Summer flowers flourish amid the hardy roots of grass carpeting the undulating hills, but a vegetable patch might not. Horses and sheep have plenty to graze on, and the lack of timber means horse droppings are used for fire fuel.
Traditionally, people lived in collapsible yurts and moved location with the seasons. Now, to hold jobs and send kids to school, they weather life out in brick and concrete structures. Satellite TV has made it here to the Xilamuren district, as everywhere else in the world, and between tending for the sheep and carrying water from the well, our hostess' children watched Chinese game shows and Korean soap operas.
We took a guided tour from our hostel to an area of the grasslands near Hohhot. The idea was that we'd spend some time wandering in the plains, ride Mongolian ponies across the hard packed earth and have a barbecue over a horse-manure-fueled fire. A taste of local culture for modern-day nomads.
The weather had other ideas, and we spent most of our time huddled in blankets and coats. There weren't enough to make it warm. The grasslands were beautiful, but the late summer weather shrouded them in a gray mist and needling rain that made us loath to spend too much time appreciating them. The rain made it too slippery to ride horses, the guide said to our skeptical faces. He wasn't very helpful. The sun went down and it was too cold for the barbecue, he said. We pushed for it, and by midnight had a few chicken skewers painfully grilled over a reluctant fire. I lent him my umbrella for the task, and it came back full of singed holes.
We left early the next day, chilled and understanding perhaps why the early Khans pushed the borders of their empire to more clement climes.
**Click here to see photos of Inner Mongolia**