There are realists, and there are dreamers. When it comes to national holidays in China, such as the week-long one starting tomorrow, realists outweigh dreamers by nine to one. The vast majority will hunker down at home, or out of obligation make a claustrophobic trek to their hometowns, to hunker down with family.
That still leaves over 130 million people who have convinced themselves that national holidays are a perfect time to stroll the Bund, scale a holy mountain, or pet a panda. These hardy idealists are genetically equipped to chi koo, eat bitterness. To them, the airports and train stations resembling the fall of Saigon are a rite of passage. The six kilometer conga lines to the peak of Huang Shan, a convivial tourist atmosphere. The touts and knick-knack peddlers thick as flies in an outhouse, evidence of China’s booming economy.
The rest of us aren’t so sanguine. But the one in ten rule still applies. And it is to that tenth part we suggest that, this holiday, you go nowhere. Don’t stay home. Go. But head for nowhere, where you can see for miles, breathe volumes, and hear only the occasional grunt of a dyspeptic yak. We refer to China’s vast prairies, wide-open therapy for your cement-pounded soles. Here are our top five picks.
Hulun Buir – Inner Mongolia
A map of China doesn’t resemble a chicken, thank you very much; it’s a rooster. And in the furls of the cockscomb lies Hulun Buir, a prairie named for the two biggest lakes of the region’s six hundred. The two lakes were once star-crossed Mongolian lovers, and the waters are still as pure as their affections. Some 3000 rivers nourish lush prairies as inviting as any Ma and Pa Ingalls ever set eyes on.
But keep your eyes peeled for little yurts rather than little houses. Hulun Buir is known as the Kingdom of Pasturelands to the nomadic tribes still fattening stock there. Even so, there aren’t nearly enough nomads, horses, or sheep to prevent you from clambering over a low rise or two and finding yourself the soul aberration in a world of green grass and blue sky. Make that greenish-brown grass. Early October is a little late in the game to visit, and the nights will frost your nose, but that only means fewer people to disturb your splendid isolation.
There are daily two-hour flights from Beijing to Hailar, closest city to Hulun Buir, and train 1301 leaves Beijing at 9:52 every morning (if 30 hours on the huo che doesn’t phase you). From Hailar, it’s Lets Make a Deal time with local mini-bus drivers. Rest up at Hailar’s Friendship or Laodong Hotels [0470-8332511 / 0470-83338111], or camp under the prairie stars. You could do a lot worse than knocking on a yurt door-flap – local hospitality in Hulun Buir is as warm as the nights are cold.
Zoige Grasslands – Qinghai/Sichuan/Gansu
These are actually the Ruoergai Grasslands, but try saying that five times without needing to spit. The prairie forms a nexus at the three aforementioned provinces, yet the feel is Tibet. Unsurprisingly so, as Zoige prairie greens the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
Gentle verdant hills and Alpine meadows will have you twirling and singing like Julie Andrews. Just don’t get dizzy and stumble into a low-land bog. The prairie is bordered by wetlands that are of crucial ecological import to China but of cold muddy peril to your feet. Both meadow and marsh are paradise for the bird-watchers among you, though. Gray shrikes, snowfinches, perhaps even a rare black-necked crane or Saker falcon may reward the patient with a ruffled feather.
To avoid quicksand or a disgruntled eagle-owl attack, however, stick to the first bend in the Yellow River. Here you’re ringed by green and blue horizon, but never too far from a Tibetan cowboy putting around on an FK125. Besides, the entire vicinity is under the protection of Tibetan monastery Suokezang Si, which faces the bend. You can also orient yourself by the numerous white chortens, or the smell of yak.
The only city you’ve heard of near Zoige is Chengdu. Buses depart from 6 – 7:30 am and take six to twelve hours. The ugly dilapidation of Zoige town will make you appreciate the pristine meadows all the more, as will the nearest settlement to the Yellow River bend, Tangke. Try the Xiangbala [0837 - 2291666] or Tibetan Sunshine [Dazangyangguang - 0837 2292999] Hotels, with an open mind, of course.
Nagqu – Tibet
‘Nagqu’ refers to a river coursing along the southern slopes of the Thanghla Mountains, through valleys and hills best suited to the deep-chested. At an elevation of 4,200 meters, Nagu’s oxygen and warmth will be scarce, even if the skies are deepest azure, with numerous hot springs awaiting by the river.
Much of the area is covered in wormwood rather than grass, which makes for a russet blanket effect reaching to the frosty peaks beyond. The most likely phenomenon to animate your vista are herds of Tibetan antelope and wild asses, or a Tibetan cowboy putting by on an FK125.
Nagqu is a six-hour bus ride from Lhasa, two hours from holy Lake Namtso. You can warm up from the experience at the three-star Nagqu Hotel [0896 - 3822424].
Qilian – Qinghai/Gansu
Back when men were men, the pastures at the foot of Qilian – Heavenly Mountain – were the preferred summer grounds of Attila the Hun. His descendants, the Uygur, still call the meadows at its base heavenly. The Mongols call it “Golden Pasture” for the sea of yellow caragana that bloom on it each summer.
Qilian is the most picturesque of a series of grasslands surrounding it: Xizhang, Dongzhang, and Damaying. With a good horse and a year’s supply of instant noodles, it would be easy to forget that the world was anything but field, stream, and sky. Then again, one would most likely use the mountains as a focal point and eventually wind up at the Qilian Nature Reserve, a trove of virgin forest where snow leopards still prey on musk deer.
Unless you count Attila as an ancestor, you’ll need a sport-utility vehicle for hire in Qilian town, anywhere from a few hours to a day by bus from Xining (former Qinghai tourists understand).
Xilin Gol – Inner Mongolia
It’s another 55 kilometers south to these grasslands from Xilinhot, which in itself requires a considerable shlep from Hohhot by air, or Jining by train. If you make it to that far, try to rent a utility vehicle for the ride out on route 303, where the asphalt ribbons through poplar forests and around Zagyastil Lake. Otherwise, your view on the bus is likely to be compromised by cowboy hats and Elton John style sunglasses.
Or you could do the conventional thing and jaunt fifteen kilometers southeast of Xilinhot to Xiri Tala resort. The area is only nine square kilometers square to Xilin Gol proper’s 3,370, but there you can rent a yurt and battle the eight-legged, hairy brown residents for right of occupancy. Should you survive un-poisoned, make your way to the bend of the Xilin River, Ujimqin, considered by locals the soul of Xilin Gol. If the scenery doesn’t take your breath away, the Mongol’s show that night back at the yurts will, and their fiery liquor your inhibitions and cares.