After a 6 hour coach journey, we arrived in Yinchuan, the capital of the north central province of Ningxia. In 1958, Ningxia was designated an autonomous region for the Hui Muslim people, and so Yinchuan has a thriving Muslim community. It was late at night and we found ourselves in a dark carpark outside the coach station. The ladies we met were smiley and friendly and interested to see foreigners in these parts. We felt pretty confident, having reserved our hotel the previous day, and after a conversation with some taxi drivers, we were ushered into a cab. I realised that it was unmarked and had no meter and so we fixed a price beforehand – the driver held up his hand and said ‘five’, which we thought was quite reasonable. However, on reaching our destination, he protested that he had meant five zero, which was much more expensive than the short journey warranted. Feeling a bit cross that we had been had (although I had been anticipating something dodgy when the drivers of the metered cabs insisted we go with him), we nevertheless paid up, thankful at least that we had made it to our hotel.
We had chosen the hotel from the Lonely Planet guide, feeling that this would be a safe bet, and Liangliang had phoned up to reserve our room the day before. However, as we lumbered into the lobby hefting our bags, the girls on reception looked very surprised to see us. We smiled and informed them we had a reservation. They appeared very confused and told us they were fully booked. The whole situation was extremely bewildering, as both parties endeavoured to communicate via Google translate and sign language. I was put onto a phone call with a man who spoke a little English, who told us we couldn’t stay there, but that they could put us in a cab and take us to another hotel. It eventually transpired that the hotel was no longer able to accept foreign guests and the only reason we had been able to make a reservation in the first place was because Liangliang had done it for us. I traipsed around some hotels in the vicinity and found a similar story – all ‘fully booked’. We didn’t fancy being ferried to some unknown hotel, so Luke got onto the WiFi in the lobby and made a booking on the internet. We found ourselves a bona fide taxi with the meter switched on, which as expected cost ten times less than our previous journey, and eventually arrived at a place we could spend the night.
It was a large chain hotel, with spacious rooms and welcoming staff. We had a lot of fun over the next few days trying to converse with them. They spoke no English at all and were unerringly patient with us, but quite often got the wrong end of the stick. The next day we crashed out in the hotel room, eating our way through our stash of food and making a start on the red dates. In the afternoon, we suddenly decided to get our acts together and took a taxi to the North Pagoda, Haibao Temple, for an hour’s wandering before it closed. We stepped from the hustle and bustle of the street through a huge red painted wooden gate, framed by thick red timber pillars. Once inside the courtyard, the city noise ebbed away and we were soothed by the sudden serenity. There was a pretty garden with trees and shrubberies, an ancient well around which cats congregated and before us, the regal 11 storey pagoda reached skyward, each floor slightly smaller than the last, its sandy coloured bricks contrasting beautifully against the clear blue sky. Bells were hung at the corners along the length of the pagoda and they tinkled gently in the breeze. It is unknown when North Pagoda was originally constructed, but due to earthquake damage, it was rebuilt during the Qing dynasty in the 18th century. We entered through the narrow doorway and commenced the climb to the top. The stairway was wooden, steep and somewhat rickety and it was quite dark inside. Up and up we climbed, each flight of steps leading to a small landing with a tantalising glimpse out over the grounds and the city beyond. Not wanting to spoil the surprise, we pressed on to the top. Here, the unusual cross–shaped floor plan could be easily appreciated, and at each point of the cross the late afternoon sun streamed in through large, round latticed windows which opened out onto city vistas. There was a lovely view of the gardens below and we could see a long way across the city. Yinchuan is not especially attractive, but with its myriad of flat-roofed buildings and narrow streets it would be a great spot for free-running! We spiralled our way back downwards and spent some time befriending the courtyard cats and taking ‘pussy in the well’ photographs (as the bells ding donged in background!). On leaving the grounds, we found ourselves in the midst of a game of tig (or tag if you’re a southerner!), as school children raced up and down the temple steps.
We took a leisurely stroll across the city to the drum tower, stopping by a knitting shop to buy some much-needed leg warmers. Every Chinese town worth its salt has a bell tower and a drum tower and they are usually quite striking buildings (get it?!). They are huge, wooden, brightly painted structures situated a street or so apart at the junction of two main roads and in the past were used to keep the time. They are also common features of Chinese temples. When bells are rung, they are often be done so in multiples of nine. As nine is the highest single digit number in base 10, it is considered auspicious, and symbolises completeness and eternity. Chinese emperors were very fond of the number nine and it presents itself in architectural features of many important buildings. For instance, the great gates in the Forbidden City in Beijing contain 81 golden doornails (nine rows of nine), and flights of stairs in the complex usually consist of nine steps, or a multiple of nine.
Our stomachs were rumbling, so we stopped at a fast food noodle restaurant for some warming and spicy noodle soup. We took seats in the window and were amused to see passers-by doing double takes as they spotted us. We hadn’t seen any other westerners for a good few days by now! After we had eaten our fill, we decided it was high time we headed back to our hotel – then we realised that we had no address and had no idea where it was, having left by taxi. Taxi drivers we stopped had not heard of the hotel. Sheepishly, we returned to the café and asked if we could use the waiter’s phone. Eventually, we found the address on the internet and he was able to give us directions. Silly foreigners!
