Helu Town: China's oasis of oddness deep in the sulferous sand-swamps of Shaaanxi

Culture, Travel | by Fred Shasta
Posted: August 11th, 2011 | Updated: September 20th, 2012 | Comments
Out-of-the-way Helu Cheng (Hélǘ Chéng, 和驴城) and the surrounding region of Shaaanxi (Shā'ā'ānxī, 沙阿安西) might just be the hottest China destination you've never heard of. Once a fertile part of the Yellow River which records indicate occurred some time in the Spring and Autumn Period. The unique ecosystem that has evolved in years since, nestled in a sandy valley 37 kilometers from the present-day Yellow River, combines features of desert and swamp, with the Houquan Mud Springs just outside of Helu Town oozing forth an ocher mixture long treasured for its restorative, cosmetic, virility-enhancing and aphrodisiac powers. Houquan ("Monkey Spring") is the largest of a series of bubbling mud springs scattered around and throughout Helu Town, also known, fittingly enough, as "Sinkhole City" (天坑 Tiānkēng Chéng). The mud springs' geothermal emissions give central Shaaanxi—the name means "Peaceful Western Sandy Bend" in reference to its ancient location on the banks of the Yellow River—much of its omnipresent sulfurous odor. Situated near the present-day Shanxi-Shaanxi border 52 kilometers south of the Inner Mongolia frontier, Shaaanxi is also one of a kind culturally. The region is the lone example of a spiritual fusion of elements of medieval Islamic Sufism with Silk Road Buddhism, inititated by a Bedouin trader who settled down in ancient Helu only to wander off into the desert and return as Zonglujiu Yimamu, or the Legendary Palm Wine Imam after years living with an an isolated band of breakaway Buddhist ascetics in a cave on the banks of the river. Today's Shaaanxi residents, descendants of the mixture of monks, merchants and professional entertainers who formed Helu's population in its heyday, are known as Luren and are under consideration for recognition as China's 57th official ethnic minority. But Helu and Shaaanxi's history and unique landscape are in danger of being violated by the world-class Shaaanxi International Adult Use Item Hi-Tech Economic Incubation Zone (SIAUIHT-EIZ)—a divisive problem that has come to a head since millions of RMB in stimulus funds poured into Shaaanxi after the 2008 global financial crisis. Helu's transformation into the center of a multi-billion dollar manufacturing industry has been under way for over a decade, thanks to the visionary leadership of Hong Donghu, the late-'90s Shaaanxi governor responsible for the 1997 creation of the Shaanxi Anonymous Zone (SAZ), intended to both "protect special development of the Luren people in Shaaanxi and promote scientific and civilized development of the Adult Use Item Industry of China." Hong is also behind the creation of the Shaaanxi Houquan Desert Blossom Paradise Idyll-Park Resort, the region's only five-star hotel and, at 4,000 meters, its tallest structure by 3,996 meters. It should be noted that the building's total height includes 67 underground floors which take advantage of a natural sinkhole, as well as the 2,000-meter antennae atop the neofuturist homage to 1970s-era space-age inflected Brutalism (with Chinese characteristics). With its generally unoccupied 1,888 rooms, the resort can put visitors in a bewildering range of themed suites, deluxe rooms, standards and minimalist subterranean "ascetic monk cells." The only time it's advisable to book in advance is during the annual five-day Helu International Adult Use Item Industry Trade Show (HIAUIITS) held every March when spring winds briefly ventilate the otherwise sulfur-scented Shaaanxi Depression (the locals refer to the scent as "the Fortune-Cloud of the 5,000-Year-Old-Egg" or, simply, "the Imam's Burp"). In addition to housing the world's largest KTV complex—a multi-chambered hive of locally licensed Chivas, fruit platters and Cantopop passion—the resort also boasts Shaaanxi's only high-end shopping mall/livestock bazaar. Sure, you can drop a fortune on a night at the resort—or you can get into the nitty-gritty of Helu life and opt for cheaper accommodations in the train station. But we recommend the peculiar comforts of Helu's first and only backpacker's hostel, the Gee! Spot, a converted adobe playground fort run by original Helu expats Puff Squaldron and Sal Purchase. When we visited, Brainerd, Minnesota natives Puff and Sal took us on tour of their beloved Shaaanxi, showing us, among other things, the temporary sand replicas of iconic global landmarks painstakingly constructed by a team of dexterous dwarves—orphans taken in by local monks resident in the the Buddha Palm Mack Hand Monastery. The sand replicas are crafted daily in the Garden of World's No. 1 Attractions. On the day we visited, the team of tiny craftspeople was busy putting the finishing touches on Space Mountain's dome. Next, we hit the Houquan Mud Springs for a treatment (and a chance to snack on fried Shaaanxi mud skippers). We also viewed the statue in the city's central square known as the Bearded Slightly Overweight Warrior, who, as legend has it, carried on the Palm Wine Imam's teachings after defeating an invading force of lost and bewildered Qin military mess officers, preserving the anonymity and relative autonomy of Shaaanxi—indeed, some scholars speculate that Shaaanxi was the only region of ancient China to successfully resist Qin subjugation. So why haven't you heard of this place yet? Because it also holds the distinction of being the only non-military geographical region to have been entirely blocked.
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