After a night of fitful sleep, punctuated by the frantic footsteps of a few poor passengers who overslept their station announcement, I woke up somewhere in Ningxia province. Ningxia is home to the Hui, a Muslim people who are one of fifty-six officially recognized ethnic groups in China. Although it is an “Autonomous Region” (like Tibet and Xinjiang, other well-known minority populated regions) the population is only one-third Hui and two-thirds Han Chinese. The province is sparsely populated and consists mostly of desert land. This is where we will start our three-day trek on camel back tomorrow.
Waking up in the top bunk of a hard sleeper Chinese train is a delicate affair. The train tickets are cleverly priced according to comfort. The newer, cleaner, and faster trains cost many times more than the lower end ones. On any given train, the most expensive is the “soft sleeper” compartments (individual cabins with four bunks), followed by the hard sleepers (the barrack-style berths we were in), then soft seaters, hard seaters, and even standing-room only carriages. Within the hard sleeper compartment, the bottom bunk, which offers the most headroom and accessibility, is most expensive. The top bunk — the narrowest and hardest to reach (requiring an agile climb on the ladder) — is the cheapest.
Forgetting the low height clearance on the top bunk, I tried to get up and my head met the train roof with a thud. Injury Number One sustained (many more to come this week). With my neck bent like the hook part of a hanger, I assessed my outfit and made some minor adjustments for decency. I crawled to the end of the bed that met the ladder and gingerly did a 180-degree turn so I could descend facing the right way. My fingers felt dirty just gripping these communal ladder steps. Who knows what people have stepped on before they put their feet up here? Wait, I know what people stepped on. I’ve seen the condition of the train bathrooms and should stop thinking about it.
Once on the ground I inventoried my supplies. Wow, the journey has hardly started and I’ve made significant dents in my stash of trail mix and fresh fruit. Feeling gross all the time has also impressed upon me the need to ration moist towelettes. I hadn’t seen soap in seventeen hours and was starting to think that the chances of meeting it again on this trip were slim. I decided to forego cleaning and feeding myself this morning. My travel mates seemed to reach the same conclusion and the only thing we ate was vitamin C tablets D passed around.
Before long, the pleasant train announcer voice told us we were arriving in Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia. This was followed by melodious saxophone tunes piped through the PA system. Ah China, you can’t go anywhere without hearing Kenny G!
The nine of us scrambled off the train and bounded out of the station as if leaving the jungle for civilization. We were happy to find Lisa, our guide for the day, smilingly greeting us outside. Lisa is tall and slight, and looks more like a friendly college student on her day off than a professional guide. Her demeanor reminds me of a cartoon character, nervous and jerky, but cute.
Back in Beijing we were told that English-speaking tour guides were hard to find in Yinchuan. There were only four, to be precise, and all four were booked for today. At the last minute, the travel agent located Lisa. Now that we were in Lisa’s charge, I felt keenly that she was indeed a last resort. She was an amiable girl that we all grew to like, but she spends more time busily flipping through her tour guides’ reference book than pointing out the scenery to us. Throughout the day, she was more content to follow than lead and often was the last one on the bus because she was excitedly taking pictures of the sights.
Minor problems aside, we were all too happy to have left the gross red-paint train behind. Sitting on a clean and private tour bus being shuttled places was such a luxury. We were eager to get going on the day’s agenda and voted to skip breakfast in favor of breaking out the sanitary hand gel, moist towelettes, and trail mix on the van instead.
Our first stop was the Xixia Imperial Tombs. These tombs were built by the emperors of the Tangut (“Xixia” in Chinese) Empire who reigned over Northwestern China from 1038 to 1227 before being decimated by the fierce Mongol army of Genghis Khan. After an hour drive out of Yinchuan we arrived at the area where the tombs were accidentally in the 1970’s. Immediately we fell prey to tourist traps. This being a great Western (albeit a Chinese western) adventure, we all ponied up for leather cowboy hats. They were about the most impractically shaped things we could’ve added to our heavy backpacks, but at fifteen kuai each, they were irresistible.
With hats on heads, we started exploring the Xixia Museum, a surprisingly well-equipped facility. I usually avoid museums in China and in other developing countries, finding them poorly managed for lack of budget. But here, I took in the ambient lighting, admired restored vases through protective glass, and read the English placards for mistakes. After most of us were ready to move on Lisa still lingered in front of ancient Buddhist paintings (Buddhism having come through with the Mongols whereas Islam had come earlier with the Silk Road traders).
From the museum we took electric shuttles to the tombs. The setting was majestic; expansive blue skies like you never see in Beijing and extremely flat ground. Seemingly from nowhere, the tombs rose up on the horizon. They were less impressive than we expected, looking like giant termite mounds caked in yellow dust. I had read that the tallest rose ten meters high but the desert climate in Ningxia was so dry that the tombs had a brittle and flaky look, as if a thousand years of history would crumble before my eyes if I reached out to poke them. The highlight from the tomb visit was the watermelon that we each chipped in to buy at a roadside stall afterwards. Following a long walk and some strenuous jumping for funny photos in front of the imperial mounds, the juicy slices cut right in front of us was quite a treat.
Our next stop was Zhenbei China West Film Studio, the Universal Studios of China, minus the fancy rides and logoed T’s. This is a massive tract of barren land on which classic films, like Zhang Yimou’s career-launching “Red Sorghum”, were shot. The iconic sets were preserved as tourist attractions. At the entrance, a large sign hailing “Chinese film marches from here to the world!” invited visitors to whip out their cameras and begin a day of shameless posing and snapping.
For several hours we wandered through the streets of ancient China, pretending to hawk prop produce. We walked into farm houses made of mud and strung all over with lengths of drying chilies, garlic, and corn. We even unwittingly took part in a re-enactment of scenes from the Cultural Revolution. A large group of tourists rented Red Guard and Landlord costumes to put on their own denunciation meeting. When we passed through, our two white male members posed for photos as the scared Capitalists getting the crap beat out of them by valiant guards. We were delirious with delight at being transported back in time and clicked away at our cameras until our most level-headed travel companion, L, quietly chuckled, “This is like Germans staging scenes of the Holocaust.” True enough, beneath the fun there was a sinister undertone that we had all missed. How was it that modern Chinese managed to forget so quickly the traumas of forty years ago?
We left the Film Studio with full digital memory cards and drove towards our last destination for the day. At Shilan Mountain we could see cave paintings from the Xixia period set amidst a scenic backdrop. The park that holds the ancient art is like any other “rugged” Chinese park. Cement or stone paths are carefully paved through the jagged rocks and logs painted to look like tree trunks serve as protective railings. This is our idea of rustic. No, the Chinese don’t really “do” nature. We prefer to set a trail that ladies in three-inch heels can easily tread.
By the time I had looked at “cave” paintings (for the rocky canvases had been removed from caves, if ever there had been caves, and displayed along the paved path) of various animals, the Monkey King, and a Sun God, I was starting to feel dizzy. I had felt a scratching at my throat all day and that seemed to be developing into a real cold. Worried about being sick during the hardy camel trek, I joined my companions for a delicious dinner rich in vegetables (the thing we came to most appreciate about hallal Chinese food) but skipped out on the karaoke session afterwards. By the time my roommate came back to the hotel room I was already heavily dosed with Nyquil and could barely lift a land to wave good night.