Yinchuan is a quiet little town in the Ningxia Province and is one of the few cities run by one of China’s ethnic minorities, the Hui people. The city is open and leafy, with wide roads and a harmonious mix of ancient and modern architecture, but there really isn’t much to see or do for more than a couple of days.
Aside from the two pagodas and numerous mosques dotted around town, the most important and popular site is the Western Xia tombs, or so I was told.
Neither the hotel concierge nor the taxi driver had heard of the tombs, so I had to direct them on a map from a guide book. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to go and see what they thought to be farmland about 40km west of the Old Town.
The 4-lane highway leading to the tombs was deserted, so the driver put his foot down and we rapidly arrived at a vast, dusty car park. Seemingly intended for hundreds of vehicles, the car park was currently home to a minibus, 2 cars and 5 bicycles.
The four people in the expansive ticket office directed me to the toilets, where a solitary attendant helped account for the 5 bicycles. A drink stand and a small souvenir shop presumably accounted for the two cars, which just left the occupants of the minibus to find.
Back at the entrance, the four people who sold me the ticket all climbed aboard a little electric cart and motioned for me to join them. Leaving the front gate unattended we silently travelled up a long driveway for a few minutes, finally reaching a large museum building. One of the passengers got off and unlocked the door to the museum, then beckoned me inside. The four of them waited in the cart whilst I had the museum to myself.
The museum was potentially quite appealing once I’d found the light switches. Dozens of detailed ceramics and wooden artefacts have been preserved by the extreme dryness for nearly a thousand years. Dioramas indicated the scale of the whole site, and a sandbox model whetted the appetite for visiting the best preserved actual tomb. The models showed a side view of a tomb, from the brightly coloured outer shell, to the passages below, and a tomb from above with the companion tombs lining the outer wall.
On the second floor I found myself in a mock-up of a traditional Hui village. It was somewhat creepy wandering amongst dimly lit statues of people in the otherwise silent museum, waiting for one of them to come to life and start a chase back and forth across the museum hallways.
Just as I was pondering whether I was more Shaggy or Scooby, a smiling face popped round the corner and said “Bonjour!”, which made me jump. Three Chinese students had arrived and were attempting to translate the exhibit signs into French. Of course.
They were excited to meet someone from England, who was therefore considered ‘nearly French’, and I had the pleasure of watching the creation of some remarkable Chinçais, or whatever the Gallic equivalent of Chinglish might be. I couldn’t read the original Chinese, but next to a model of a spear hunting scene there will soon be a French sign explaining ‘The villagers poke the pork’.
Back outside the electric cart and its four occupants were still waiting. I climbed aboard again and we drove all of 30 meters to the edge of some trees, from where they told me to walk the rest of the way. They obviously had a sense of the dramatic as past the trees I was greeted by the first sight of the tombs.
From a distance you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a pile of mud, but as you get closer and realise you can’t see any of the excavations or underground passages it becomes clear that you’re actually visiting little more than a layered pile of mud surrounded by smaller piles of mud. There are nine of these mausoleums, and over 140 companion tombs, spread out over a 50sq km site. I looked at the best two and was satisfied I’d seen enough.
Heading back to the taxi I was waylaid by the three students who wanted a couple of minutes more reassurance with their French translations. Half an hour later I made my excuses and left.
And I would have gotten away sooner too if it wasn’t for those pesky meddlin’ kids.
If you get the urge to visit, the entrance fee is ¥60, and a return taxi is ¥100-150 depending on which hotel you’re staying at. There’s even a hotel on site if you want to stay for a few days…