From its source in the mountains of Qinghai province, the famed Yellow River flows for over 5,400km before emptying itself into the Yellow Sea. As one might expect from the sixth longest river in the world, it passes a number of jaw-dropping sights. Here are ten of my favourite spots along its meandering course.
1. The upper reaches (Qinghai, Gansu)
You’d have to be pretty dedicated to head to the upper reaches of the Yellow River, which flow through remote territory in mountainous Qinghai Province, but it’s worth the effort. By the time it passes through Lanzhou, a major city in Gansu province, the river has already assumed the yellow colour from which it takes its name – and this is before reaching the Loess Plateau, where it picks up most of its silt.
2. Shapotou (Ningxia)
As the river enters tiny Ningxia Province, it skirts alongside the Tengger Desert. Firing past sand dunes, the mighty river is quite a sight to behold at this point, particularly at the miniature resort of Shapotou, where you’ll be able to go sand-skiing, or fly over the river on a zip line.
3. Bautou (Inner Mongolia)
Inner Mongolia is next on the river’s lengthy course, and you’ll be able to stroll its banks just south of Baotou, a scruffy city famed for its gigantic metal furnaces – and the resultant green (and sometimes purple) sunsets. It’s also home to Wudangzhao, one of China’s most important Lamaist monasteries.
4. Hanging Temple and Yungang Caves (Shanxi)
After Boutou, the Yellow River banks sharply to the south, forming a border between the provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi. Just east of the curve is the city of Datong, which has two major draws on its periphery – the gravity-defying Hanging Temple, which clings precariously onto a cliff; and the UNESCO-listed Yungang Caves, which feature spectacular examples of Buddhist painting dating back as far as the mid-fifth century.
5. Pingyao (Shanxi)
South of Datong, and 150km east of the river, lies Pingyao, a delightful place that’s tiny as far as Chinese cities go. Its quiet, historic core is surrounded by an enchanting Ming-dynasty city wall, and filled with restaurants selling quirky local delicacies.
6. Hukou Waterfalls (Shanxi/Shaanxi)
On the Shanxi-Shaanxi border, the 400m-wide Yellow River finds itself squeezed through a 20m-wide gap. The end result is the Hukou Waterfalls, a truly spectacular sight – and sound.
7. Xi’an and the Terracotta Army (Shaanxi)
Okay, so this pick is 100km west of the river but it’s nevertheless a must-see. Xi’an served as a capital city for no fewer than eleven dynasties between 1000 BC and 1000 AD so naturally the various historical sights in the area could take weeks. Do try and make time to drop by the world-famous Terracotta Army.
8. Longmen Caves (Henan)
The river then banks sharply to the east, sliding into Henan Province as it does so. The first major city you’ll encounter here is Luoyang, a typically huge Chinese city that serves as a jumping-off point for the Longmen Caves, a kilometre-long series of grottoes filled with elaborate Buddhist paintings, some of which date back to the late fifth century.
9. Shaolin Temple (Henan)
Shaolin’s warrior monks have achieved worldwide renown and spawned countless awful movies. While the name may sound almost mythical, there is indeed a Shaolin temple, and it may well have been where kung fu was created. Some come for months to hone their martial fisticuffs, others for a few days to see the beauty of the surrounding Song Shan mountain range.
10. Zhengzhou & Kaifeng (Henan)
The Yellow River is over 3km wide in areas around the cities of Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, which both boast riverfront viewing areas. Kaifeng is the more pleasant of the two; a Song-dynasty capital between 960 and 1127, it retains a pleasantly dignified air, despite the fifty-odd floods that washed away all evidence of its dynastic heyday.
Martin Zatko is the author of the Rough Guide Snapshot to The Yellow River, available on the Kindle, iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch.