Il Museo di Ordos
Excited about having seven days off for Guoqingjie (the holiday of the Republic), I decide to organize my trip along with a friend: I go to the ticket office and ask the agent to book two tickets for any destination in Inner Mongolia worth visiting. I take the pink tickets that are still warm from the printer and read 鄂尔多斯 (Ordos).
I run home and look it up. Here’s what I discover:
Ordos is a city in Inner Mongolia, surrounded by desert. The number of its inhabitants is uncertain because different sources give different numbers. According to a census in 2010, the number would be 1,940,653 inhabitants (source).
But the most widespread information associated with this place is the term “ghost city”. Curious yet frightened at the same time, I soon discover what this term refers to: Ordos is a “deserted” city, when compared to the large Chinese Metropolises. Large projects accompanied the construction of this city, which in fact is characterized by enormous modern buildings built all over the city, which are, for the most part… empty! Despite this, Ordos is often known as the “Chinese Dubai”.
How to get to Ordos
You can get to Ordos by train or by air. Though the locals don’t seem to know this, there are two railway stations in Ordos: 东胜西站 (Dongsheng West Station), and the very new (and deserted) 鄂尔多斯站 (Ordos Station). Ordos’s airport, is located to the south of the city in the Dongsheng district.
First impressions of the city
Arriving in Ordos, the first impression you have is that you’re not in China. Not in the noisy, crowded large cities of China at least. As soon as we leave the station we ask for information on how to get to a nice area to look for a hotel, and so we find ourselves on a bus that brings us to the long distance bus station (长途汽车站), where we get off and start looking for one. The location, as we discover, is strategic for getting around.
Rather taken aback by any type of logic or orientation, we begin wandering around the city, backpacks on our shoulders, looking for a place to deposit them. The first thing we notice is how clean everything is. There may not be too many people on the streets but the cleaners are certainly not missing.
They pick up papers or gather what little garbage they find along their path, while not missing their chance to speak to waiguoren, foreigners, when they see one (and I get the impression that this is a rather rare occurrence, having seen no one else during my stay).
Not only are the streets clean but they’re orderly! The sound of a siren is an unusual sound in this bizarre place where the cars stop at the pedestrian strips and let people pass and the electric motorbikes, tricycles, carts and bicycles are no longer too common.
Looking down isn’t the only joy: raising our gaze we see an intense blue dusted with fluffy white clouds. We can now enjoy a bit of fresh air and breathe in fully.
Where to stay
Despite it being a Chinese national holiday, when traveling and finding a place to stay isn’t all that simple, we decide not to book in advance, confident that the city would be empty enough. The reality doesn’t disappoint our expectations, but that’s not why finding a hotel is so easy.
We go into several places and the result is always the same: they don’t accommodate our request because we’re foreigners. Some tell us outright, others imply it and yet others try to come up with unconvincing excuses. However they are all happy to point us to a pair of international buildings where foreigners are welcome, paying between 700 and 1000 Yuan a night.
We decide to keep looking for a “Chinese” solution, accompanied by an adorable little man who, seeing our discomfort, has one of his goons follow us on the search. Exhausted under the weight of the backpack and the continuous walking, we finally enter into a hotel where nobody asks us anything.
All we do is hand over our passport and we get a spacious room with two double beds (for just two guests), and a full en suite bathroom with a broken handle. All in all the room is clean, functional and comes with Wi-fi. And all at the modest cost of 88 Yuan a night.
Below is the contact information for our Hotel:
华丽宾馆连锁 – Huali Hotel (chain)
Indirizzo: 东胜区天娇北路摩力圣汇俱乐部斜对面金都大厦旁 – Dongsheng District, Tianjiao North road, diagonally opposite to Moli Shenghui club, next to the Gold club
Telefono: 0477-8547926; 15548199988
You can also find a hotel in Ordos through Booking or Agoda (hotels that only accept Chinese citizens are marked), remembering to specify if you’re a foreign citizen so as not to find and unpleasant surprise upon arrival.
Click here to find all you need to know about booking a hotel in China.
The main attractions to see in Ordos are the desert, the grasslands, the Genghis Khan Mausoleum, and the Ordos Museum.
Yinken Resonant Sand Bay （银肯响沙湾）
Resonant Sand Bay is kind of a resort built in the desert, a recreation area designed for adults and children. Upon arriving here, besides enjoying a spectacular walk in the desert, you can also lose yourself in the tourist attractions: riding on horseback or on a camel, sliding down the dunes, Jeep or quad tours, archery or swimming in the pool.
You can also spend the night in a yurt (the typical Mongolian tents), enjoy a magnificent starry sky, song and dance shows, attend a typical Mongolian wedding ceremony and finally taste local products.
It is said that on the driest days it’s possible to hear harmonious sounds produced by the sand dunes. Numerous legends are associated with these sounds, such as the most popular story of a Lama’s temple buried in a sandstorm. The audible melodies in this desert would therefore be the eternal songs of the Lamas’ souls. According to a local, however, it hasn’t been possible to hear these wonderful sounds for some time, especially since construction has started to sprout up in the area.
How to get there: At the long-distance bus station (长途汽车站), reachable by bus 23 from Dongsheng West Station, you can find the highway bus station. Get a ticket for Xiangshawan (响沙湾), and get off at 达旗. From here proceed on foot or by taxi for 3 km until you reach your destination. It takes about 2 hours to get there.
To get a break from the huge buildings of Ordos, you can go to the grasslands, where all you’ll see is grass, Mongolian tents, and animals.
Here too you can explore numerous attractions and recreational opportunities intended for tourists, such as spending a night in a tent, admiring songs and dances, tasting local delicacies, going horseback riding or trying archery. It’s important to choose a good period for visiting the grassland so as to enjoy the beautiful green color of the grass.
How to get there: From the same highway bus station, get a ticket for Hangjinqi （杭锦旗). Once you get there go by taxi for 9 km until you reach the grassland. Travel time is about three hours.
Genghis Khan Mausoleum
It seems that Genghis Khan found the lands around Ordos so beautiful that he decided to be buried here after his death. Though there’s some uncertainty as to whether or not his remains are the ones preserved here, the mausoleum is still considered a sacred and highly valued symbolic place for the Mongolian people.
Inside the three pavilions shaped like yurts you can see paintings of the great conqueror’s life, as well as everyday objects and the sarcophagi of his wives and other members of the family.
How to get there: from the bus station ask for a ticket for the Genghis Khan Mausoleum（成吉思汗陵 – Chengjisihan Ling).
Ordos Museum and Kangbashi district
The Ordos Museum was built in the new area of Kangbashi which hosts, among other buildings, the center of art and culture and the library.
The Kangbashi district is the political, cultural and financial center of the city. Walking through this neighborhood you can taste the hoped-for glory of the area that was sadly never realized.
Large streets, shopping malls, enormous residential buildings, banks and cultural institutes are there, ready to host an excited crowd that has never reached their destination. The streets are deserted and the buildings are empty.
Kangbashi is a symbol of the deserted city: when night falls, lights illuminating apartments are still rather rare. Yet the construction hasn’t stopped and the city remains an open construction site that continues preparing itself for a prosperous destiny whenever (or if ever) it arrives.
The Ordos Museum is a rounded structure, covered by aluminum plates that cover almost 41 thousand square meters of surface and goes up for six floors. This museum celebrates the history, art and culture of not only the city of Ordos, but the entire Mongolian people. You can find everyday objects, reproductions of scenes of domestic life and all sorts of useful information on this civilization.
How to get there: take buses numbers 1, 21 or 22 and get off at the stop 文化艺术中心.
Before leaving the city
Before heading back to the station to leave this land of contradictions, we decide to take a little time to peacefully walk the streets around our hotel and taste or buy some local typical products. All we see are new buildings and empty streets. So let’s move on to the food!
Typical products of this region are dairy products with a meat base. The Mongolian population prefers meats like mutton and beef, which is sold fresh after cooking, and vacuum sealed is edible even months after buying it. But the true culinary revelations were the dairy products which are so difficult to find in China.
