Tiny Ningxia is not on many China itineraries, lost as it is between popular Shaanxi to the east, rugged Gansu to the south and west, and sprawling Inner Mongolia to the north. That's a pity, because Ningxia has a lot to offer.
Officially know as the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Ningxia is the designated homeland for China's Hui Muslim minority. The Hui, descended in part from Arab traders who came east via the Silk Road, seem to have inherited much of their ancestors' wanderlust—far more live elsewhere in the People's Republic than live in Ningxia. In fact, they presently only constitute 1/3 of Ningxia's population, with many having left what is one of China's poorer regions to seek economic opportunity in eastern boomtowns. The rest of Ningxia's residents are primarily Han Chinese, largely identical in appearance to their Hui compatriots aside from manner of dress.
The northern city of Yinchuan, located in a finger of land jutting into Inner Mongolia, contains a number of attractions, including the vast Nanguan Grand Mosque, the Ningxia Regional Museumand the nearly 1,000-year-old pagoda of Chengtiansi Ta. Once the capital of the Western Xia Dynasty, Yinchuan also makes a great base for forays into the surrounding countryside and daytrips to sites like the Xixia Wangling (Western Xia Tombs), Helan Shan (Helan Mountains), sandy Sha Hu (Sha Lake), the intriguing Qingtongxia 108 Dagobas and isolated stretches of the Great Wall of China.
Further to the south and west, following the meandering course of the Yellow River as it cuts through dusty loess plains, swaths of irrigated vibrant green, and stretches of outright desert, the towns of Zhongwei and Shapotou are well worth visiting for the unique patchwork intersection of the Tenger Desert, the broad Yellow River, and strips of lush farmland.
Zhongwei is also home to a rare interdenominational temple, Gao Miao, where adherents of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism rub elbows. Not surprisingly, the 15th century temple comprises a fascinating jumble of styles, symbols and images. Just to the west in Shapotou, the desert and river are the main attractions, with camel rides and sheepskin river rafting offering truly unique ways to experience of this remarkable and strange landscape.
Even further south, Guyuanis the place to base yourself for a visit to the Xumi Shan Grottoes, where 138 caves cut into red sandstone cliffs house hundreds of Buddhist statues, with two major temples, Yuanguang Si and Xiangguo Si, accompanying the immense Dafo Lou giant stone Buddha. Finally, a lonely stretch of the Great Wall makes for a nice stop en route from Guyuan to Xumi Shan.