Like giant beehives scattered on the arid eastern slope of the Helan mountains, the Xixia imperial tombs are Ningxia’s most celebrated sight. The earliest tombs were built a millennium ago by Li Yuanhao, founder of the kingdom. There are nine tombs, plus 250 lesser tombs, in an area of 50 sq km. The one you’ll see (Tomb No.3) belongs to Li – constructed as a 23m-tall wooden pagoda, now weathered to its earthen core. The tomb site is fashioned like a miniature city with towers, city walls and temple.
Permits, usually organised through local tour operators, are required to see the other tombs, but you will pass them if you opt to get to Li Yuanhao's burial place by van.
The examples of Buddhist art in the good site museum (8am to 5.30pm) offer a rare glimpse into the ephemeral Western Xia (or Xixia) culture, and point to clear artistic influences from neighbouring Tibet and Central Asia. There are also many fascinating artefacts excavated from Li Yuanhao’s tomb.
The Xixia Tombs have applied for inclusion in the Unesco World Heritage List for 2020.
The tombs are 33km west of Yinchuan. A return taxi costs from around ¥200 (including waiting time). Regular buses (¥15, every 30 minutes, 7am to 7pm) run past the tombs from the bus station next to the Nánguān Mosque, not far from South Gate Square (南门广场, Nánmén Guǎngchǎng); you will need to tell the driver you want to get off at the tombs. From the South Gate, you could also take bus 2 or 4 to its terminus in Xixia Qu and then take a van (around ¥50 each way) from there. As the site is on the road towards Bayanhot, you can get off any bus heading that way.