One of the things I love about this year is how many opportunities it is giving me to explore Asia. This second year of my degree is a time for me to conduct research and write my master’s thesis – a task that I am (slowly, but surely!) working towards. For the most part, however, this research and writing is being done on the road – as I’ve started to take advantage of travel opportunities and go beyond Beijing to understand more of the country that I’m starting to call home.
In a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decided this week to travel to Ningxia. Ningxia, or more fully, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, is a northwestern region bordered by Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Shaanxi. I hadn’t heard much about Ningxia before I started making travel plans, so I was excited to read up on the local history and culture. Though the geeky side of me wants to share everything that I’ve found, the travel blogger in me realizes that I’m probably not going to keep your attention if I spend too much time talking about the policies behind how Ningxia became recognized as an Autonomous Region, or about the trajectory of Islam in China and how Hui culture and identity was developed within the Mainland over the past eight centuries. 😉
Maybe I’ll save some of those thoughts for a future blog post, or even an academic essay… Instead of boring you with those details, I’ll jump straight into the travel and tell you about what I got to see in the past week and what I’d recommend to other travelers coming to Ningxia on their own!
My trip was made possible by Tong Cheng (同程旅游）; a group that is working in collaboration with local tourism initiatives to promote international tourism in Ningxia. Tong Cheng covered my expenses to make the journey from Beijing, handled all of our travel logistics, and brought us to some of the best sites in Ningxia. I could hardly pass up the opportunity to have such an adventure. 🙂 The past week has been a whirlwind tour, so I figured I’d just share some of my favorite places and favorite photos with all of you.
Hui Culture Park
The Hui Culture Park was the first destination for this trip. It is, without a doubt, a really interesting and complicated place. (I’d love to learn more about The Culture Park, and perhaps write an entire essay on its development.) The site was opened in 2005, and has been awarded AAAA Tourism Ranking, though many sections of the park are still under construction. It is intended to put Hui culture on display, and share the group’s cultural traditions with the world.
Our group was shuffled into a small building to see a short performance that included song and dance. The space was cozy – no larger than my dining room – and the twenty-person audience took up the second half of the room. Our group made up the plurality of the crowd, with some folks clustered together on wooden benches while others stood to take photographs. There was no elevated stage, but the performers held a captive audience as they sang long throaty ballads, or danced in upbeat numbers. The sequins on the performers clothing – colorful renditions of traditional Hui costume – threw golden light onto the walls as the women spun in circles.
I walked around several buildings within the complex, including an enormous mosque. While we were there, a guide led gave a lecture to another travel group about the site and Muslim history. Since the talk was exclusively in Mandarin, I couldn’t follow everything that was said – but I was kept captivated by the colorful interior of the building. The architecture was an interesting fusion of Chinese and Islamic styles, and seemed to be a favorite part of the site among Chinese and international visitors alike! Many people took photographs of the tessellating tiles, and I craned my neck to look at the golden dome at the center of the building. While we were inside, a Hui couple even came with a professional photographer to take a series of engagement photos!
China Western Film Studio
We started our second day with a visit to the China Western Film Studio. It was a little cold in the morning, but I warmed up quickly while walking around… though the cup of hot milk tea I kept in my hands definitely helped! 😉 Many Chinese films have used the film studio as a backdrop to their scenes: fans of “Red Sorghum” might recognize some familiar places!
I haven’t seen the films that have come out of this studio space – but will add these movies to a list to watch when I get the time! I think it will be fun to see the classics, now knowing that I’ve walked in the same streets. Despite not having seen these movies yet, I had a really good time. Signs around the complex showed movie scenes in the exact places they were made, which made it easy to get caught up in the excitement and imagine bustling film crews and popular movie stars.
While I loved wandering around the various studios and looking around, my favorite part of this visit was watching other visitors jumping into the sets and acting out scenes of their own. There’s something really funny about the stark contrast that this set-up creates: the playfulness of adults, set against a backdrop of historic scenery.
