Here are the best things to do in Yinchuan. And you can trust me as I’ve been three times (and counting).

You’re not alone if you’ve never heard of Yinchuan.

It’s the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which is pretty far from, well, everywhere!

But don’t let the far-flung location of this desert city put you off.

On my first trip to Yinchuan, I was surprised to find that there are actually lots of incredible things to see and do. That’s why I’ve been back a few times.

So, let me share the best stuff about my new favorite Chinese city.

1. Explore the Western Xia Imperial Tombs

Visiting Western Xia Imperial Tombs is one of the best things to do in Yinchuan

Anthills, beehives… no matter what you call them, the Western Xia Tombs are incredible. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 西夏王陵 (Xīxià Wánglíng)
  • How to get there: 45 minute drive from downtown

This is the biggest drawcard in Yinchuan. And for good reason.

The Western Xia Tombs are outdoor mausoleum sites where ancient rulers were buried between the 11th and 13th centuries.

From a distance, these awe-inspiring structures look like enormous anthills popping up out of the desert.

What makes the area so special is the tombs are symmetrically arranged along a central axis, with the stunning Helan Mountains as the backdrop.

And the area covers a whopping 19 square miles (50 square kilometers).

tourist at Western Xia Imperial Tombs

I love this place! Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Western Xia Imperial Tombs relics

The site has a long history (there’s English signage to help you understand). Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

There are nine main mausoleums at the site. Mausoleum No. 3 is the biggest and best preserved, and you can get up close to it.

Mausoleum No. 3 is the heart of what was an ancient city (called Yuecheng City), enclosed by four walls which are still visible today.

Li Yuanhao, founder of the kingdom, is buried here.

The area is quite far from the information center, so there are shuttle buses that take you there and back all day.

I arrived at the Western Xia Tombs by 10 am, which was a good time as there was practically no one around.

There’s also an excellent museum at the entrance which you can visit once you’ve seen the tombs.

There are plenty of artefacts and cultural relics (with English descriptions on many of them) as well as photos of the archaeological digs at the site.

I’m not usually big on museums but this one is impressive, and it’s a nice way to finish off your visit.

Western Xia Imperial Tombs Museum

The site’s modern museum has an amazing collection. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Seeing art at Western Xia  Museum is one of the best things to do in Yinchuan

The museum is full of ancient art and relics. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

pricing at Western Xia Imperial Tombs

You’ll need an app to scan the price list to understand what ticket you’re buying. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Including travel time from downtown Yinchuan, allow at least half a day for the tombs and museum.

Also, it can get pretty glary and blustery out there (it’s the desert, after all), so bring clothing for all seasons – sunglasses, hat, scarf, warm jacket…

Western Xia Tombs costs 88 RMB (US$13).

See also: Apps to help you travel around China

2. See the ancient rock art or go hiking in the Helan Mountains

Mt Helan rock art

Mt Helan rock art is popular with tourists. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 贺兰山 (Hèlán Shān)
  • How to get there: 1 hour drive from downtown

This enormous mountain range is about an hour’s drive from Yinchuan.

It’s dry and covered in desert-loving trees and scrub, and rises up from the relative flatness of Yinchuan.

Rock carvings

It’s such an impressive and unusual area that I didn’t mind the fact that the rock drawings themselves are a little underwhelming.

With rain, snow and the elements lashing down on the drawings over many centuries, it’s easy to see why so many of them are hard to decipher.

Mt Helan rock drawings

One of the clearer Helan Shan rock carving drawings. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

I found myself having to use my imagination to understand the petroglyphs (rock carvings).

But if you’re a history buff, you’ll appreciate knowing that nomadic tribes produced over 6,000 engravings in the area between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago.

This predates the Western Xia dynasty, which ran from 1038 to 1227.

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Some of the figures and symbols consist of mysterious masked-like faces. The most famous and well-preserved is the Sun God, which is also one of the oldest petroglyphs in the area.

