<A> Impressions of Ningxia I: Towers, Tombs, Mosques, Mountains & Movies

Written by Jun 9, 2006 03:06
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The Essentials

Ningxia (see black area on the map) is a tiny Autonomous Region (half the size of England) somewhere in the vast lands of the country we all know as 中国 [China].

Located in the arid North West and bordered by Inner Mongolia, Gansu Province and Shanxi Province, this largely agricultural region would be uninhabitable but for the Yellow River, it’s Ningxia’s lifeline.

There are large numbers of the Hui minority group living in Ningxia.

Hope you like lamb, it's a speciality in Ningxia and pork is definitely off the menu.

Some restaurants require you to go to the 3rd floor if you want to drink beer. Local beers in Ningxia are Xi Xia (most delicious!) and Huang He (Yellow River).

走吧! [Let’s go!]

Yinchuan: A Treasure

At 6.45am, we arrive in the capital city of the Ningxia Autonomous region.

I like it immediately. The wide straight roads are quiet, the sun is shining, the sky is blue and it’s already warmer than I’ve been all year in Benxi. It’s a delight to be in a t-shirt. It must be around 20°C already.

Yinchuan is a bustling city of around a million people (the largest city in Ningxia) and there’s a relaxed feel to it as though everyone is on holiday… and this being May it might possibly be true. It’s stretched itself into a long thin sprawl divided into the ‘old’ and ‘new’ towns and in between is nothing but vast roads, expanses of dusty land and buildings under construction.

We stayed in the ‘old’ town which is a 20 minute taxi drive from the train station. It has a close, intimate feel to it. Within a day it’s easy to get your bearings and explore this downtown area. It’s pleasant to wander around the streets with plenty of markets, street-food vendors, shops and restaurants.

I had my first (addictive) taste of 八宝茶 [8 Treasures Tea], so sweet and fruity. It contains lots (and LOTS) of rock sugar as well as walnuts, lychees, wolfberries, dates, Green tea, chrysanthemums… a special Ningxia combination. It’s so refreshing and delicious.

In the evenings it’s pretty quiet in Yinchuan and warm enough to wear just a t-shirt and still feel hot! It’s much fun just to sit around the Drum Tower with the locals, watching the birds circling, children playing and city lights appearing… all under an incredible evening-blue sky.

A Tale of Two Towers

Today is to be a tower-climbing day as we visit first 西塔 [West Tower] and then 北塔 [North Tower].

West Tower, part of the Ningxia Provincial Museum, is more accessible, conveniently located in the downtown area and a little more expensive to get in. The grounds are small but the trees are big: majestic deep pines cast heavy shadows and others have old, twisted trunks. The tower is statuesque and the tiny, near-vertical steps are well-worth ascending for views out over the city. The museum is small but comprehensive, detailing the discovery of the carvings in the He Lan Mountains and the history of the Ningxia Region, there are even explanations in English.

North Tower is the more attractive of the two towers, set in larger grounds and surrounded by smaller temples. It’s a little out of the way (20 mins drive from the centre) so you’ll need to grab a taxi to get here. A few Chinese are here making their triple bows and prayers and the by now familiar smoke-scent of incense fills the air. The tower is 9 storeys of steep steps high and from the top offers long views out over the city, we might have seen the Yellow River but for the afternoon haze.

The heat is intense; Cali and I take refuge in a shady courtyard behind the North Tower and watch the pigeons. An old monk dozes nearby. It’s peaceful. I feel holiday-mode clicking in. Before we leave, the old monk speaks to us, even Cali can’t understand all of the words he says, Ningxia having a slightly different dialect. He is very kind and allows us to take a picture inside the temple of a large reclining Buddha; we thank him, photographs are usually forbidden.

Of Mosques & Muslims & Mmmmmmm

We find time to visit 南关清真寺 [Nanguan Mosque]. This is one of the only mosques open to the public and is very much a piece of the Middle East in China with domes, arches and green-tiled decoration. The mosque is active with calls to prayer many times during the day. The gardens are beautiful, dripping with wisterias, bougainvillea and huge cactus-like aloes, a central pool and fountain completes the picture. Inside the mosque you can watch a film explaining the concepts of Islam, but it is only in Chinese. There are two interesting replicas of the world famous mosques in Mecca and Medina and you can also a short guided tour of the Nanguan mosque itself.

Mosques will become a real feature of Ningxia for me. Wherever we travel in this region, mosques will appear above the pale desert landscape with their crescent-moon-topped spires dark against the sky and their colourful exteriors resplendent in the sun.

Not for the first time I have to remind myself I’m in China. Ningxia has a tiny total population of 6 million people, of those roughly 2 million belong to the Hui minority group. The Hui are descended from Arabian and Iranian traders who came to China during the Tang Dynasty [618-907AD]. Essentially they differ very little from the majority of Han Chinese except that they are followers of Islam. The Muslim men traditionally wear small round white hats, some, especially the older generation, still do.


Cali and I eat ourselves large today, savouring so many special delights:

·‘leng pi’ cold & spicy noodles
·‘rou jia mo’ cooked by a Hui man on the street, a doughy pancake filled with lamb, leek and spices
·‘da pan ji’ a huge dish of chicken, potatoes, green peppers & noodles

Mmmmmmm: fabulous food here in Yinchuan! All washed down with a couple of bottles of delicious Xi Xia pi jiu, the local light, fruity beer, perfect for the sticky evening heat.

