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.