Yinchuan Nanguan Mosque

Yinchuan: Negative Space and Contentment

The most striking thing about Yinchuan is probably the sense of negative space, the lack of things which are a common sight in other provincial capitals (such as Nanjing), the center of town does not feature a McDonald’s, the supermarkets are small, and stock far less international goods or big brands. Most noticeable to westerners is the lack of confectionary, such as chocolate.

There’s also a definite sense of loss, of faded splendor. Nowhere is this felt more clearly than at the site of the Western Xia tombs (西夏王陵) where a once splendid kingdom was destroyed by the might of Genghis Khan. Vast honeycomb-like structures stand like lone centenaries in the desert landscape, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Helan(贺兰)mountains, which separate Ningxia from neighboring Inner Mongolia.

western xia tombs

In many ways Yinchuan is the stereotypical “other”, the opposite of China’s well-developed and comparatively cosmopolitan east coast. The architecture in places resembles the Middle East much more than the traditional Han style buildings, and there are several striking mosques as well as the usual collection of pagodas and temples. Evocative of the city’s past as a Silk Road trading depot, cheap dried fruit and nuts can be purchased in small, family-run shops.

Yinchuan Nanguan Mosque

Spending a couple of days in Yinchuan offers an authentic and enlightening insight into the culture of the Muslim Hui minority (回民族). Fresh flatbreads are baked on street corners, shops stock modest clothing, and most restaurants have elegantly arranged mutton as their specialty. Other special products from the province include wolfberry (枸杞) snacks and medicinal “eight treasures” (八宝茶) tea.IMG20191004131335

For everything unfamiliar about Yinchuan there are also the things that it has in common with other Chinese cities. Socializing in the evenings takes place in the square by the drum tower (鼓楼), along with the normal “square dancing” (广场跳舞). Yet Yinchuan offers something that a lot of other Chinese cities don’t: room to breathe.

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There’s something peaceful about the desert, a place that appears so timeless, but is constantly reforming itself. Perhaps it is this sense of disquiet continuity that draws humans into this inhospitable landscape, and which has featured so prominently in the work of travel writers such as Sanmao(三毛). As life in China’s eastern coastal cities advances at a lightning pace, the clouds roll silently over the resting place of the Xia kings.