Yinchuan is a city in the Ningxia region of north-central China. There are so many things to do here, from discovering the city's fascinating history to exploring its natural beauty. Here's my Yinchuan travel guide highlighting the best things to do in the city that just may be China's best-kept secret.
Yinchuan, under its former name of Xingzhou, was once the capital of the Western Xia Empire. In 1227, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, conquered the city in the first recorded event of attempted genocide. A small amount of Yinchuan's native Tangut population took shelter in neighboring areas, and Khan mysteriously died within the city.
Though its past is tragic, the city now flourishes with a population of around 2 million people, and offers a wonderful mix of Chinese, Mongolian and Islamic cultures.
Quick Travel Tips for Yinchuan
Air: The closest airport is the Yinchuan Hedong International Airport, located approximately 25 km from the city centre. A taxi from the airport to the city should cost around ￥100 (negotiable) and usually takes just under one hour.
Rail: The Yinchuan Railway Station is located in Jinfeng District. Trains travel to Yinchuan from several cities, including Beijing (12-ish hour trip), Xi'an (12-ish hour trip) and Zhongwei (2-ish hour trip).
China offers 72-hour visa-free travel for certain nationalities traveling to certain cities. A fact sheet for this visa exemption can be found here. If you do need to apply for a Chinese visa, it's best to do so 2-4 months before your trip.
There are no mandatory vaccinations for China, though it's recommended to get vaccinations for Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Japanese Encephalitis. You may also need to show proof that you've been vaccinated against Yellow Fever if you're traveling from a country where it's present.
Chinese Yuan, also known as renminbi. It is sometimes also labeled as CNY or RMB. Other symbols referring to the yuan are ￥(used in this post) and the Chinese character 元. These all refer to the same unit of currency. Get the XE Currency app to make money conversion easy on your trip.
The main language spoken in Yinchuan is Mandarin Chinese, specifically the Lanyin branch of Mandarin. Most people will not speak English, so make sure you check out my quick Mandarin guide for English speakers!
The pathway to Yinchuan's mysterious Xia Imperial Tombs | Image © ExpatAlli
The Best Times to Travel to Yinchuan
Yinchuan is located in a desert region of central China, which means summers are hot, winters are cold and the weather is dry throughout the year. The city gets less than 200mm of rain on average each year with most of it falling between the months of June - September.
The hottest months of the year are between May - August, with temperatures reaching up to 30ºC. If you're visiting during these months and plan to spend time outside, make sure to bring sunscreen and a hat, and drink lots of water as the dry heat can put you at risk of heat stroke.
Winter in Yinchuan can be cold, with temperatures reaching lows of -8ºC and highs of 3ºC between the months of November through February.
Average temperatures in Yinchuan for each month of the year | Image © ExpatAlli
If you can, avoid booking your trip to Yinchuan during one of the national holidays. Since so many people are traveling around China during this time, transportation and hotel rates usually skyrocket. There's also the risk of things booking up completely, and you'll be fighting crowds at all the local attractions.
Many of the big holidays in China follow the lunar calendar, which means the dates vary each year. View a full list of the national holidays in China (as well as non-working days for Chinese residents).
It should be relatively easy to arrange a taxi from your hotel. Keep in mind that your driver will most likely not speak any English. I found it helpful to carry my hotel business card with me, and also had the reception staff write down the name of where I was going in Chinese in case there were any problems.
If you're heading to a location outside of the city centre, hiring a taxi for the entire journey can be the best way to go, especially if you don't speak Mandarin - the driver may help you communicate with the ticket office. Make sure you negotiate a fare with the driver before you agree to the trip.
The base fare for a taxi in Yinchuan is ￥7, with between ￥1.20 - ￥2.10 added for every extra km depending on how far you're traveling and what kind of taxi you're taking. The driver shouldn't charge you for the first 3 minutes of wait time, but expect ￥1 to be added for every 3 minutes after that. The price is usually around double the standard rate at night.
*Try to avoid hailing a taxi between 6-7pm during the week, as this is usually when the driver changeover happens. It's also rush hour. You've been warned.
There are more than 20 public bus routes that service Yinchuan, and the fare is cheap. Keep in mind that bus service generally only runs during the day - it's a good idea to confirm bus timings with the concierge at your hotel before you head out to explore.
Yinchuan also offers 3 special tourist bus routes between April - October. These busses cost between ￥8 - ￥10 each way and offer 2-3 trips per day to several of the popular attractions outside of the city centre.
