The Western Xia Tombs

Rising like gigantic beehives in the Gobi Desert, the Western Xia Tombs are something of a historical anomaly. Their unusual shape has earned them the nickname the ‘Oriental Pyramids’. Resting on the eastern slope of the Helan Mountains, just 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the provincial capital of Yinchuan, they represent one of the last known remnants of a lost kingdom. When the illustrious Tang Dynasty (618-907) collapsed, a nomadic people known as the Tanguts took control of Ningxia, Gansu province, eastern Qinghai province, northern Shaanxi province, northeastern Xinjiang, southwest Inner Mongolia, and southernmost Outer Mongolia. They ruled the region under the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227) for nearly 200 years, before Genghis Khan and his Mongolian horde conquered them in 1227. 

The complex, which is made up of 9 imperial mausoleums and 254 subordinate tombs, represented the final resting place of the Western Xia kings and royal family members. Taking up over 49 square kilometres (19 sq. mi) of space, it is one of the largest imperial burial sites in China. To put that into perspective, it’s over 16 times the size of the city of London! Since its discovery in 1972, over 17,000 square metres (180,000 sq. ft.) of the complex has been excavated so far and the findings serve as some of the only information historians have about the Tangut people. 

The tombs are arranged on a north-south axis in a very specific layout that was patterned after the celestial bodies. In many ways, they were designed to resemble the Song Dynasty (960-1279) Tombs in Gongyi County of Henan province, in that they adopted the zhao-mu burial system. According to this system, zhao is the father, mu is the son, and the grandson becomes zhao again. The left side of the complex is dedicated to the zhao burials, while the right side is dominated by mu tombs. 

The architecture of the buildings is also a hectic mixture of traditional Song, Buddhist, and Tangut features. Tiered tomb walls, high towers, funerary objects, stone statues, and delicate inscriptions have all given researchers an invaluable insight into the ethnic features of the Tangut people and the cultural significance of the Western Xia Dynasty. Many of the steles[1] contain inscriptions detailing the achievements of the kings resting in each mausoleum. From these and other inscriptions, historians have discovered that the platform in the west was used for sacrificial offerings, while the 23-metre (75 ft.) tall earth pile behind it was once a solid pagoda. 

Not only that, but these inscriptions show that Mausoleum No. 3 most likely belonged to Li Yuanhao, who was Western Xia’s first official king under the imperial name Jingzong. Many of the relics unearthed from his tomb, including fabulous works of art and stunning sculptures, are currently on display at the Western Xia Museum, which is located near to the entrance of his tomb. It’s the ideal place to learn more about this mysterious kingdom, shrouded as it is by the annals of time. 


[1] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

The Xumi Mountain Grottoes

Dating all the way back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535), the Xumi Mountain Grottoes are classed as one of the 10 most culturally significant Buddhist grottoes in China. On the eastern edge of Mount Xumi, eight red sandstone cliffs are speckled with over 160 hand-carved caves, 70 of which contain magnificent carvings, colourful murals, spectacular frescoes, and delicate inscriptions. The site’s star attraction is a 20-metre (65 ft.) tall statue of Maitreya[1] Buddha, who looks wistfully out into the surrounding countryside. To put that into perspective, it’s about four times as tall as an adult giraffe! However, there’s more to this scenic site than just one (very) big Buddha. 

Although the complex was originally built during the Northern Wei Dynasty, its construction spans five dynastic eras, as it was periodically added to right up until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The grottoes are located along the Silk Road, which was integral to the dissemination of Buddhism in China. Their location along this trade route is palpable in the Indian and Central Asian motifs that appear in many of the sculptures and paintings. Grotto No. 33, with its square layout and partition wall punctuated by three portals, is a typical example of this, as it greatly resembles a traditional Indian temple. As time went on, the grottoes that were added and the art within them became distinctly more Chinese in style, demonstrating the gradual Sinification of Buddhism in China. 

The mountain’s name, “Xumishan” or “Mount Xumi”, is actually the Chinese variation of the Sanskrit word for Mount Sumeru, the cosmic mountain that rests at the centre of the universe according to Buddhism. It was originally known as Mount Fengyi, but this spiritual rebranding was thought to be a ploy to encourage more monks to travel to the site, live there, and help carve more grottoes. Talk about false advertising! Many of the caves have virtually no decorative elements and it is believed that they were used to house the resident monks. 

