Trip: Ning Xia Province

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(Note: you can see photos from this July 2003 trip via our Photo Album)


Our NingXia Vacation

Vivian Krigline records her thoughts for posterity on our remarkable 2003 end-of-term break

(edited by Michael)

     Our Summer 2003 vacation took us to the neighboring province of NingXia. Like so much of China, the area is filled with interesting historical sites and a remarkable mix of scenery. We enjoyed cooler weather and clean air while learning about history and experiencing several “firsts” including rides on a traditional raft, camels and sand sleds.

History & Geography

     The NingXia Hui Autonomous Region is north west of Xi’an. The area is a mixture of mountains, desert, sand dunes, and rich farmland along the Yellow River. Most of the cities are located along the Huang He (Yellow River) or the channels that run off it. The channels were created during the Han dynasty in the 1st century BC. The Hui minority are descendents of Arab and Iranian traders who traveled to China during the Tang dynasty (600-900). The Western Xia Kingdom was established in the 11th century and lasted for about 190 years. Legend says Genghis Khan from Mongolia tried on six occasions to conquer the Western Xia Kingdom. During the sixth campaign, Xia archers sneaked into Khan’s camp and fatally wounded Khan, but before he died Genghis Kahn ordered the total annihilation of the Western Xia Kingdom. The Hui Ethnic Group (descendents of the Xia culture) has now mixed into the Han culture with only the practice of Islam making a significant distinction. Now the Hui make up only one third of the population of NingXia.

Our First Day of Travel

     Our adventure began Monday, July 7, at 8 am when “Friendly Bob” the driver arrived to take us to our 10:30 flight to YinChuan. We wound our way through Xi’an’s morning traffic to pick up Alistair McLellan at the Petroleum University. Alistair is from Scotland and has been teaching in Xi’an since February. (He returns to Scotland at the end of July.) The morning was already quite warm as Friendly Bob confidently made his way north through the middle of town to the airport. We arrived around 9:45 in plenty of time to fill out health statements, get our temperature taken and check our luggage -- all leftovers from the recent SARS scare. The airport was bustling with travelers headed to all parts of China. One of our students even spotted us, and came up to say she was on her way home for the summer.

     The check-in attendant insisted that carryon luggage was prohibited, so we knew we were going to be in a small “puddle-jumper”!  Alistair was worried it would be a prop-plane! After going through security, we proceeded to Gate 4 as instructed. An announcement sent us to a different gate, but there was no notice of our flight, so Michael asked (it was now about 10 after 10). The attendant said the message was in error, and we were directed past a crowd of people waiting on another flight, down some stairs, to an awaiting bus -- a small bus, that surely indicated a small plane! We were the last to board that bus and soon we were on our way to the plane. It was a small two-engine jet -- not a prop! Alistair was relieved!

     Our uneventful flight to Yin Chuan took only about one hour. As we got close, we could see the beautiful change of landscape below. There were pinkish/purple mountains, dry riverbeds, the yellow sand dunes of the desert, and a little green along the banks of the mud-colored Yellow River.  Only a few villages could be seen, and YinChuan itself appeared small as well!

     Once on the ground we claimed our luggage quickly and proceeded to seek a way into town. Just past the baggage terminal one is greeted by drivers who want to charge passengers an inflated fare for a ride into town (this is a feature of all Chinese airports and train stations). Past them, one normally finds the legitimate taxi queue, where one simply takes the first taxi and pays whatever the meter says. Not so in Yin Chuan. The hotel had told Michael what fare to expect, but the drivers all asked for more. Even in the “legitimate queue,” no one was interested in turning on the meter (nor in paying the quoted price)! After returning to the terminal to make further inquiries (and getting the price originally quoted), Michael went back to the queue, but they refused to take us. When Michael “gave up” and headed for the public bus, the drivers “relented” and pointed to an old taxi (with a broken windshield), and the driver agreed to use the taxi meter (which never happened!). After a silent ride (about 30 minutes), we arrived at the hotel (paying just below the inflated price!). Next time, we’ll just take the bus (though we learned later that this isn’t as easy as it sounds either!).

Yin Chuan

     The Ning Xia Zhong Yin Hotel was a nice little three-star place. We couldn’t tell how many rooms were occupied, but there didn’t appear to be many others around. Michael reminded the hotel staff that they had agreed to help us get train tickets to our next destination -- ZhongWei -- but this would prove impossible. In the end, the only option (on the only morning train) was a “standing” ticket. Michael has memories of similar three-hour trips, standing between the train cars where people are supposed to go to smoke, so we ended up taking a bus to ZhongWei!

