From its lofty source on the Tibetan plateau, the famed Yellow River (东北, dōngběi) runs for almost 5500km before emptying into the Yellow Sea, making it China’s second-longest waterway, and the sixth longest in the world. The river’s etymology stems from the vast quantities of loess it carries, a yellow silt which has clogged and confused its course over the years. However, the river’s popular nickname, “China’s Sorrow”, hints at the floods and changes of course that have repeatedly caused devastation – the waterway is often likened to a dragon, a reference not just to its sinuous course, but also to its uncontrollable nature, by turns benign and malevolent. On the flipside, it provides much-needed irrigation to areas otherwise arid and inhospitable, and has created some of China’s most distinctive landscapes, barrelling past colossal sand dunes before sliding along pancake-flat plains scarred with deep, winding crevasses.
Such is the length of the Yellow River that the first and last major cities it hits – Lanzhou and Ji’nan – are actually covered in other sections. In between, the river flows through Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, and has played a vital role in the history, geography and fortunes of each province, but sadly the capricious nature of the river makes river travel impossible in the region.
In Ningxia, a tiny province with a substantial Hui minority, you can witness the river’s mighty waters running between desert sand dunes at the resort of Shapotou. Rarely visited by foreign tourists, Ningxia also offers quiet, attractive cities, while the provincial capital of Yinchuan is a base for fascinating sights such as the mausoleums of the Western Xia, ancient reminders of a long-extinct culture. The river then slides into Inner Mongolia, passing through the super-industrial city of Baotou, jump-off point for the supposed tomb of Genghis Khan. The grasslands surrounding the provincial capital of Hohhot make it possible to catch a glimpse of the Mongols’ ancient and unique way of life – you can sleep in a nomad’s yurt, sample Mongol food and ride a horse across the grasslands, all within half a day’s train journey from Beijing. Further downstream, Shanxi province boasts some great attractions, most notably the Yungang cave temples, and the beautiful holy mountain of Wutai Shan. Dotted around the small towns along the single rail line leading south to the Yellow River plain are quirky temples and villages that seem stuck in the nineteenth century. Shaanxi province is more of the same, yet its wealthy and historically significant capital city, Xi’an, is one of China’s biggest tourist destinations, with as many temples, museums and tombs as the rest of the region put together, and the Terracotta Army deservedly ranking as one of China’s premier sights. The city is also home to a substantial Muslim minority, whose cuisine is well worth sampling. Within easy travelling distance of here, following the Yellow River east, are two more holy mountains, Hua Shan and Song Shan (home of the legendary Shaolin temple), and the city of Luoyang in Henan, with the superb Longmen cave temples and Baima Si temple just outside. Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, is most important as a transport nexus, though just east is the appealing lakeside town of Kaifeng, a small place with little grandeur but a strong local character.
Sites of Neolithic habitation along the river are common, but the first major conurbation appeared around three thousand years ago, heralding the establishment of the Shang dynasty. For the next few millennia, every Chinese dynasty had its capital somewhere in the Yellow River area, and most of the major cities, from Datong in the north, capital of the Northern Wei, to Kaifeng in the east, capital of the Song, have spent some time as the centre of the Chinese universe. With the collapse of imperial China, the area sank into provincialism, and it was not until late in the twentieth century that it again came to prominence. The old capitals have today found new leases of life as industrial and commercial centres, and thus present two sides to the visitor: a rapidly changing, and sometimes harsh, modernity; and a static history, preserved in the interests of tourism. This latter feature contrasts strongly with, for instance, southwestern China, where temples might double as tourist attractions but are also clearly functional places of worship; here, most feel much more like museums – even if they seldom lack grandeur.Read More
The Yellow River
The Yellow River
The Yellow River flows for 5500km through nine provinces, making it one of the world’s mightiest waterways. However, the vast quantity of silt the river carries along its twisted length – 1.6 billion tonnes a year – has confused its course throughout history, and its unpredictable swings have always brought chaos. From 1194 to 1887, there were fifty major Yellow River floods, with three hundred thousand people killed in 1642 alone. A disastrous flood in 1933 was followed in 1937 by another tragedy – this time man-made – when Chiang Kai-shek used the river as a weapon against the advancing Japanese, breaching the dykes to cut the rail line. A delay of a few weeks was gained at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives.
Attempts to enhance the river’s potential for creation rather than destruction began very early, at least by the eighth century BC, when the first irrigation canals were cut. In the fifth century BC, the Zheng Guo Canal irrigation system stretched an impressive 150km; it’s still in use today. But the largest scheme was the building of the 1800km Grand Canal in the sixth century, which connected the Yellow and the Yangzi rivers and was used to carry grain to the north. It was built using locks to control water level, an innovation that did not appear in the West for another four hundred years. The more predictable Yangzi soon became the county’s main highway for food and trade, leading to a decline in the Yellow River area’s wealth.
Dykes, too, have been built since ancient times, and in some eastern sections the river bottom is higher than the surrounding fields, often by as much as 5m. Dyke builders are heroes around the Yellow River, and every Chinese knows the story of Da Yu (Yu the Great), the legendary figure responsible for battling the capricious waters. It is said that he mobilized thousands of people to dredge the riverbed and dig diversionary canals after a terrible flood in 297 BC. The work took thirteen years, and during that period Yu never went home. At work’s end, he sank a bronze ox in the waters, a talisman to tame the flow. A replica of the ox guards the shore of Kunming Lake in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Today, river control continues on a massive scale. To stop flooding, the riverbed is dredged, diversion channels are cut and reservoirs constructed on the river’s tributaries. Land around the river has been forested to help prevent erosion and so keep the river’s silt level down.
Surrounded by colossal sand dunes, the Ningxia resort of Shapotou is probably the most spectacular place from which to view the Yellow River, but for most of its course it meanders across a flat flood plain with a horizon sharp as a knife blade. Two good places to witness this are at the Yellow River Viewing Point in Kaifeng and from the Yellow River Park outside Zhengzhou. To see the river in a more tempestuous mood, take a diversion to Hukou Falls, farther north on the Shaanxi–Shanxi border.