Yinchuan is a city in the Ningxia region of North-Central China. It's easy to pass by for the more exciting urban centers of Beijing or Shanghai, but it's well worth a visit. There are so many things to do in Yinchuan, from discovering the fascinating history of the area to exploring its natural beauty. Here's a guide to the best things to do in a 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. Winters are cold, with temperatures as low as -14°C and summers are short but hot, with highs of up to 30°C. A taxi from the airport to the city takes about an hour and costs roughly 200 CNY. English is not commonly spoken here, though locals are friendly and helpful, and will likely ask foreigners to stop for a photo.
THINGS TO DO
Learn about the local history at the Ningxia Museum
This is a good place to start, as it's right in the city and free to visit. I got a bit lost trying to find it, as Google Maps shows it to be a few blocks away from where it actually is, but I had the name of it written in Chinese and was able to eventually find it by showing it to the locals and heading in the direction they pointed.
The museum is quite large and it's definitely worth checking out. Most of the descriptions are in English, so you should have some idea of what you're looking at even if you don't speak the language. 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.
See a show at the Ningxia Grand Theatre
Yinchuan's unique lotus-shaped 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; it's only available in Chinese but can be translated via Google.
Enjoy the local cuisine
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 the menu, but unless you've got dietary restrictions the best thing to do is be adventurous - everything is delicious!
I highly recommend a visit to Guoqiang Shouzhua (国强手抓), which is a popular restaurant chain that offers delicious halal Chinese food, and the best food I had during my time in Yinchuan.
Explore the Shuidonggou Paleolithic site
About 45 minutes' drive from the centre of Yinchuan is 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 entry ticket includes an interactive show, a shuttle bus to the wall, a boat ride, horse-drawn carriage or bamboo raft ride and a camel-drawn cart ride.
Explore the Buddhist monuments
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.
About 85 km outside of the city, on the edge of the Yellow River, you can visit the 108 Dagobas, which are 12 rows of stupas said to give you luck if you recite the Buddhist scriptures 108 times in front of them.
Check out the West Xia Imperial Tombs
This UNESCO World Heritage site is comprised 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. I recommend bringing a translation app as there isn't much information in English.
Experience Chinese Hollywood
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.
Escape to the mountains
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. We spent only a couple of hours here after visiting the tombs, but you could easily spend an entire day.
There's a chairlift at the base of the mountain that you can take to the top for a fee, or if you're feeling ambitious you can hike up. At the top 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.
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 plus a deposit.
Take a trip to a nearby city
There are other cities within a short distance that would make fantastic day or weekend trips if you have more time. Just a 2.5-hour drive from Yinchuan are the sand dunes of Shapotau. Xi'an and its Terracotta Army are just a one-hour flight away, Chengdu's Giant Pandas are 2 hours by plane; 2 hours in the opposite direction is Beijing, where you can hike the most famous sections of the Great Wall of China or see a traditional opera. Or head north and check out the vast deserts and grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
And if it's your first time to China, check out my useful China travel tips to make your visit go as smoothly as possible!
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