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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!

内蒙古和阿尔山
内蒙古的空气中有种物质我无法描绘出来。它让所有的事物都更为纯净和透亮,它让更加美味,它把你的肤色变成深棕色。它拥有世界上其他地方的空气都未拥有的品质。它让你带着好梦睡得更香,醒来后则神清气爽。事实上,它比任何药品或补品都更有效,我强烈推荐你来这里呼吸几天亲自体会一下其中的好处。
在历经了二十天的旅途,行驶了3500多公里,我们终于抵达了我梦寐以求的地方——内蒙古。取道乌兰浩特,我们马上向北,抵达了阿尔山。这就是我从上海风尘仆仆赶来要看的内蒙古。
道路蜿蜒于连绵青山的山谷间,其间有成片的彩色野花——粉的、白的、黄的、紫的——充斥着你的眼帘。山边是成群的绵羊和山羊,在牧羊人的引导下,悠闲地漫步于青山绿水间享受着香甜的青草。
山间清冽的泉水流入道路旁岩石组成的小河中,河边树影婆娑。太美了,你只想打开车窗,让美妙的空气,以及夏日温暖的气息填满整个心肺。
阿尔山位于内蒙古的东北部,深受游客的喜爱,尤其是她热情似火的春天。她是一座有着欧洲氛围的美丽又离奇的繁忙小镇——多彩的建筑物让我想起德国和瑞士山间的农舍,而夏季的夜晚每个人在主干道上散步则颇具意大利风情。
阿尔山的人们很友好,这里洋溢着假日的气氛,我们很想在这里多呆一阵子,但是前方有更多精彩——我们只有不到一周的时间驱车赶往葛根塔拉大草原的那达慕大会。我希望您能和我们一路探访内蒙古!