<A> Impressions of Ningxia III: Markets, Mosques & Mountains

Written by Jun 9, 2006 06:06
Add Friends:
Email 1 Email 2 Email 3

No more than 10 friends at a time, please.


The Marvellous Market of Zhongning

The weather Gods continue to smile on us with their copious sunshine and as we catch the 8.01am-precisely train to Zhongning the temperatures are already in the low 20s.

The tall green train is in poor condition and we just manage to find a seat for the hour-long journey. The other passengers are a mixture of itinerant workers and returning families, all too poor (or unlucky) to get sleeper tickets for their journeys. Many doze in the un-air-conditioned heat. We are fortunate enough to get off just a short way down the line. I wonder how far the other passengers have come and how far they still have to go.

Goat’s Cheese !?

Zhongning train station is tiny and deserted; the train rather overwhelms the single platform. Cali wants to make a quick detour to a market to buy some ‘goats cheese’ for one of his friends and so we hop in a taxi. The driver takes us to a tiny market hidden in the back streets of this small town and there’s certainly no goat’s cheese to be found. Mountains of tiny red berries spill from great white sacks. Their name in Chinese is 枸杞子 [gou qi zi]. It does sound quite similar!

There’s only one real attraction at the market however, me.

I’m hazarding a guess they’ve never seen a foreigner here before as literally half the market (buyers and sellers alike) follow me around. I have to keep moving to avoid being swallowed up. Cali negotiates unhindered with the sellers whilst I take pictures of the women in their high heels sat sorting their piles of red with expert fingers. There’s a shared curiosity, and any smile, even a shy one, is universal. I speak a little Chinese and this causes the biggest stir. A million questions later we all shake hands and say goodbye, I remain touched by their friendliness.

The Tiny Town of Tongxin

What a ride. Someone forgot to tell the driver that you can’t drive on roads that haven’t yet been built. I can liken it to off-roading in a small coach, recommended only for mixing the guts as we joined a long slow procession of lorries, coaches and taxis for this 2-hour assault course.

We bounce our way through some of the poorest villages in Ningxia. Their tiny houses have eaves decorated with small stone pigeons. The ubiquitous birches are flashing green flames and there are many shining mosques, surreal as fairytale castles in this arid land.

Tongxin feels like an outpost in the Middle East. No high-rises, just low squat houses and a single main street. Grubby children play or peer shyly from doorways and bundles of women crouch, gossiping.

A local tells us that this town is about 90% Hui and on every street corner men of all ages are stationed with their round white hats and… motorbikes. How incongruous China is!

On the main street I count 4 large motorbike showrooms where the latest models gleam from behind the dusty glass and it seems everyone here already has one – cheaper than cars I suppose.

Walking down the quiet dusty lanes I’m having trouble believing I’m in the same country as my beloved (but highly polluted and industrial) Benxi. China might contain the whole world within its borders. Hui’s cruise by, stacked onto motorbikes and doors are flung open to release cooking steams. Children follow us, locals gaze at us and we gaze back, there is much smiling and waving: a shared incredulity.

Mosque: Under Construction

We’ve come here to tiny Tongxin to visit the Grand Mosque that turns out to be less grand and more under renovation. This in itself is interesting, the combination of 600-year-old wall carvings side by side with 21st Century scaffolding. The Imam greets us warmly and personally shows us around while Cali chats with him about religion in Chinese way beyond my understanding.

Cali will later remark that a Christian and a Muslim should be as friends. I have a photograph of their conversation; it’s like a small shift in the world towards hope.

Wandering the grounds, I’m in a strange fusion of Muslim and Chinese architecture, like a Chinese temple that’s being converted into a mosque. It is still very much an active place of worship and we are allowed a sneak glimpse behind the thick protective curtains into the prayer hall itself: the walls and ceiling richly decorated and the floor is covered with such exquisite rugs that I’m put in mind of WB Yeats’ ‘heavens' embroidered cloths,/ Enwrought with golden and silver light,/ The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/ Of night and light and the half-light’.

It’s always difficult leaving peace, this mosque in the middle of a pale land is like a pause in the turning of the world. Leave we must, the world continues, a local Hui man asks if he can take a picture with me. I agree in return for one of him and his glinting motorbike. He brandishes his mobile with a grin and throws it to a friend to take the shot. I get one of him and his bike in front of the mosque – a perfect ending!

A Unique Traffic Jam

If only we could linger here a little longer, but we still have so far to go. We are soon journeying again on a bus to Sanying and then in a taxi over the second un-made road of the week.

The scenery grows ever more startling as the mountains materialise along with huge red sandy gorges. It is mid-afternoon already and we wonder if we’ll ever make it to the mountain, let alone back again. We pick up 2 boys in their early 20s, they are relaxed and offer us cigarettes, chain-smoking their way through the journey.

Then we hit the traffic jam and we are to be stranded for almost an hour as a procession of vehicles passes us the likes of which may never be witnessed again. Every conceivable means of transport has been harnessed to ferry thousands of visitors to the festival and now they are all leaving. I’m mesmerised.

