Family Travels: Inner Mongolia

Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Travelers: German couple Peter and Antje Küsters and their son Joel (5). Peter and Antje run landscape and architecture design firm Greenlink Küsters. Friends Tobias Trost, Roman Neubert and Anna-Julia Toll joined the family on their adventure.

The Destination: Inner Mongolia

The Plan: To travel by 4WD for six days and tour the breathtaking Inner Mongolian plateau, camping along the way. The family deliberately made no itinerary, preferring to cruise along freely, as is the nature of such an odyssey. Their only guide: a good map.

The Route: The Küsters avoided large towns and cities on their journey, preferring to scour the magnificent landscape at its remote finest. They first drove north via Fengning, through a steep winding pass and into the plateau which sneaks up suddenly and spreads into undulating grasslands where rolling, fuzzy hills contrast sharply with the craggy mountain pass. Further north, past Duolun, the deep desert blows in and only 4WD vehicles can venture forth. The trip then continued north through the southern reaches of the Gobi desert and completed a loop back to Fengning via Jingpeng.

The road trip: Although the first day’s drive took around six hours, Peter insists this trip is an easy one, and subsequent days’ driving hours are up to the individual. The family traveled four to five hours a day, stopping to lunch in villages or to picnic or just play. The landscape shifted from swelling mountains to grassy plateaus, tinkling creeks to shallow valleys with yurts, grazing horses and roaming cows. They eventually covered 1500km in total.

The vehicle: The Küsters used a 4WD for their travels, however a regular car is fine, as most roads are now sealed. If you plan to go off the beaten track or go into the desert, you will need a car with 4WDing capabilities. Peter suggests having your car serviced and brushing up on your vehicle knowledge. Carry spare parts and a manual, as the middle-of-nowhere is a barren place.

Nourishment: The family stocked the car with water, bread, butter, coffee, peanut butter and toilet paper. They even took meats vacuum-packed at the German butcher; Antje froze the meats which lasted an impressive four to five days, on a slow thaw. Evening meals were cooked on a small gas stove, and a fold-out table and chairs supplied comfortable outdoor dining. The local restaurant food is very basic and includes mutton jaozi and yak meat in strong and fibrous stews.

Where to camp: A pop-up tent that fits snugly on your 4WD roof is ideal, however, a regular camping tent is also fine. Good quality sleeping bags, torches and a lamp are imperative, and Antje suggests using sleeping bags in guesthouses if you decide to stay a night with a roof over your head. The family did stay in one farmhouse for around 10 kuai a night including breakfast. The hosts even offered to slaughter a lamb and cook it for breakfast! The opportunity to stay with locals does present itself, as they are keen to offer goods and services – farm stays, horse rides, guide options and other local goodies.

The elements: The family traveled in October when the days start to cool down. The plateau is at high elevation (around 2000m) so snow in October is not impossible. If you want to see masses of color on the hills, June is wildflower month. The Küsters enjoyed clear blue skies in the day and deep, cold nights, ablaze with constellations, satellites and shooting stars.

Biggest splurge: Petrol. This was such a cheap holiday, the amount of money guzzled by the car paled to insignificance. Although petrol stations are aplenty on most roads, Peter suggests taking every opportunity to fill up, and carry a 10 liter reserve with you.

Biggest bargain: The horse riding offered by locals at between 20 and 30 kuai an hour. It was, for once, a relief to be tracked down by locals offering wares – the family didn’t have to source a single hour’s riding for their son.

Tips: While mobile phones work in most villages, coverage is not guaranteed on the road. If you are traveling in a convoy, invest in a walkie-talkie so you can communicate between cars. For kids, Antje suggests taking a portable DVD player, stories on CD, books, toys, pillows and loads of snacks. Telling stories and playing verbal games passes the time easily. Have lots of pit-stops.

Best sight: The serenity of the landscape – with nothing but the breeze in your hair and the hills in your eyes, with a happy son running across the plain in his new Mongolian cowboy hat, chasing meandering cattle with a lasso.

Best experience: Waking and going to bed with the sun, playing in an unpolluted environment with “clean” dirt, sitting in the dimming light by the camp fire and being far away from telephones, TVs, faxes and computers. For Joel, it was digging holes in the desert, building dams in the creek, riding horses, running up hills, collecting firewood, and learning to appreciate and live with the land. The family feel this is the perfect self-drive holiday… no stress, with the chance to unwind and go where the wind blows you.

See www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/inner_mongolia/

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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