Gùyuán on the border of southern Níngxià is of little interest, except perhaps for its museum (; gùyuán bówùguǎn; Xicheng Lu; admission Y20; 8am-noon & 2-6pm Tue-Fri, 9am-4pm Sat & Sun), currently under renovation. Fifty kilometres northwest of Gùyuán, however, are the little-visited Buddhist grottoes of Xūmí The World according to Ma YanGender inequality and rural poverty are hardly breaking news in China, but rarely does one have the chance to view them first-hand through the eyes of a young girl. In 2001, 14-year-old Ma Yan found herself face-to-face with a future not uncommon to Chinese women: unable to pay the tuition fees for three children, Ma Yan’s parents decided to pull her out of school, for the sake of her brothers’ education.Ma Yan’s school diaries were later thrust upon a French journalist, at the time a last-ditch cry for help from a desperate mother, herself deprived of an education and married at 16. Reading them can be an unsettling experience – some days she has no more than a bowl of rice to eat, other days even less. But no other book will bring you closer to understanding just how hard it is to make ends meet in Níngxià, or the extremity with which the Communist Party has turned its back on its originalraison d’être.The subsequent translation and publication of extracts from the diary not only introduced the world to the people of Níngxià, it also changed the fates of hundreds of families. Readers sent in personal donations to keep Ma Yan in school, and continuing interest sparked the publication of the entirety of Ma Yan’s diaries in book form. Royalties from sales and reader donations were put into a grass-roots fund to help provide tuition fees for children throughout the province. Ma Yan herself is still in high school. Her plans? To enrol in Běijīng’s Qinghua University to study journalism.The Diary of Ma Yanhas since been translated into 17 languages, and the organisationEnfants du Ningxia(www.enfantsduningxia.org)has helped ensure the right to an education for several hundred children in southern Níngxià – no small accomplishment for the diary of a teenage girl.Shān (; admission Y30). Xūmí is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word sumeru, a Buddhist paradise.
Cut into the five adjacent sandstone hills are 132 caves housing more than 300 Buddhist statues dating back 1400 years, from the Northern Wei to the Sui and Tang dynasties. Cave 5 contains Xūmí Shān’s largest statue: a colossal Maitreya (future Buddha), standing 20.6m high. It remains remarkably well preserved, even though the protective tower has long since collapsed and left it exposed to the elements. Around the corner in cave 1 is a smaller standing Buddha. Further uphill, the best statues are protected by the Yuanguan (caves 45 and 46; 6th century) and Xiangguo (cave 51; 7th century) Temples, where you can walk around the interior and examine the artwork up close – amazingly, the paint on several of the statues has yet to wear away.
There’s one direct bus a day to the caves (Y8, 1½ hours), leaving Gùyuán at around 2.30pm and returning the next morning at 8am, so you’d have to overnight at the site guesthouse (dm Y30), which isn’t a bad idea at all. Otherwise, catch a bus from Gùyuán to Sānyíng (; Y6, one hour), on the main road 40km north of Gùyuán near the Xūmí Shān turn-off. From Sānyíng you can hop on a minibus to Huángduóbǎo (Y2 when full) and then find a tractor or hire a minivan for the 9km to the caves. A minibus from Sānyíng to Xūmí Shān is the best bet at Y50 return.