Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels.
This week’s guest, Clemmie Brooks, has been living and teaching English in China for the past two years and is currently based in Yinchuan, Ningxia province. She discovered a love of teaching English while working on summer camp in Spain and then after graduation from University took the leap to move to China to experience a completely different way of life. She loves being able to integrate in a community instead of just passing through and learning Chinese has meant she has been able to travel around China while getting to know the locals! Check out Clemmie’s blog at Getting Out of the Bubble.
Hi Clemmie! Where’s home for you at the moment?
At the moment Yinchuan, in Ningxia province, is the city that I call home. It’s considered a small city in China, but still has over 2 million people so it’s still a bustling city! Ningxia is a really underexplored area of China and foreigners are still a novelty to the locals, if you visit be prepared for tonnes of attention! Yinchuan is a beautiful green city sitting at the end of the Silk Road, and it is home to the Hui Muslim minority. This means that a lot of the city’s architecture has Muslim influence, and a lot of the street signs are in Arabic.
What’s the weather like – and when is the best time to visit?
Yinchuan is a desert climate so the weather varies quite a lot season to season. It’s dry all year round, I can count the number of times it has rained in a year on both hands, but it also gets quite dusty. Summer is very hot, and winter is very cold but hardly ever snowy! Seasons aren’t so obvious here so one week it’s boiling hot and then the next week it’s time to get the thermals out. September is probably my favourite month because it’s the closest to autumn we get, clear, sunny and warm. Perfect weather for exploring!
Sounds perfect. What’s your neighbourhood like?
Most people in China live in huge tower blocks clustered into little communities, and I’m no different. Living in communities is nice because you get to know everyone who lives around you. My neighbourhood is called the New City and it’s pretty quiet, I live by a huge park and there are lots of little food shops a short walk away. Yinchuan doesn’t really cater for foreign tourists and there aren’t any youth hostels that I know of, finding hotels that will take foreigners can be tricky. Couchsurfer can be a good bet, I’m on there!
What does a typical weekend in Yinchuan look like?
The Chinese love to get together to eat and drink, and since there isn’t much of an expat community there are tonnes of opportunities to integrate with the locals. Going to eat hotpot is popular, as is going KTV (Chinese karaoke). Everything is always accompanied by a lot of beer and baijiu 白酒 (Chinese rice wine). The Chinese love to drink!
I like walking around the city’s parks and people watching, there are always people playing cards, dancing in perfect synchronisation or practicing their spinning top skills – the elderly in China have a huge range of hobbies!
As a local – tell us what things people absolutely shouldn’t miss when they visit Yinchuan…
Everyone should visit Helan Mountain 贺兰山 which overlooks the city. It’s blissfully peaceful and not too touristy. The paths still feel like they are a little bit rugged and there are plenty of opportunities to get off the paths and scramble over rocks to explore deeper. Helan Mountain also has a well preserved area of ancient rock paintings, which are supposedly some of the oldest in the world!
Where will people find the best food in town?
The food is often the best part of travelling for me and Yinchuan has some amazing food! The best food is found in the little shops that often look a bit dodgy, if you can look past the grimy exterior you can find some real gems. There are very few people who speak any English but the ‘point and pray’ technique has served me well. The local speciality is melt in the mouth mutton usually served in huge chunks on the bone. My favourite dish is yu’xiang’rou’si 鱼香肉丝， which is shredded pork and vegetables cooked in a sweet, garlicky sauce.
Can you recommend any unusual things to do in Yinchuan?
Coming to Yinchuan you can’t miss visiting the Ningxia Western Film Studios. Some of China’s most famous movies were filmed there and it’s great fun to explore the various sets and play with the props. You can even dress up in different types of Chinese costume to pose in the sets, the most popular are the Ancient Imperial style and the army uniforms from the Cultural Revolution. A glimpse into two very different sides of Chinese history!
Another must do is to visit Shaputou 沙坡头，Shaputou is an area of desert a couple hours from Yinchuan that has been turned into a desert playground. You can ride camels across sand dunes, zip line across the Yellow River and even cruise down the yellow on a raft made from an inflated sheep skin. It’s the perfect day trip away from the noise of the city and a well worth the visit.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a trip to China?
Although China is slowly becoming a more and more popular destination for travellers in Asia, it doesn’t have great provision for non-Chinese speakers outside of the major cities. It’s really worth it to buff up on a couple of simple things before making your trip so that everything runs more smoothly. Numbers, how much is it?, thank you, and I don’t understand are a good place to start!
Because foreigners a still fairly novel in the less touristy places – like Yinchuan – you have to get used to a lot of people staring at you and often taking photos without your permission. It can get frustrating but it is important to remember that people are just curious and being friendly, often smiling and posing for a quick picture is easier than trying to stop the inevitable!
Finally: what do you love most about travelling?
My favourite part of travelling is meeting new people and seeing the world from a different perspective. My students teach me so much about Chinese culture, even the little things like the completely different noises that they hear animals making make the experience so much more rewarding.
I always say that I travel with my stomach, trying different foods from everywhere I travel is a big highlight. One of the most eye opening things about coming to China was how the Chinese food that we have in the UK is completely different to anything I’ve even eaten in China!
NB – all images are owned by Clemmie Brooks.