Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region as the name suggests is the cradle of China’s Muslim Hui Minority; up to 20% of China’s Muslims live in this tiny province. These are mostly descendants of ethnic Han Chinese who converted to Islam ( Read this interesting article on Wikipedia).
The independent traveller will find loads of fascinating places to visit and be the only foreigner around.
The Helan Shan mountain range near Ningxia’s Capital Yinchuan is home to rock carvings, pagodas and scenic spots. You’ll also find the remnants of the Western Xia Dynasty whose Tangut people where wiped out by the invading Mongols under Genghis Khan and there kingdom burnt to the ground.
Other areas include amazing views over the Yellow River, great temples in Zhongwei and Buddhist grottoes near Guyuan.
Heaven and Hell in the Gao Temple (Gao Miao Zhongwei). I love the Gao Miao temple in Zhongwei. It may not be the oldest and most venerable temple in China; it may not have the most intricate murals, paintings and statues, but it certainly is one of the most atmospheric and photogenic places I’ve been to!
For a start, this temple can show you both Heaven and Hell.
Heaven is the part above ground. The Gao Miao rises up and up towards the sky, tier upon tier. You enter a flower-filled courtyard, walk through a colourful temple and climb to the next level, where you then repeat the process. You continue passing through other, smaller courtyards and temples while you ascend higher and higher, until you come to the final temple hall and its surrounding platform from where you get fine views over the city of Zhongwei.
Sikou Scenic Area (Do you have a head for heights?). Margie and I looked at each other, looked at the dodgy hanging bridge disappearing into the mist, remembered having seen some missing wooden planks from below and decided no, this definitely wasn’t worth it!
A park ranger offered us a harness, but even that failed to convince us and, apologetically, we beat a hasty retreat.
a striking area of sandstone gorges
The Sikou Scenic Area is a striking area of sandstone gorges. It’s a fantastic place if you love clambering over rocks and don’t suffer from vertigo. If your idea of fun is getting pleasure from clinging on to rusty chains as you scramble along narrow paths, with only a flimsy railing separating you from an abyss of several hundred meters, then Sikou is for you.
The highlight of a visit to Sikou is crossing the gorge on a near 100- meter long, swaying suspension bridge, a precarious looking structure, made of rusty cables and wooden planks, many of which are missing. I imagine the views must be spectacular, weather permitting.
However, neither Margie nor I have much of a head for heights; I get vertigo just standing on a chair changing a light bulb. As a result, we found ourselves confined to the bottom of the valley, as all routes out meant some serious climbing with vertical drops.
Yinchuan to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si is one of those out of the way routes that you will never forget. All along the journey you will be accompanied by remnants of the Great Wall, lonely watchtowers, camels and an unknown Mongolian Monastery; not to mention the amazing landscape.
Our driver has agreed to take us all the way to Bayan Khot via Guangzong Si (once one of the most important monasteries in Mongolia) for 300 Yuan; or at least that’s what we think … We have managed to get up reasonably early and are making good progress.
The Wild Wall in Ningxia
The first highlight of the day is when we suddenly catch sight of the ruins of the Great Wall! This is the real thing: unrestored, without tickets, souvenir stalls, or people. It is just standing there, defiant, majestic, having weathered so many centuries.
Of course, there’s not much left of it, it’s been reduced to a crumbling pinkish pile of earth, riddled with holes. But we don’t mind, we’re just thrilled to be there.
Zhongwei and Shapotou: There is something unreal about Shapotou沙坡头. It should be, and probably once was, a remote outpost. Geographically, it is still a place of stark contrasts, where the harsh sands of the Tengger Desert are halted by irrigated fields; where lush green is separated from sparkling yellow by a dramatic bend in the Yellow river; and all of this comes with remnants of the Great Wall for added lustre.
Might sound like something straight out of Indiana Jones. That is, until you arrive at the massive tourist reception center and ticket office and then realize you´ve landed in China’s number one desert tourist hot spot where Walt Disney meets Lawrence of Arabia.
assimilating the mayhem
As you pass through the computerized turnstile you’ll need to take a deep breath and allow a few moments for your brain to assimilate the mayhem that unfolds in front of your eyes. You’ll probably find yourself asking why you came to Shapotou in the first place.
Helan Shan Rock Carvings or the rock paintings of Helanshan Yanhua贺兰山岩画, are said to date back 10,000 years. They were our last stop of the day and we have to hurry to get there before they close. Here as well, the local authorities have made a huge effort and developed a major tourist reception center, complete with a brand-new museum and little electric trains to take visors out to the rocks (with ticket prices to match).
On the positive side, the site buildings are all housed in tasteful, beige cubes that blend in very well with the countryside.
Helan Shan Rock Carvings: The Striking Canyon
The striking canyon cuts deep into the Helan Shan range and has its own small river running through it, and even a small waterfall. The whole place is exceedingly atmospheric, particularly in the late-afternoon light, and the carvings Continue reading “Helan Shan Rock Carvings”
The twin Pagodas of Baisikou are another must if you are visiting Yinchuan. Nearby, about 9 kms further down the road from the Helan Shan Rock Carvings, are two very well preserved pagodas, 13 and 14 storeys high and dating from the middle or late periods of Western Xia.