It's totally possible to get from one city attraction to another if you enjoy exploring on foot. Keep in mind though that Google Maps is not a reliable way to navigate Yinchuan. In order to avoid making my mistake of getting hopelessly lost, I suggest having a native speaker write down the Chinese names of the places you want to go, as well as your hotel address, in case you need to ask for directions.
Yinchuan's lotus-shaped Grand Theatre | Image © ExpatAlli
Where to Stay
There are plenty of Airbnbs in Yinchuan. You can rent an entire apartment in the city for about ￥170 per night (on average). However, there are a few things you need to be aware of before using this option. First, there's a good chance your host will not speak English. This could make it difficult to resolve any issues that come up during your stay.
Secondly, you should know that while using Airbnb as a foreigner in China is legal, you may not be able to use it as a valid accommodation booking on an application to get a tourist visa. This rule was in effect when I applied for my visa for China in 2018, and to my understanding it was due to the fact that Airbnb hosts were not required to register their guests with the police, while hotels usually do. This rule has since changed, so Airbnb hosts are required to register their guests with local law enforcement now, but I can't confirm that it is accepted on the visa application forms. Might be best not to risk it.
Yinchuan has several hotel options near the city centre, ranging from budget (usually around ￥160 per night) to luxury (￥630 per night and up). Be aware that there are several hotels in Yinchuan that offer rooms only to Mainland Chinese citizens; usually this information will be disclosed on the site you're booking through. All recommended options below offer rooms for any nationality.
Yinchuan Xifujing Hotel | 1 East Xinhua Street, Xingqing District $$$
This luxurious hotel is located just a few minutes' walk to the Chentian Monastery. Rooms feature free high-speed internet, flat screen tv's and capsule coffee makers. The on-site restaurant offers a Chinese menu with locally-inspired flavours.
Kempinski Hotel Yinchuan | 160 Beijing Middle Road, Jinfeng District $$$
The 5-star Kempinski hotel is located within a short walk from the Ningxia Museum and People's Square. The hotel features a spa, fitness centre and heated indoor pool, as well as various in-house dining options.
Yinchuan International Convention Centre Hotel | 222 Qinshui North Avenue, Jinfeng District $$$
The hotel at Yinchuan's International Convention Centre has been offering luxury accommodation to guests since 2014. All rooms are bright with courtyard views and balconies. The property also features an indoor pool, fitness centre, tennis court and four restaurants.
Wanda Realm Yinchuan | 9 Qinshui North Avenue, Jinfeng District $$$
The high-class Wanda Realm is also located near Yinchuan's Convention Centre. All rooms have free wifi, a seating area and bathrobes/slippers. The hotel also has Chinese and Japanese restaurants, a bar and an indoor pool.
Yinchuan Vintage Hill Hotel | 9 Taikang Street, Jinfeng District $$
Located just a short walk from the Ningxia Museum and Wanda Plaza shopping mall, the Yinchuan Vintage Hill offers guestrooms with free wifi, bathrobes, a mini bar and flat screen tv's. The hotel also has two restaurants, a bar and a fitness centre.
Holiday Inn Express Yinchuan Downtown | 17 Xing Fu Feng Jing, Qinshui North Avenue, Jinfeng District $$
This mid-range hotel is located a short distance from the People's Square, International Convention Centre and shopping malls. Guests can enjoy free wifi, a complimentary buffet breakfast and an in-house fitness centre.
Jinjiang Inn - Yinchuan Gulou | 15 Gulou North Street, Xingqing District $
There are a few different Jinjiang Inn's in Yinchuan - this one is located a short walk from the Drum Tower and Yuhuang Pavilion. Rooms feature a private bathroom with toiletries, guest slippers, free wifi and a flatscreen tv.
Things to Do in Yinchuan
Ningxia Museum | Renmin Square, Jinfeng District | Free Admission
This is a good place to start, as it's located in People's Square and free to visit. The museum is huge and there are a decent amount of English descriptions, so you should have some idea of what you're looking at even if you don't speak Mandarin. There's also an English audio guide you can get from the front desk - you'll just need to give them a form of ID for them to hold onto until you return it.
Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art | 12 Hele Rd, Xingqing District | ￥20
The Yinchuan MOCA is located outside of the city centre, beside the Yellow River in a beautifully designed building that was completed in 2015. Showcasing Chinese art from a variety of different time periods and styles, it's a must-visit attraction for art and architecture lovers.
Ningxia Science & Technology Museum | Renmin Square, Jinfeng District | Free Admission
This museum is more geared towards children than adults, but it's a good place to keep kids entertained for a while. Keep in mind though, that there isn't much English here so things may be difficult to understand for anyone who doesn't speak Mandarin.