     We ate lunch at the hotel restaurant then took off to see the town! Our first stop was the Haibo Pagoda (or West Tower).  The Pagoda and surrounding temple were built in the 900’s as a gift from the Empress of the Western Xia Kingdom to her young son who had ascended to power following the death of his father (beheaded for killing his own father who had stolen his wife -- but that is another story). An earthquake in 1739 demolished most of it, but it was rebuilt in 1771 (before sustaining further damage in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s). The surrounding “temple” buildings house several interesting museums with artifacts from the Xia era, as well as 5000-year-old Rock Art found in the nearby mountains. Andrew, Michael and Alistair climbed the 13 stories to the top of the pagoda! I stayed on the ground and watched the swallows fly around! The weather was beautiful -- blue sky with air much cooler and cleaner than Xi’an!

     We then enjoyed a few hours at the city park. It is a beautiful park with a zoo (we didn’t see that part), walking trails, a few amusement park rides, a playground and a small lake. Andrew had a great time in the playground. We then walked around and found a stand selling roasted lamb on a stick! After Michael convinced the cook not to put any spices on some, we enjoyed a nice snack! Andrew talked us into a boat ride so we ended our day with Andrew steering us around in an electric boat, while the rest of us enjoyed the peace and quite (broken only by the frequent “hellos” foreigners get in China from locals eager to show off the English word almost everyone can say with confidence!).

The Great Wall, Rock Art, and Western Xia Tombs

     Tuesday, we met our guide, Jonathan, for a trip to see the Great Wall -- and more! The weather had turned cooler and a bit damp, but still quite nice for sightseeing! The remains of the Great Wall were just next to the newly constructed highway a few miles out of town. If you didn’t know what it was, you would just think it was another bank of dirt overlooking the plain! Wow, it really was pretty and interesting to look out over the vast miles of nothing, into the desert and mountains beyond. Jonathan told us that over the years all of the Wall’s bricks had been taken away for use in other projects, and Nature was doing a great job of wearing away the unsupported structure. He said he remembered there being a few bricks there when he was young, but now it’s only pinkish clay.

     When we finished climbing on the Wall it was still early, so Michael asked Jonathan if he and the driver had time to take us to see the Rock Art and the Western Xia Tombs. The original price for the outing was 600RMB ($73US), and the pair graciously agreed to the extension for 400RMB more. (To help you put this price in context, remember that a decent working wage here is 1000RMB per month.)

     The Rock Art is located in the mountains outside of YinChuan. After a long drive we found hundreds of primitive drawings carved into the side of the mountains and surrounding rocks, dating back some 5,000 years. They are found in many places in the mountains of the area, but the place we were taken has the largest concentration of drawings. It was fascinating to see these drawings, as well as someone’s 20th century interpretation of what they are and mean!  Like most archeological finds, many of the rocks have been taken away to museums, but this area has etchings all through the ravine on both banks of the riverbed. We were glad to pay an entrance fee which helps the Chinese government protect these treasures.

     Along the way we passed the Twin Pagodas of BaiSeKou.

     We then went to the tombs built by Li Yuanhao, the founder of the Western Xia Kingdom (c. A.D. 1100). The kingdom lasted 190 years until the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, destroyed the cities of the area. The tombs were also destroyed leaving only the haystack-like mounds of dirt behind. The tomb artifacts had been stolen during the Mongol invasions.

     We ended the day with Jonathon treating us to a wonderful dinner of roasted lamb at the Lao Mao restaurant, next to the largest Mosque in town. During dinner, Jonathon told us several interesting stories about his own life. After serving in the army he had taught himself English, and then became a tour guide. Sensing his frustration with the limited opportunities available to him, we told him about the Way we overcome frustration. Jonathon then graciously took us on a walking tour of the city’s main shopping street.

ZhongWei & the Sha-po-tou Desert

     Wednesday morning, we checked out and handed a taxi driver the name of our bus station, written in Chinese by the hotel staff. When we arrived at the station, Alistair commented that it looked “too organized”!  Michael luckily mentioned to the driver where we wanted to go, and it turned out that we were at the wrong bus station! We headed in the other direction, arriving at a station with more people around (not so organized)! The moment we drove in, a little lady noisily stopped the driver to find out find out where we were going, and upon getting an answer she all but grabbed us and led us onto a bus (yelling unintelligibly all the while). We took the whole back row (five seats -- and there weren’t many others empty), and were told we didn’t have to pay for Andrew or the extra seat we took up with our bags! Mere moments later the bus left for our two-hour trip. It was a comfortable, nice bus, and we had a surprisingly nice highway to travel on most of the way. However, typical of such busses in China (and regardless of the presence of children), we were subjected to a very bloody Chinese movie for most of the trip.

