Journey to the west: a Ningxia travel adventure

A travel log I wrote for friends has been picked up by China Daily today. Read about my days and nights in the desert here, or on China Daily:

At the edge of the Tengger Desert, the undulating sand dunes extending far into the horizon bring to mind exotic Africa. But this is actually the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, neighboring the Tibetan and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions. While China’s westernmost regions are familiar to most rugged travelers, few know that Ningxia offers a similar adventure and cultural-immersion experience, but without the distance and special travel-permit requirements.

Getting to Ningxia is an expedition in itself. The red and green painted trains, among the oldest in China’s vast rail network, carry passengers to Yinchuan, capital of the autonomous region. On these trains, basic amenities such as toilet paper and soap are sparse, but flying to Yinchuan is an option, it costs three times more.
I decided to save the luxury for my return. Going there, I decided that I would try to get a firsthand feel of the cross-country migration of a worker from the west.

What to pack for a three-day camel trek in the Tengger Desert, I wondered. The closest city to my journey’s starting point was Zhongwei, a place never mentioned in any major weather forecast. On the Internet, estimates for day and nighttime temperatures ranged from zero to 30 deg C. I filled my bag with layers of summer and winter clothing.
The train for Yinchuan leaves Beijing West Station in the early afternoon and arrives at its destination 19 hours later. The “hard sleeper” train, a barrack-style compartment, looked like a village on wheels. Passengers played cards ceaselessly, ate pan-friend sunflower seeds, and watched train attendants hawk goods in the aisles.

The Ningxia autonomous region is home to the Hui people, a Muslim minority comprising one-third of the local population. Yinchuan is small for a capital city, with less than 1.5 million residents and only four registered English-speaking tour guides. While the Tengger Desert is the chief tourism draw, there are several cultural sites around Yinchuan that are also worth exploring.

At the Western Xia Imperial Tombs (Xixia Wang Ling), one can see what remains of the Tangut emperors who ruled the region from 1038. The tombs are located less than an hour’s drive west of Yinchuan. Nine imperial tombs and 70 odd accompanying tombs dot an area of 40 square kilometers. These enormous mound-shaped structures rise abruptly from the dry flat terrain, earning them the moniker “Chinese pyramids”.
There is little in the way of signage at the tomb site, but a small and surprisingly well-appointed museum nearby educates visitors on the Western Xia Empire’s position on the Silk Road and its fall to the Mongol leader Genghis Khan.

An entirely different kind of historical and cultural experience awaits travelers at the West China Zhenbei Film Studio. Zhenbei was once a border fortification. Over time, the village fort lost its military value and was used to produce steel during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60). In the 1980s, the Chinese film industry rediscovered this sprawling tract of land. Classic films, such as Zhang Yimou’s career-launching Red Sorghum, were shot at Zhenbei and the iconic sets used in this film remain standing to this day.

Visitors can experience different eras of Chinese history at Zhenbei. The most popular – and morbid – of the studio sets is the Cultural Revolution Alley. Here, 1960s-style buildings are covered with slogans and murals. Gleeful tourists rent khaki uniforms, wield prop rifles, and stage mock “denunciation sessions”, filmed by hired camera crews. Watching live reenactments of such distressing incidents can be disconcerting to the foreign traveler, but it does serve to give a glimpse into the conflicting mix of forgiveness, nostalgia, and amnesia that pervades modern China.

After the film studio, a visit to Helan Mountain can be a welcome respite. This national cultural-heritage site is home to nomadic cave paintings dating back 3,000 to 10,000 years. Despite fanciful names – such as “Lion Roaring” and “Crouching Tiger” – the images are small and scattered around a large park area. But anthropological value aside, the paved park trail and jagged mountain peaks make for a scenic hike.

A day of sightseeing around Yinchuan is best rounded off with a halal Chinese dinner. Dining options are modest, but many Muslim-friendly restaurants serve healthy fare, featuring plenty of leafy greens. There is little nightlife, besides the Chinese staple of karaoke. But this is just as well, as an early bedtime is good preparation for the three-day desert trek ahead.

The portion of the Tengger – China’s fourth largest desert – accessible to travelers in Ningxia sits on the outskirts of Zhongwei city, a three-hour drive southwest of Yinchuan. “Tengger” means “sky” in Mongolian, evoking an image of sky meeting sand on the desert horizon. Indeed, when my van finally stopped on a two-lane road, the awesome scene in front of me reminded me of the rich tableaux of Latvian-born American Mark Rothko’s paintings.

As our caravan of camels, their caretakers and adventurers set off, the Tengger Desert spread out before us like an endless yellow blanket. Its dunes and valleys appeared soft and welcoming in the distance. The camels walked languorously, swaying from side to side and occasionally slipping on a sheer sandy cliff, but steadying quickly thanks to their thickly padded hooves. Their minders, local farmers who had found in camel tourism a better way to make a living, walked beside them. Over the three days we spent together, I only saw the tanned and good-natured guides ride these animals to lead them to the grazing areas.

The colors and moods of a desert scene are intense and pure and present a wide variety. In calm moments, the blue sky and sandy earth gave the Tengger the appearance of a faraway dry beach. During high noon, the quiet heat lulls all living creatures to sleep under any available shade. At other times, furious winds blow up sheer panes of sand, forcing travelers to shield themselves behind kerchiefs and hats.

We spent the days just wandering around the desert and I suspected that by day two, the guides were leading us on lateral laps instead of further into the desert. Despite this, the scenery was ever changing and continually breathtaking.

When the sky began darkening to a velvety blue, the guides led us to sheltered valleys. Everyone busied with preparations for the night: pitching tents, gathering firewood, and arranging sitting rugs around the campfire. As the moon shone whiter and brighter, we huddled close to fight off the biting cold. The camel guides, quiet during the day, became loquacious, entertaining us with beer and drinking games. Soon, a multilingual round-robin of love songs echoed through the dunes.

By early afternoon on the third day, we were led out of the Tengger Desert. As Zhongwei’s smoke stacks and narrow roads came into view, I felt myself longing for a hot shower, a chance to shake out the sand from my clothes, and a real meal. Yet, I lingered when saying goodbye, to take in the serene beauty of the desert and enjoy the humble hospitality of my guides a while longer.


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