Monday, June 20, 2016

Travels in Ningxia

Last week I spent four days travelling in Ningxia province with my girlfriend. I managed this by carving a holiday out of the three day break for the Dragon Boat Festival, taking an extra vacation day at the end.

Ningxia is the kind of place which only old China-hands will have heard about it. Small, landlocked, arid, remote and little visited by anyone, it is China's proverbial middle of nowhere. The province's distinguishing feature is its large population of Chinese Muslims, thanks to which it has become one of China's five "autonomous regions". The autonomy granted to such places has little to do with the kind of autonomy enjoyed by places like Scotland and Catalonia. It certainly does not refer to the local people choosing a regional government free to make its own laws in particular areas. It does mean however that certain policies are put in place to protect the culture of the main local ethnic group, and especially its language. 

We arrived in the provincial capital of Yinchuan after a two-hour plane ride from Beijing. Yinchuan turned out to actually have a youth hostel, showing that youth hostels have now become well and truly established as a concept in China, and are no longer the preserve of places where foreign backpackers like to go. The youth hostel was quite pleasant, although the beds mimicked the traditional Kang beds of Northern China, and the mattress was far too thin for my liking. Outside of the hostel, however, the city did not give a particularly good impression: it seemed more like a county town than a provincial capital, and it lacked much in the way of charm and pleasantness. It did turn out to have a square with a replica of the Forbidden City's facade, replete with the picture of Mao and the two quotations on each side, although "Long Live the Unity of the World's Peoples" was replaced by "Long Live the Communist Party".  Perhaps internationalism is no longer expedient?

One interesting fact was that all the names of the roads were written in Arabic as well as Chinese, and this holds true throughout the province. In every one of China's Autonomous Regions the language of the local minority holds some kind of official status (although this is often symbolic). The Hui Muslims of Ningxia don't really have a language of their own, since their daily communication takes place entirely in Chinese, as it has done for centuries. However, in a decision which got some Chinese nationalists muttering, it was decided to give co-official status to Arabic, which in spite of being their holy language is not really spoken by any of the local Muslims. The result is that Arabic is found on all the street signs, and exactly nowhere else except for mosques. The translations of the street names into Arabic are often phonetic and meaningless. 

Before getting the hell out of Yinchuan, I decided to go and have a look at something I had read about in this report a few months previously: the huge "Hui Muslim Culture Park" built on the outskirts of the city, apparently in a bid to attract Arab and Muslim tourists. According to the report, the Park is supposed to showcase the culture and history of the Hui people, and direct flights have actually been established between Yinchuan and Dubai as part of the scheme. At the city's main square, we boarded a public bus which took us on the one hour ride to the park. I wasn't expecting anything much: a rather kitsch presentation of Chinese Islam with a lot of imposing new buildings and little substance was my best guess. Once we got there, it turned out that the Park looked decidedly unfinished. The huge main gate, built in a faux-Middle Eastern Style, was closed, and visitors had to enter through a side gate. Although there was a smattering of locals visitors around, there were certainly no hordes of Arab tourists anywhere in sight. The tickets cost 60 Yuan per person, and the inside didn't look promising. I made what I think was a good decision, saved myself 60 Yuan and went back to the city in order not to be stuck in Yinchuan another night. 

The (closed) entrance to the "Hui Muslim Culture Park"
Soon afterwards we boarded a bus to Guyuan, the main urban center in the South of Ningxia. Trains in Ningxia are still slow and old-fashioned, and long-distance buses remain the best way to get around. As the bus left the city, the landscape started getting more and more arid and desert-like, although never actually turning into full-blown desert. It reminded me strongly of certain landscapes in Israel. We slowly made our way down to Southern Ningxia, the remotest area of an already remote province. While Northern Ningxia is more fertile and prosperous and inhabited mostly by Han, the South is poorer and more strongly Muslim. Guyuan is the only city of any size in the area. Mostly newly built, it felt nicer than Yinchuan at any rate. We stayed in one of the city's fanciest hotels for relatively little money, one of the advantages of travelling in small and remote Chinese cities. 

The next day we woke up early and set out to visit the Xumishan Grottoes, the most famous site in the area. It is a collection of 130 Buddhist cave temples which were built between the fifth and tenth century, when the area was traversed by the Silk Road, and before Islam had arrived. The site is at the base of a mountain known as Xumi, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word Sumeru, the name of a mythical sacred mountain in Buddhism and Hinduism.