After some searching we found a store selling dairy products where we were able to buy yogurt, milk and fresh cheeses. Our eyes light up upon entering the shop, and the moment is immortalized by a series of ten year old paparazzi that show up out of nowhere.
We continue tasting, trying sweet and salty cheeses, cheese sandwiches, fresh butter and other fresh products. There’s also the fake leather canteens filled with naijiu, a milk-based Chinese liquor (which to me seems a worse version of baijiu).
We leave the shop with a bag full of groceries and the owner’s eyes still sparkling. And at this point we’re ready to leave Ordos.
[First Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/rhughes411/]
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Filed Under: Travel around AsiaTagged With: Inner Mongolia, Ordos, Travel in China
The Kangbashi district of Ordos, China is a marvel of urban planning, 137-square miles of shining towers, futuristic architecture and pristine parks carved out of the grassland of Inner Mongolia. It is a thoroughly modern city, but for one thing: No one lives there.
Well, almost nobody. Kangbashi is one of hundreds of sparkling new cities sitting relatively empty throughout China, built by a government eager to urbanize the country but shunned by people unable to afford it or hesitant to leave the rural communities they know. Chicago photographer Kai Caemmerer visited Kangbashi and two other cities for his ongoing series Unborn Cities. The photos capture the eerie sensation of standing on a silent street surrounded by empty skyscrapers and public spaces devoid of life. "These cities felt slightly surreal and almost uncanny," Caemmerer says, "which I think is a product of both the newness of these places and the relative lack of people within them."
China has built hundreds of new cities over the last three decades as it reshapes itself into an urbanized nation with a plan to move 250 million rural inhabitants—more than six times the population of California—into cities by 2026. The newly minted cities help showcase the political accomplishments of local government officials, who reason that real estate and urban development is a safe, high-return investment that can help fuel economic growth.
But it's hard to start a city from scratch. Most people don't want to live somewhere that feels dead, and these new cities sometimes lack the jobs and commerce needed to support those who would live there. In Kangbashi, the government used some administrative tricks to address this, relocating bureaucratic buildings and schools, then trying to convince people in surrounding villages to move in. It had minor success. Today, a city designed for at least 500,000 has around 100,000 inhabitants.
"Cities and districts built without demand or necessity resulted in what some Chinese scholars have termed, literally,'walls without markets'," says William Hurst, political science professor at Northwestern University. "Or what we might translate as uncompleted or hollow cities. Political exigency and investment hysteria trumped economic calculus or consideration of genuine human needs."
Caemmerer learned about these cities early last year after reading a slew of "almost sensationalist" articles that painted them as modern ghost towns. Fascinated, he decided to visit China and see them himself. He spent almost three months exploring three cities during two trips last spring and fall.
His first stop was the Yujiapu Financial District in the Binhai New Area, just outside Tainjin. Construction on the 1.5-square mile replica of Manhattan—complete with a Rockefeller center and twin towers—started in 2008 and will cost an estimated $30.4 billion. The immensity astonished Caemmerer. "There was a sense of vastness that surprised me," he says.
From there he traveled south to Meixi Lake City. The development covers 4.3 square miles, encircles a manmade lake and is designed to one day house more than 180,000 people. The lake is lined with tidy paths and benches, and soft music emanates from speakers at all hours. Caemmerer saw many skyscrapers under construction, their skeletons wrapped in green scrim. Real estate agents scurried about, busily selling apartments in buildings soon to be completed. "I felt like I was walking into the future," he says.
He wanted his photographs to reflect that. He'd wander the cities in the dim and eerie light before sunrise and after sunset, taking long exposures with his 4x5 film camera. In the final images, the buildings are so enormous that the edges of the photograph can't contain them. They rise as strange concrete specters, displaced in time and lacking any sense of history. For now, the fate of most of them remains unknown. "I find that the images make me ponder the future," Caemmerer says. "which, to me, is interesting because photographs are so commonly read as fragments of moments past."