Although I can’t say I’m a huge fan of rock art, I still enjoyed my time on the mountain. It’s well signposted and for a few extra yuan you can catch a minibus part of the way up.

The gorge that cuts through the area (called Helankou) is pretty spectacular so there are plenty of Instagram-worthy photo opportunities along the way.

Helankou Gorge

Helankou Gorge is stunning. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Mount Helan Yinchuan

Mount Helan rises up from the flatness of Yinchuan. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Mt Helan Rock Art Park costs 70 yuan ($US10) including the minibus.

Suyukou National Forest Park

If you want to keep exploring the Helan Mountains, then make your way to Suyukou Forest Park (by car – there’s no public transport in the area).

I recommend taking the chairlift up the mountain and then walking over the suspension bridge. The views of the valley are bloody amazing.

Then, hike down the mountain if you want some exercise, which is exactly what I did!

Pedestrian suspension bridge in Helan Mountains

Walk across the suspension bridge for incredible views in every direction. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

You could potentially squeeze the Xixia tombs and both the Helan Mountains rock painting and mountain hike in the same day. But it would be a very long day.

Suyukou Forest Park costs 70 yuan (US$10) which includes entry and shuttle bus. The chairlift and suspension bridge walk are optional add-ons.

3. Admire the ancient Drum Tower

Yinchuan Drum Tower

You can’t enter the drum tower but it’s still worth checking out. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 鼓楼 (Gǔlóu)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

This is in the older part of the city.

The budget hotel I’ve stayed at a couple of times (called Shenhua Hotel and highly recommended), is just down the road. Perfect!

Although you can’t enter or climb the Drum Tower, you can take photos from the outside of this Qing Dynasty structure (which is now in the middle of a busy roundabout).

Jade Emperor Pavilion

The nearby Jade Emperor Pavilion looks like the Drum Tower. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

It’s easy to imagine what life would have been like back in the day, with the tower being the main focal point of the city.

I’ve been told there are a few days of the year when you can go inside the tower, but you’ll probably have to do what I did and admire it from afar.

A few minutes down the road is the Jade Emperor Pavilion (Yù Huáng Gé / 玉皇阁). It’s another lovely oriental structure built in the Qing Dynasty.

It too is located in the middle of a busy road, and if you blink, you would think it’s the Drum Tower.

4. Experience the craziness of Shui Dong Gou

For a funny experience, visiting Shui Dong Gou is one of the best things to do in Yinchuan

You could easily mistake the entrance to this crazy place for central America. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 水洞沟 (Shuǐ Dòng Gōu)
  • How to get there: 1 hour drive from downtown

I really don’t know how best to describe Shui Dong Gou.

It’s meant to be an ancient paleolithic site. In fact, the Chinese government rate it as a five-star (or 5A) national tourist attraction.

Very loosely, I’d say it’s an adventure park. There are different ‘lands’ that are connected by all kinds of transport including camels, horse-drawn carriages, boats and sand buggies.

I liked Shui Dong Gou for all the wrong reasons.

It’s a confusing place that’s run-down, broken and dirty. Even the animals look exhausted.

There’s not much English either, so if your Mandarin isn’t too good, things will be even harder for you.

Kissing a fake ostrich at Shui Dong Gou

I kissed an ostrich and I liked it. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Ming Great Wall in Yinchuan

You can walk along the Ming Great Wall. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Shui Dong Gou obstacle course

The barrenness that is Shui Dong Gou. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

There’s no continuity or explanation between the themed lands and what they mean.

For example, after first seeing a live show with dancers, acrobats and fire-breathing warriors, you head to the Ming Great Wall.

(I was confused if this was originally joined to the Great Wall of China. If you know, hit me up in the comments below.)

From the top of the wall, there are views of Yinchuan’s enormous power lines in the distance.

From there, you take a camel or horse ride to the next ‘land’, a decrepit grassland with artificial Mongolian yurts. There’s nothing to do there except walk past and wonder, “What the hell am I doing here?”

See also: Best things to do in Inner Mongolia

This feeling continues as you travel from land to land on various modes of transport.

