Kingdom of the Dead

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.


Yep. 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.


Things of glory. Forever.

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.






April 30 – Yinchuan, Ningxia Province

The music they play is never the same – at least not in my experience – but it’s always horrible. It skitters across your sleeping consciousness like a shard of shattered glass on a freshly finished wood floor, cutting little, ruinous scratches as it goes. And then everything, no matter how little the scratches, is ruined, and you’re back on the stinking, rocking bunk as the 6 a.m. light sneaks through the window shades, outmatched the by too-bright lights that are already on throughout the cabin.

It was a special horror though, arriving in Yinchuan (银川) capital of China’s smallest province, Ningxia (宁夏), a special minority province, homeland of China’s Muslim minority group, the Hui, which was created to include all Muslims anywhere in China, no matter how culturally or geographically different. It was my own fault, really. Somehow, I’d forgotten to buy anything to drink before I boarded the train – which, at the time of boarding having sat in the sun for hours, couldn’t have been less than 95 degrees. I nodded off, sweating, in my bunk. And when I woke up and hour after the train departed and the air conditioning had finally caught up to speed, I was parched. And screwed.

I wandered the length of the train, up and down, looking for a dining car. Nope. Then I wandered the length of the train, up and down, looking for the left-out water bottle of some sleeping rube. No, I’m not proud of it, but can you blame a starving child who steals an apple. But still, nope, nothing. Then I did something I’m even less proud of. At least it was victimless. I fished a bottle out of the bathroom trashcan, cleaned a smattering of discarded green tea leaves off the top – screwed shut, thank god – and washed it off with the non-potable cold water. I knew it wasn’t going to count for much when I put that jellyfish-thin bottle underneath the only water available on the train – the scalding hot stuff people use to make tea – but I was out of options.

I stood at the tap handle and tried to decide which was worse: trying to sleep through the thirst I had a’going or drinking melted plastic. The former, I decided, was much, much worse. So I tried to hold the bottle under the tap – the tap I’d found where no one would see what I was doing. Exactly what the sign above it told me would happen, happened. I burned my hand, then nearly poured boiled water all over my crotch.

I went back to my bunk. I was starting to feel crazy and starting to act it, too, prowling back and forth muttering to myself. One of the train staff asked me what I was doing and where my bunk was. I mumbled something and pointed and I think he saw the look in my eyes so he nodded and sped away.

Then I saw my savior: A metal pitcher designed for hot water. I could fill it up and let it cool. It was going to be OK. I picked up the pitcher. It was, in fact, too well designed for hot water. Vacuum sealed. Still screwed. Whatever, worth a try. I filled it up. I didn’t burn anything. I let it sit.

The train left at 8 that night. By then, by the time I’d put the steaming pitcher at my feet under a miniature table to hide it from the train staff, to hide my shame, it was nearly 11:30. The train was scheduled to arrive at 6:30 the next morning, and I knew I was going to need my sleep. But man, I needed a drink of that water.

I let it sit for an hour, then tried to drink out of the pitcher. As I blew, the steam burned my eyes, but I couldn’t care anymore. I poured it on my lips, yelped, poured the rest of that swig on my thighs, and then some on the floor.

I knew then, as I scrubbed the wet spot with some used tissues – I was out of those as well – that I had only one choice left.

I poured the water in my plastic bottle and watched it as it crumpled beneath the heat. It burned through the plastic shell. I thought I could smell it burning. I waited five minutes, and drank the whole thing.

I was the best bottle of water I’ve ever drank. I got to sleep about 2:30.

When that music skittered across my brain four hours later, I could swear I could still feel the plastic coating my teeth.