China's Pyramids ?

With around 150km between 3 destinations, we hire a taxi for the day for 180rmb and are soon heading out of Yinchuan. The surrounding land is very flat and dry. Trees are like green exclamations against the ubiquitous brown-ness of everything. Our first stop is 西夏王陵 [Western Xia Tombs].

The Western Xia Kingdom was founded during the 11th Century and lasted for 190 years through the rules of 10 successive emperors. The Xia Kingdom had its own language and was famous for its military strength. Genghis Kahn is believed to have waged war savagely on this Kingdom so perhaps it’s no wonder.

What remains has earned itself the nickname of China’s Pyramids. There’s an interesting museum and excellent complex detailing the history of the Kingdom although none of it is in English. I summarise that the Emperor Li Yuan Hao was in essence a sad figure: intelligent enough to develop an entire language but stupid enough to sleep with his son’s wife and thus be murdered by his son when only 46 years old. Still, if not for this, the 72 tomb, 100,000m2 complex would not have been created and the eerie remnants we could not have trodden.

Nothing of the original splendour of the tombs can be seen, although what remains has a special feel: the weight of the centuries pressing down perhaps. In essence the main Tomb No. 3 (the only tomb open to the public) is like a giant dusty beehive with birds happily nesting in its holes. It is situated in a much larger area around which the original wall sits crumbling and forgotten, the rough shadows of the He Lan Mountains casts themselves in the background.

There are 4 large square stone statues that guard the tomb, I think of them as the Xia Kingdom’s equivalent of gargoyles. Scattered terraces of steps and the entrance tunnel to the tomb are in evidence too. Despite the tour groups, I wander the expanse of the tomb and feel I’ve spent some time alone with it. I think Cali and I are quiet here, quietly impressed. I try to imagine the age of it, its descent through the centuries, its ghosts.

Deep in the He Lan Mountains

It is a unique drive out to the 贺兰山 [He Lan Moutains] which are famous in Ningxia for being one of the only ranges to run along a North/South axis. Heavy cloud and mists descend to all but smother the mountains and all that is left visible is a great boulder strewn flatness. It is a road through rock and cloud. The only spots of rain to fall in the entire week come now, cluttering the windscreen for just a few minutes.

It is a long, slow, climbing drive up to the foothills of the mountain range, deceptively steep, and the road is at first winding and then dead straight. It seems there might be no end until we reach the tiny ticket office and jumble of cars.

Deep, then, in the He Lan Mountains, scientists have discovered rock carvings. It’s a recent discovery, made within the last 50 years and very little is yet known about them. It’s said to have made a big noise with the scientific community, not just in China but around the world.

It is an interesting experience wandering around and spotting the carvings. Many on the vertical sides of steep slopes and more still on odd rocks scattered here and there. Animals, faces and strange ‘alien’ shapes.

The He Lan Mountains, rock carvings or not, are something to behold and I love our time here. I never get tired of the difference between mountains and these are all about bone and knuckle. Few trees bother to risk it and so the mountains are left to rise (up to about 4000m at their highest) in naked rocky splendour. We pick our way through the boulder-strewn edge of the range for a good couple of hours, up into a gorge where a clear stream chatters to our feet and giant lumps of mountain lie where they have fallen.

Somehow the mists clear and the sky turns on its blue. Sometimes the Earth creates spaces where there’s nothing for it but to sit, and look and think. We sit and look and think…

In the footsteps of filmstars...

It says on my ticket that 镇北堡西部影 [China West Film Studios] are famous for being ‘primitive, wild and lonely’.

Many famous Chinese films have used these studios. It seems amazing to me that after Cali and myself have manhandled everything that it might yet be used in some movie! I'm sure we both stood in the footsteps of filmstars...

This is just a great place to play, and we do, we play with everything. Nothing is real, it isn’t like walking in a movie, but like walking in 20 different movies. I feel I’ve seen the desert landscapes, the solitary trees and run-down saloons in every Western I’ve ever watched. Now here I am walking in a fake desert in the middle of a province bordered by a real desert.

It is an inordinate amount of fun to pretend at things, from wheeling carts to eating plastic corn and pigs trotters, sitting in fake jail cells with heavy rubber chains or watching Cali hanging, exhausted (well, that bit isn’t fake!) from the gallows. Whether finding fake treasure in fake caves, searching for skulls in dungeons, or aiming a wooden rifle at an invisible foe. It is like a giant adventure playground for grown ups. Just perfect for us – and any other big kids out there.

Imagine being an actor, you could do this every day ;)

 More Ningxia Travel Reviews
1. Quietly Summer---Part3 CALIFORNIA from CN Jun 1, 2006 02:06
2. Quietly Summer---Part2 CALIFORNIA from CN May 31, 2006 01:05
3. Quietly Summer---Part1 CALIFORNIA from CN May 15, 2006 01:05
Comments (1)


Jun 9, 2006 03:48 Reply


Good job,LC!I really read a different one,so professional!!!

By the way,I am sure I can understand him if he said more time,haha!

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