     En route, Michael told the conductress we were headed to Sha-po-tou and she made it her job to get us a taxi when we arrived at the ZhongWei bus station. Once again, we were grateful, since the station was a rather chaotic place! Again, the hotel had told us how much a taxi should cost, and once again, the driver wanted more than we told him. Since the only other apparent choice was a motorized tricycle Michael didn’t argue too much about the price! Shapotou was a bit farther out of town than I expected. About an hour later, we were out in the middle of nowhere, between the sand dunes of the Tengger Desert and the Yellow River! The first shock came when we had to buy a ticket (over 100RMB) to get into the gate. The hotel had not warned us about this added expense, so Michael called the manager to verify this odd practice! (This also gave him a chance to ask about the train tickets he had ordered for our return to Xi’an.) Actually, the place was really nice (not three-star quality, but nice)! The place was cool and green, the food was good, and there was plenty to do within walking distance. We all enjoyed our two days there!

     This popular recreation area has grown up around the Sha-po-tou Desert Research Center,  established in 1956 to find ways to keep drifting sand from covering the railway line. The center is in the Tengger Desert, which is one of the four largest deserts in China. Tengger Desert has an area of 43,000 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) and lies across 3 provinces -- Ninxia, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu. The sand layer ranges from 70 meters to 100 meters in depth (228 to 327 feet), with 70% of the area being moving dunes, which is a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world!

     Once we dropped off our luggage, we went up the chair lift to the top of a dune to “see what we could see,” with the sole purpose of sand-sledding back down the hill. At the top, we found the highway we came in on, gift shops and a few eating places. Across the highway, the Sha-po-tou Desert Research Center offers camel rides through the sand dunes, which we would come back and enjoy the next day. After a look around, we took the sleds back down! I was scared to death, but was determined to do it anyway. Actually, I thought it was really fun! I didn’t go too fast, afraid I was going to loose control when the sled started to fish-tale, but I made it down without incident! Andrew, Michael and Alistair were covered with sand after speeding down to the bottom! It was lots of fun!

     A thunderstorm came up so we went back to the rooms to rest a while before dinner.

     Thursday was our day to take a yangpi-fazi -- sheep skin raft -- along the river, and a camel ride through the desert. We were taken by motorboat up river a ways with a raft and guide. Floating back downstream it felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere, although someone obviously farmed the fertile land along the edge of the river. There was also a new bridge being constructed. Our raft trip was fun and the colors of the hills up river were beautiful. We then went back up the hill and across the highway to the camel ride!

Camel Ride on the Silk Road

     Since none of us are used to riding any kind of animal, Michael chose the 45-minute trip through the sand (versus two hours or longer!). I ended up on the lead camel (I’m glad -- our un-mounted guide was very cautious and concerned for my well being!), Michael came next, another guide rode with Andrew (again they were very safety-conscious), with Alistair bringing up the rear of our odd caravan! We soon lost sight of any sign of civilization, winding up and across ridges and down slopes. We were told to lean forward as far as we could when going uphill, and then to lean back when going downhill. There was very little straight, level road! We tried to imagine what the trip of the Three Wise Men would have been like. All of us were in awe of the vastness of the desert and the height and depth of the dunes. The trip really was “superb” (as Alistair put it)! Even though we were out wandering around for about an hour, we were still very close to the station, and the trip ended with lunch at a re-creation of the “Post in the Desert Pass” of the Silk Road.

     A sign posted at the station read as follows: Silk is one of the greatest inventions of the ancient Chinese people. Silk was highly valued in ancient Rome, and authors spoke of it as having colors as beautiful as wild flowers and raw materials as slim as spider silk. They called China a country of silk. From before the time of Christ (B.C.) to the 13th century, large quantities of smooth splendid silk was transported to the Mediterranean by way of the Huang He (Yellow River) Pass in the desert. Later, people called this pass the Silk Road, which lies across the whole Asian Continent (as long as 7,000 kilometers or 4,000 miles), connecting China with the western countries. The “Post in the Desert Pass” was a famous trading post along the ancient Silk Road.

     After a lunch of mutton stew (like Alistair’s mother used to make) we looked around a bit. The post is designed as a tourist attraction, offering tent style rooms where one can stay the night in the desert and various sand-going vehicles. Alistair and Andrew took off in a dune buggy for a short ride! Then, instead of riding the camels back to entrance, we took an old Army truck! Andrew had described the camel ride as “bumpy,” but he said it was nothing compared to this fast and scary ride! The ride was more like a bad roller coaster through the sand dunes. Our camels had walked slowly along the ridges of the dunes, but the truck just went straight up and straight down! 