They are best visited in the late afternoon when they stand out impressively against the stony backdrop of the Helan shan mountains. Both pagodas have small shrines inside, where people still come and worship. When we were there, a Chinese family were helping their aged grandfather to get around the shrines.
It’s quite easy to enter the ground floor of the smaller pagoda and stare up into its hollow interior, while the tunnel leading into the taller pagoda is quite claustrophobic.
In a small temple behind the pagodas, a Buddhist monk will tell you your future and reveal all your strengths and weaknesses; for a (substantial) donation of course.
The twin Pagodas of Baisikou: Practicalities
Entrance ticket: 10 Yuan.
The pagodas seem to have similar opening hours to nearby Helanshan Yanhua (8.00 – 18.00).
Helan Shan Gunzhongkou 银川与滚钟口 was our next stop after the Xi Xia Tombs. Gunzhongkou is an historic village that once guarded a pass through the mountains. The village is located at the foot of the rough and rugged Helan Shan mountains (贺兰山) which dominate the area around Yinchuan. The Helan Shan Mountain Range forms a formidable and protective barrier between the city and the barren wastelands of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia.
This was the beginning of what was supposed to be the highlight of our China trip of this year: a visit to the Badain Jaran Desert near a town called Alashan Youqi. A few sentences in the Lonely Planet had put me up to this adventure; under the caption ‘Bayan Khot’ it said: “One daily bus goes to Alashan Youqi … at 7.10 am. “ Moreover, a boxed text in the Inner Mongolia chapter mentioned “… the remote but stunning Badain Jaran Desert…”, which was apparently a 30-minute drive away from this Alashan Youqi. However much I looked on the Internet, I found little else. In fact, there didn’t even seem to be a road on the maps I consulted.
And so, while driving through the depressingly familiar mixture of white-tiled urban sprawl, manic traffic and choking pollution that took us from Yinchuan bus station to the centre of the Old Town, doubts kicked in. With a feeling of near panic I thought of my friend who I had persuaded to take a week off work from his job in Beijing (北京) to join us on this trip.
Would he not regret spending his holidays in gritty Yinchuan, rather than going back to sunny Spain? I began to have serious doubts if I had done the right thing, embarking on a journey I still wasn’t entirely sure was possible, and guilt set in. As it turned out, Continue reading “Yinchuan & The Xi Xia Tombs”
North West China Trip: Over the next few months we’ll be putting up articles about the places we visited in China this summer. The trip began in Hohhot (呼和浩特), in Inner Mongolia (内蒙古自治区), where we had arrived on the train from Ulaan Baatar (乌兰巴托) in Mongolia.
After exploring the city’s eye-catching Wuta pagoda 五塔寺 and Da Zhao 大召 and Xilitu Zhao 席力图大召temples, an overnight train took us to Zhongwei (中卫), in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Province (宁夏回自治区), where we visited the Desert Research Center at Shapotou ( 沙坡头) on the banks of the Yellow River (黄河) and also the Sikou Scenic Area(寺口风景区).
Zhongwei (中卫) to Yinchuan (银川)
0From Zhongwei (中卫), a quick bus ride led north to Yinchuan (银川), from where we explored the amazing sights that surround Ningxia’s capital.
From Yinchuan we headed off into Western Inner Mongolia, passing the isolated ruins of the Great Wall at Sanguankou (三关口), and the enormous Mongolian temple complex Guangzongsi (广宗寺), also known locally as Nan Si (南寺), before finally arriving in fast developing and friendly Bayan Hot (or Alashan Zuoqi 阿拉善左旗).
(Badain Jaran Desert is the Mongolian name / Badan Jilin Shamo is the Chinese name)
The World’s Highest Sand Dunes
Getting to the magnificent Badain Jaran Desert, home to the world’s highest sand dunes, is far more straightforward than it appears on the map and in the guide books and can be done independently, with a bit of effort and determination. The desert can be approached from two directions: either from Ningxia’s capital Yinchuan via the Inner Mongolian town of Bayan Khot (also known as Alashan Zuoqi 阿拉善左旗), or from the Gansu town of Zhangye.
The base for visiting the desert is Alashan Youqi (阿拉善右旗), which is connected by a daily bus from Bayan Khot, or by two daily buses from Zhangye.
Below is the basic information you need to do the trip. In a few weeks we will be putting up a longer article about our experience there, illustrated with more photos.
Getting there from Yinchuan
There are regular buses from Yinchuan’s main bus station to Bayan Khot, which should take around 2 hours. However, we decided to hire a taxi (400 Yuan) because that allowed us to stop at the ruins of the Great Wall at Sanguankou (三关口) and to make a side-trip to the Mongolian monastery complex of Guanzongsi (广宗寺). If you left really early, with a hired car you could also include a visit to Moon Lake, a desert playground for wealthy Chinese.