The sky was gloomy and overcast as the wind swept through the barren landscape and desolate ruins. I slowly made my way up the slope towards an arch where a gate used to stand. All this while, the flags on top the crumbling walls of the fort fluttered in the wind as if responding to some ancient call to battle.
On the other side of the arch, four camels were at rest, harnessed up and ready to go at a second’s notice. I made my way towards them, but hang on, what’s that gigantic skeleton I see in the distance? It looks like the remains of a dinosaur…
Sounds like I’m on a movie set? Because I really was. Yinchuan’s China West Film Studio (also known as Zhenbeipu Western Film Studio) is one of the three biggest film studios in China and the most famous film studio in Western China.
But the fort and the ruins that I was describing were not purpose-built for some motion picture. They are the remains of two ancient forts at the foot of Helan Mountain which were destroyed by a massive earthquake.
Since the early 1990s, the forts have been used as the setting for numerous movies and television series set in ancient times. But besides the forts, the film studio also contains recreations of ancient streets and buildings.
My friend and I spent the better part of a day wandering through the studio’s phoney class-rooms, courtyard houses, jail and even a brothel. We also had fun dressing up as military commanders and red guards.
However, there’s more to Yinchuan, the little-visited capital city of China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, than the film studios. Located to the west of the Yellow River, Yinchuan is a convenient base to explore the remains of the Western Xia Dynasty, about which little is known of.
The most famous remains of the Western Xia Dynasty are the Western Xia Tombs, which are said to resemble giant scoops of ice cream melting in the desert. But try as I might, I failed to see them resembling anything but giant termite mounds. That, however, could be due to the fact that I only saw one of the tombs up close. The other tombs were located more than an hour’s walk away.
But even though they were not a visual spectacle (for me, at least), the tombs are of much historical significance. Dubbed the “Pyramids of China”, researchers hope the site will yield clues on the mysterious Western Xia dynasty, which suffered from devastating destruction by Mongol troops in AD1227, and lost most of its written records and architecture.
Slightly further afield, and predating the Western Xia Tombs by several millennia, are the rock carvings at Helan Shan (Mountain). The carvings are said to be produced between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago, thus representing the earliest Chinese cultures and civilisations.
Though many of the carvings are relatively primitive and abstract, or even alien-like, they are fantastic in their detail and their degree of preservation. Besides carvings depicting daily rituals like hunting, pasturing and dancing, images of animals like goats, cows and tigers, as well as many unknown symbols were also carved on the rocks.
The meanings of the engravings, however, remain speculative. Some experts have attached shamanic significance to them, while others suggest they were merely a portrayal of life on the steppes.
Despite the historical value of these sites, however, Yinchuan is not exactly a tourism hotspot. Though that could soon change, as plans are afoot to build Ningxia Province into an international destination targeting tourists from Arab States and Muslim regions. After all, Ningxia is the designated homeland for Hui Muslims.
Till that happens, enjoy Ningxia’s raw beauty and solitude, while it lasts.