The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Thirty-five percent of its six million inhabitants belong to the Hui national minority, who comprise the bulk of China's Muslims. Partly descended from Arab and Iranian traders and soldiers who settled in China from the Tang dynasty onwards, the Hui are now, in terms of appearance and language, virtually indistinguishable from the Han majority, but have retained a distinct culture based around Islam. Although distributed across almost every region of China, the Hui tend to live in distinct communities.
Perhaps the most characteristic Hui communities in Ningxia are the small countryside villages, with their solid courtyard houses, some sandy pink, others painted white with blue facings, and often sporting a bright green studded gate. Every village has a small, often quite exquisite mosque built in the local style which favors multiple minarets and a central dome.
Ningxia's sandy loess soil, when irrigated with water from the Yellow River, is remarkably fertile. On the great river's flood plain the paddy fields are a bright, emerald green and roads and field boundaries are lined with silver-barked, bluish leafed poplars. There is a booming fruit industry, watermelons, bright red wolfberries and, not least, grapes – which produce a more than usually palatable Chinese red.
But Ningxia is not a pastoral paradise; it is also a major center of heavy industry. China's booming economy devours coal like a ravenous beast and Ningxia has some of China's richest seams. Many areas have been badly polluted over the years by coal, power generation and chemical industries, particularly Shizuishan in the far north. But the government is paying attention to environmental issues, initiating urban regeneration projects and moving to a new generation of cleaner technology being implemented at two huge coal-chemical bases currently under construction in Ningxia's desert. King Coal still rules in Ningxia and will do so for the foreseeable future but hopefully less tyrannically than in the past.
Ningxia's desert accounts for 60 percent of its land area. Battling against its expansion is a never ending task. Most experts blame desertification on increasing numbers of goats and sheep that supply the Region's thriving cashmere industry or the superb, fatty mutton that local farmers improbably claim is good for your health. Others simply put the desert's growth down to climate change, for which, of course Ningxia's heavy industry must accept some portion of blame. But Ningxia continues to make strenuous efforts with afforestation projects. And where the desert cannot be made to bloom it can be exploited as beautiful wilderness and a great tourist attraction.
A land of contrasts and colors then, the green representing the fertile Yellow River flood plain and the Hui Muslim community, the black of the coal industry, and the ochre, pink and gray desert. Ningxia offers unforgettable sights, Buddhist temples clinging perilously to loess cliffs, the watchtowers of the Great Wall punctuating the hills and plains of the desert, giant wind turbines - symbols of the growing, modernizing economy. Ningxia is a fascinating place to visit and, judging by the property boom in and around the major towns, an increasingly desirable place to live.
(China.org.cn by John Sexton and Pang Li, July 21, 2008)