Today marks the 46th day of the citywide lockdown in Shanghai as the government continues their impossible quest for 'Zero COVID-19' in China. Like many foreigners, I have lived in Shanghai for a considerable amount of time and life here has often felt like a wonderful dream. Over the past two years this dream has now turned into a nightmare. And because there seems to be no end in sight, many of us are leaving or have plans to leave our dream home.
As I impatiently and anxiously await my Exit, I have been reflecting on the many places that I have visited in this vast and diverse country. Many of these experiences have been documented in my blog, while others have yet to be shared. Now that I have more time on my hands, I have challenged myself to share all the places that I have visited in China- before my Exit.
You can think of it as unfinished business.
First, up- The Hui Autonomous Region of Ningxia!
Almost a year ago, my friends and I visited this area of China famous for its wine, desert landscape and Islamic influence. The objective of this trip was simple, have a fun road trip, drink wine, and explore as far as we could with the time that we had. We visited two wineries in Ningxia, the deserts, and some historic sites. We also drove for over 12 hours to Inner Mongolia, and what an incredible memory that was!
Here are some highlights from our trip...
1. Visiting the Tongxin Great Mosque During Ramadan
The Tongxin Great Mosque is the oldest and largest mosque in Ningxia. The Hui ethnic group is the third largest in China and has practiced Islam for centuries. This mosque was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 1300s and its structural design combines both traditional Han Chinese architecture and Islamic architecture.
We happened to visit this mosque during Ramadan right before the sunset and were welcomed by locals at the mosque and offered traditional foods and snacks as they broke fast.
2. Visiting the Ancient Xumi Mountain Grottoes
The Xumi Mountain is one of the ten ancient grottoes in China and is home to over 100 small caves and grottoes. These grottoes were carved over 1400 years ago initially by the Northern Wei Dynasty. It comprises eight stone mountains and is uniquely littered with carvings, inscriptions, temples, buddhas, bodhisattvas, trees, little rivers, maze-like paths, and naturally eroded red mountain rock. We visited Xumishan (Xumi Mountain) on a rainy day and tried our best to tour the different areas interest despite the weather. After all, we did drive a long way to see it!
3. Camping in the Gobi Desert
We were initially very excited about this experience, especially since it was a desert in China. We spent one night in the Gobi Desert, and I guess one night was just enough to have the experience and move on to our next destination. The desert may look cool, but the combination of sand and wind is not. We enjoyed it for what it was, had our overnight stay, marveled at its vastness, and continued our Ningxia exploration. Luckily, we were able to experience the desert from the comfort of our vehicles throughout our Ningxia/Inner Mongolia trip.
4. Wine Tasting
Ningxia is known for being one of the top wine regions in China and while touring the area, we visited two wineries known for producing some of the best wines in the region. We visited the Silver Heights Winery and Xige Estate, both being opposites of each other. Although different in size and business model, both wineries produce high-quality wine, many of which are sold in top restaurants in Shanghai. It was incredible to see the effort put into producing top grapes in a dry, arid desert land, and we gained more appreciation for Chinese wines after these two informative and tipsy wine tastings.
Silver Heights Winery is a small family-run business located along the hillsides of the Helan Mountain. This small and modest winery is known in China for producing quality wines and is frequented by many wine enthusiasts here. The Silver Heights winery has been producing wine in Ningxia since 2007 and co-owner and winemaker, Emma Gao gave us a tour and tasting experience during our visit. Emma was trained in Bordeaux, France, and then returned to Ningxia to join her father in the winemaking business. We enjoyed our time with Emma and her family and appreciated her warm and friendly approach to introducing her wines.
Silver Heights winery also has very limited, basic accommodations for those who choose to spend a night at their winery.
The Xige Estate is a grand winery located on the foothills of Helan mountain. A relatively new winery, which was started in 2017 and launched in 2019, its architecture conveys attention to detail, openness towards newness, and appreciation for tradition. Even though Xige Estate is new to the winemaking business, its winemakers have already proven their ability to produce high-quality wines in China. At Xige Estate, wines are manufactured on a large scale, using high technology and state-of-the-art equipment that optimizes production and quality.
Our stay at Xige Estate felt a bit luxurious and featured an onsite restaurant with an extensive menu of international dishes, boutique-like accommodation, and top-level service. The restaurant, and rooms, connect to the actual winery creating an immersive and unforgettable experience.
4. Visiting the Western Xia Imperial Tombs
The Western Xia Imperial Tombs are located in the Gobi Desert and Helan Mountains. Built by the Western Xia Dynasty between the 11th and 13th centuries, the complex housed royal mausoleums of the emperors of that time. The now unearthed ruins of the Xia Imperial Tombs give a glimpse of what used to be. Relics of a unique burial complex stretch on for miles, evidence of tombs, mausoleums, pagodas, sacrificial platforms, courtyards, and wells. The most memorable part of our visit was taking small and very slow motorcycles to a more outermost part of the courtyard where we roamed freely amongst the tombs.
4. Dining at Local Restaurants
One of the best things about traveling in with a group of friends is that you can order a variety of dishes and that's what we did during this trip. When we ate, we ate a lot and thoroughly enjoyed partaking in local foods.
6. Driving to Inner Mongolia and Visiting the City of Khara Khoto.
We drove for more than 12 hours through the desert to arrive at Western Inner Mongolia. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to experience the city of Khara Khoto, an unearthed city, which is once again being reclaimed by the desert.
This had once been a once a walled fortress inhabited by the Mongolian Empire. The Mongols were eventually viciously attacked by China’s Ming Dynasty in the year 1372, ending the Mongols' reign in Asia. The slaughtered Mongols were left unburied in their sacked city, and eventually, the destroyed city and its dead were reclaimed by the sands of the Gobi Desert. The City of Khara Khoto had been buried for centuries until rediscovered by a Russian explorer in 1908 and was excavated by various archeologists until the early 1908s.
The Khara Khoto is also referred to as The Black City, and according to locals, the spirits of the dead Mongols now roam in its ruins. The trip was worth it and luckily, we did not encounter any ghosts!
I have only traveled through China as much as I have in the past two years because we have been “locked” inside of the country. And blogging about my incredible experiences here has somehow felt like therapy during these times. Being in nature gives me peace, and it is exactly what I have sought out on my travels in China. Stay tuned, for part 2 of “Unfinished Business”, it’s one filled with a lot of greenery.
Trying to be sane until next time,