Han Meilin Art Museum | Helan Mountains Rock Art Heritage Park | Free Admission
Possibly one of the most beautiful art galleries in China, this museum highlights pieces created by the famous Chinese artist Han Meilin, who has long been inspired by the ancient rock art of the Helan Mountains.
Inspired by the Indian stupas, the Chinese developed their own style of Buddhist towers called Pagodas when Buddhism swept through their nation. There are two large ones in Yinchuan - the Haibao (North) Pagoda in Haibao Park, and the taller Chengtiansi (West) Pagoda, which offers views of the city from 64 metres up.
The admission price to enter each pagoda is ￥10; the price to climb the Chengtiansi Pagoda is ￥20.
You can also visit the 108 Dagobas, which are 12 rows of stupas located about 85 km outside of the city centre, on the edge of the Yellow River. It is said that you'll have good luck if you recite the Buddhist scriptures 108 times in front of them. Admission price is ￥100.
About 45 minutes' drive from the centre of Yinchuan is Shui Dong Gou, a fascinating historical site where archaeologists have unearthed evidence of human habitation dating as far back as 30,000 years ago. While there is little information in English, it's still an interesting attraction where you can climb a small section of the Ming Great Wall, explore tunnels used by soldiers to defend the area, see traditional Mongolian yurts and experience the natural beauty of the area.
There are plenty of spots along the way to buy refreshments, and toilets are easily accessible. Each full entry ticket includes an interactive show, a shuttle bus to the Great Wall, a boat ride, horse-drawn carriage or bamboo raft ride and a camel-drawn cart ride.
A ticket for the full experience at the Shuidonggou Paleolithic Site is ￥240.
Shuidonggou site | Images © ExpatAlli
Yinchuan's unique lotus-shaped Ningxia Grand Theater was opened in 2011 and hosts many live theater, dance and musical performances. It's located in the middle of People's Square, beside the Ningxia Museum.
The theatre's website lists current and upcoming productions. I highly recommend checking out if there's a Chinese opera playing during your visit. You can check out my guide to Chinese opera for foreigners to see why it's such a unique experience!
The China West Film Studio sits at the site of two ancient military forts and is one of the 3 largest film studios in the country. Over 100 movies and tv shows were shot here, and while it's no Universal Studios, it's a great place to learn about Chinese cinema. You can get into costume and take some fun photos, as well as practice your archery skills and watch traditional musical performances.
The site, once called Zhengbaibao, dates back as early as the 14th century. Chinese film crews have been allowed to use it free of charge for a filming location as long as they did so without damaging the ancient structures, so it's been well preserved. Admission cost is ￥80.
It might surprise you to know that the Ningxia region produces some of China's most premium wines, particularly the varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. There are over a hundred wineries located in various parts of the province, and a handful offer tours and tastings.
If you don't speak Mandarin, you'll probably want to book a tour with an English-speaking guide. More information can be found at the Ningxia wine industry directory website.
The Western Xia Imperial Tomb site is composed of 9 cone-shaped tombs that were built to hold the remains of Emperors of the Tangut civilization, who were ultimately defeated by the Mongols in 1227. An on-site museum holds relics from the tombs, and shows that what now look like giant ant hills were once elaborately decorated structures which were destroyed during an invasion by the armies of Genghis Khan. They are quite beautiful contrasting against the backdrop of the Helan Mountains.
Entry cost for this attraction is ￥75. I recommend bringing a translation app as there isn't much information in English.
West Xia Imperial Tombs | Images © ExpatAlli
The most popular attraction in the Helan Mountains is the ancient rock art of Helankou. More than 6,000 paintings and carvings have been unearthed in the area, documenting some of the daily rituals of the nomadic tribes who lived as early as 770 BC, predating the Western Xia dynasty.
Admission to the Helan Mountains Engravings Park is ￥70, which also includes admission to the fantastic World Rock Art Museum, the only one of its kind in the world.
The Suyukou Forest Park is in the Helan Mountains, a short drive from the West Xia Tombs and I highly recommend adding it to your list of places to see, regardless of which time of year you visit in. We spent only a couple of hours here after visiting the tombs, but you could easily spend an entire day.
In the winter the Suyukou Ski Resort opens for winter sports. During summer there's a chairlift at the base of the mountain that you can take to the top for a fee ( I can't remember exactly, but I'm sure it was less than ￥100 for the round trip), or if you're feeling ambitious you can hike up. Keep in mind that even in summer, the weather in the mountains can change in an instant, so make sure you bring a jacket. If you do, however, get caught unprepared, ski jackets can be rented from the shop near the chairlift for a small fee at any time of the year.