On our way back, we walked down a wide pedestrianised street, which was punctuated at intervals with captivating bronze statues depicting children playing local games, traditional trades and Yinchuan citizens (Han and Hui) having fun together. We passed through a buzzing shopping centre and out onto a street lined with mainly Hui street vendors selling dried fruits, nuts, breads and sweet potatoes. Even though we were clearly not from these parts, everyone made us feel very welcome and the city had a warm and friendly atmosphere.
The following morning we had decided to plan ahead and book train tickets for our onward journey into the province of Gansu. We wasted a lot of time trying to find the correct bus to the train station (another piece of Lonely Planet misinformation!), but once on it had a pleasant journey chatting to a man who spoke a bit of English and making pronunciation notes in my phrasebook with his help. I finally thought I might be able to make use of it! I then wrote down in picture format and with a little Chinese the exact details for the trains we wanted to catch, thinking that for once we would be good, well-prepared tourists and would be in and out as quick as the locals. I thought it was fool-proof. How wrong could I have been!
At first, everything went swimmingly. The man at the counter seemed to understand the note perfectly and having taken our details, took our passports and card payment and began to print out the tickets. I grinned at Luke, feeling rather smug. Then the man stopped in confusion. HE peered at the tickets and then at our passports. In China, you have to have your name on the train ticket. As he could not read English, he had put our nationality down as our names – then realised his mistake when our names were the same! We tried to indicate which line showed our names. He went off to another window to consult a colleague. The queue behind us grew longer and people peered to see what was happening. There seemed to be quite a discussion going on behind the glass panels, and more and more windows ceased service whilst heads were put together to sort out the conundrum of the foreigners’ tickets. Eventually, the poor man returned, still rather puzzled. After 20-25 minutes, a card refund and a repayment later, we had the tickets we had requested. We couldn’t believe how patient everyone was – those in the queue behind us were quite jovial and understanding. We had passed around our sketchbooks thinking people might need placating, but no one seemed upset anyway. If this had been the UK, there would have been huffing and puffing and sighing and swearing. I guess this might come from living in such a highly populated country – people are used to being kept waiting.
We emerged, triumphantly clutching our tickets, and found ourselves a taxi to take us to Helanshan Yanhua, a site of ancient rock carvings several miles out of town at the foot of the mountains. When we arrived, we realised how remote it was and that our chances of hailing a taxi back would be vanishingly small, so decided to pay our driver to wait for us whilst we wandered around. There was a wonderful museum about rock art around the world with some lovely real petroglyphs, some great replicas and excellent English explanations, some of which were rather poetic. The museum had clearly been put together by someone passionate about their subject and this enthusiasm shone through the exhibits. After seeing extensive sections on cave paintings and rock carvings in what felt like all the other nations around the world, we felt a little glow of something resembling patriotic pride when we came upon a reproduction of Stonehenge, having started to believe that our ancestors were devoid of any sort of creativity.
After the museum, we were taken by an electric shuttlebus towards the mountains to see the real thing. The setting was impressive – craggy mountains towered above us on one side, crowding into the distance, whilst the flat plain stretched out in front. The abrupt change in scenery was quite awe inspiring. Along a canyon on the eastern flank of the mountains, thousands of petroglyphs have been discovered. A concrete path wound around the main sites beside a small river, and we had fun trying to spot the carvings as we ambled past. There were stick-like deer and sheep, occasional hunting scenes, funny looking faces, squiggly lines and patterns. Many were visible from the main path, but others were situated higher up and we had to climb a little way to see them. The most famous picture is that of the sun god, whose startled monkey-like features gaze eastwards from a vantage point halfway up the cliff. The jury is out as to the age of the carvings, with estimates varying between 1500-10,000 years old. There is something exciting about being in the presence of ancient art in situ – you get a glimpse into the mysteries of past civilisations, and can’t help but picture the people climbing the cliff face to carve their stories. In a few places there were carvings of handprints. This indicated possession or power – a handprint next to deer or sheep is essentially saying, ‘I own this livestock’. One set of carvings containing a handprint was thought to be a contract between tribes, with the pictures showing that one tribe had defeated the other and had taken possession of their land. I noticed a few more recent handprints in the concrete path – evidently someone had felt inspired to leave their own mark!
Halfway along the path it began to turn into an ice rink, and there was a series of fountains spraying water over large wooden blocks, which were gradually getting coated with a thick layer of ice. When we asked about this, they told us they were preparing for summer, when it gets swelteringly hot in the canyon. As the winters are so cold in contrast, they can make their own ice blocks in advance to provide a cooling effect.
