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With its raw terrain of dusty plains and stark mountains, sliced in two by the Yellow River, there's a distinct Grapes of Wrath feel to Ningxia (宁夏). Outside the cities is a timeless landscape where farmers till the hard yellow earth just like their ancestors did.

Yet Ningxia was once the front line between the Mongol and Han Chinese empires. Wondrous art and architecture from the Xixia empire and the Jin and Liao dynasties fills museums and historic sites. Then there's the royal tombs of Xixia, as well as rock carvings that predate the emperors, plus the chance to camp out under the desert sky or float down the Yellow River on a traditional raft. Being the homeland of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority adds another unique layer to Ningxia's culture.

Best of all, Ningxia sees few foreign visitors, so it seems like you have the place all to yourself.