April 30, 2017 – Yinchuan, Ningxia Province
It was a holiday in China, and I hadn’t seen a single other person in more than an hour.
Add the wind blowing across the steppe, the jagged, dusty, empty mountains on the horizon and the lonely, beehive mounds in front of me, and also there, and there, out in the distance. And things were eerie. Things were weird.
It didn’t help the that mounds, they were the places of the dead. Places of dead for nearly a thousand years.
By the early 11th century, the Song Dynasty was crumbling. The Tangut people of western China were about to have their moment in history. In 1038, the leader of these people, people who had migrated to northwest China sometime before the 10th century, named himself emperor of Da Xia, the Xia kingdom, and their leader, Li Yuanhao, demanded the Song court recognize him as an equal.
The history gets convoluted after that, but for 190 years the kingdom that historians would come to know as the Western Xia would rule over hundreds of thousands of kilometers, including the all-important-for-trade Hexi Corridor through Gansu Province into Central Asia, and millions of people. The Western Xia would spread with them a Tibeto-Burman culture and language along with their Buddhist beliefs. In those nearly two centuries, they would build, in an area some 40 kilometers outside of Yinchuan in the foothills of the Helan Shan mountains, nine imperial tombs for their emperors and 250 separate, lesser tombs spread out across 50 square kilometers. They built these structures – walled with gatehouses and sacrificial buildings and stone animals and guardians – not unlike miniature palaces. Things to stand forever as a testament to their glory.
But sometime before 1227, and I know I’m glancing over a lot here, they got on the wrong side of the Mongols. So then in 1227, the Mongols attacked Yinchuan, executed the last of the Western Xia emperors, and completed what some historians have described as the first ever successful genocide, slaughtering nearly ever last Xia citizen in area.
And they burned the tombs in front of me to the ground.
And that’s how they’ve sat, beehive husks on the steppe beneath those empty mountains and that grey sky, swept by the wind and sand, not much different than I found them 800 years later.
Only one tomb has been fully excavated. Two others are in progress. The rest, and they’re out there somewhere, are mostly unexplored. And the complex is huge, stretching out under those mountains. Without the gas-powered carts that carry tourists to and fro, it would take a full day to get around. As it were, the carts don’t go much when you’re the only one there. So I wandered alone among the scrub around the mounds of the dead. And spent a lot of time sitting in carts, waiting to go.