Ask someone where Ningxia province is and they might be hard pushed to place it on China’s sprawling map. This region may not be as famous as Yunnan or Sichuan but what lies within its palm is worth exploring. Ningxia has it all: the Yellow River, mountains and desert, not to mention a cuisine that will have your mouth watering. Lying in between Gansu and Shaanxi provinces and Inner Mongolia, you will come across a small – ‘small’ in China terms – autonomous region in the shape of a cross. This slice of China is known as Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a province rich in desert, mountains, lakes and lamb. Of its six million people, almost a third are Hui people, whose cultural influence can be seen in Ningxia’s architecture, religion and cuisine. While the religion most often associated with China is buddhism, Islam is the predominant faith in Ningxia.
The Hui minority, Muslim descendants of Arab and Persian merchants trading during the Tang dynasty, have a delightful array of recipes up their sleeves. Their most celebrated and succulent attribute comes from their sheep. The methods and recipes could span the province, from boiled lamb where the meat falls off the bone, to rich soup paired with steaming flat bread. Cumin, a much beloved spice in the region, recalls tastes from Xinjiang and Gansu. Sprinkled over bread, vegetables and meat and often paired with a dusting of chili, one can imagine that on a cold winter’s day the flavors nourish and warm the soul.
Beyond the dinner table, Ningxia still holds plenty of other treats. Shapotou a small section of the Teng Ge Li Desert – is a three-hour drive from Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan, and well worth the journey. As you burst from the city into the open countryside, your eyes are greeted by majestic mountains, and endless blue skies. At Shapotou, one can leisurely approach the Yellow River as it gushes by and feel the silky sand between your toes as you enjoy nature at its finest. In the west, the Shizui Mountains hold rock paintings dating as far back as 770BC. Reproducing scenes of ancient people and set in between mountains with a bubbling stream flowing by, you can merge a relaxing afternoon with a fascinating trip into Ningxia’s past.
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