After 15 minutes of complete standstill in the afternoon heat and cigarette smoke I decide to chance the dusty road instead. I get out the taxi and take some photos, Cali joins me and we cause a great commotion. Much waving and hundreds of “hellos/ni haos” later and we can at last move on.

There are still hundreds of people leaving when we get to the entrance and we thank our lucky stars for our late arrival. The traffic jam is still visible stretching like a multi-coloured scarf over an hour later when we are on top of the mountain!

The Secret of Xu Mi Mountain

Xu Mi Mountain is a low series of very red peaks that have over 100 caves cut into them. Each cave is a Buddhist grotto. Some of the grottoes are barely worth the effort to climb up and look into, containing little more than what appear to be scratches on the walls. Others however shelter fine statues of Buddha carved into the rock face anything up to a metre or so in height.

The peaks are enjoyable to explore. At times incredibly steep steps require me to grip onto chains to haul myself up and temples spring up from the seemingly sharp edges. We climb, peering in at numerous caves, though only a fraction of the total, and taking in the graphic scenery: a diverse palette of green pine tree clad mountains, deep sandy gorges and muted red rocky outcrops.

We come upon a temple that houses some impressive caves, dark and warren like, with serene Buddhas staring from their rocky seats in the candle-lit gloom. I know there’s supposed to be one impressive Buddha yet to come, but I don’t expect it can get better than this. I’m beginning to think I know Buddha, the familiar face in myriad incarnations, residing in every possible location from the magnificent temple to the mountain grotto. Less mysterious deity and more old friend.

Then, rising out of the red rock and almost 20m high, there is Buddha. He's like a secret suddenly revealed. He hangs on the mountain like a giant work of art. The cave, exposed over time, is the perfect frame. He is as regal and calm as the one I saw last year in Leshan, but so much less expected.

I feel small at his feet, suddenly very mortal, and Cali and I are so fortunate to have this time alone in his early evening silence. I’m sure that he’s listening to something; perhaps hearing the mountains, the horizons, endure.

Further Information - Ningxia I, II & III

We spent nearly 6 full days in Ningxia to cover all the places mentioned, this is the least possible time you could accomplish this itinerary in. Often we were on the road from very early to very late every day, grabbing food and rest as we could.

1. Attractions & Entrance Fees
(prices quoted are per adult, often discounts of up to 50% for students, 2006)

Ningxia Provincial Museum & West Tower: 22RMB
North Tower: 10RMB
Nanguan Mosque: 10RMB
Western Xia Tombs: 40RMB
He Lan Mountains & Carvings: 25RMB
China West Film Studios: 40RMB
108 Towers: Boat ride (return) 20RMB Entrance fee: 20RMB
Gao Miao Temple: 20RMB
Shapotou Desert Research Station: 65RMB
Sheepskin Raft: 50RMB
Camel Ride: 50RMB
Xu Mi Mountain: 30RMB

2. Transport

Benxi to Beijing – 11 hours - Hard sleeper, top 208RMB
Beijing to Yinchuan - 19 hours - Hard sleeper, middle 253RMB, bottom 280RMB
Zhongwei to Zhongning – 1 hour - Standing ticket (but we found a seat!) 4.50RMB

Wuzhong to Zhongwei – 2½ hours- Small mini-bus 18RMB
Zhongwei to Shapotou Desert Research Station – 30 minutes - mini-bus 4RMB
Xu Mi Shan to Guyuan – 1½ hours - Mini-bus 15RMB
Guyuan to Yinchuan – 4 hours - Luxury/fast bus 70RMB (beware! they like to charge foreigners DOUBLE this)

Yinchuan All-day hire (approx 150kms and 8 hours): 180RMB
Qingtongxia (108Towers) to Wuzhong: 15RMB

3. Accommodation

We stayed in 3 different hotels during our trip: Yinchuan, Zhongwei & Guyuan. All twin rooms, 2 en-suite and 1 with communal bathroom. All had 24-hour hot water. Two served up pretty awesome breakfasts included in the price. Prices were 60-80RMB per person per night.

Guyuan Binguan in Guyuan is definitely the best hotel of the trip: 60RMB each for the night, large room, comfy beds and steaming hot shower. Also delicious buffet breakfast with huge array of hot and cold dishes!

 More Ningxia Travel Reviews
1. <A> Impressions of Ningxia II: 1 Temple, 1 Desert & 108 Towers LEMONCACTUS from CN Jun 9, 2006 04:06
2. <A> Impressions of Ningxia I: Towers, Tombs, Mosques, Mountains & Movies LEMONCACTUS from CN Jun 9, 2006 03:06
3. Quietly Summer---Part3 CALIFORNIA from CN Jun 1, 2006 02:06
Comments (2)


Jun 12, 2006 02:59 Reply


A very different part of China.
I understand that the small white cap that the men wear is a symbl that they have been to Mecca - a once in a lifetime desire of all Muslims.


Jun 11, 2006 21:01 Reply


In fact,I was still very surprised when we were in the market in Zhongning:-)

Write Your Comment

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.

Send me an Email if anyone replies.

Your Reply to

You can post as a member (Login first) or a guest!

*Name: Country:

No more than 2,000 characters, please.