Squeezed between Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Shanxi, Ningxia (宁夏, níngxià) is the smallest of China’s provinces, and an autonomous region for the Hui minority. Historically, the area has never been a secure one for the Chinese: almost every dynasty built its section of Great Wall through here and, in the nineteenth century, the Hui people played an active part in the Muslim rebellions, which were subsequently put down with great ferocity by the Qing authorities. Until recent times, Ningxia’s very existence as a separate zone remained an open question; having first appeared on the map in 1928, the region was temporarily subsumed by Gansu in the 1950s before finally reappearing again in 1958. It appears that the authorities of the People’s Republic could not make up their minds whether the Hui population was substantial enough to deserve its own autonomous region, in the same way as the Uyghurs and the Mongols.

Despite a certain degree of industrialization since the Communists came to power, Ningxia remains an underdeveloped area. For visitors, the rural scenes provide the charm of the place, but this province is one of the poorest in the country. Geographically, the area is dominated by coalfields and the Yellow River, without which the hilly south of the province, green and extremely beautiful, would be barren and uninhabitable desert. Unsurprisingly, the science of irrigation is at its most advanced here: two thousand years ago, the great founding emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, sent a hundred thousand men here to dig irrigation channels. To those ancient systems of irrigation, which are still used to farm cereal crops, have now been added ambitious reforestation and desert reclamation projects. Some of these can be visited, particularly around the city of Zhongwei. Other sights include the capital Yinchuan, which makes a pleasant stopover, and one relic from an obscure northern branch of the Silk Road, the delightful Xumi Shan Grottoes, located well away from the Yellow River in the southern hills.