The final land, which is a rabbit warren of underground military tunnels (I’m skeptical about the authenticity), takes you to a pimped-up tractor that takes you back to the main parking lot.

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

I opted for the all-access pass, which was 180 RMB but reduced to 153 RMB (US$22) due to a special promotion.

If you don’t choose this pass, you have to cough up money in each land, depending on the transport you choose to get from A to B.

You can walk, but the site is 8 km (5 mi) from start to finish. I found that even with the transport included, you end up doing a lot of walking.

Chinese tourists taking photo at Shui Dong Gou

I feel sorry for the ram. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Camel at Shui Dong Gou

Your ticket includes a camel ride. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Deer and livestock at Shui Dong Gou

The weird, the wonderful Shui Dong Gou. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Despite the craziness, dirtiness and confusion, I absolutely loved Shui Dong Gou. But I have an unusual sense of humor and I love kitsch stuff, so maybe this place isn’t for you.

I also imagine it would be very hard to navigate, and work out what the hell is going on, if you don’t have any Mandarin skills.

Luckily, I found a few cool people to practice my Mandarin with!

5. Stroll around Yuehai Park

Yuehai Park

The tranquil city park. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 阅海公园 (Yuèhǎi Gōngyuán)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

If Shui Dong Gou sounds a little bit intense for you, then go for a stroll around Yuehai Park.

This enormous scenic area has a huge lake, plenty of gardens, paved paths, bridges, and pavilions.

It has also some cute rides so it’s a good place for little kids. You can even hire a boat and paddle all the way into the middle of the lake.

yuehai park lake

You can paddle around the lake. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Kids ride at Yuehai Park

I love this funny photo! Taken at Yuehai Park. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

If you visit the park at night, you’ll likely catch some locals dancing or you can see the laser light show.

Entry is free, and there’s plenty of shade if you happen to visit during summer.

See also: Funny Chinese photos

6. Shop and dine on Gulou Pedestrian Street

Gulou Pedestrian Street

The city’s pedestrian street is better at night. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 鼓楼步行街 (Gǔlóu Bùxíngjiē)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

Just across from the Drum Tower is the city’s main commercial strip in the old part of town, called Gulou Pedestrian Street.

There are scores of restaurants, coffee shops, and stores of all sizes along this paved strip. Like most pedestrian streets in China, it’s fairly quiet in the morning and really comes alive at night.

It’s the only place in northwest China I’ve seen which encourages smokers to stand in tiny designated areas, where you can butt your cigarette in a fancy looking receptacle.

Muslim food sign China

The green characters mean it’s a Muslim restaurant. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Yinchuan Muslim food

I tucked into this hearty meal at a Muslim restaurant. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

If you choose to eat somewhere on Gulou Pedestrian Street, you’ll need to go indoors to sit down and eat.

The Chinese aren’t big on alfresco dining, even when the weather is pleasant.

7. Visit one of the city’s mosques

yinchuan mosque

It felt surreal wandering through this mosque. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 清真寺 (Qīngzhēn Sì)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk

I stumbled upon an inner-city mosque thinking it was the city’s most well-known, the Nanguan Mosque (Nánguān Qīngzhēn Sì / 南关清真寺).

But it wasn’t at all. It was another mosque, humming with local Muslims.

I was lucky enough to get in to have a look, despite an argument between the welcoming gatekeeper and a devout senior Muslim.

My understanding is the gatekeeper assured the fervent man that I was Muslim, even though I had a large camera dangling around my neck. Ha!

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

Whether you choose to try and get inside one of Yinchuan’s mosques is up to you. I really didn’t mean to, but I’m glad it happened.

Even if you just wander past one of the city’s mosques, you’ll get to appreciate the richness and diversity of China’s Islamic culture.

8. Climb the Chengtian Temple Pagoda

Chengtian Temple Pagoda

The city’s best pagoda is Chengtiansi Pagoda. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 承天寺 (Chéngtiān Sì)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

Set in tranquil gardens, Chengtian Temple Pagoda was originally built almost a thousand years ago in the Western Xia Dynasty.