Nowadays the site has been separated into five main areas: Dafo or “Big Buddha” Tower, Zisun Palace, Yuanguang Temple, Xiangguo Temple, and Taohua Cave. Grottoes No. 45 and 46 are some of the most noteworthy, since they contain the largest number of statues, 40 of which are taller than the average person. Grotto No. 14 is believed to be the oldest and contains statues and paintings dating back to the early Northern Wei Dynasty. Though primitive in design and colour, they are resplendent in their simplistic beauty. Much of the statuary in this grotto resembles that of the famous Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province and the Mogao Caves in Gansu province. 

Unfortunately, in spite of being designated a National Level Cultural Relic Protected Site in 1982, the Xumi Mountain Grottoes are currently at risk. Wind and sand erosion, unstable rock beds, earthquakes, and vandalism have already caused irreparable damage to the caves, and a recent study suggests that only about 10 per cent of them are in decent condition. The extent of the damage has led to the grottoes being listed as one of the Top 100 Most Endangered Historical Sites in the world. So be sure to catch them while you can, or risk missing out on this treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art!

[1]  Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

The Helan Mountains

Flanked by unforgiving desert to the west and irrigated farmland known as the Yinchuan Plain to the east, the Helan Mountains form the border between Inner Mongolia and Ningxia. This colossal mountain range stretches for approximately 200 kilometres (124 mi) from north to south, with the Yellow River flowing northward parallel to it. While it averages at about 2,000 metres (6,562 ft.) in altitude, its highest peak is a staggering 3,556 metres (11,667 ft.) tall. To put that into perspective, it’s nearly three times the size of Ben Nevis in Scotland!

Yet the range’s spectacular height is not its only claim to fame. Over 10,000 rock carvings dating from the Neolithic Period (c. 8500-2100 BC) to the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC) are scattered throughout the mountains, many of which are over 3,000 to 10,000 years old! The main concentration of carvings can be found at Helankou, a cavernous gorge that cuts north-west through the mountain chain. While the Helan Mountains acted as natural boundary between the nomadic pastoralists in the north and the sedentary farmers to the south, Helankou represented one of the view places where their diverse lifestyles met.

Mount Helan 02The Helankou Rock Engravings Park and the nearby Yinchuan World Rock Art Museum are the ideal place to discover how these ancient peoples used rock carvings to celebrate and immortalise their simple way of life. The park is the only place where the public is allowed to view the rock carvings, which are usually concentrated in clusters about 10 metres (33 ft.) above the valley base. The engravings themselves are separated into three types: human figures, animals, and symbols.

The human figures typically portray scenes of daily life, such as hunting, herding, making sacrificial offerings to deities, battling, dancing, and procreation. The animal engravings depict creatures that these ancient people either farmed or came across, including tigers, leopards, sika deer, sheep, cattle, horses, and camels. They have provided researchers with invaluable insight into the kind of animal species that once populated the mountains. The symbols tend to be much more complicated and are mainly mask-like faces imbued with a deeper meaning, the most obvious of which is a sun-shaped mask representing the Sun God.

That being said, while the rock carvings may be simple in design, the explanation behind them is relatively speculative. Many historians believe that they may have held some kind of shamanic[1] significance, particularly with regards to the symbols, while others posit that they are of a less spiritual and more documentary nature. Regardless of their origins, these fascinating carvings allow visitors to engage with ancient history in a meaningful and palpable way. Other nearby attractions include the Suyukou Forest Reserve, a vast woodland area filled with unusual rock formations, and Gunzhong Pass  (Rolling Bell Pass), a delightful summer resort designed for the avid hiker.

After all that hiking and sightseeing, you’re bound to be a little thirsty. Fortunately, the Helan Mountains are one of the main centres for the production of wine! Since wines from Ningxia have gained a certain prestige and popularity in China, companies are monopolising on the opportunity by setting up wineries on the mountain range’s eastern base. Whether it’s a robust red or a dry white, your trip to the Helan Mountains is sure to leave you wining!