Getting to the site itself proved to be problematic. Unable to find a public bus going in the right direction, we took a taxi whose driver initially agreed to take us to the mountain for 60 Yuan, but then changed his mind after driving us out of the city for about 20 minutes, asked for more and when we refused, dropped us off at a petrol station. Luckily we were able to board a bus from somewhere nearby, which took us to Sanying, the town nearest to the mountain. From Sanying we took another taxi after negotiating a price with the driver. 

The site itself was interesting, and thankfully completely lacking the crowds of the more famous sites in Eastern China. In spite of this being a public holiday, visitors where relatively few and far between, something which would be unthinkable anywhere near Beijing. Given how hard the place is to reach without a car, and that it is in a remote part of the country, it is not really surprising. The surrounding landscape is one of majestic, empty mountains and red earth. 

The most iconic element of the site is the 65 meter statues of the Maitreya, sometimes referred to as the "future Buddha", who according to tradition will be a successor to the present Buddha. According to Mahayana Buddhism, this enlightened being (known as 弥勒佛 in China) currently resides in the Tushita heaven, where he can be reached through meditation. One day he will appear on earth and teach the pure dharma, at a time when the Buddha's teachings have been all but forgotten by humanity. According to some traditions, this will take place at a time when human beings will live to be 80 thousand years old. 

The entire site is apparently classified as endangered, due to erosion and improper conservation. At the very least the giant Buddha has not been subjected to the same fate as the ones in Afghanistan that the Taliban vandalised. After leaving the mountain we hitched a ride back to Sanying, the nearby town. The town is heavily Hui Muslim, with most of the women wearing veils and most of the men sporting little round hats. For the first time I notice the unusual purple veils worn by many Hui women, which look more like a baker's hat than a Muslim veil, at least to my eyes. We entered the courtyard of a local mosque (the town had several), where there was a crowd of local children playing. A local young man in Islamic dress explained to us that there would be a big feast after sunset in order to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast. His Chinese had a strong enough local accent that I had trouble following him.

We then walked down the town's main street. As a foreigner I was subjected to a level of attention which I don't remember feeling since I first visited China in 2004, at least in towns of that size. The surprise and curiosity foreigners garner in Ningxia, and especially Southern Ningxia, has remained what it used to be. We bought a delicious local bun from a street vendor, after which a lady even took a photo of me eating on the street. 

Back in Guyuan, we had a nice meal of mutton. This is always the local speciality in Muslim areas of China, where pork is of course avoided. This is something most Chinese find hard to understand, perhaps more than they do women wearing veils. Pork is an absolutely core part of the diet in a nation where even the character for home (家) shows a pig under a roof. There is a myth among the Chinese, which I have heard repeated with my own ears, that the Hui won't eat pork because they believe they are descended from pigs. God knows how offensive they must find this misconception.

The next day we had lunch in a local restaurant which was almost empty, possibly due to Ramadan. After that we decided to make our way back north. Our first stop was Tongxin, a town which houses the only ancient mosque in Ningxia to have escaped the ravages of the Red Guards, China's equivalent of the Taliban. Tongxin is one of the main centers of Hui Muslim culture in China. It is also a small and remote place, and although its mosque is actually mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it is certainly not a common destination for visitors, either domestic or foreign. 

We went to the bus station in Guyuan and got on the bus for Tongxin. Once we were on the bus, two policemen suddenly got on and started checking people's IDs. A routine check. As soon as they saw me, the policemen forgot about all the other passengers and went straight up to where I was sitting in the back row. After determining that Ting Ting and I were travelling together, they asked us why we were going to Tongxin. We replied "tourism", at which they just repeated "tourism?" in a disbelieving tone. We mentioned Tongxin's ancient mosque, something they had probably never heard of, but they accepted our explanation. They then proceeded to check my passport and her Chinese ID, taking photos of the main page with their phones, and left. 

