Squeezed between Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Shanxi, Ningxia is the smallest of China’s provinces, and an autonomous region for the Hui minority. 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. In the west of the province, however, the river does actually run past desert dunes at Shapotou, near the city of Zhongwei – one of the most visually arresting sights in China. 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.
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Despite a certain degree of industrialization in modern times, 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.
Hui (回, húi) is a vague term, applied to followers of the Muslim faith all over China who have no other obvious affiliation bar Islamic dress and the absence of pork in their diets. Most Hui are descended from Middle Eastern traders who arrived in China over a thousand years ago; men can usually be distinguished by their skullcaps, women often wear headscarves or veils, while the sprouting of minarets is the most obvious sign that you’re in a Hui-populated area. While remaining Muslim, the Hui have otherwise long since integrated with Han culture; barring a few Persian or Islamic words, they speak Chinese as their mother tongue.
Ningxia is the officially designated homeland of the Hui, who today make up about 30 percent of the province’s tiny population of four million. However, most Hui do not live in Ningxia at all, but are scattered around neighbouring regions – particularly Gansu and Shaanxi – to the point where they often seem strangely absent within what is supposed to be “their” land. In Ningxia, as with all the autonomous regions of the Northwest, the central government has steadily encouraged Han immigration – or colonization – as a way of tying the area to the Chinese nation, but the situation of the Hui people is not comparable with that of the disaffected Uyghurs or Tibetans, since there is no talk whatsoever of secession.
The Hui population of Ningxia’s major cities is rather low, but to immerse yourself more fully in the culture take a trip to Guyuan, the Muslim districts in Xi’an, or the Lanzhou–Linxia route in Gansu province.
By the banks of the Yellow River 16km west of Zhongwei, SHAPOTOU is a tourist resort whose main pleasure is in the contrast between the leafy, shady banks of the river, and the harsh desert that lies just beyond. The resort is a Disneyfied place, with cafés, outdoor restaurants and various activities on hand – ferry rides, ziplines over the river, sand-sledding and camel rides. There’s very little shade, so bring a hat and sunscreen. There are two main entrances, one to the south, and another high up to the north; the latter is preferable, since from here you can slide down a huge sand dune to get to the main resort area. Most people come on a day-trip, but you can easily spend an enjoyable night here.
The capital of Ningxia, YINCHUAN is a bland modern city possessing little of essential interest bar the Islamic designs incorporated into many of its buildings, some of which pulse with green neon at night. From 1038, however, Yinchuan was capital of the Western Xia kingdom, an independent state which survived for less than 200 years. It was virtually forgotten about until the early twentieth century, when archeological remains started being recognized for what they were; you should definitely make a visit to their weathered mausoleums, some 20km outside the city.
The Western Xia kingdom
The ancient Western Xia kingdom (1038–1227 AD) encompassed a vast expanse of land, overlapping regions of what is now Ningxia, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. Established by the nomadic Dangxiang clan of Qiang ancestry, the kingdom had twelve kings and developed its own written language, which combines influences from Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese. The Western Xia territory survived prior to independence by playing off the Song or Liao dynasties against each other. In 1038, Li Yuanhao, leader of Western Xia, was militarily powerful enough to oppose Song jurisdiction and thus this third kingdom was created. A prosperous period ensued as the kingdom benefited from controlling the trade routes into central Asia. The new era saw a time of great cultural development, a state academy was erected, and future officials took Confucian examinations. Less emphasis, however, was placed on military matters, and in 1227 the Western Xia were obliterated by the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan.