The Bashang (坝上) Grasslands,the nearest prairie destination from Beijing, have long been one of the ideal sites to escape the city's summer heat.
The special climate and geographical position at the junction of the North China Plain and the Inner Mongolia Grasslands give Bashang its unique natural landscapes and make it a popular destination for tourists and photographers.
Generally, the Bashang Grasslands include four parts: Fengning Bashang, Zhangbei Bashang, Weichang Bashang and Guyuan Bashang. The four parts are located in four different counties of Hebei Province.
The landscape in the Mulan Weichang (木兰围场), which locates at 450 kilometers northeast to Beijing, is the most beautiful. There are 1658 square kilometers covered with forest or grassland. The altitude here is 1500-2000 meters.
The period from June through September is the best time to visit, and in this period the average temperature rages from 17 degrees to 19 degrees, about 10 degrees lower than that in downtown Beijing. Grassland tourism in Bashang is a recent phenomenon.
Horse riding, camping, watching local wrestling competitions, or staying in farmers' Mongolian yurts to eat roast whole sheep and other plain foods, are the main attractions for visitors. Vast lakes, and sunrises and sunsets over the grasslands provide great views for city dwellers who've grown tired of the urban sprawl.
Horse riding fees are usually 60 yuan (US$3) per hour. Rent a horse from the local legal travel agencies. Don't rent horses from local farmers, though their prices are lower, to avoid any potential trouble.
Most of the area remains untouched, preserving both nature and local customs. Transportation and accommodation services were developed very quickly over the past few years to facilitate the growing number of visitors.
Your final destination and photographic base in Bashang Grassland shall be either Hongshan Junmachang（红山军马场）or Jixie Linchang（机械林场）. The towns are only 18 kilometers away from each other yet Jixie Linchang is in Hebei Province whereas Hongshan Junmachang is in Inner Mongolia. Most photographers choose Hongshan Junmachang as their base because it is simply closer to most scenic/photographic spots.
Hongshan Junmachang is about 420 kilometers away from Beijing and going there is quite a bit of a journey and not entirely straightforward in spite of the relatively short distance. First you need to be in/go to Beijing as the town is accessible from the city only. Once in Beijing, you basically have two options - continue traveling by either bus or train.
If you prefer taking a bus you need to go to Xizhimen Bus Station （西直门客运站；Address: No. 2 Beixiaguan, Xizhimen, Haidian District; 地址：海淀区西直门北下关2号；tel.: 010 62173556/62183454) and take one heading for the County Seat of Weichang County（围场县城）. Buses for Weichang (ticket: RMB58) leave in the morning and depending on road conditions getting there takes between six and eight hours. Be prepared for a long, slow, uncomfortable and at times somewhat unsafe ride.
If you choose going by train you should depart from Xizhimen Train Station（西直门火车站, also known as Beijing Northern Train Station, 北京北站）and take off at Siheyong（四合永;about a seven hour ride; hard-sleeper ticket: about RMB70). From Siheyong you need to take a bus to Weichang (about a twenty minute drive).
Once in Weichang, you will need to further take either a public bus or a taxi to Hongshan Junmachang, which is roughly a two hour drive.
It might be a good idea to book a taxi from Siheyong or Weichang to Hongshan Junmachang in advance (see Local contact below) as otherwise things might be quite complicated and frustrating. The ongoing rate for a ride from Weichang to Hongshan Junmachang is RMB150. It, obviously, is more expensive than taking a bus yet it saves a lot of trouble and time.
All entrance tickets to the area, which one pays as he drives towards Hongshan Junmachang, amount to RMB70.
The grassland is extremely spacious and you will have to rent a car (Beijing Jeep 2020) in Hongshan Junmachang to conduct your photographic work in the area. The ongoing rate is RMB200/day (from before sunrise to after sunset with a break at midday; fully inclusive).
On the way back I suggest taking a taxi from Hongshan Junmachang directly to either Weichang (if you take a bus to Beijing) or Siheyong (if you return by train). If you choose going back by train, though, beware that train tickets from Siheyong to Beijing are notoriously difficult to buy - I strongly recommend securing them in advance in Hongshan Junmachang with whoever organizes your logistics there.
Accommodation and where/what to eat
There are several hotels and guesthouses in Hongshan Junmachang. Dahuzi Fandian（大胡子饭店; tel.: 0086 (0)314 7805098) is one of the places that enjoys a good reputation among Chinese photographers. The ongoing rate for a reasonably clean double room is RMB120/night. Keep in mind, though, that prices inevitably go up in summer and during public holidays. Also, arranging your accommodation in advance will help you to get better prices.
There is a number of sensibly priced Chinese food restaurants in Hongshan Junmachang. Be prepared to eat mutton cooked in several different ways, though. Beef, pork and vegetable dishes are, of course, available, too but, as the saying goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do!
Best time of the year to visit
Bashang is visited by photographers all year round as the place offers very different types of scenery in different seasons. End of May and early June is the best time to photograph spring colours. In the end of June and early July cole flowers bloom and it is the ideal time to photograph endless fields of green and yellow. End of September is the best time to photograph autumn scenery. Winter landscape in Bashang is very attractive, too.
It is absolutely crucial to check the weather in the area before you set out. I have heard stories of photographers going to Bashang in summer to only spend several days in the hotel as it rained all the time. Likewise, it would be wise to check when exactly yellow and red colours reach culmination in autumn.
Major scenic spots in the area include the following: Jiangjun Paozi（将军泡子）and Yeyahu（野鸭湖）, Mount Lama（喇嘛山, 1867.3 meters above sea level), Mount Wucai（五彩山）and Daxiagu（大峡谷）, Mount Mao'er（猫耳山, also known as Paozigou, 狍子沟）, Xidapaozi（西大泡子, also known as Gongzhuhu, 公主湖; entrance: RMB20), Huamugou（桦木沟）, Qixinghu（七星湖）, Beigou（北沟）, Donggou（东沟）, Xiaohetou（小河头）, etc.
Issues to be aware of
Bashang Grassland, on the average, is 1500 meters above sea level. Make sure you bring sunblock - even in autumn!
Daily temperature differences can be quite drastic - make sure to bring enough warm clothing.
Sand, generally, is a not major problem; however, on windy days and when photographing in sandy locations it might be of a great concern. After just half an hour in a strong northern wind I had to thoroughly clean my camera; I also had to disassemble my tripod for cleaning after photographing around Jiangjun Paozi.
Average temperature in winter is about minus 20° (centigrade). This, of course, is perfectly normal for Russians and Canadians but might be a bit of a surprise if you are from, say, Singapore :). Be prepared!