Pure Air and Pastel Fairytales: Aershan, Inner Mongolia 内蒙古和阿尔山

There's something about the air in Inner Mongolia I can't quite put my finger on. It makes everything clearer and brighter, it makes colours more intense, it makes food taste more delicious, and it turns your skin a deep nut brown. It has qualities no other air in the world seems to possess. It makes you sleep better, with pleasant dreams, and awake refreshed. It is in fact better than any kind of medicine or tonic and I highly recommend breathing it for several days just to experience its mysterious benefits for yourself.

After twenty long days on the road and more than 3500km from Shanghai we passed into Inner Mongolia, a place I have long dreamed of visiting. I'm not entirely sure what I expected to find, since most of my inner images of Inner Mongolia are, on reflection, from Mongolia, the country that is the cup to Inner Mongolia's saucer. 

In my mind's eye I see nomadic herders featured in The Song of the Weeping Camel - a 2004 documentary, and I see a small pile of photographs from a friend who visited Mongolia more than twenty years ago. From the former I remember nothing but desert, and from the latter, an overwhelming sense of green. Could either of these be remotely like Inner Mongolia?

As it turns out, green is everywhere. Entering Inner Mongolia via the border town of Ulanhot we drive immediately north towards A'ershan, some 250km away. A'ershan (on some maps written as Arxan) has hot springs, and I've seen a photograph of the town taken from a meadow full of flowers. It sounds interesting and fanciful, and lacking any better plans we decide to visit. This is the joy of having your own wheels - on nothing more than half a whim you can go anywhere you want.

The road - sometimes dirt, often potholed, occasionally smooth and fast - meanders through valleys between rolling green hills, with fields of coloured wildflowers - pink, white, yellow and purple - everywhere you look.  On the hillsides flocks of white sheep and goats, tended by shepherds, roam feeding on the sweet green grass. Clusters of small red-brick farmhouses nestle between the soft folds of the hills. 

Winding rivers with rocky beds and clear cold water line the valleys beside the roads, shaded by groups of trees. It's beautiful, and you want to drive with the windows open and the wonderful air, warm and smelling of summer, filling your lungs.

So when, hours later, we drive into A'ershan, the town comes as a complete surprise. It's a busy place with a wonderful quirky European feel, a popular destination for travellers in this north-east part of Inner Mongolia, and has the added attraction of famous hot springs, but it warps my mind completely. 

The long broad streets (well, just one long broad street actually, bisecting the town) is lined with ornate pink, gray and peach sherbet coloured buildings with wedding cake white trimming, tourists and locals alike making the most of the warm summer evenings by promenading after dinner, Italian style. Behind the town the velvety green hills roll on and on in endless waves.

Those not walking take a turn in one of many horse-drawn carriages clipping smartly down the street past the China Post building in the late afternoon light, white spokes spinning as the top-hatted driver urges the horses on.

I'm feeling quite dislocated now - I have mental images of the Sound of Music, several Walt Disney fairytales, and Switzerland in summer mashing together in my head and I need to constantly remind myself that I'm in China. China. Adding to the confusion, the local souvenir shops are doing a brisk trade in his and hers taxidermied deer, and all of a sudden I'm mentally in Braemar Castle, Scotland, where every room is graced with a handsome pair of stuffed deer. 

Perhaps this is all one giant surreal movie set, and we're all extras. It's entirely possible, I decide. At the end of the street a giant futuristic sculpture marks the town's one and only roundabout, manned by a starched policewoman standing on a red and white striped pedestal and wearing a navy pillbox hat and doing a great job of keeping the horse-drawn carriages and promenaders in order.

I would like to have stayed longer in A'ershan, soak in the hot springs and visit all the pastel buildings, but Inner Mongolia's biggest festival, Naadam, is calling us from 1600km away. We better get going!



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