Dismounting in Manzhouli
Published: Aug 10, 2012 06:40 PM Updated: Aug 11, 2012 12:18 AM
Mongolian yurts in Huhe Nur
Mongolian yurts in Huhe Nur Photos: Xu Liuliu/GT

When thinking of the landscape that lies far north of Beijing, the line "a scene of clear skies, vast grasslands, and cows and sheep that dawn over the grass as the wind blows" must come into your mind. People like me who hail from China's eastern coastal plains, which boast beautiful greenery in their own right, are still enchanted by the idea of a visit to the northern grasslands. A nearly three-hour flight north from Beijing took me to the border city of Manzhouli in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where China, Russia and Mongolia meet.

Before leaving for the trip, I had hoped to do some homework on the Internet. However, I was disappointed to find no specific advice other than to enjoy Hulunbuir Prairie, one of the most beautiful grasslands in the world.

When I got off the plane, the Russian-style airport reminded me that the city would be full of Russian flavor. The Shangri-La Hotel that I booked even prepared a welcome ceremony for us, very much in the Russian style, presenting a loaf of bread with a salt shaker on top to each guest. As many Russians used to do business in Manzhouli, over the years, many have chosen to spend vacations there, and the tradition has spread.

Little trip on the prairie

Manzhouli is a small city with a population of about 200,000, mostly ethnic Mongolians. A local friend advised us to spend one day exploring the city if our main aim was to see the grasslands. In fact, the city is located in the middle of a vast grassland. Drive in any direction for 20 minutes and you will find yourself surrounded by greenery.

Be sure to rent a car or mini bus for such a trip, as you will travel long distances between different scenic spots.

We set out along the highway to the first stop, the Huhe Nur Grassland Scenic Spot. Through the windows on both sides I looked out on the boundless rolling land. From time to time, we saw cows grazing along the road, and sometimes crossing the street.

It was a pity to see that the vast prairie is no longer one continuous span, but rather divided into small pieces, each owned by herdsman. Our guide said that people wait with their cows to cross the road and then continue their trip. As the local old saying goes, humans have their own road and so do the cows. They know how to go home by walking along the boundary fences.

An introduction to this mysterious land occurred along the way. Enthusiastic discussion on history and culture ensued among us travelers while epic TV dramas of Mongolian hero Genghis Khan aired on the bus. Mongolian songs danced into my ears from passing SUVs. I felt transported, lost in the feeling of a true road trip. Sometimes the most charming part of a trip is the scenery you encounter and the time you spend on the way to the destination.

Most herdsmen no longer live in traditional Mongolian yurts, which can be removed and set up again quickly when families relocate. Because of the booming travel industry, local people have permanently built  Mongolian yurts on scenic spots like Huhe Nur for travelers to experience the herdsman's life. Nowadays Mongolian yurts, once a symbol of the tradition of the great Mongolian people, are now built on cement ground, equipped with air-conditioning and indoor plumbing.

 Matryoshka Square 
The Russian Art Museum Photos: Xu Liuliu/GT
Ovoo, Bökh and lakes

In old times, people worshipped the gods, asking for their blessings. In the plains areas, they do it at temples. Here, local people have ovoo, cairns carved out of rocks at the top of mountains and other places. Almost every scenic spot including Huhe Nur has an ovoo at the entrance, large or small. It is customary to stop and circle an ovoo three times going clockwise, in the hope of a safe journey. Following local custom, I picked up a small rock and threw it into the cairn after I finishing circling.

Horseback riding is a must for travelers to this area, though these days the local people drive motorbikes or cars instead. Mongolian horses, once known as the best in the world for helping the Mongolian army to conquer the region, are very strong and fiery. The idea of riding one of these horses excited me when I imagined the speed and loyalty of a horse on the battle field.

In this region, horsemanship is of the "three manly skills," which also include archery and B?kh, Mongolian wrestling. The locals are born horseback riders. One of the locals showcased his skills of vaulting onto the saddle and standing on the horse while riding.

According to the local tradition, airag, or fermented horse milk, is offered along with toasting songs when distinguished guests visit. The host stands at the entry of the yurt and offers a bowl of airag as a guest dismounts from his horse. It seems in the prairie every tradition or custom is reminiscent of Temüjin, later known as Genghis Khan, and this one is no exception.

It is said that Jamukha, a Mongol military leader who was an anda (childhood friend) and sworn brother to Temüjin, plotted to poison Temüjin after he rose and unified several tribes. Jamukha prepared a bottle of poisoned wine for Temüjin as he arrived for a meeting of the two sides. His father had died from poisoning and he was extremely careful about drinking anything. After dipping his fingers into the bowl, Temüjin declared that it should be offered to the sky. He thought Jamukha would give up, but to his disappointment, a second bowl was offered. This one he sacrificed to the earth. The third was offered to the Mongolian ancestors. Jamukha finally gave up and offered untainted airag to his anda.

