The clouds are low, and a bracing breeze sends a shiver down the spine. Yet we brave the early morning cold and wander far from our yurt, enjoying the broad expanse of grasslands spreading in every direction.
Few humans are up and about at this hour, and there are only the few sturdy Mongolian ponies on the plain with us, munching steadily on tufts of grass and preparing for their workday.
There is little noise and no traffic gridlock. And the air is fresh. There's no smog.
This is Shangri-La.
And yes, it is Shangri-La Hotel Hohhot's special grasslands package we are enjoying, an experience that had started the day before in Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
The 6-year-old luxury international hotel stands proud in the new business center of the city, and is setting benchmarks for hospitality - standards guarded tenaciously by its general manager, Victor Ng.
"I enjoy the local culture, and for Shangri-La, we believe we have to sell the destination first, before we can sell the hotel," Ng says.
He also believes the people who live here are natural hosts and add value to the expression "service with a smile".
Both elements drive his passion in pushing the hotel's grasslands package, specially arranged for guests who want to experience the nomadic attractions of life on the great plains of Inner Mongolia.
"Guests buy the Shangri-La brand for its famous service," Ng says.
"We felt we needed to make sure these standards are delivered at every stage, including on the grasslands."
That is why Shangri-La carefully chose partners who are totally in tandem with its philosophy.
Among the many yurt holiday camps on the Xar Moron Grassland, Menggu Ren Shengdi, or Sacred Ground of Mongolians, certainly stands out.
Its yurts are not cramped together in geometric rows like most of the others we saw on the way, and they closely follow Mongolian nomadic designs.
What impressed most was this story: The camp's owner is an avid environmentalist and encourages his guests not to litter. Whenever he walks the grasslands, he carries his own trash bag for picking up the bits and pieces careless visitors have left behind.
That is why we can enjoy a clean, green expanse in the morning, with nothing but clumps of spinifex dotting the grassland, and patches of purple and white asters adding subtle color.
We have had an excellent night's sleep. Our tent was comfortable and well insulated against the winds, with floor length windows that offered an unobstructed view of the night sky. The North Star had sparkled above us, clearly visible among the glittering constellations that blanketed the sky.
The bed linen, toiletries and various amenities had been sent over by car from Hohhot the previous day, and the two smiling young ladies who had also come over had already made sure our yurt had the comfort of a Shangri-La hotel room.
Also in the car was the chef.
This is what truly amazes, that the hotel would go to such trouble and expense to preserve the standards of service.
We were to dine in a special yurt, a dining room exclusively for the use of Shangri-La guests, while right next door, yet another yurt houses a gleaming kitchen for the chef, who would prepare the evening meal.
The hotel also sends along riding helmets that are of international safety standards for guests who want to ride the Mongolian ponies. But for those who prefer their own feet on the ground, there are Mongolian costumes to try on for photo souvenirs.
The devil is always in the details, and it is not often that a hotel can surprise seasoned travelers with its close attention to the little things that make guests feel at home and at ease.
For urbanites who work hard, the grassland experience is a good way to get away from the smog and the relentless city crowds. Hohhot is a short hop away by plane from Beijing and a pleasant few hours' drive by car, ideal for that long weekend break or when you need a recharge of fresh air.
The grasslands experience comes in various packages to suit flexibility in terms of time and budget. But most will include airport transfer by hotel limousine, a night's stay in Shangri-La Hohhot's deluxe rooms, and the limousine ride to the grasslands that includes a packed lunch for the journey.
On the grasslands, guests stay at deluxe yurts reserved for Shangri-La guests, and apart from the specially catered meals, there are plenty of activity options, including pony rides, a Mongolian wrestling exhibition, a milk tea ceremony and an evening campfire with Mongolian songs and dances.
You can get the details on the hotel's website: shangri-la.com/en/huhhot/shangrila.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(China Daily 08/31/2013 page13)