     Another sand slide down the hill was to bring the day to a close. Vivian took our cameras and souvenirs down hill via the chair lift and readied the camera to capture the boys’ last sand slide! What an exciting ride! The course was faster than the day before, and though everyone left at the same time, Alistair came whizzing down a little ahead of Andrew and Michael. There was a group at the bottom of the hill that had just come down (applying the breaks all the way), and they were fascinated with the “weiguoren” (foreigners) barreling down at full speed. “Too fast, too fast” they shouted as Alistair came to a stop. Andrew was right behind him, but had so much sand had blown up in his face it took him a while to get up! Then attention quickly turned to the third foreigner, Michael, who had fishtailed out of control and took a tumble about 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the hill. He was being cheered on as he walked back to his sled and proceeded to the bottom of the hill. Everyone (including the spectators) had enjoyed their trip down the hill! 

     Another rainstorm sent us back to the room to cleanup for dinner, thus ending our fourth day of the Ningxia adventure.

ZhongWei and back to Xi’an

     Friday we left to travel back to Xi’an. The hotel staff came through with tickets (hard sleeper) on the 6:30 pm  train from ZhongWei. (We were rather concerned about that since we had so much trouble with train tickets back in YinChuan.) The staff also arranged a taxi for us, and we left at 10 a.m., hoping to look around ZhongWei before the train came. We arrived at the Long Hui Hotel, right next to the train station, and parked our luggage in a room Michael had booked for the day.

     ZhongWei is a very small town by Chinese standards, but we were impressed by its beauty. The Long Hui Hotel was only a year or two old, and it faced a large (even newer) public park or square. Not far down the street (past more new buildings), we entered the Gao Miao temple complex. Though the temple is still in use, its grounds are now a beautiful park with a lake, gift shops, and places for children to play. The temple was built in the 15th century and rebuilt after an earthquake in the 18th century, but a fire in 1942 destroyed it again. I’m not sure when it was rebuilt, but probably not long after the fire. The temple is unusual as far as temples go because it was designed to serve Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism within the same complex. Although it is beautiful in its own way, it sort of has a “haunted mansion” appearance -- a fact not lost on the monks who have built “a glimpse of hell” for tourists and pilgrims in the basement (we did not venture in to check this out!).

     Lunch, rest, and another boat ride consumed the afternoon. I had lost my voice Thursday night and was feeling the beginnings of a cold, so I went back to the hotel to rest after lunch. Meanwhile, Andrew had talked Michael and Alistair into going back to the park, yearning to try an oar in the picturesque lake despite the light drizzle. Later, back at the hotel, Michael and Alistair took advantage of the other two beds while Andrew put together some toys acquired in town. By 6:15 Friday night we were on the train, headed back to Xi’an.

     I have found train travel to be interesting and the scenery of China indescribable in places. The yellow, brown, and purple sand and mountains soon went off into the distance, while farms of green corn and yellow wheat stretched from the sand hills all the way back toward the mountains. Then suddenly there were fields of huge, bright yellow sunflowers mixed in!  Villages were built of the pinkish clay with some quite small and a few larger. Evidence of the Hui culture’s Islamic beliefs was clearly visible through the mosques in the larger villages. The clouds blocked out any chance for a splendid sunset, and a few fellow passengers disobeyed the non-smoking regulations, but the trip home was restful all the same. We arrived home before 7 on Saturday morning.

Closing Thoughts

     Sometimes I marvel at how lucky we are to be living in China. The Yellow River has flowed past these beautiful dunes (and nearby Rock Art) for thousands of years, but few Americans have ever had the chance to see it. For centuries, the Great Wall kept foreigners out, but we have walked along the top of that impressive structure (something few South Carolina boys like Andrew will ever be able to say!). Here, we’ve made friends with wonderful people from many lands (like our Scottish traveling buddy, Alistair), and experienced China’s delightful hospitality through the friendly service of guides like Jonathon and the hotel staff members in Yin Chuan and Sha-po-tou. At the same time, we get the chance to touch hundreds of young lives as College English teachers, equipping our wonderful students with a skill that will help them to serve their country fruitfully in the years ahead. Yes, our five days in NingXia were remarkable, complete with camel and sand sled rides, good food and country air, but this vacation is just another facet of our wonderful experience as teachers and learners in China!

© 2003 Vivian Krigline, all rights reserved. Permission granted to print/copy for personal use. (see Website Standards and Use Policy).

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