Friday, 3 May 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2e: Yinchuan (I)

world-map yinchuan


Posting these old travelogues can sometimes lead to some interesting surprises. Rereading this and arranging it for the internet, I looked online for a suitable city map of Yinchuan to help readers orientate themselves. However, none of the maps I came across resembled anything like the Yinchuan I remember which was, as I have written below, two cities: the ancient one and the modern one founded in the 1950s around the railway station and some several kilometres from its older brother. On all the maps though, it appears as one, with the railway station in its heart.

Confused, I decided to research further and so went on Google Earth and the mystery was revealed. In the intervening 11 years between visiting the place and posting it on UTM, Yinchuan seems to have grown beyond all belief and the two cities are now one. The railway station is still where it was, but the square at the front entrance which I describe is now the back exit and instead a huge new station has been built on the other side of the tracks, (facing the old city). Where once were single track roads are now expressways and Haibao Ta Pagoda which I describe as being “on the edge of town” is now surrounded by a sea of development; a world away from the green fields in the photographs that I took. In this travelogue I write a lot about the pace of change in China and nowhere has that been more evident that the quiet city in the desert which you can read about in this week’s extract.

Also of interest is something which I definitely knew nothing about during my visit over a decade before; an intriguing site some 35km or so to the west of Yinchuan. The Huangyantan Military Base is, unsurprisingly, off limits to tourists, but ever since Google Earth scanned the area a few years back, it’s been the subject of much attention and debate outside of the People’s Republic. According to the People’s Liberation Army, it’s merely part of a tank training base built between 1998-9, but the 900m by 700m top secret compound is actually an exact 1:150 scale model of Eastern Aksai Chin, an uninhabitable area disputed between China and India which was the cause, when the Chinese built Highway 219 through it, of the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Analysts believe that the site is to help fighter pilots get used to the valleys of the Himalayan region so that, in the event of another war between the two Asian superpowers, China would have a distinct advantage.


huangyangtan02 Two images of the military base at Huangyangtan

huangyangtan03 This picture compares the Huangyangtan model (top) with the real Aksai Chin (bottom)

If this interests you, check out this site from where I got the photos:

So, it goes to prove that there’s always something more to see in a place even when you think you’ve seen the lot!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna


22nd July, 2002 – Yinchuan, China

The morning sun revealed Ningxia Province to be a vast expanse of flat and extremely arid ground. A taste of what was to come further on in the trip perhaps, though this area was no doubt far more populated than Kazakhstan or China's Western Regions would be. In what appeared to be an endless inhospitable panorama of moonscape, the Chinese had managed to carve out rice paddies and build their small red-brick communes. This area may not be the country's richest, but it was indeed a mark of Chinese determination and ingenuity that there was in fact anything there at all.

The province's capital Yinchuan, where one fifth of its five million people live, turned out to be what I'd expected to find in China; a sleepy socialist outpost with a startlingly modern and grand railway station as its entrance. We entered that building and bought tickets for the next stage of our journey – to Lanzhou – with surprising ease considering the trials that we'd faced in Beijing when trying to book a sleeper. After that, we hopped into a taxi (whose driver spoke some French!!) and commanded to be taken to the hotel of our choice, the Ningxia Binguan.

A typical, run-down socialist city Yinchuan might have seemed at first glance, but we soon discovered that initial impressions can be quite misleading. Yinchuan railway station it turned out, was not really in the city of Yinchuan itself, but in the 'New City, far from where the real business is done. The real centre lay over seven kilometres away, and there it was quite a different story. Glass towers and plush apartment blocks soared out of the desert, giving one the impression that we were in some oil-rich Gulf state. And on the road in, was the biggest and grandest building of the all, a huge grey monolith with that red and gold emblem on the front. Yes indeed, the Communist Party's Provincial Headquarters.

Not all was so rosy however. One establishment that had definitely suffered over recent years was the Ningxia Binguan, our hotel which had in fact suffered so much, that it was no longer standing any more. No fears though, our taxi driver (surprise, surprise) knew of another hotel that would be glad to take us and slip some money into his back pocket no doubt, and thus after a short exchange over prices, we ended up at the Ningxia Chang Xiang Yi Hotel; three star luxury at a knockdown price.

After freshening up, we hit the town with things to do. Firstly there were stomachs to be filled, a task completed at a restaurant across the road from our abode for the night. And then I went to get a haircut.

