Diary of a Rambling Antiquarian

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Road to Etzina

Of the City of Etzina

When you leave the city of Campichu you ride for twelve days, and then reach a city called ETZINA, which is towards the north on the verge of the Sandy Desert; it belongs to the Province of Tangut. The people are Idolaters, and possess plenty of camels and cattle, and the country produces a number of good falcons, both Sakers and Lanners. The inhabitants live by their cultivation and their cattle, for they have no trade. At this city you must needs lay in victuals for forty days, because when you quit Etzina, you enter on a desert which extends forty days' journey to the north, and on which you meet with no habitation nor baiting-place. In the summer-time, indeed, you will fall in with people, but in the winter the cold is too great. You also meet with wild beasts (for there are some small pine-woods here and there), and with numbers of wild asses. When you have travelled these forty days across the Desert you come to a certain province lying to the north. Its name you shall hear presently.

The Travels of Marco Polo Book 1 Chapter 45, translated by Henry Yule

Our business in Yinchuan is over, and I have a week free for travelling before I have to return to England at the end of the month. Early in the morning I deposit my luggage so that I can travel light with only a small backpack, and then walk to the bus station with my two companions.

We have planned an expedition to the Tangut city that Marco Polo knew as Etzina. The name derives from Tangut 𗋽𗰞 zyr na "water black" meaning Black Water, which was the name of the inland river by which the fortress city of Etzina was built. The name survives to this day as the Mongolian name for this river, known in Chinese as the Black Water (Hēi Shuǐ 黑水) or the Weak Water (Ruò Shuǐ 弱水). It is also the Mongolian and Chinese name for the most westerly part of Inner Mongolia, Ejina Banner (Ejen-e qosiɣu ᠡᠵᠡᠨ᠎ᠡ ᠬᠣᠰᠢᠭᠤ in Mongolian; Éjǐnà Qí 额济纳旗 in Chinese), where Etzina is located. But nowadays the city is known in English by its Mongolian name, Khara-khoto ᠬᠠᠷᠠ ᠬᠣᠲᠠ, meaning Black City, and in Chinese it is either called Black City (Hēichéng 黑城) or Black Water City (Hēishuǐchéng 黑水城).

In 1372 the city was besieged by the Ming army, and according to tradition the besieging army diverted the course of the Black Water, dooming the city and its inhabitants. After this the city was abandoned, and remained lost in the desert sands for hundreds of years, until in 1908 a Russian explorer called Pyotr Kozlov made his way there, and subsequently discovered thousands of books and documents written in the Tangut language. The story is told in detail by Prof. Kychanov in his Preface to Documents from the Black River City held in Russia, so I will not repeat it here.

The 1749 map of the Hya Empire (= Western Xia) shown below locates Etzina (just south of the two lakes in the top left) with remarkable accuracy. We start our journey at Hya chew (Xiàzhōu 夏州 = Yinchuan) on the right, and must travel south around the Helan Mountains, and then go north and skirt around the Gobi Desert to get to Etzina, nearly 600 km from Yinchuan as the crow flies, but much longer by bus.

Detail of a 1749 map showing Etzina

Carte del l'Empire de Hya et partie de Tangut in Histoire generale des voyages vol. 25 (Paris, 1749)

Bus route from Yinchuan to Dalaihob with stopping points

{Imagery ©2018 Landsat / Copernicus, Map date ©2018 Google}

Day 1

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Yinchuan to Bayanhot

The bus station at Yinchuan is almost deserted when arrive, but we have no difficulty purchasing tickets for the next bus to Bayanhot (Bāyànhàotè zhèn 巴彥浩特镇), the seat of Alxa Left Banner on the other side of the Helan Mountains.

Road through the southern tip of the Helan Mountains

The bus takes us south and through the hills at the southern tip of the Helan Mountains, and after an uneventful and not terribly scenic journey we arrive in the early afternoon at Bayanhot. Here we will stay a night. Like most Chinese towns it looks small on the map, but is suprisingly large on the ground. The large newly-built bus station is in the north of the town, and we walk into the centre of town in search of a hotel, passing a church, a camel, and a school on the way.

A church

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

A monument to the "Camel homeland of China"

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}


A Mongolian-language school

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

After booking into our hotel I go off to explore the wonders of Bayanhot by myself. Apparently it is an "international tourist destination" according to posters proudly displayed throughout the town. I head westwards.

Stone art at the western edge of the town centre

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Two irrigation water wheels

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Entrance to the Arts and Crafts street

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Recently-built stupa overlooking the Arts and Crafts street

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Earth wall

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Hayagriva Temple

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Closer view of the Hayagriva Temple

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}


ᠰᠠᠬᠢᠭᠤᠯᠰᠤᠨ   ᠳᠤᠭᠠᠩ


My camera battery dies and I return to the hotel. Later that evening we are paid a visit by the local police who want to check out who we are and what we are doing. Despite being an "international tourist destination" it seems that foreign tourists are not really welcome here, and the police are relieved to learn that we are leaving on the morning bus, and will no longer be their responsibility.

Day 2

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bayanhot to Dalaihob

The next morning we leave early for the bus station, to catch the daily bus to Dalaihob (Dáláihūbù zhèn 达来呼布镇), the seat of Ejina Banner.

Bayanhot Bus Station

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

It is a long journey, and not much of interest to see along the way. The roadside scenery ranges from grassland with herds of grazing camels to semi-desert with huge sand dunes in the distance. Unfortunately, the only camels I manage to photograph are in the distance.

Camels on the horizon

We stop for a lunch break at Wuliji (Wūlìjí sūmù 乌力吉苏木) where the sites include a public toilet and a colourful school.

WC with stenciled lady and gentleman signs

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Another colourful school

{BabelStone CC BY-SA 3.0}

Finally, after almost ten hours, we reach Dalaihob. It has been cloudy almost all day, but perhaps our luck is changing because we are bathed in early evening sunshine as we make our way past the unexpected lush greenery of this oasis town in search for a suitable hotel. For some reason that I cannot explain I do not take any photos in Dalaihob. In the evening we are visited by two rather severe policemen who tell us that foreigners are not allowed here without a special tourist permit which we should have arranged beforehand. I apologise, and they waive the fine for being permitless, and issue us with a temporary permit for two days. They are keen that we move on tomorrow after we have visited the Black Water City.


Inner Mongolia

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