This is Part 4 of our 2018 China exploration. You can check out Part 1: The cars of Beijing and using the Didi app here, Part 2: Renting a car in China here and Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province here. We now head west from Yinchuan to traverse the mightly Helan Shan mountains and cross into Inner Mongolia to enter the Tengger and Gobi deserts at Bayanhot. Confusingly, the town is also called Alashan Zuoqi, the name of the administrative division it presides, translated as Alxa League Left Banner.
The Alxa League is the westernmost part of Inner Mongolia, itself completely distinct from Mongolia (the country) across the Chinese border. We explored Mongolia and the Mongolian Gobi desert extensively back in 2013 so be sure to click on the link to relive that experience. Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of China (different from a province on paper, but in reality exactly the same) with 25 million inhabitants, but the Alxa League only accounts for less than 1% of the region’s total population at just 231,334 souls over an expanse of 267,574 km², larger than the United Kingdom. Within the League, the Left banner is by far the most populous, counting 173,494 inhabitants over 80,412 km², ethnic Mongols making up 27%. For comparison, Inner Mongolia alone extends over 1,183,000 km² (twice the size of France) while Mongolia is even larger at 1,564,110 km² but only counts 3.1 million inhabitants.
Although it is only a 2 hour trip on a brand new highway, everything changes in the landscape between Yinchuan and Bayanhot. We leave the fertile Yellow River valley and slalom into the Helan Shan mountains to reach an arid plateau where Bayanhot is perched. The entire area of the Left Banner is 800 to 1500 meters above sea level. There is almost no one on the highway, but the most striking element of the trip is that there is absolutely no town between the two cities: it is absolute desert.
The main touristic attraction in Bayanhot – even though there was only a handful of tourists when I visited – is the Guangzong Si temple located 38km south of town, at the foot of the Helan Shan mountains. It used to be one of the main monasteries in all of Inner Mongolia with over 2000 monks living here at its height, but was demolished during the Cultural Revolution and has partly been rebuilt since. As is the case in any Chinese monastery, supreme silence, incense clouds and bright colours make for a peaceful and enlightening experience.
Bayanhot and the Alxa League Left banner are understandably one notch below Yinchuan in the Chinese Tier classification, and qualify as the lowest Tier 4, including towns below 150,000 inhabitants but also depending on political and wealth criteria – see an excellent Tier calculation explanation by the South China Morning Post here. Tier 4 is rural territory. Two different rural scenarios determine the type of car landscape we see in Tier 4 cities and regions. The first one is a relatively dense network of little towns, perhaps along valleys in mountainous areas such as the itinerary from Kangding to Dégé in the Sichuan province we explored in 2016: that’s where minivans such as the Wuling Hongguang are ultra-dominant as they act as buses between towns. The second scenario is a more sparsely populated region with isolated towns linked with rough roads, and this is where pickup trucks are kings. Bayanhot is the latter, wth the Great Wall Wingle 5 by far the most frequent vehicle in town, while the Wingle 6 is more timid but still popular.
Also to be noted is that virtually all pickup trucks in Bayanhot are double-cab 4WDs, so work horses through and through. Interestingly, adding to the relative weakness of mini- and microvans in Bayanhot due to the town’s isolation – and therefore lack of cheap public transport needs – as the striking near absence of the nation’s best-seller, the Wuling Hongguang. Instead, I spotted more Chana Honor but also a lot more micro-pickups (aka Mini Trucks) derived from micrvans such as the Wuling Mini Truck derived from the Rongguang microvan pictured above.
Due to the town’s proximity to the sandy Gobi and Tengger deserts, there is a very apparent and long pattern of 4WD wagon purchase in town (not just pickup trucks). This is where Great Wall killed two birds with one stone, starting with the legendary Hover H3/H5 that then gave birth to the #1 SUV brand in China: Haval. Great Wall has brilliantly managed to translate its Hover 4WD heritage and credibility through the Haval brand here, and as such the main heritage of this marked 4WD taste is very high sales of all Haval nameplates in Bayanhot, even though most of them would be simple 2WD crossovers. From the tiny H2s to all H6 variants to the H7 and the hardcore H9 4WD, but still including the now blue labelled H5.
The second core Chinese 4WD from the start of the decade is the Changfeng 6481, a rebadged Mitsubishi Pajero which then gave birth to the Leopaard brand. I did spot a few in Bayanhot as well as a handful of Leopaard CS10 indeed.
If you have followed our Chinese explorations over the past few years, you will have learnt that qiute surprisingly, at least one full-size U.S. pickup truck imported through the grey market seems to have made its way into each Chinese town. With an immense sandpit right at the town’s doorstep, Bayanhot pushes this trend to the extreme, with not one but dozens of U.S.-made pickups in town. Note that since 2017, the Ford F-150, Toyota Tundra and Ram 1500 are now imported into China through official channels. During an short trip to the Guangzong Si temple I crossed a huge and very threatening Ram 2500 while the Ford F-150 Raptor ruled in town accompanied by a dozen modified Jeep Wrangler and a brand-new Toyota Tacoma.
Borgward is the surprise in town with both the BX5 and BX7 already represented. “European” SUVs seem to be an effective marketing trick to pull the buyer here. A more logical love for anything 4WD by Toyota is also on display in Bayanhot with numerous Toyota Prado, Highlander and Land Cruiser 200 circulating. One brand that was also surprisingly frequent was Skoda, with its higher-end lineup clearly more popular here such as the Octavia, Superb and even Kodiaq.
The latest craze SUVs are already here, including the Dongfeng Fengxing X5, Dongfeng Fengguang S560 or SWM X3. Note there was a very significant highway billboard campaign for the SWM brand all through the region at the time I visited, which includes the Ningxia, Inner Mongolia and Gansu provinces.
Bayanhot also follows national tastes when it comes to tried-and-tested Chinese SUVs, with the Changan CS75, Geely Boyue and GAC Trumpchi GS4 very well represented in town.
This small town seems to have almost skipped the “sedan” step of evolution in its automotive parc, with the format relatively weak overall and the VW Lavida an expected blockbuster. Taxis are mainly VW Santana and Nissan Sunny with a few Changan Yuexiang V3. The region has a very high GDP due to the extraction of natural resources, so there is wealth in Bayanhot even though it is the luck of a very few, and this was symbolised quite accurately by the lead picture in this article putting the dirt-cheap Wuling Sunshine alongside a Tesla Model S. I have to admit a remote town inside one of the largest deserts in China is not where I expected to see one of Elon Musk’s offspring…
Stay tuned for Part 5 and our exploration of the Tengger desert…