Japan is, I would imagine, the most expensive spot on earth for a shortback and sides. Prices in my town of Osawano started at 4000 yen (30 euros), and they were competitive. Consequently, I always planned it that come coiffure time, I would be in some other country that was far more reasonable in its barbering demands. Well, my last trip abroad had been to Indonesia, but that was now well over four months back, and as a result I was now sporting more locks than Fort Knox. A snip was needed, and now we were out of Chinese's expensive capital, this looked like the ideal place to get one.

It wasn't long until we found a hairdressers, but it was a considerably longer time after that that was spent trying to get across to the staff of that establishment exactly what it was that I wanted. Firstly they brought me into the back room ready for a shampoo and shave until I protested that I'd only done so myself half an hour before. I was then taken back into the front for a trim, but the problem now was that they had no sort of idea whatsoever as to what type of trim I desired. 'Do you have any picture books showing the various styles?' I asked using broken English and gestures. The answer was alas in the negative, and so I then proceeded to try and gesture with those said hands, exactly how I wished my mop to be managed. This unfortunately just caused more confusion, and I was at a complete loss as to what to do when I spied a Harry Potter wall clock above my head. “Harry Potter!” I exclaimed with joy, “Give me the Harry Potter look!” And so they did and half an hour later and ten yuan poorer, I emerged from that shop, styled and snipped and ready to start the new term at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, having provided interesting entertainment for the entire staff of the establishment in the process, who'd crowded round to watch someone with naturally brown hair.


A Yinchuan haircut (the Harry Potter clock can be seen above the mirror)

Walking through the streets of Yinchuan, the impression of a prosperous China grew and grew. People thronged the well-paved thoroughfares and affluent-looking shops lined the sides. Running off from one of the city's ancient gates, (which now sits proudly in the middle of a roundabout), was a pedestrianised shopping area choc-a-bloc with shoppers. We could have been in Western Europe. The fact that this was a none-too-prosperous Chinese city in the middle of a sparsely-populated desert province was amazing. Everywhere huge cranes were erecting glittering glass towers of commerce, and wherever it was coming from I can't say, but it was obvious that money was being made somehow and somewhere around here.

We went into the Post Office to dispose of all the souvenirs that we'd acquired in Beijing. Things ran smoothly until it came to sending the postcards home. Britain and the Netherlands were not a problem, we had the Chinese translations in our guidebook, but some of the other destinations puzzled them more than a little bit. Ok, so I could understand that if I say 'Bulgaria' to a Chinese postal worker, then chances are they are going to be a bit lost, but the one that got me was Vietnam. Now just saying ''Vietnam' might be a bit confusing as the Chinese word may be something completely different, (for example, Britain is 'Yingguo'), but we'd already prepared for that. After saying 'Vietnam', I produced the map of China in the guidebook and then pointed to where Vietnam was. Did that piece of ingenuity help? Did it hell! Yes, they understood which bit was China, and they could even tell some of the cities, but as for the names of the countries that they border with? Sorry mate, can't help you there.

Before being too hard on the Chinese, I have to say that bad geography seems to be something that affects the vast majority of Asians, and one must assume that it is taught little (or incredibly badly) in schools. That is certainly true in Japan, where it is lumped together with history and politics and taught as 'Social Sciences', (I won't go into how bad they are at the other two either...). Most Japanese kids cannot tell one country from another, let alone their capital cities. For example, I asked a group of thirteen year olds where Bangkok was, and nobody had a clue, even though some had been on holiday there. Perhaps it is somewhat understandable though. I have a Vietnamese map of the world in the front of my diary that marks Britain as England and Ireland as Scotland. What's more, according to the boys from the Ho Chi Minh mapmaking department, Tasmania is a part of New Zealand, Sumatra is in Thailand, European Turkey is an independent country (as if they didn't have enough already in the Balkans), Belgium and Luxembourg are one, Greenland is Canadian, Iceland is a new country named 'Newfoundland', Israel, Syria and Lebanon are one big pink state, (have the Arabs driven the Jews into the sea, or is it Zionism gone crazy?), the former Soviet Republics are now all in Russia, Korea is united and poor old Sri Lanka has sunk into the sea! Nonetheless, all that considered, in my opinion it is still remarkable that the Chinese do not know which countries border them. It's like asking a Frenchman if he knows the name of that state that looks like a boot kicking a football, and receiving the answer, 'Non!'

But perhaps the secret here lies in history? After all, geography is given such importance in Europe since that's how we made it. A mere thousand years ago, the Chinese were far more advanced than us, yet it was Europe who came to dominate the world, by travelling to China, Africa, South America, India and elsewhere and learning their secrets, whilst they stayed in ignorance of ours. And as a warning to the Chinese, it must be said, that if they really do ever want to achieve parity with Europe and the US then they must look more to the outside world, and not close in on themselves as they did even as recently as the sixties and seventies. True progress comes through an exchange of information.

