Siren songs of the dunes

By Jules Quartly (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-16 08:00
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 Siren songs of the dunes

Singing Sands Ravine is one of the top attractions in Ordos, Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Photos by Jules Quartly / China Daily

 Siren songs of the dunes

Cast iron Mongolian warriors near the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan.

Ordos might be a frontier tourist town but its fascinating mix of deserts, grasslands, history and culture makes it an ideal destination for the adventurous traveler. Jules Quartly reports

Most visitors to Ordos are domestic businessmen or migrant laborers. International travelers taking a stroll around the sites will likely be asked for a photo by some curious local who will say you are the first foreign face they have seen.

But this parochial vision is changing and the city government is welcoming visitors with open arms, as evidenced by the addition of a new terminal being built at the airport, its hosting of the recent Nadam Games and the Miss World contestants in October.

Ordos is a Mongolian word meaning "numerous palaces" and is one corner of the economic zone known as the "Golden Triangle" of cities in Inner Mongolia autonomous region that includes Baotou and Hohhot.

It is one of the cradles of civilization that dates back at least 50,000 years to "Ordos Man", named by the French Jesuit and geologist Father Emile Licent in 1922, after he found a petrified tooth from one of these early settlers. The area is also an important source of fossil finds.

Siren songs of the dunes

The Ordos Museum in Dongsheng district is as good a place as any to begin your journey of discovery and become acquainted with the area's ancient peoples, a mix of Mongoloid, Europoid and Han ethnicities.

The museum has a world famous collection of bronze ware dating back 2,700 years and an exhibition on the ground floor that highlights the development of Ordos over the past 30 years breathlessly suggests an era of unprecedented change.

Step outside the museum and you will experience the fruits of this new prosperity: busy streets, shiny new malls and half of the city under construction.

While buying cashmere products on Textile Street and a wander around the new public square, festooned with neon and surrounded by impressive new buildings, is worthwhile, transport is required to visit most of the city's 40 official outstanding tourist attractions.

They are grouped under the rather unpromising title of "five districts, two lines and one center" - which refers to the Genghis Khan mausoleum, Kubuqi desert, grassland culture, "Ordos Man" finds, and east Ordos. The lines are railway connections to Beijing and Xi'an, Shaanxi province. The center is "Ordos excellent tourist city".

Midway between Ordos and Baotou is Singing Sands Ravine, part of the Kubuqi desert, and with enough sand to please an army of children. Its 100-meter-tall dunes offer an orchestra of sounds, created by the wind on hot, dry days. Visitors report hearing singing, wind instruments and even the roar of cars and planes, while I heard loud booms and whistles.

There are scaling ladders for the adventurous and a cableway for those who are not. Activities include ropeways, sand skating, riding camels and buggies, making sand sculptures and even paragliding.

It's a good idea to stick around for the sunrise, which can be spectacular. There is also the option of staying in a traditional Mongolian yurt, sitting around a campfire and enjoying a traditional song-and-dance performance called the "Ordos Wedding".

A trip to the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan will naturally lead you to vast swathes of scenic grasslands, like a horse to water. I serendipitously discovered the village of Chengling after getting lost and following a tree-lined avenue for 10 km or so.

Siren songs of the dunes

The smell of horse dung and barbecued meat was the first sign of civilization and it turned out to be a hive of traditional Mongolian activities. This included practicing archery skills and, of course, riding the world-renowned Mongolian horses.

You can stay overnight in a yurt and sample traditional fare. This principally means meat, more meat, and dairy products. Barbecued lamb is a specialty and coated in myriad spices, depending on the locality.

Hotpots may confound some foreigners, unused to dipping raw meats, seafood and vegetables in a flavorsome broth, but they are healthy and tasty. The Mongolian version of the hotpot is less spicy than in central China and has an almost medicinal flavor - traditional Chinese medicine, that is.

When it comes to drink, the local white liquor is strong but smooth, while a cup of milk tea has salt and a knob of butter, rather than sugar.

If you have had enough of yurts and identikit hotels, check out a huiguan, which roughly translated means guild, or meeting place for locals.

In Ordos, families and businessmen like to unwind after a meal with a swim or hot bath, sauna and massage in a huiguan. There is also the option of staying overnight in a communal TV room, or a private room for about 120 yuan ($18). It's generally a wholesome and novel experience, but it should be added some huiguan are more wholesome than others.