Níngxià resembles a leftover puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit between its neighbouring deserts and mountain ranges. Hanging precariously to the Yellow River (Huáng Hé) that runs along its northern border, the region was never solid ground for the Chinese, who began building earthen fortifications in the Liùpán Shān as early as the Warring States period (475–221 BC). Níngxià’s brightest moment in history came under the Western Xia (Xīxià; AD 1038–1227), a powerful kingdom that rose up around Xìngqìng (Yínchuān) and controlled an enormous swath of today’s northwest.
In terms of age and size, the province is no more than a mere babe, belatedly formed as an autonomous region for the Hui in 1958. The Hui, Muslim descendants of Arab and Persian traders who began settling in China during the Tang dynasty, comprise one third of the population and live primarily in the poorer south.
Day-to-day existence here is anything but a bed of roses. Beyond the Yellow River and the ancient irrigation channels that run off it, the land is parched – bad news for a population that consists mainly of farmers. Poor land reform, little social aid and recurrent droughts have turned many of the inhabitants into migrant workers, forced to venture out to big cities such as Lánzhōu and Hohhot in order to support their families.
Entirely off the beaten track, this small province remains a place of specific interests: the beautiful but harsh desert, remnants of the enigmatic Western Xia and a look at how Islam functions in a largely forgotten corner of China.