Business done, we then set out to see the city's sights. Or more accurately, sight, since there is but one, Haibao Ta, a nine-storey pagoda with adjacent monastery on the edge of town. We hailed a taxi and pointed to the Chinese translation in the book, and our driver nodded in assent and so off we went. After a drive of a couple of kilometres though, he stopped the car and deposited us in front of a large concrete edifice with a large beam on his face. Now this place might have been about nine-storeys high but its square shape blatantly gave away the fact that it was neither eighteenth century nor a pagoda. “No!” we said, and pointed at the book again. “Haibao Ta!” The driver looked confused and pointed to the masterpiece of eighties utilitarian architecture before us. “Haibao Ta!” he exclaimed. And then it dawned on us. This was the hotel named after the pagoda, not the pagoda itself, and after all, where do Westerners always want taking? Out came the phrasebook, and we pointed to 'hotel'. He nodded, we shook our heads. We then pointed to 'site of historical interest' and nodded ourselves. The light dawned and off we went again.


Haibao Ta (and the Lowlander)

Haibao Ta turned out to be a rather pleasant little place for an outing. Set in peaceful gardens, the elegant brick pagoda rose gracefully towards heaven. Firstly however, we walked through the temple where a service was in progress, before ascending the steps to the summit of that holy tower. The view from the top was magnificent, over the city in one direction and the vast plains filled with communal farms in the others. The only downside was that someone had decided to use the top room as a toilet.

“That's disgusting,” said I.

“That's true although... you don't know...” replied the Lowlander.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe it's something religious? Maybe only the really holy people can take a shit on the top floor?”

“What about us?”

“Only the second or third level I think.”

“And the really evil people?”

“There's the cellars.”

Holy shit!

yinchuan03Yinchuan from the top of the Haibao Ta Pagoda

yinchuan04  Ningxia Province: not that scenic


The monastery below the pagoda

We descended the steps of the sacred toilet-cum-site of historical interest, and settled down to play a game of Buddhist backgammon under the shade of the trees. And that done (I lost, the Lowlander was obviously in communion with the deities), we returned to the hotel.

The Hotel Ningxia Chang Xiang Yi had advertised amongst its many charms a sauna and swimming pool which we'd decided would suffice as our entertainment for the evening, but first we had to fill our stomachs once again. We returned to the restaurant where we had lunched as the food there had been excellent and cheap. After several animal noises, pointing to the phrase 'What is the specialty of the house?' and gesturing that under no circumstances would we do fish, (much to the relief of the silvery soul who had been pulled out of his tank and presented before us), we got a very tasty meal of pork with chicken and sweetcorn soup. The staff really took to us and explained to us via gestures and maps that they were not actually from the area, but instead the city of Hangzhou on the Eastern Seaboard. We revealed our nationalities and pleasantries were exchanged all round. And all that for under Y30, (3.50 euros), for two, smashing!

The swimming pool turned out to be green, (probably full of something healthy and horrible), so we gave that a miss and headed straight for the sauna which turned out to be switched off. The staff agreed to warm it up for their two clients, and so we retired to the jacuzzi for a while whilst the temperature rose. The jacuzzi however, turned out to be rather cold and smelly, and it was with much relief that we evacuated it when called by the sauna staff.

The sauna when entered was still a little chilly though, but it was infinitely better than the other attractions, so we stuck to it and warmed it up by pouring water on the stones. After fifteen minutes it was quite acceptable but one thing was for sure, the Chinese don't do bathing like the Japanese and Koreans.

And after the bathing it was time for that most Asian of activities, karaoke. The Lowlander was reluctant, but I was insistent, having not been able to exercise my vocal chords fully for quite some time. An elegant lady clad in silk led us into the large entertainments hall which was unfortunately empty, but what was even more unfortunate was that the paltry collection of English songs on offer were all aimed at voices higher than my bass. As one who never sings what he knows for sure he will fail at, I was doomed to stay silent, and instead we sat and listened to the CD, whilst discussing how awful Julia Roberts, George Michael, Meg Ryan, Robin Williams and Michael Learns to Rock really are, in between anecdotes concerning the hermit-like existence of one of the girls from ABBA (the blonde one I think), the death of Karen Carpenter, the orgies of Lionel Richie and how girls who ride horses get big arses. (But is that such a bad thing?)

Next part: 2f: Yinchuan (II)

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