Inner Mongolia`s grasslands and stark deserts exert a special pull on the imagination. It is very different from eastern China's crowded cities and intensively cultivated farmlands, Inner Mongolia is home to clear skies and vast, virtually empty landscapes stretching to an unbroken horizon; after a few moments in such starkly beautiful surroundings, it's easy enough to envision the legendary armies of Genghis Khan, Mongolia's most famous son, sweeping past on horseback en route to conquer the world.

Today, outside of the capital of Hohhot and a handful of other modest cities like Baotou, Manzhouli and Dongsheng, a dwindling but still significant number of Mongols live much as they have for centuries, herding horses and sheep, moving with the seasons and bedding down in traditional yurts.

None of this is to say that the officially designated Mongol Autonomous Region is untouched by modernity—this is 21st century China, after all. Coal mining, forestry, agriculture and manufacturing are major sources of income, and though the region is famed first and foremost for its grasslands, the enormous territory—which borders Russia in the far northeast, encompasses much of the Gobi Desert, runs most of the length of the Great Wall of China, and nearly abuts the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau in the west—contains a surprising diversity of landscapes and industries.

And, of course, in addition to traditional herding, mining and manufacturing, there is a bourgeoning tourism industry. Far-reaching infrastructure upgrades have made Inner Mongolia—especially within a day or two's journey by train or bus of Beijing—an increasingly easy place to visit, popular with Chinese and foreign travelers alike. Meanwhile, those who don't care much for a heavily mediated "Mongolian" experience (tour-bus delivery to concrete mock yurts featuring theme park-like "ethnic" Mongolian floorshows and the like) can still get off the beaten track and explore the vastness of the grasslands on horseback or, perhaps, four-wheel drive.

For history buffs, the legacy of Genghis Khan and his descendents is a big draw, and the Genghis Khan Mausoleum ranks high among Inner Mongolia's top attractions. Other notable historical sights include remote stretches of the Great Wall of China, originally constructed to keep northern nomads out of Han Chinese lands; Hohhot's Qing-era military headquarters of Jiangjun Yashu; and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries like Hohhot's Wusutu Lamasery and the Wudangzhao Lamasery near Baotou.

Escape from the modern and manmade, however, is Inner Mongolia's prime allure, and there's no better way to take in the region's beauty than by horseback. Horses remain an integral part of Mongolian identity, and riding the Inner Mongolian Grasslands (within easy reach of Beijing) or in more far-flung areas like the Hulunbei'er Grasslands, can be an unforgettable experience, especially if you cap it all off with a stay in an authentic yurt under some of China's biggest and brightest starry skies.

Lush grasslands contrast in striking fashion with the starkness of the Gobi Desert, a landscape perhaps best sampled at Resonant Sand Gorge outside of Baotou, where horses give way to camels and more modern means of conveyance including dune sleds, buggies and parasailing.

内蒙古Nèi Měnɡɡǔ: Inner Mongolia
成吉思汗Chénɡjísīhán: Genghis Khan
呼和浩特Hūhéhàotè: Hohhot
包头Bāotóu: Baotou
满洲里Mǎnzhōulǐ: Manzhouli
青藏高原Qīnɡzànɡ Gāoyuán: Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau
藏传佛教Zànɡchuán Fójiào: Tibetan Buddhist