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