Friday, September 12, 2008

A New Yorker in Ningxia

We flew to Yinchuan (which literally means Silver River) a few weeks ago for a short getaway right after the Olympics. We were hoping to go to Dunhuang from Yinchuan, but didn’t make it, since the train ride was over 19 hours and ran only on alternate days.

For those of you who have never heard of Yinchuan, it is the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Ningxia is part of the northern route of the Silk Road. The Yellow River reaches its northern most bend in Ningxia. For me, the city of Yinchuan came to me in the pulp novel Tian Long Ba Bu by Louis Cha. (Louis Cha, Zha Liang Yong, pen name Jin Yong, deserves quite a few blogs from me, as I have always joked to my Chinese friends, “Everything I know about the Chinese, I learned from Jin Yong.”) But I could not locate the Xi Xia (Western Xia) palace, with underground cellars of ice. In any case, we did go see the royal tombs of XiXia Kingdom. But they were nothing like the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing and looked like big dirt beehives or haystacks that were about the height of 2 persons.

Not much in the city of Yinchuan itself. We stayed in the old city, which is not very old, and the new is, well, just new. The city itself is this 25 km long narrow strip that joins the old part of the city with the new, which had the train station and km's and km's of condos and gated communities. In the old city, there are two famous Buddhist temples and quite a few mosques. The northern temple HaibaoTa dates back to 500 A.D. The western temple ChengTian Si used to house the Ningxia museum. The mosque next to the (old) city square was under renovations, presumably for Ningxia's 50th anniversary as Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region in November. In the city square, there is a mini-Tiananmen, complete with scaled-down Mao portrait. I kitsch you not!

As in many Chinese cities, the city (and here the Ningxia regional) government occupies the newest and biggest office buildings and complexes. Unfortunately, these new buildings looked rather ugly to me and remind me of Soviet style buildings. One night we took a ~3 km stroll along the main street, passing by the main shopping districts, with malls that looked like Hong Kong malls (and probably built by HK developers), to get to a lamb restaurant, GuoQiang, across the street from the Ningxia regional government complex. There was certainly a lot of lamb to eat. And the roasted lamb-on-a-stick (not quite kebobs) in Yinchuan has a distinct flavor from the ones in Beijing (which are supposedly more of Xinjiang origin). My wife thought the lamb in Yinchuan is more heavily sauced and greased.

Besides the abundance of lamb, there’s sour milk (yoghurt) everywhere. The sour milk in Yinchuan is the best I have had anywhere. There are plenty yoghurt stands along the sidewalks and in the public parks. These stands sit underneath tents, each with a handful of tables, each table coming with its own share of empty yoghurt containers. 3 yuan for each yoghurt. These ubiquity of these stands sort of reminds me of NY hotdog vendors; only with tables along the sidewalks and the offering is yoghurt and drinks (both soft and beer). The analogy would have been more apt if there were kabob stands everywhere, but there must be restrictions on the types of sidewalk vendors. We did not see a single lamb-on-a-stick vendor anywhere.

The main local crops seem to be corn, sunflower, and millet. We passed a sliver of a shop featuring seed roasting, and bought 6 yuan's worth. They were on the smoky side, but quite tasty. The shop was right next to a lamb-in-a-bun shop. The bun itself was toasted and crispy. The lamb was flavored with green chilies. Mouth-watering when I think about it.

See what writing this blog has done to me! Now I’m hungry! I’ll write about our venture out of Yinchuan to XuMi Shan another day. But first, let me go find myself some lamb-on-a-stick.

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