Yinchuan, China was the initial city we moved to back in 2011. Although I had backpacked through Western China a few years prior, Ningxia province was like nothing I had experienced before. Arid, and with a strong atmosphere all it’s own, we used our time there to chow down on the hearty local food, experience the crisp winter air and traverse the large boulevards. Regrettably, being that we lived there through the depths of an icy winter, we saw very little of the province in general. Anne, lived in Yinchuan back then, and has again made this northern Chinese city her home. Below, she explains why this culture-rich destination should be on any China-traveler’s list.
Anne, thank you for taking part in our interview! Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey…
Hi, thanks for having me! I’m from Australia and I’ve been in Yinchuan on and off for around 4 years. I am an ESL teacher, and I teach at a private school which is part of a chain of schools here in China. When I first arrived in 2011, I had intended to stay for only a year, but I happened to meet my future husband so ended up staying for much longer!
So, you have an exciting new blog about Yinchuan. Why Yinchuan?
I love visiting new places and exploring the different areas I live in, and realised that there was a dearth of information about what there is to do here in Yinchuan. I thought I would start a blog to show other foreigners, both expats who live in the city, and people passing through, the amazing things that Yinchuan has to offer. I’ll be blogging about the kinds of places tourists like to visit, as well as asking locals about their recommendations of where to eat, drink and what they do in their spare time here.
What makes Ningxia such a distinctive province and one that should be on anyone’s travel list when visiting China?
Ningxia is not the idea people have in their heads when they think of China. It’s situated in the north of China, and is in a fairly dry area with deserts and grasslands in the north and greener, more mountainous regions in the south. It is also one of the provinces through which the Yellow river flows. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the south, but the north has a lot more vegetation than you would expect as there are plenty of canals to irrigate the drier areas and the cities.
Ningxia has a rich history, which in the 11th century had its own dynasty in conjunction with the Song dynasty (the Xixia dynasty), and it was conquered by the Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century. More recently, Ningxia has been allocated as an Autonomous Region in China, and the homeland of the Hui Muslim ethnic group. As a result, there are plenty of mosques here and Halal restaurants. Muslims make up about 34% of the population here.
What are some attractions within Yinchuan?
There are so many interesting things to see and do here. Within the city, you can find several museums (the Ningxia museum, the geology museum and the Ningxia Provincial Museum at the West Pagoda, as well as the world class Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), just out of the city. There are also 2 beautifully looked after pagodas, and some enormous and interesting parks. Along with this there is good shopping in areas such as Xinhua Street, and some of the many malls in the city. For relaxation, you can find lots of good cafes, restaurants and bars, and most of the cinemas here show movies in English.
The food in China is really diverse – from the Xiao Long Bao soup dumplings of Shanghai, to the Chongqing spicy hotpot and of course Beijing Duck. How would you describe Ningxia’s cuisine? What are some of the best dishes to order?
Ningxia has a wide variety of dishes, a lot of which are Hui Ethnicity foods. Mutton and beef feature heavily on the menu. Most dishes are spicy, but you can ask for meals to be served without too much spice. Some of the dishes which I would recommend you order if you are after a Ningxia specialty are the following:
Lamb stir-fry (爆炒羊羔肉 ). The most famous kind is called 黄渠桥羊羔肉
Slow cooked mutton ( 手抓羊肉)
Mutton offal ( 羊杂碎)
Braised beef (which can be stir-fried or in a stew) ( 烩肉)
Mutton noodle soup ( 羊肉臊子面 )
There are several night markets ,if you want to have a really good variety of food to choose from, as well as plenty of restaurants all over.
Does Yinchuan boast any natural beauty? What are some of the excursions you can take to nearby destinations?
