The provinces of Shaanxi and Henan are both remarkable for the depth and breadth of their history. The region itself is dusty, harsh and unwelcoming, with a climate of extremes: in winter, strong winds bring yellow dust storms, while summer is hot and officially the rainy season. But, thanks to the Yellow River, this was the cradle of Chinese history, and for millennia the centre of power for a string of dynasties, the remains of whose capital cities are strung out along the southern stretch of the plain.
Of these ancient cities, none is more impressive than thriving Xi’an, now the capital of Shaanxi province and perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in China outside the eastern seaboard. It also retains copious evidence of its former glories – most spectacularly in the tomb guards of the great emperor Qin Shi Huang, the renowned Terracotta Army, but also in a host of temples and museums. The whole region is crowded with buildings that reflect the development of Chinese Buddhism from its earliest days; one of the finest is the Baima Si in Luoyang, a city farther east, thought by the ancient Chinese to be the centre of the universe. The Longmen Caves, just outside the city, are among the most impressive works of art in China, but also rewarding are excursions in the area around, where two holy mountains, Hua Shan and Song Shan, one Buddhist, one Taoist, offer a welcome diversion from the monumentality of the cities. Zhengzhou, farther east, the capital of Henan, has less of interest beyond a good museum but the nearby former Song-dynasty capital of Kaifeng is a pretty and quiet little place, though little remains of its past thanks to its proximity to the treacherous Yellow River. If you’ve had enough of the relics of ancient cultures, get a glimpse of recent history at Yan’an in northern Shaanxi, the isolated base high in the loess plateau to which the Long March led Mao in 1937.