Thousands of years passed and the tradition lives on, but it's not as authentically presented for travelers from the outside world. The songs are still very powerful and pleasing to the ear, and the ceremony is the same as in older times. But wine, less prized than airag, is offered to tourists, and the mood soured when the unfinished portion was poured back into a pot for the next group.

Almost every one of these scenic spots is built near a lake. Hulun Buir Prairie gets its name from the nearby Hulun Lake and Buir Lake. Huhe Nur is another, smaller lake in the area. In Mongolian, Huhe Nur means cyan, referring to the blue color of its waters.

With the blue sky and white clouds above, and the breeze over the lake, it was a perfect moment to enjoy some food in a yurt with Mongolian songs and performances. Accompanied by traditional horse-head instruments, the performers sing songs from "Father's Prairie, Mother's Lake" to "Hulun Buir, Great Prairie."

Upon request, they will also perform Bokh, the exercise that every Mongolian man has practiced since childhood. Mongolian wrestling is perhaps better known through the name of the Naadam festival, which takes place every July. Bokh is the most important part of every Naadam festival. The two wrestlers, often wearing jodag, tight, collarless, short-sleeved jackets and gutal, traditional leather boots, enter the field, imitating the steps of eagles. The winner is announced when any part of his opponent's body above the knee touches the ground. If both fall, another round begins until one is the clear victor.

The view of Hulun Lake is breathtaking, as long as you can endure the bumpy three-hour ride to the site. Partly thanks to the bad road, the area around the lake is less developed, reserving its original flavor. Local families spend the weekends there, enjoying picnics and swimming.

A border town with Russian flair

When we got back to the city, I had a whole day to wander around. Manzhouli's downtown area is only a few blocks, making it feel more like a town. In addition to the Russian travelers you meet on every corner, the road signs and neon shop signs in Chinese, Mongolian and Russian remind tourists that they are in a border town of three countries. Due to the global economic recession, the number of Russian travelers and businessmen has decreased in recent years. If not for this, you might forget you are still in China. 

The main city attractions include Matryoshka Square, the National Gate, the Russian Art Museum and the Wedding Palace. Matryoshka Square is a large square featuring Russian Matryoshka (nesting) dolls. Hundreds of dolls featuring various cultural flavors from Brazil to the Netherlands surround the main building, a 30-meter-tall Matryoshka doll. The doll, also the biggest in the world, has a theater and a restaurant inside. The fa?ade is painted with three girls, from China, Russia and Mongolia, on three panels. The Russian Art Museum, just next to the square, features reproductions of famous Russian paintings and sculptures.

 The Russian Art Museum
Matryoshka Square Photos: Xu Liuliu/GT
Nightlife and food

Despite its small size, the city is rich in nightlife, and it seems to be a rule that every large restaurant and bar must have a stage. A performance was scheduled at 9pm at the Salt and Bread Russian Restaurant in my hotel. It is common to see Russian dances and hear Chinese and Mongolian songs while enjoying distinctly Russian dishes.

Local people favor Mongolian foods from shoubarou, hand-held meat, to hot pot. Locals are proud to say that they have the best lamb in the world because the sheep graze on the best grasses and drink spring water while being serenaded by Mongolian herdsmen.

Most restaurants serve hot pot and barbecue, especially roasted whole lamb. Russian food is also welcome here. But if you want to partake of the renowned all-fish feast, it is better to find a restaurant near Hulun Lake or Buir Lake.


1. The best months to visit are June, July and August because of the extremely cold winter, which can reach minus 40 Celsius degree. Unless you aim to experience extreme cold, plan your trip for the summer.

2. If you like driving and have plenty of time, you can drive from Beijing and other large cities in the north. Otherwise, air travel is the most convenient. There are some car rental companies in the city that you can book ahead of the trip. After all, cars are essential to a visit to the grasslands.

3. The city mainly relies on tourism now because of the recession plaguing international trade. It is not difficult to find a hotel, but it can be a challenge to find a good one in August, the busiest month. It is best to use the Internet to book rooms in starred hotels like Shangri-La, the only five-star hotel in the city, before the trip.

4. It is still cool during the summer season in Manzhouli. Be sure to bring a coat and an umbrella, in case of sudden rain on the prairie.

5. Air-dried meat, and dairy products from milk tofu to candies are good gifts for friends. Matryoshka dolls that are found in every street shop are also a nice option for souvenirs.