Friday, 10 May 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2f: Yinchuan (II)

world-map yinchuan


A miserable week has passed with me being laid-up in bed for most of it and the weather turning from great to grim. Oh well, that’s life and so it’s back to happier – and sunnier – times and climes when I wandered around the empty expanses of Northern China with a Dutchman.

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


23rd July, 2002 – Yinchuan, China

We arose just before midday having successfully recuperated much of the sleep that we'd missed out on due to too many early mornings in Beijing and nights of middling sleep on trains. After leisurely packing we decided to continue that policy of conserving energy by spending the day doing nothing much in particular (after all, what was there to do?). We lunched in town and then roamed the streets, buying trinkets and getting a feel for the place. The initial impressions of prosperity were heightened, we discovered a large area with vast shopping centres, ('centre' being spelt correctly by the Chinese, well done!), that were full of people actually buying things unlike in the malls of South East Asia where most just go to have a look. I joined them purchasing CDs of patriotic Chinese songs whilst the Lowlander searched for some Oriental style clothes for his baby nephew.

As we walked along the wide boulevards we watched the cars, virtually all Volkswagens and Citroens (both made in China), and others of native manufacture. There were a few Toyotas and Isuzus from the Japanese, but the Americans registered no more than a solitary Jeep. The impression we got was that the Americans have been much slower to invest in the new China than the Europeans. Why is this? Perhaps due to the old mistrust of Communism which was always stronger Stateside than in the older countries, I know not?

AWL070 Oh no! Lots of bicycles!

We decided to visit the Provincial Museum but when we got there it was well and truly boarded up. Perhaps history was still being rewritten? Instead we headed into some of the town's poorer quarters and found more of the China that we'd expected to find; markets on the streets and the odd beggar or two. Nonetheless, this was still a far cry from the Third World and even here the Communist Party were making efforts at improvement. Perhaps that is the secret of their success? Whereas a purely capitalist government would merely abandon these rundown areas to their fate, the communists do try and even things out a bit, so that complete urban wastelands are rare?

AWL071 A Chinese ginza? Yinchuan’s main shopping street

We popped into a trophy shop to purchase a fitting memorial to present to the victor of our still-nameless Trans-Asian Backgammon Marathon, and came out with a tacky plastic globe upon which we could inscribe the contest's title and the name of the soon to be crowned King of Backgammon. And thus backgammonly-inspired, we sat down at a streetside cafe, procured some tea and started to play. A small crowd soon gathered, inquisitive as to the nature of this game that two strange foreigners were engaging in, and indeed they must surely have learnt a lot for some smart rolling gave me a worthy three to one victory in the session.

AWL072 Checking out red China

Later we wandered through the streets into a pleasanter area of town. A shopping street built in the traditional Chinese style with tiled roofs and painted ornate beams was being fully renovated by the government, and they were doing a good job of it too. The old tarmac and concrete on the pavement was being dug out to a depth of around twenty centimetres and all the woodwork was being thoroughly filled, planed and painted back to its original glory. A little further down, around one of the old city gates, an example of the finished product could be viewed; a fine paved public space where citizens could meet and relax. What a shame that when the Japanese attempt urban renewal they do it with such contempt for their history and culture. And what a bigger shame, that when the Europeans complete a similar such project, idiots have to scrawl graffiti all over it.

AWL069 Behold the Great Gate of Yinchuan!

Just behind the gate was Yinchuan’s answer to Tiananmen Square. Mao gazed out sagely over a pleasant expanse of paving stones, where people lounged about watching the big TV screen set up at the opposite end. At each side were what looked like signs for a subway station. Bitten by curiosity (surely this place was too small for an underground railway?) we went down to have a look and found a vast subterranean supermarket.

Nearby was the city’s Islamic district where the main mosque stood. The ancient inhabitants of the Ningxia region were the Hui people, who are descended from Arab and Iranian traders. Nowadays they make up approximately one third of the province’s population but are virtually indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese, into whose culture they have been almost completely assimilated. The one major remaining difference is their continued adherence to Islam, and thus the city has several mosques. This was the biggest, but sadly modern and uninspiring. What’s more it cost Y7 to enter, so we didn’t bother and instead returned through the throngs of skullcapped gents to the main shopping district.

After dinner we took a taxi back to Yinchuan’s New City where the railway station stands. The two parts of the town are around seven kilometres apart and quite different. It is obvious that the ‘new’ area of town grew up when the rail connection was established. That was in 1958 and it was the region’s first major link with the outside world. It is hard to imagine what the area would have been like before that, though given the aridity of the land and the harshness of the winters, it was probably rather bleak. Yinchuan’s walled city was perhaps more akin to an Arabian caravanserai than anything else; a place for travellers to pass through, the local nomads to trade in and the people to take refuge in, in times of strife.

The New City reflects its origins during the early period of growth in the People’s Republic. With the railway station as its ‘cathedral’ it stretches out in wide boulevards lined with concrete apartment blocks, like some urban planner’s fantasy; the sort of place that the new Communist State would feature in its brochures that gave concrete evidence of the proletarian progress of the new Chinese Worker’s State.

Nowadays however, it is looking a little sorry for itself compared with its larger and older sibling, and it is obvious that the balance of power has shifted back onto more traditional ground. Nonetheless, this place was not stagnating in the sorry manner of many East European provincial towns. Although fewer in number, the cranes were here too, erecting new homes and businesses for the masses.

We were dropped off in the station square where a crowd of people were exercising together in time. Unlike company exercises in Japan, this group had no leader, instead it seemed to be voluntary and everybody obviously knew all the steps and were enjoying themselves. We however knew not which moves to make, so we retired to a café where we drank tea and played backgammon until it was time to board the train.

About an hour before that time came I popped across to the railway station to use the toilet, and upon leaving was surprised to learn that the time for the train’s departure was not an hour away, but five minutes. The watch had stopped again! Frantically we rushed across with our bags but alas the K423 to Lanzhou was already pulling out. Dejected we sat on the floor contemplating what to do next, when a young policewoman came up and asked us what was the problem. Her English was far from fluent but it was enough and using her help we managed to transfer our tickets to soft seats on the 01:30 train. She led us into the VIP waiting room, a grand hall in the cavernous belly of the Stalinist station, and made sure that we were comfortable. Missing the train had been our own stupid fault, (we knew that the watch was unreliable), but once again the Chinese had gone out of their way to help us. We were getting more impressed with these people as every day went by.

And we were even more impressed than that when we boarded the train and found that it was possible to upgrade to soft sleeper class. And thus, with our heads lain on the best bunks in town, we thundered through the night towards Gansu Province and the city of Lanzhou.

Next part: 2g: Lanzhou

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