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.Read More
- Xi’an and around
- Luoyang and around
Close to the south bank of the Yellow River, ZHENGZHOU (郑州, zhèngzhōu) lies almost midway between Luoyang to the west and Kaifeng to the east. The walled town that existed here 3500 years ago was probably an early capital of the Shang dynasty, and excavations have revealed bronze foundries, bone-carving workshops and sacrificial altars. Today’s Zhengzhou, however, is an entirely modern city, rebuilt virtually from scratch after heavy bombing in the war against Japan. Despite the resultant dearth of historical sights, and the industrial trappings inevitably springing from a position atop China’s two main rail routes, Zhengzhou is one of the most pleasant large cities in the Chinese interior, its broad, leafy avenues lined with shopping malls and boutiques. Kaifeng and Luoyang are easily accessible, and you can take a bus trip to Song Shan, but decent hotels and restaurants – and one excellent museum – mean Zhengzhou is worth a night’s stay.