After a two-hour drive we got off at Tongxin's main bus station, and caught a cab to the Great Mosque. The Mosque started life as a Buddhist Temple built by the Mongols, but once the Mongols were thrown out, it was turned into a mosque. It was renovated a few times, most recently in 1907. Most importantly it wasn't destroyed during the anti-religious drive of the Cultural Revolution. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, this is because Mao Zedong himself visited the mosque during the Long March. According to Michael Dillon's book on Hui culture, the mosque was protected by the proud local people, but it was also spared because Tongxin was the seat of the first contacts between Hui Muslims and the CCP. Whatever the truth, the impressive building shows you what mosques used to look like in China: it is built in the style of other Chinese temples, and the only sign you are in a mosque is the ornate Arabic writing on the walls. Most of the other mosques in the area are newly built in a faux-Middle Eastern style, with minarets and bell tops. Typically for China, most of them look cheap and tacky, with none of the majesty of real Arab mosques. When we entered the inner courtyard of the old mosque, there were lots of local men and children chatting.

Tongxin's ancient mosque

 A newly built mosque
The town of Tongxin looked like a typical poor county town in China's interior, with the difference that the people were heavily Muslim. I even saw men wearing white dresses of the kind you might see in the Gulf countries or in Pakistan. As a foreigner, I provoked even more surprise and stares than anywhere else I had visited up to then. Unfortunately we had little time to explore the town, as the last northbound bus left at 4.30.

As the bus made its way northward through the countryside, you could feel the Muslim presence gradually dissipating, and the villages becoming more and more Han in their feel. Although I did not have enough time to really get to know local society and research the matter, I am left with more questions than answers about Hui Muslim society. It certainly has all the outward signs of being Muslim, with the women wearing veils and most people fasting during Ramadan. But up to what extent do these people living in the middle of China and speaking Chinese, so isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, really follow the religion? To what degree is the Islam taught in the local mosques a watered down version promoted by the authorities? I have heard of complaints that Saudi Arabia now funds mosques and Islamic schools in the region, and spreads its extremist message. Given what I know about how suspicious the Chinese government is of foreign influence, especially in the area of religion, I find it hard to believe that this would be allowed. As much as Hui society appears Muslim, it certainly doesn't feel like one of those conservative Muslim countries where women and men go out separately or the women are segregated in the home. Behaviour in this area seems much closer to what you might find anywhere in China. Then again, some would argue that segregation of the sexes is a tribal Arab custom which has little to do with Islam anyway.

Local girl in a veil, Sanying
Whatever the case, while I was visiting the Hui areas I had the same refreshing feeling I have felt while visiting minority areas of China in the past. People always seem a bit friendlier, more relaxed and less materialistic than they do in areas where the Han live. When we got to Zhongwei, I had the strong feeling of being back in ordinary China, with all the consequent behaviour I have got accustomed to. On the other hand, Zhongwei turned out to be quite a nicely planned and well developed city, far nicer than either Yinchuan or Guyuan. We got to stay in another nice hotel for little money, and the next day we set off for the Shapotou, a small town that serves as a gateway to the Tengger Desert.

The Tengger desert is a patch of sandy desert which is located mostly in Inner Mongolia, but is accessible mainly from Ningxia. It has become a popular destination since an episode of the Chinese show 爸爸去哪儿 was filmed there. The town of Shapotou is now trying to reinvent itself as a tourist hotspot, and on the way to the desert we saw huge hotels and tourist developments still being built. Near the town there is an area where tourists can go and engage in activities like riding a camel and driving a dune buggy. The area was a bit like I expected it to be: expensive and touristy, but worth it for people who have never seen a real desert before. I had actually agreed to go there mostly for the sake of my companion, since I have already been lucky enough to visit deserts in the Middle East, and did not feel a great need to pay in order to ride a camel round a few sand dunes.

Camels waiting to give tourists a ride

By Beijing standards the place was far from crowded, owing to its remoteness. Most of the visitors seemed to be from places like Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi and Sichuan. After paying for an 85 Yuan ticket (to enter the desert!) and a 160 Yuan ticket for the activities, we went in. We got to ride on camels through the dunes for about ten minutes. There was a line of about a dozen camels tied to each other, each one ridden by a tourist. The camels didn't look terribly healthy or happy, although I don't really know what camels normally look like. We then got to drive a dune buggy for a while, and then sit in the back while a local guide drove over the sand dunes at incredible speed, making it feel like a roller coaster. 

Just outside this patch of desert there was an incredible view of the Yellow River snaking through the mountains, which provided for some really good photo shots. After taking a few good photos, we hitched a ride back to Yinchuan's airport and boarded our flight back to Beijing. In the airport I saw a group of foreign visitors, and it struck me that these were the first obvious foreigners I had seen since arriving in Ningxia province four days previously. 

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