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W The China West Film Studio in Yinchuan, China. Sarah Dea / The National
W The China West Film Studio in Yinchuan, China. Sarah Dea / The National

Yinchuan emerges from sands of time

The Life: Old and new come together in spin-off from the Silk Road

Yinchuan in north-west China is a place in limbo: too large to be a town, too small to be a metropolis. Concrete skeletons of housing complexes loom on the edge of freshly paved roads, waiting for people to arrive. It has been waiting, it seems, ever since the Silk Road thinned to a thread.

At the Kempinski, the best and nearly only hotel around, a former Dubai newspaper owner held court a few tables away from the UAE foreign trade undersecretary and the chief executive of Sharjah's investment authority. It looked like any five-star in Dubai.

For a glimpse of local culture, drive a half a hour out of the city to the China West Film studio. Ever since the end of its movie-making heyday, it has been converted into a curiosity museum where Chinese tourists take photographs of themselves next to fake bars of gold in fake caverns and a live musical trio performs for no one but a male mannequin drinking tea. Signs stuck in the sand - like the UAE, this region islargely desert - cryptically point to "Legendary Bull's Palace" and "Ancient Young Lady's Bedchamber."

Go farther back in time by visiting Yinchuan's section of the Great Wall, carved out of sandstone. Double-humped hairy camels give rides to visitors in need of a rest after the climb. Included in the fee to visit the wall is admission to a paleontology museum.

On the way back, you might want to stop by Silver Heights and visit the Chinese winemaker Emma Gao, her French husband, and their puppy and baby goat.

Each year the estate produces 20,000 to 30,000 bottles, which are so popular among five-star hotels in Shanghai and Chinese businessmen that not a single one is left over for export.

From the estate can be seen the shapes of skyscrapers under construction, as new Yinchuan rises to meet the old.

Why would I go to Yinchuan?

Both Beijing and Abu Dhabi are trying to position Yinchuan, a city of 1.3 million people in north-central China, as a locus for trade between China and the Arab world, building on the history of the Silk Road. Government officials say there are matches to be made in petrochemicals (Yinchuan's region is home to large coal and gas deposits), technology and even halal food.

How do I get there?

There are no direct flights to Yinchuan, so either Beijing or Guangzhou will be a mandatory stop. In Beijing, plan a long connection of at least two hours to get from the international to domestic terminal, which are a good 20 minutes to 30 minutes away from each other, depending on traffic.

Where should I stay?

Apart from small inns, Yinchuan has just two hotels for the business traveller: the Kempinski and a Holiday Inn. At the Kempinski, English is far from universal among staff and service can be best described as local, but the rooms are excellent.

What else should I know?

We highly recommend a translator if you want to get anything done in the region. Be prepared to hear the word "no" a lot.


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