Ningxia Part 1: Dirt Poor, Technology Rich

Trip 1: Zhangjiashu Village, Ningxia
Early Oct 2007

The province of Ningxia is one of the driest regions in China. Located along the old silk road in the outlying western dry lands, the weather conditions here are extremely harsh. There’s a local saying that goes 早穿棉袄午穿纱,晚上围着火炉吃西瓜 – wear a quilted jacket in the morning, wear silk at noon, and by evening, gather around the stove to eat watermelons. That’s how drastic the weather changes can be out here in the west.

Ningxia is also the home of China’s Hui ethnic minority. The Hui people are Muslims. Therefore, there is a huge Muslim influence on the culture, architecture and culinary practice of Ningxia. Halal restaurants are commonplace in the capital of Yinchuan and lamb is a staple here. If you ever visit Ningxia, lamb is a must, especially the local 手抓羊肉 shouzhua yangrou, baby lamb boiled to tender perfection accompanied with vinegar dipping sauce. Upon learning that we’re going to Ningxia for a second time, my producer and I looked in excitement, “Lamb!”

We were here to rediscover the life of Ma Yan—the 18-year-old author of The Diary of Ma Yan—who brought us back into her old village in the remote and mountainous areas of Ningxia. The village of Zhangjiashu was four hours’ drive away from Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan. It was probably just our luck that it happened to rain in a place that’s dry 90% of the time. The road at the foot of mountain had turned into a 100 meter stretch of marsh due to heavy rains in the last few days. In times of rain or snow, access to the village can be totally cut off. So we had to trudge through a whole stretch of yellow mud and hike up several slopes before we were picked up by motorcycles which took us on a bumpy 20 minutes ride up the mountain.

The landscape was remarkable. I could see vast expanse of parched land along the way, earth that has cracked under the scorching sun and dry winds. “It may look dry, but the recent rain has made it soft. If you step on it, you are going to get sucked in and there’s no way of getting out. Kids have died because of that,” warned our driver.

It didn’t take us too long to discover that the children here are no strangers to the media. In fact, they seem to be a media-savvy bunch. Especially the kids from the village at the bottom of the mountain. They were following us as we walked up. And everytime I touch my camera, the kids around me would suddenly merge into a formation in front of me. I don’t even have to tell them to pose. All I have to do is take my camera out and there’s a pose right in front of me. Great! “1, 2, 3…say qiezi!” (the Chinese equivalent of ‘cheese!’ or rather ‘tomato!’)

It’s always interesting to have cute little village kids surrounding us but these kids here were a wee bit dirty for me to want to hang out with them. All I could remember was, most of them had snot on their faces and were trying to sniff them up and down. There were green stuff trickling down their noses and some had a translucent, glue-like smear across their cheeks. I’d like to play, kids, but we should get some tissues first.

We reached Zhangjiashu at noon and were served lunch at one of Ma Yan’s relative’s house. Almost everyone in the village has the surname Ma, which meant everyone here is related. The houses were made of mud and every family lives in a tiny room which is used as a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and dining room. They cook there, they eat there and the entire family sleeps there.

Cave dwellings or yaodong still exist for some poorer families. “I used to live in a cave dwelling when I first got married,” said Ma Yan’s mother, Bai Juhua. “Very few people live in one of those anymore. Recently, a few of them collapsed because of the rain. Thank goodness nobody was hurt.”

The conditions in the village were poor. Due to its altitude high up in the mountains, it is impossible to dig wells that are deep enough to reach the water table below. Villagers have concrete wells that are used to store rainwater only when it rains. So what happens when there’s no rain? “We have to walk into town to get the water from the well there or buy water from the village below,” said Bai Juhua. My eyes went wide. It’s hard to imagine living in a place where water is such a commodity that unless someone takes a 2-hour walk down the mountain to carry a bucket up, there is nothing to drink. And don’t even start asking questions about showers.

Shower might be a luxury in villages in China. But satellite TV doesn’t seem to be so. So far, I’ve had my share of experiences in remote villages in China. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that, however poor or rural they may be, there are 2 things that these villages will definitely have—TV and mobile phone. They may not have drinking water, no proper toilet, no food…but they will definitely have mobile phones and satellite dishes for their TV. Now that’s a real information society. HBO, anyone?

More pictures on my flickr photo journal

The Story of Ma Yan has been aired on Al Jazeera English channel and can be viewed here

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