.
Around the Dazhao lamasery, Guihuacheng (which translates as 'City beyond civilization' is fast disappearing). The replacement buildings are predominantly grey brick Qing Chinese structures: Qing buildings and grey brick have never been seen in Hohhot, so while the buildings are sympathetic, they are totally out of character with the culture and locale. The new buildings do have space for the shophouses and restaurants so the authorities deserve credit for their attention to ensuring the livelihoods of local people, but it is a pity that he buildings could not better reflect the local architectural style and use local materials.
Sadly, apart from the main shopping street running east away from Dazhao, Guihuacheng has degenerated into a slum, and the rebuilding is understandable. One block east of Dazhao lamasery, the new buildings end, and you are back in a neighbourhood that is largely 450 years old. There is a maze of alleyways and old buildings: however, the area to the south of the street has already been totally razed. At the far end of the street, about a five minute walk, the road ends by the fetid mess of the river bed of the Wuishahe river-bed. The city walls have long gone - I think they had even gone by the time Francis Younghusband visited Guihuacheng in the 1880s (read "The Heart of a Continent" for his recollections; pity he was such a died-in-the-wool racist and imperialist).
There is a tiny riverside park, in the Stalinist style with concrete structures, broken foortpaths and weed-infested. The street running north from here is basically an open sewer and unpassable before, during, and after rain or when it is dry.
The area east of Danan jie provides a better picture of the old city, but it is worth coming down to the east side as a comparison.
9km south of Hohhot, is the site that all the tour guides want you to see, and it is certainly worth seeing, but I would recommend understanding what you are seeing before you go: it helps set the historical context but also provides a bit of an understanding of patterns of migration and the relationship China has had (?) with its peripheries.
The mausoleum is a small garden complex, with a 30m high mound forming the mausoleum. Actually it is one of several in China for this princess of Chinese legends.
The story is simple and poetic, but read between those lines and remember it as you travel through Inner Mongolia.
Wang Qiang, as she was, from Zigui in Hubei, was a minor concubine of the Western Han emperor Yuandi. Successive emperors had been troubled by the migrations and serious atitude of the Xiongnu tribes, particularly in the Ordos area (inside the great northern lop of the Huanghe). In 51BC, Emperor Xiangdu invited the Xiongnu Khan to the capital Chang'an (near modern-day Xi'an, Shaanxi) and they got on well. In 33BC, the then Khan Huhanye Chuanyu (as he is constantly referred to in China) requested a Chinese princess. Needless to say, there was little enthusiasm among the court princesses, used to the luxury of Chang'an. Then young Wang Zhaojun steps forward and volunteers to be married to him. It was maybe a better bet than spending the rest of her days managing the court library. They were duly married at Chang'an and returned north to the Khan's homelands.