There are several minutes to go before the next visitor is scheduled to turn up at the Gegentala Grassland Tour Centre a 2.5-hour drive from the Inner Mongolian capital of Hohhot and the reception committee is taking its ease. The keyboard player is hammering out pop songs, the ogres have put aside their masks to tinker with their mobile phones, the corpulent yak-cart driver is leaning against his charge puffing a cigarette and two dancing girls are rolling on the red carpet tickling each other. But a shouted warning soon indicates that it's time to get the show on the road. A phalanx of uniformed warriors gallops up the drive alongside a 4x4. The tribal chief, a dead ringer for Genghis Khan, conducts the new guest a particularly diminutive, bespectacled Han Chinese along the line of maidens proffering rice spirit and silk scarves. Welcome to innermost Inner Mongolia, which is in the process of rediscovering its inner self.
The semiautonomous region celebrated its 60th anniversary last year with a modicum of fanfare, and the wide green yonder of the Gegentala grasslands is a vast, soft adventure playground for anyone who wants to encounter some traditional culture. You can chill out in a basic albeit ensuite yurt, go riding, practice archery, or simply watch the Mongolians do the same but with rather greater finesse.
Gegentala strikes a stark contrast with Hohhot, which sits some 250 miles (400 km) northwest of Beijing on a plain below the Qingshan mountains. Chinese migrants have swollen the population to more than 1 million while investing heavily in industry and swamping the streets with flashy new cars. For ethnic Mongolians, faced with an unfamiliar future, the past has thus become even more important. Distinct among Hohhot's low-rise tenements and office blocks, the new Inner Mongolia Museum has displays that run from dinosaurs to rocket launches. Whether local visitors read between the lines of the more blatant propagandizing ("Chairman Mao profound [sic] realized we must develop cuspidate national defense technologies") is a moot point, but there is a deep sense of self-esteem in the traditional exhibits, particularly those devoted to Khan and his warriors.
Sai Shang Old Street is another repository of Mongolian character. It's a gallimaufry of around 80 shops selling everything from Mao memorabilia to phenomenally cheap leather goods (Stetsons cost less than $1 and that's before you start bargaining). Best of all is the feeling that this is a real community, rather than a themed mall. Barbers ply razors and scissors, itinerant soup sellers yodel for custom, and schoolchildren zigzag along the street, singing cheerily despite being laden with satchels. Even if you don't care to buy, the strip is sheer entertainment.
Right beside Sai Shang, construction workers are raising a brand new shopping mall with a Chinese architectural vocabulary. Its floor-to-ceiling windows and carefully conceived layout are a world away from its characterful neighbor. Asked if he's planning to move to the new premises, one of Sai Shang's more grizzled traders clears his throat emphatically, then looks around the dusty statuettes and piles of curling glossy magazines that represent his livelihood. "Not any time soon," he grunts. "This is our home. And how would I afford the goddamn rent?"
Confronted by gradual change, Inner Mongolia, like Sai Shang's merchants, stands at a crossroads even if that's an unusual metaphor for somewhere primarily characterized by millions of acres of empty rolling grassland.