This is Part 5 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, Part 3: The cars of Yinchuan, Ningxia province here. and Part 4: The cars of Bayanhot, Inner Mongolia here. Today we remain in the Alxa League in western Inner Mongolia, linking the Left to the Right banners – located counter-intuitively to their name looking at a map: the left being on the East – and more precisely Bayanhot (aka Alashan Zuoqi) to Alashan Youqi via a northern arc (see map below). If Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region counts 25 million inhabitants, the Alxa League only represents less than 1% of its total population (231,300) and within this the Right banner is the least populous at just 25.430 souls which equals to a very sparse 0.35 inhabitants per km², a figure particularly low for China.
23% of the of the Alxa League population or just under 45,000 inhabitants are of Mongol ethnicity, and this is visible in the area I traversed with many monuments celebrating the symbolic animal in the region: the two-humped bactrian camel. The road I took is for half of the distance a brand-new cross-desert highway dotted with service areas each 55km/35mi and of course surveillance cameras every 700m/2300ft with implacable regularity. In actual fact what we are crossing is mainly nothingness, and the place where two deserts have been expanding towards each other to the point of fusing together: the Tengger desert to the south and the Gobi desert originating from neighbouring Mongolia to the north. We also explored the Gobi desert on the Mongolian side extensively back in 2013 so be sure to click on the link to relive that experience.
Animal herding in the region: advancing or mitigating the desert? The debate is open.Herd of camels in the southern Gobi desert, Inner MongoliaThe region is where the Gobi and Tengger deserts have started to fuse together.
A little-known statistic is that 20% of China is desert, and the desertification of this particular region of the country is a long-term issue that has triggered the Chinese government to impose resettlements towards the area’s towns. It is such a common phenomenon here that these populations have been called “ecological migrants”, forced to move within their own country, which The New York Times covered in two separate articles here and here. In the Alxa League alone, the government has relocated about 30.000 people because of desertification. Some Western scholars question the necessity of these resettlements, instead pointing at a will by the government to control ethnic minorities – the region is also home to the Hui Muslim community, citing environmental reasons as a cover. Environmentalists also question the efficacy of relocation policies: officials say that animal overgrazing on the edge of the desert contributes to the desertification of the region and justifies the relocation of herding families. But according to the New York Times, “some experiments suggest that moderate grazing may actually mitigate the effects of climate change on grasslands, and China’s herder relocation policies could be undermining that.”
The political stakes are far from my mind when I got the chance to traverse such beautiful and barren landscape, having the highway almost to myself to the point where it was safe to stand right in the middle of the two lanes to snap pictures of my rental VW Lavida with sumptuous backgrounds. Once I started heading south west towards Alashan Youqi, it’s an impressive bar of rocky mountains that follows the road in parallel for a few hours. Right in the middle of nowhere, a linear stretch of grey concrete leaves the newly minted highway to lead to a stunning temple right at the foot of the mountain, with dozens of goats noisily stomping on the sparse vegetation in the valley. They are the only sound around alongside the wind.
It’s the complete isolation of this region that makes it almost incongruous that a brand-new highway is being constructed to cross it, however the eastern half that was completed now enables a much faster connection to Ejina Qi to the north west, the capital of the Ejina Banner, the third banner of the Alxa League administration. In the same vein, all three banners of the Alxa League now have an airport (in Alashan Youqi, Alashan Zuoqi and Ejina Qi), following an objective by the Chinese government to position an airport within 100km of each and every Chinese inhabitant. Starting at the end of the last decade as a way to counter the global financial crisis, the Chinese government embarked on an immense modernisation program that saw the construction of thousands of km of highways and high speed train tracks as well as dozens of new airports such as the 2013 Daocheng Airport in the Sichuan province we visited in 2016. This program is still ongoing today with the number of airports in China forecast to grow from 200 in 2015 to 240 in 2020. It is not unusual to read about a city only served by buses or trains on the Lonely Planet China guide only to find out on flights app Skyscanner that a new airport has popped up since.
As far as the car landscape I encountered in this part of China, the trends at play are the same as in Bayanhot but pushed to the extreme. The vehicle landscape on the highway is mainly heavy trucks aiding road construction and the “true” park of the region can only be observed in the very few towns I got to cross which can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Bayan Nuorigong, Alateng Aobaozhen, Menggen Bulage and Mandela Samu. These towns are so small that they only appear on your map just as you stop in them, and do look like ghost towns with only a handful of shops open, although the fact it was a public holiday weekend when I visited may have play a part in this.
Given the remoteness of the region, minivans aren’t popular as the number of people needing cheap public transport connecting the distant small towns is almost inexistent: people rather stay in their own village. Instead, pickup trucks are more than ever dominant and necessary in such rough terrain and at this little game once again the Great Wall Wingle 5 and 6 hold an almost monopoly on the region’s pickup population. Great Wall’s pendant in the SUV world, Haval, is also popular especially the H6, with the Changan CS75 also making itself noticed. A slew of old Chinese Jeeps such as the BAW-branded one also resists in the remote corners of this desolate area. The Wuling Hongguang seems to not even have been launched here, instead I saw a few rare Wuling Sunshine. We’ll end on a surprise: a depleted Renault Laguna ending its days in Menggen Bulage.
Stay tuned for the next part in our exploration in Alashan Youqi.