CHINA -Beauty queens from all over the planet made final preparations to compete for the Miss World title Saturday in a Chinese mining city on the edge of the Gobi desert.
A total of 116 contestants - the highest number ever - were scheduled to don their finest evening gowns and swimwear for the evening contest, which is watched annually by around a billion people around the globe.
This year it takes place on the arid and sparsely populated steppes of Inner Mongolia, where Ordos, around 700 kilometres (440 miles) from the nearest beach, makes an unlikely setting for the world's biggest beauty pageant.
Reigning Miss World Ivian Sarcos of Venezuela will hand over her crown in the futuristic Ordos stadium, which sits alongside a vast town square dedicated to the mighty Mongolian warrior Genghis Khan.
The city has grown rich over the last decade on the back of a coal mining boom that has transformed it from a sandstorm-afflicted backwater into one of the wealthiest places in China.
The boom triggered a frenzy of building in the city, but the local government has been unable to fill the vast tower blocks that have sprung up, earning it the title of China's biggest ghost town.
The beauty queens have been in China rehearsing for nearly a month, soaking up traditional Mongolian culture by churning yoghurt in a nomad's yurt and donning local dress to climb a sand dune, according to Miss World's website.
Contestants vying for this year's title include a Kazakh doctor and a Peruvian medical student, but the bookmakers are tipping Miss Mexico, 20-year-old Mariana Reynoso, for the crown.
“There's a lot of good feeling surrounding the Mexican contestant,” said Tony Kenny, spokesman for bookmaker William Hill, which is offering odds of 2/1 on Reynoso.
Other leading contenders include Miss China and Miss Nepal, with other countries lagging so far behind as to be “more or less write offs”, according to Alex Donohue of rival bookmaker Ladbrokes.
While the popularity of the contest, first held in 1951, has waned in the West, continued interest in Asian countries ensures that the final rakes in a huge global television audience.
Sweden's Kiki Hakansson was the first Miss World, while Oscar-winning US actress Halle Berry was a finalist in 1986 and Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai took the crown in 1994.
Venezuela has produced the most Miss Worlds, with six winners, while India and Britain claim five titles each.
China has already hosted the competition five times, most recently in 2010 on the tropical southern island of Hainan.
In 2002, the pageant was moved from Nigeria to Britain after more than 200 people died in clashes sparked when a newspaper suggested the Prophet Mohammed would have chosen a wife from among the contestants had he been alive.