In one case, I got to see a group of women jump into a line of angry looking mannequins, who seemed to be queuing to issue complaints to a local magistrate. Each mannequin figure was dressed in old-styled robes, with muted blue colors that have continued to fade with time since the studio installed them. The group of Chinese tourists that jumped into the scene was dressed in electric colored sportswear – which really made them stand out when compared to the dusty scene around them. One woman shouted “快一点儿!” (Kuai yidianr! Go faster!) with a smile that betrayed her mock outrage, as she pretended to shake her fist at the plaster and papier-mâché figurines around her.
One section of the park was styled after a Republican Era city: complete with old style advertisements pasted to the walls, and little shops selling mock-vintage trinkets. This was the liveliest section of the studio that I saw: a number of food vendors set-up street stalls, and more people seemed to be milling around and taking photographs. Here’s one photo I snapped of a woman barking out commands to a line of mannequin soldiers. Her traveling group, a large collection of middle-aged women, laughed loudly in the background.
Our group arrived just in time to see the 4:30 pm showing of the 烽火西夏 (Flames of War of the Western Xia Dynasty) play. We didn’t see much of the complex here before making our way to the arena, but I’m glad that we didn’t miss a moment of the performance. Riders on horseback showed off a variety of tricks – jumping on and off their mounts, pulling off handstands, and looping around the enclosure to show off for the audience. After the actors had given this brief introduction, the show was ready to begin.
I’ll admit, this was a slightly confusing plot for me to follow. The troupe divided into two groups at opposite ends of the theater, and began battling one another. Narration was blasted over loudspeakers, including dialogue and dramatic sound effects as the actors crossed swords. Surprisingly enough, the language classes I’ve taken thus far have not prepared me to follow battlefield vocabulary, so I had to rely on the rest of my group to help piece the narrative together. As I understand it, the story described the fall of the historic Western Xia Dynasty (which occupied the Ningxia area and ruled from 1038-1227) to the Mongol Empire.
Though I am a History & Archeology concentration, even I can find medieval history to be a little bit boring at times… however, if every reading I had to do was presented like this, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the same opinion! Despite not understanding everything word-for-word, the show was awesome to watch and something I’d recommend to anyone who comes to Ningxia!
Shahu – Sand Lake
My last day in Ningxia was spent at Shahu. Shahu, or “Sand Lake” is an enormous area with natural wetlands and wildlife, as well as a rolling desert with tons of things to see and activities to do. The park covers more than 80 square kilometers (about 31 square miles) of land and lakes.
When we arrived in the morning, the entire area was covered in a thick cloud of mist. Visibility was low, so we stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant across from the entrance as we waited for the sun to dissipate some of the fog. Though I was skeptical that the skies would clear, by noon the visibility improved and entire area was transformed completely! 🙂
We rode in several speedboats to cross the eponymous lake, which wove in between the tall reeds and gave us an exhilarating tour of the wetlands. Once we reached the sandy shores, we got to do a bit of bird watching and then a number of recreational activities. I’ll admit – I’ve seen some of these same activities in other places that I’ve been to, but I’ve never taken advantage of them. That all changed at Shahu, where in a single day, I got to ride a camel, sled down a sand dune, parasail, and hop into a miniature tethered hot-air balloon. (Seriously, this was a chance to cross off a half-dozen things on my bucket list!)
A picture can say a thousand words, so I’ve shared some photos instead of writing everything down. Though you might be able to find these same activities elsewhere, if you find yourself in Ningxia and just want to have a fun-filled day, I’d really recommend it. 🙂
I could keep talking about Ningxia for a long time – and I’m sure that for some friends, I’ll be sharing stories, photos, and food in person soon! (My backpack is heavy with dried locally grown goji berries!) This post has been easy to write, in part because I’ve been able to include so many beautiful pictures that the official photographer had taken while we were traveling! I’ll spare you some of the promotional group photos from this trip, but I’ll share a photo of our cozy hot-pot dinner on our last day to give you a sense of the warm-hearted treatment we got.
As a bonus, I’ll even throw in the goofy photo that they used for our introductions.
(Ai-ya! Hopefully that ID picture won’t come back to haunt me later in life.)
Up next… I’m off to Japan! I’ll save some of the details of that trip for when I make my next post – but I’ll be excited to share my thoughts and photos from Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo with each of you. ❤
Lots of love,