At the top of the mountain are some amazing viewing areas, as well as a footbridge that you can buy access to. The footbridge is 248 meters long, and feels a bit less sturdy than it looks from a distance, but it's definitely worth crossing if you're not deathly afraid of heights.
Suyukou Forest Park footbridge | Image © ExpatAlli
Where to Eat in Yinchuan
Yinchuan offers food from all corners of the globe, but the best dishes are the local ones. The food is generally quite spicy but full of flavor and as the region has a very large Muslim population, most places are halal. It may be hard to find English words on any menu, but unless you've got dietary restrictions the best thing to do is be adventurous - everything is delicious!
My personal favourite place to eat in Yinchuan is Guoqiang Shouzhua (国强手抓), which is a popular restaurant chain that offers delicious halal Chinese food.
My best advice is to take local recommendations. Dianping is a good resource for this - it's the Chinese version of Yelp, and with a little help from Google Translate, it can give you an idea of the places that have the highest rating from the locals. If you can, I suggest avoiding Western-style places like pizza and fast food restaurants while you're in China. Even if you're craving Western food, I can guarantee it won't live up to your expectations. Plus, the local cuisine in Yinchuan is full of flavour and so unique to the other regions of China.
There are also many places around Yinchuan to get street food. This can be a cheap and delicious option, but remember to use caution, as with everywhere else in China: eat where the locals are eating and take a moment to look at the hygiene of the staff. If you’re worried, you can check out my post on how to avoid food poisoning when traveling.
One of the Ningxia region's endangered Bactrian Camels | Image © ExpatAlli
Sample 5-day Itinerary
The first day is usually when I personally like to explore the centre of a city and get my bearings. This would be a great time to visit the Ningxia Museum and get to know a bit about the history of the area. Then head to the Chengtian Pagoda and climb to the top to get a glimpse of the city from above. If you're interested in history, you can also visit the Haibao Pagoda (though I believe you can no longer climb to the top of it). Other attractions worth checking out in the city centre are the Drum Tower, Jade Emperor Pavillion and the Nanguan Mosque.
Make sure you grab a meal at a local restaurant and sample some Ningxia flavours - I recommend trying the boiled mutton. It may not sound delicious, but it is!
Eat a big breakfast, then rent a car or hire a driver for the day and head towards the Helan Mountains. On the way, stop at the West Xia Tombs and spend a couple of hours exploring (make sure you pop into the museum to get a glimpse of what the area looked like when it was first built).
After the tombs, head to the Helan Mountains Engraving Park where you can see ancient rock art and wander through the museum. If you're an art lover, pop into the nearby Han Meilin Gallery as well.
Today is a good day to head southeast to the ShuiDongGou Paleolithic Site. Here you'll be able to learn a bit more about the history of the area from Prehistoric times through the Ming and Qing dynasties as well as see some lovely scenery.
On the journey back towards Yinchuan, you can stop at the beautiful Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art. From there, it's only about a 45-minute drive back to the city centre, where you can spend the evening relaxing at your hotel or catch a show at the Yinchuan Grand Theatre.
By now you should have a pretty good relationship with your driver. Have him take you to the China West Film Studio, where you can learn all about China's film industry, and the role Yinchuan has played on the big screen. After a couple of hours enjoying the theme park, head back to the Helan Mountains to Suyukou Forest Park.
If it's summer, you can hike around the mountains and brave the height of the suspension bridge. In the winter, grab some skiis and spend the rest of the day on the slopes!
If you're keen to explore one of China's most amazing deserts, then you'll want to head to Shapotou Scenic Area, located southwest of Yinchuan near Zhongwei. This is about a 5-hour round trip, but it'll be totally worth the drive when you're tobogganing down the golden sand or sitting on a bamboo raft on the Yellow River. On the way there, you can stop in at the 108 Dagobas.
If you want to extend your trip, there are some great options to spend the night in the desert at the unique Hillside Village Hotel or the Tangger Gold Sand Sea Resort. You can apparently even camp in the desert - I'm not entirely sure how to arrange this in advance, though I've found hotels in China to be quite good at arranging things like this.
Other Cities to Check Out:
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- What to see there: The Terracotta Army at Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum
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- Bus: About 9.5 hours
- Train: About 8.5 hours
- What to see there: The Xilamuren Grasslands of Inner Mongolia
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- What to see there: The Great Wall of China and Forbidden City
- Flight: 2 hours
- Bus: About 21 hours
- Train: About 23.5 hours
- What to see there: The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base
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