As a day trip out of the city, there are many attractions, including several sections of old Ming Dynasty Wall, the pyramid-like Xixia tombs, the mysterious 108 dagobas which overlook the Yellow River, Sand Lake nature reserve (which is more like a fun park in the dunes), and Shuidonggou, which totes itself as ‘the birthplace of Chinese prehistoric archaeology’ and houses an ancient fort, a breathtaking canyon and a museum. If you’re looking for something to put you more in touch with nature, look no further than the Helan mountain (Helan Shan), which has 10, 000 year old rock carvings, temples and 2 scenic areas which have great walking tracks and beautiful views. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what Yinchuan has to offer the traveller.
My Chinese husband speaks fluent English and conducts day tours from Yinchuan, so if you come to Yinchuan and need a way to get around, feel free to look up my contact details on my blog and I will be able to help you out.
What is the best way to arrive in Yinchuan (bus/train/fly)?
Because Yinchuan is quite far away from other cities in China, I would recommend either a flight (there are plenty of daily flights from most major cities in China), or a train (again, you can get a train from most big cities). The government is in the process of building the line for a bullet train to Xi’an, and another to Baotou in Inner Mongolia, which will shave hours off rail commuting times.
Now, a general question about China. Why would you recommend China as a travel destination?
China is a country with so many different types of places to visit, so whether you’re into culture, history, adventure, nature, you name it, China caters. Being such a large country, it has all kinds of diverse climates, from tropical in the south, to subarctic in the north. There are mountainous regions, steppes, tropical jungles and beaches, and the third biggest river in the world (the Yangtze). To add to this, there are 56 different ethnic groups and so a variety of different cultures to learn about.
For those wanting to visit China, what is some advice you would impart? Are there any particular apps that are helpful?
The people in China are so friendly and helpful, and will be very curious about you as a foreigner, especially outside of the bigger cities where fewer foreigners go. Expect to have strangers ask to take your photo on a regular basis. If possible, try to learn a little Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese, depending on where you go) as not much English is spoken, especially in smaller cities. A translation app will definitely benefit you, especially in transactions such as getting a hotel/train ticket/tour guide, but also just to chat to people. Be patient, as a lot can get lost in translation. An app that translates written Chinese is a bonus, as it can help you read menus, etc.
Side note: carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser in places which are more off the beaten track.
Outside of Ningxia, where have you enjoyed most in China?
Shanxi province was amazing. This is a province near Ningxia, to the east. I went there to visit a couple of ‘ancient’ towns, one being Pingyao, and the other, a little village called Qikou, on the Yellow River. Pingyao still has its original city wall, and the buildings within are all of an old style of architecture, most of which is well preserved. Its quite touristy, however. There are some beautiful mountains which are worth a look nearby. Qikou is a very small village (especially by Chinese standards) and most of the buildings there are also very old and beautiful. The nearby village of Lijiashan is full of cave dwellings, which is one of the traditional types of residence in this province. It is in superb condition, although there are not that many people living there today.
Where is next on your list of places you want to visit (within China or outside of China)? Why?
There are a few places on my list to go, and I haven’t decided yet which of these to do first. However, friends of mine have just returned from Xinjiang province in the west and they had an incredible time. They raved about the friendliness of the people, the food, the differences in culture, and the amazing landscape. This is definitely high up on my list of places to go now.
What are some considerations visitors to China should make before booking a flight to the Middle Kingdom?
- The fact that not many people speak English (but most people are really helpful and friendly).
- Not all hotels are allowed to house foreigners, so make sure you check this.
- Make sure you pre arrange addresses of places you are staying to be written in Chinese characters, for taxi drivers, etc.
- Be aware that most people can only get a visa that lasts for one month, so plan your trip well so as not to waste time.
- If traveling by train between places, it often pays to book a sleeper train, so your trip and accommodation are taken care of in one go.
What’s next for you?
Apart from vacationing as much as humanly possible, I have no plans to leave Yinchuan any time soon. It’s a great place to visit and a great place to live.
Below are some links for further research on Yinchuan:
Be sure to follow Anne’s experiences in Yinchuan, by visiting her blog, following the Instagram account she runs with her husband here, and shoot them a message to give you some tips and help plan your trip there!