If you’re looking to broaden your China travel horizons beyond the usual sightseeing and outdoor activities in 2021, then make sure you put Ningxia on your agenda. This small province in western-central China is one of the world’s most exciting up-and-coming wine regions, making for a host of experiences you won’t find in many other places in China. Here is a traveler’s guide to exploring Ningxia.
Bordering Shaanxi, Gansu, and Inner Mongolia, Ningxia is one of the country’s least populated areas and isn’t well-visited by local or international tourists, so you’ll have plenty of space to explore. Ningxia is an autonomous region, the homeland of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority, who make up around 30% of the population. Although it is one of China’s newest provinces (it was separated from Gansu province in 1958), its recorded history dates back to 200 BC and beyond.
Your visit will likely begin in the provincial capital of Yinchuan. Although there are no high-speed trains to Shanghai or Beijing (a Beijing line is purportedly due to open in 2022), the city has daily flight connections to major cities around China. There is not a huge amount to see in the city, but it is interesting to see how the Hui culture has left its mark on the local architecture, with Islamic designs blended together with traditional Chinese styles.
In the footsteps of dynasties
Yinchuan is a good jumping-off point to explore Ningxia’s main historical and cultural sights. Just 33km west of the city, the Western Xia Tombs are Ningxia’s number one attraction, the last vestiges of the Tangut civilization, which ruled over the area more than 1,000 years ago. The weather packed earth tombs — all that’s left of what was once a vast complex of mausoleums — rise out of the desert like beehives. The onsite museum holds an interesting selection go artifacts unearthed at the site.
The province is also crisscrossed by ancient sections of the Great Wall, some dating back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC); the weathered, rammed earth construction offers an interesting contrast to the rigid Ming dynasty sections that surround Beijing.
Raise a glass
While Ningxia’s cultural sights and stunning scenery alone make it worth a visit, what really sets the province apart is the local wine industry. Ningxia has a long historical legacy of viticulture, introduced by travelers on the Silk Road, and this was bolstered by preferential government policies designed to stimulate agriculture and the economy in the region. Now, on the fertile loess plains of the Yellow River, sheltered by the Helan Mountain range, wineries such as Silver Heights, Kanaan, and Helan Qingxue are producing vintages that give Old World wines a run for their money. You can enjoy these bottles in cities all over China, but there is no better place to try them than at the vineyards themselves.
Ningxia may not rival Napa or Barossa Valley in terms of facilities as of yet, but wineries such as Silver Heights have cottoned on to the importance of wine tourism. Owner Emma Gao is an enthusiastic host, and you can sample some of their exciting vintages before staying overnight at the winery. While the best time to visit Ningxia’s wineries is during the mild weather in the spring or when the grapes are being harvested in late summer/early autumn, there is something interesting to see whatever season you visit. For example, during Ningxia’s freezing winters, when temperatures plummet to -13℉, the vines have to be buried under heaps of soil — often by hand — to ensure they aren’t damaged.
Walking around lush wineries like Silver Heights, it’s hard to believe that the rest of Ningxia is mostly dusty deserts and wind-swept plains. If you have visions of yourself as a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, the best place to explore the desert is around the city of Zhongwei, about a three-hour drive southwest of the Helan Mountains.
Just outside of Zhongwei, Shapotou is Ningxia’s most touristy area, with many visitors drawn in by the contrast between the sweeping curves of the Yellow River and the sand dunes of the Tengger Desert rising behind. After a long day of camel riding through the desert or surfing down the sand dunes, retire to one of Huanghe Suji’s stylish cluster of B&Bs, equipped with all mod-cons but in a style that blends seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.
In 2021, look out for our UnTour Food Tours x WildChina co-branded wine tours to Ningxia, where you’ll meet Emma Gao and other winery owners and get a better understanding of why Ningxia wine is quickly becoming known as some of the best in the world.
Virtual Travels to Ningxia
Take this virtual escape to Ningxia, China’s wine country with our Taste of China episode, where we explore the region’s food and wine.