[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

The Traditional Dress of Hui Ethnic Minority

Like many facets of their culture, the traditional dress of the Hui people has been heavily influenced by their Islamic faith. The key to their outfits is to look clean, bright, and sombre, although some embellishment is allowed. The men wear small black or white caps without brims, and these hats can be pentagonal, hexagonal, or octagonal depending on the branch of Islam that they follow. They have a preference for double-breasted white shirts and, in some cases, white trousers and socks. Both men and women like to wear blue waistcoats and some men will wear an extra waistcoat to create a tidy, crisp contrast. In colder areas or during harsh winters, some men and women will wear fur garments made from sheepskin.

hui dressThe women’s dress, though not as elaborate as many other ethnic minorities, is rather more decorative than the men’s. They tend to wear headscarves or veils but these vary depending on their age. Young women typically wear green or coloured veils that have a golden trim and have been embroidered with elegant floral patterns. Married women will wear black veils that cover them from head to shoulder, while elderly women will wear white veils that stretch from their head all the way down their backs. They normally wear a dress that fastens at the side over a pair of trousers and, although they are usually muted in colour, younger women’s clothes may be embroidered with decorative patterns. Women of all ages liven up their outfits with gold or silver bracelets, earrings and rings because, after all, diamonds aren’t a girl’s only best friend!



Flanked by the Yellow River to the east and the Helan Mountains to the west, Yinchuan is commonly known as the “land of fish and rice”, since its auspicious location provides an abundance of fertile land that is otherwise scarce in northern China. It serves as the provincial capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, a place dominated by the Muslim Hui ethnic minority. One of its major claims to fame is that it was potentially the place where the great Genghis Khan finally died in 1227. Although no one knows exactly where this mighty Mongolian warlord breathed his last, his death and the circumstances surrounding it offer great insight into the history of this unusual city.

During the fall of the illustrious Tang Dynasty (618-907), Ningxia and several of China’s northeastern provinces were occupied by the Tangut people. After conquering this territory, they established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227) and chose Yinchuan as their imperial capital. It was during the Mongolian invasion of China, when Genghis Khan was in the process of overthrowing the Western Xia Dynasty, that he met his unfortunate end, possibly in Yinchuan but most likely somewhere in Ningxia. Talk about poor timing! His grandson, Kublai Khan, went on to complete his work and eventually seized control of China proper under the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

The plains surrounding Yinchuan are intensively irrigated by systems that date back to the Han (206 BC–220 AD) and Tang dynasties. From herds led by nomads on the grasslands to farms cultivating the locally famous wolfberries, it is renowned as a region of bountiful harvests and superlative agricultural products. One third of its population is made up of the Hui ethnic minority, meaning the city is littered with spectacular mosques and restaurants serving delicious traditional Hui cuisine.

Yet it’s the city’s history that has left behind the greatest treasures of all. The Western Xia Tombs, located approximately 35 kilometres (22 mi) east of the city, are one of the last known relics of this mysterious kingdom. This magnificent tomb complex is composed of over 250 separate mausoleums, nine of which belong to Western Xia kings and about 140 contain imperial family members. Taking up a total area of over 49 square kilometres (19 sq. mi), it is one of the largest and most well-preserved imperial burial sites in China. Its architecture is a hectic mixture of traditional Han Chinese, Buddhist, and Tangut features, demonstrating how these cultures intermingled in the region.

Nowadays, only two mausoleums are open to the public: the Haowang Mausoleum and the Shuang Mausoleum. However, tourists are free to wander through the complex and admire its architecture. The nearby Western Xia Museum, Western Xia Art Museum, and Western Xia Collection of Stone Inscriptions are the ideal place to learn more about the history of the site. This fascinating place represents just one of more than 60 historic sites that can be found in Yinchuan, including mosques, pagodas, pavilions, and elaborate temples.

Yinchuan Haibao TowerOf these, the most popular are the Haibao Pagoda and the Pagoda of Chengtian Temple. The eleven-storeyed Pagoda of Chengtian Temple was originally built during the Western Xia Dynasty, but was tragically destroyed and had to be rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Towering in at a height of over 64 metres (212 ft.), it is the largest pagoda in Ningxia. A wooden staircase leads to the top of the pagoda, where windows facing in four directions offer a stunning panoramic view of the city.

That being said, if you like your history with a side of glitz and glamour, you may want to consider a visit to China West Film Studio. Located at the eastern foot of the Helan Mountains just 25 kilometres (16 mi) outside of the city, it has served as the set for over 100 films, including celebrated works like Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum. The studio was formerly the site of two ancient castles, built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties respectively.

Nowadays it is separated into three areas: Qing Dynasty Town, Ming Dynasty Town, and Yinchuan Old Street. It’s is currently open to the public and offers visitors the opportunity to experience what life was like in ancient China. If you really want to get in on the action, you can even rent a traditional costume and have your photo taken in front of the beautifully crafted sets!