As we headed back to find our faithful taxi driver, we felt like we were stepping back out of the past, but a past that we still felt close to. It is incredible to think how long humans have been making art. Some of the sculptures in the museum were 50,000 years old! We often think of art as something frivolous and unnecessary, but it is really an integral part of human nature. I found Helan Shan and the exhibition unexpectedly moving. There is something grounding and almost motherly about ancient art. Similar themes crop up again and again, reminding us that we are indeed part of one big family; we have the same roots, share the same anxieties and sense of wonder. It is fascinating that such ideas developed in parallel in disparate communities around the world, and that the thoughts and feelings of ancient people still resonate today.
We were dropped back at the city centre and after dinner had a leisurely evening walk back through the streets to our hotel. It was a Friday and there were many more stalls than the previous night, their wares spread out on blankets or packed into push carts and the pavements were interspersed with plastic toys that marched and span about. We bought some twisty breadsticks from a Hui baker, who thought it was very funny we only wanted four of them. We said our three words of Chinese and he grinned and shook our hands firmly.
Once back at the hotel, I realised I had lost my journal and Chinese phrasebook somewhere along the way. We thought we might have left them in the taxi and after a lot of confusion, involving texting the taxi company translated messages and trying to communicate with the hotel staff, a taxi driver turned up with a book on Chinese agriculture, in Chinese. I am sure had I been able to read it, perhaps the subject would have grown on me (…!), but decided it best to decline gracefully. I was annoyed to have lost the journal, but luckily it was a new one and I had only been using it for two days. As for the phrasebook, it was fairly useless, but I was sad I would never be able to use the phrase, ‘this coffee shop is very romantic. It even has internet access.’
The next day we crammed our belongings into our bags and just about made it out of the room by the check-out time of 12pm. We had polished off most of the snack food left over from our stay in Ni he gou, but still had a few kilos of dates to get through! As we hauled our luggage out of the room, we were met by one of the hotel managers, who had come up to give us a hand. She was probably about 40 years old and was one of the main people we had been attempting to talk to at the desk over the past couple of days. She took one of our bags and we mutely gestured our thanks and the three of us shuffled into the waiting lift. There was that awkward silence that comes with being in a confined space with a stranger, which was amplified by our inability to conduct small talk and we glanced about and twiddled our thumbs. The lady was gazing curiously at Luke’s bristly, rather unruly beard. She raised her hand, hesitated, and then seemed to make a decision. Cautiously stretching out her fingertips, she gently fondled his beard, as if it was a thing of wonder. Luke’s eyes widened, he smiled goonishly and I bit my lip trying not to laugh, but no one made a sound. Shortly after, the lift doors opened and we filed out, as if nothing had happened. I got the impression she had been wanting to do this ever since we had first turned up, and she saw this as her last chance!
After a tasty kebab from a street vendor (they REALLY know how to do kebabs here), we headed to the train station to store our big bags so we could spend the remainder of the day unladen before catching the night train to Lanzhou. We got talking to some shop owners at the station and I showed them Luke’s sketchbook as a way to explain where we had been. They kept trying to tell us things, but we had no idea what! A young Hui Muslim man came up and joined in our one way Google translate conversation. He had just returned from a short trip away. It was very cold outside when we were waiting for our bus back into town, so we offered him one of our hand warmers. He insisted on giving it back when our bus arrived and he proffered his sleeping bag, which had Arabic writing on it, as a kind of farewell gesture. We thanked him, but explained we already had sleeping bags and waved goodbye as the bus pulled away. If only we could speak Mandarin, we would have got so much more out of our travels in China! We have met so many friendly people who are keen to strike up a conversation, and it would be wonderful to be able find out more about their lives, opinions and personalities.
Once back in town, we did a small amount of shopping for essentials (a new notebook, a sketchpad) and killed time in a restaurant. We ordered tea with our meal – the word is ‘cha’, but no matter how we said it, with inflection up or down or high or low in tone, and despite frantic mimings of sipping tea, no one understood! It was the same wherever we went in China – you’d think it would be easy to get tea in China, wouldn’t you? Eventually, feeling resigned, we showed them the word on our phone, and they predictably said, ‘ah, CHA!’ – as if, ‘why didn’t you just say so?’ It seemed so obvious to us that that was exactly we had been saying again and again, but to the Chinese, we had probably been saying, ‘Dog? Sieve? Potato?’, so they had no clue what we were talking about. The tea eventually arrived and was rather exciting to look at. I think it was what is known as ‘eight treasures tea’ as it was full of sesame seeds, walnuts, large seed heads, red and yellow dates, goji berries and other spices. It was very sweet and a bit like drinking a scented Christmas candle. Each time I drank some, they came and topped it up with hot water, so it was a never-ending cup. Luke didn’t really like it, but they still insisted on adding water to his each time, so that after a while you could see the meniscus forming, but never a drop spilled.
Back at the station, we made acquaintance with a group of medical students who spoke very good English, and shared our dates around. At 10.40pm we were settled in our beds and the train pulled out of the station. We were en route to Dunhuang in the far northwest of Gansu province, an oasis town on the edge of the Gobi desert, but as we needed to change trains in Lanzhou, we had decided to spend a day there before catching our next train.