However, it’s been rebuilt numerous times since then due to natural disasters and wars.

It’s a lovely, quiet place to sit and read a book, or you can climb to the top of the pagoda for great views over the city.

City view from the top of Chengtian Pagoda Yinchuan

The view from the top is pretty cool. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Just note there are hundreds of extremely steep, wooden steps to get to the top.

So, only climb up if you’re fit and you’ve got legs made of steel! I think the view from the top is worth it though.

It costs 10 yuan (US$1.50) to enter the grounds, or 20 yuan (US$3) for both entry and to climb the pagoda.

The other famous pagoda in Yinchuan City is Haibao Pagoda.

I’ve been there too, but I much prefer Chengtian because it’s prettier and you can’t go up Haibao, you can only view it from afar.

Both pagodas are quiet all year round, so the best time to visit is whenever you have the time!

9. Visit the Ningxia Museum

gilded bronze cow at Ningxia Museum

This huge bronze cow was dug up at the Xixia Tombs. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 宁夏博物馆 (Níngxià Bówùguǎn)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

Ningxia Museum is the provincial museum and it’s free of charge. Yay.

If you’re only in Yinchuan for a day or two, don’t worry if you skip the museum.

Although it has a good collection, the biggest focus is on the Xixia tombs and Xixia culture, and the rock painting work from the Helan Mountains.

So, if your trip already includes a trip to the Western Xia Mausoleums and the Helan Mountains (which it should), then you won’t get much value out of the museum.

But I still managed to spend a few hours here.

10. Visit the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art

modern art installation at MOCA Yinchuan

One of the futuristic installations at MOCA. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 银川当代美术馆 (Yínchuān Dāngdài Měishùguǎn)
  • How to get there: 40 minute drive from downtown

I loved the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art.

Known as MOCA, this curvy, modern building is situated beside the famous Yellow River. It’s actually closer to Yinchuan Airport than it is to downtown.

I got a cab out there. Even the driver had never been out this way!

Considering how conservative modern Chinese society is, I was pleasantly surprised to see some of the contemporary artwork here.

It’s not the biggest museum, but it’s still worth visiting especially if you want to see a different side of China.

11. See a show at Ningxia Grand Theater

Ningxia Grand Theater lit up at night

I love the design of this theater. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

  • Chinese name: 宁夏大剧院 (Níngxià Dà Jùyuàn)
  • How to get there: Taxi or walk as it’s in the downtown area

Ningxia Grand Theater is a huge, lotus-shaped performance venue.

It hosts all kinds of live shows, from Chinese culture dance extravaganzas to Harry Potter light shows.

On my most recent trip to Yinchuan I hadn’t planned on seeing a show, but as the theatre is right next door to the Ningxia Museum, I thought, why not see what’s playing?

That evening’s show was a famous Chinese zither musician named Wang Zhongshan, and I bought tickets.

This ancient Chinese instrument is also called a guzheng, and it’s notoriously hard to play. The virtuoso made it look effortless.

me holding my ticket for guzheng show at Ningxia Theater

I was excited to get a ticket on the day of the show. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

For parts of the show, I shut my eyes and meditated to the beautiful sounds of the instrument.

The ticket I chose was quite expensive by Chinese standards (580 yuan or US$81) but there were cheaper options, i.e. seats further back, if you’re on a budget.

You might want to be a little smarter than me and book tickets in advance.

12. Drink wine at a chateaux

vineyard in Yinchuan with Helan Mountains in background

A ripe vineyard in Yinchuan with Helan Shan in the background. Image supplied by Jiayun on Shutterstock.

  • Chinese name: 酒庄 (Jiǔ Zhuāng)
  • How to get there: 30-60 minute drive from downtown, depending on the one you choose

Each time I’ve been in Yinchuan I’ve been traveling solo, so I must admit I haven’t been to one of the wineries.