For nature lovers and bird-watchers alike, Sand Lake is just 56 kilometres (35 mi) north of Yinchuan and represents a bizarre wonderland of sandy desert and shimmering lakes. It is considered one of the best places in China for bird-watching, since it is home to over one million birds from 198 different species, including white cranes, black cranes, red-crowned cranes, swans, and mandarin ducks. The Bird-Watching Tower is the ideal place to enjoy a panoramic view of the scenic area and admire some of its feathered residents. Just try not to upset them, because they can be quite fowl!

Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region


Ningxia is one of five ethnic minority autonomous regions in China and its official name is Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, since over one-third of its population is made up of the Hui ethnic minority. The Hui people follow the religion of Islam and so everything, from their elegant traditional dress to their vibrant architecture, has a particularly Central Asian flair. Mosques such as the Tongxin Great Mosque in the city of Wuzhong, the largest and oldest mosque in Ningxia, can be found dotted throughout the province. These mosques are usually a stunning blend of Han Chinese and Central Asian architectural features, demonstrating the hybrid culture of Ningxia.

The region itself is located in north-central China, sandwiched between Shaanxi province in the east, Gansu province in the east, south, and west, and Inner Mongolia to the north. While most of Ningxia is made up of unforgiving desert, the vast plain of the Yellow River in the north has long been a fertile centre for agriculture. The thought of sandy deserts may conjure up images of sweltering heat, but Ningxia’s weather is far from scorching! Its climate is largely continental, with long chilly winters and short mild summers. While average temperatures in July range from a comfortable 17 to 24 °C (63 to 75 °F), in January it can regularly plummet to between −7 and −15 °C (19 to 5 °F).

west xiaIn ancient times, modern-day Ningxia almost entirely belonged to the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), which was ruled by the Tangut people. The Tanguts were eventually conquered by Genghis Khan, and Ningxia was incorporated into China proper during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Very little is known about these ancient people and their mysterious dynasty, although the Western Xia Tombs at the foot of the Helan Mountains have provided historians with a treasure trove of invaluable information. These tombs represent one of the largest imperial burial sites in China and offer a fascinating insight into this lesser-known period of Chinese history. Nowadays several of the tombs have been opened to the public, and are often called the “Oriental Pyramids” thanks to their unusual shape.

Just 35 kilometres (22 mi) east of the tombs, the regional capital of Yinchuan was once the imperial capital of the Western Xia Dynasty and remains Ningxia’s cultural centre. Since Yinchuan and several other cities used to be important trading hubs along the Silk Road, there are numerous Buddhist sites scattered nearby that were constructed by traveling monks. The most magnificent of these is undoubtedly the Xumi Mountain Grottoes. While this grotto complex is relatively unknown outside of China, it is nationally regarded as one of the finest works of Buddhist architecture in the country.

From the Northern Wei Dynasty (368-534) until the Tang Dynasty (618-907), over 130 caves were delicately carved directly into the eastern cliff-face of Mount Xumi and filled with lifelike Buddhist sculptures. The style of these sculptures integrates visible Indian and Central Asian features, acting as a testament to the cultural exchange that took place along the Silk Road. The site’s crowning jewel is a colossal 20-metre-tall (65 ft.) statue of Maitreya(1). Other spectacular Buddhist monuments include the 108 Pagodas near Qingtongxia and the Haibao Pagoda in Yinchuan.

If you’re more of an adventurer than a historian, you may want to sign up for some of Ningxia’s famed desert tourism! The district of Shapotou is regarded as the “Capital of Sand” and is located on the southern rim of the Tengger Desert. It’s home to the Desert Research Centre and one of China’s four celebrated singing sand dunes. The strange shape of the dunes means that, as the wind whips over them, it creates a unique sound that is said to resemble the tolling of a bell or the beating of a drum. It may not sound as pleasant as Pavarotti, but it’s still pretty impressive! Standing atop the dunes, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the surrounding desert that is both awe-inspiring and humbling in equal measure. The district also provides access to long sections of the Great Wall, which span across northern Ningxia.

NINGXIASimilarly, the Sand Lake Scenic Resort in Pingluo County offers stunning views of both the desert and the resort’s many scenic lakes. Sand Lake itself is one of the best places for bird-watching in China, as it attracts over one million birds from 198 different species every year. Throughout spring and autumn, migratory birds such as white cranes, red-crowned cranes, swans, and mandarin ducks flock to the lake in order to rest their weary wings. The resort is even equipped with a Bird-watching Tower, where hundreds of people gather and use the high quality telescopes provided to spy on the feathery fowls. Standing at the top of the tower, you could almost say you’ll have a bird’s eye view!


1. Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.