The nomadic hordes that inspired the world’s longest defensive wall are no more. While you may not find legions of horse-riding warriors marching under the banner of Genghis Khan, this land of mystifying deserts and vast grasslands filled with yurts and wandering nomads is one that still conjures up legendary images of the past. To get to these wonderful places you’ll need to make your way through the industrialized south to the swathes of beauty in the north.
Mongolia, seen as a backwards undeveloped place centuries ago, came to prominence in the early 13th century when Genghis Khan united the tribes of the steppes and created a fierce military force fit to conquer the world. The Mongols not only overthrew the Song, Western Xia and Liao Dynasties; but also created the world’s largest contiguous empire to date, stretching from Vietnam to Hungary.
After Genghis Khan’s death in 1227, his grandson Kublai Khan moved the Yuan Dynasty’s capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Dadu (present day Beijing). There, the Mongols learned from the Chinese and adopted much of their customs and technology, turning Beijing into an advanced city that would be one of China’s most important for centuries to come.
The short-lived Yuan Dynasty collapsed in 1368, and the Ming Dynasty quickly filled the power vacuum, incorporating Mongolia into the Han kingdom. Hundreds of years later, the Qing Dynasty (1636- 1912) took control of both China and Mongolia, continuing the integration of Mongolian territory into the Chinese sphere of influence. Also during the reign of the Qing, a mass wave of Han Chinese began migrating to present day Inner Mongolia. After the fall of the Qing in 1912, Outer Mongolia gained full independence, but the KMT retained a large slice of Mongolian land and organized Inner Mongolia into several separate provinces.
When 1921 rolled around, Mongolia fell under the influence of the Soviet Union, who turned the country into a socialist republic, even changing their alphabet from the traditional Mongolian script to the Cyrillic alphabet used by the Russians. Inner Mongolia, on the other hand, remained under KMT rule and thus kept their traditional, vertical alphabet. Today, both the traditional Mongol script and Chinese characters are found all over Inner Mongolia while Mongolia still uses Cyrillic.
Inner Mongolia is one of the fastest developing regions in all of Mainland China. But with development comes conformity, and the province is being “Hanified” with more ethnic Hans migrating each year. Today, about 17% of the population is Mongolian while 79% is Han Chinese, whereas Manchus, Hui and Daur make up the remaining ethnic composition. Most of the Mongolians live in the countryside, so when you travel away from the industrial cities, you’ll discover nomadic herders living in gers, just as they have been since the beginning.
Mongolian Buddhism is also unique and prevalent in Inner Mongolia. Its roots derive from the Tibetan Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s different in many aspects because of the adoption of indigenous animist beliefs. There are many cultural and religious places of interest dedicated to this fascinating religion peppered throughout the vast grasslands, so be sure to check them out when you can.