I guess I‘m just not that comfortable with getting merry on my own. It’s an experience I’d rather share with others.

But the wineries – or chateaux as they’re called in Yinchuan – are one of the city’s biggest draws.

As an Aussie, I find it both strange and amazing that grapes can grow in such harsh, dry conditions and produce great tasting wine.

There are countless chateaux in the region, and most are within a one-hour drive from the city center.

Make sure your English-speaking tour guide accompanies you so you can understand more about this arid wine region.

The Yinchuan ‘attraction’ to avoid

West China Film Studio

Don’t waste your time here. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

One thing you don’t want to do in Yinchuan is visit West China Film Studio (镇北堡西部影城 or Zhènběibǎo Xībù Yǐngchéng).

This dirty, dusty place is nothing like Universal Studios.

It’s basically a number of movie sets in the desert, which you can interact with. And by ‘interact’, I mean you can stand on the wooden sets and take photos.

There are no rides, shows, events, or anything remotely interesting to do. Just run-down wooden sets.

What made it worse for me is that I didn’t know any of the Chinese movies shot here. So, unless you’re a Chinese movie expert, there’s really no point visiting this dustbowl.

There are plenty of negative reviews on Trip about the Western Film Studios, including this funny one: “It’s dirty and broken everywhere”. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

You’ll spot the film studios on the way to Mount Helan, as it’s located next to the freeway with loads of cars in the parking lot.

Don’t be tempted to stop. But if you are, entry is 80 RMB ($US11.50).

Psst! A quick travel tip

If you want to use Wi-Fi in Yinchuan, you won’t be able to survive without a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.

The Chinese internet is censored and without a VPN you’re not going to be able to access all your favorite sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, Google, all the major news sites, and many more.

You can refer to my quick review of the best China VPN or skip the review and tap on the button below for the one I recommend in China.

Just remember to download the VPN before you arrive as VPN sales are blocked in China.

Yinchuan is a surprisingly awesome tourist city

I really didn’t know what to expect when visiting Yinchuan, Ningxia for the first time.

I came unprepared and yet the city really wowed me. So much so I’ve been back again and again.

The standout attraction is definitely the Western Xia Tombs. You’d be silly to miss it.

But if ancient burial sites aren’t your cup of tea and you like a little crazy, then try Shui Dong Gou.

No matter what you choose to do, you’ll have fun exploring this Chinese city in the desert. Until next time, Yinchuan!

I hope you liked my article about the top things to do in Yinchuan. If northwest China isn’t part of your China travel plans, then check out the Shenzhen travel guide or even the seaside city of Xiamen.

Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Frequently asked questions about Yinchuan

Where is Yinchuan, China?

It’s in northwest China, east of the Gobi Desert and south of Mongolia. It’s the capital of Ningxia.

Which province is Yinchuan in?

It’s in Ningixa Autonomous Region. Technically, it’s not a province – it’s a special kind of area of China which has different governance to other provinces.

What does Yinchuan mean?

It means ‘Silver River’ in English. ‘Yín’ (银) is silver while ‘chuān’ is river (川).

What are the mountains near Yinchuan?

Mount Helan is about 30 km (19 mi) from Yinchuan. Once you leave the center of Yinchuan, you can’t miss Mt Helan as it rises up from the flatness of the city.

What is Yinchuan famous for?

It’s best known for being the home of the Western Xia Dynasty and the Western Xia Mausoleums, as well as being a cultural melting pot (Muslim and Hui ethnic minorities) in an arid part of China.

What’s the pronunciation of Yinchuan?

The first syllable is best pronounced “yin” (like yin and yang) while the second syllable is best pronounced “chwarn” (“ch” like chocolate and “warn” like a prolonged sounding “won”).

Is there a Yinchuan airport?

Yes, but if you’re coming from overseas you’ll likely arrive via one of the major cities like Beijing and connect from there.

Which part of China is Yinchuan in?

It’s in the arid desert area in the central northwest of the country. Yinchuan is the capital city of Ningxia Autonomous Region.