Shanxi province (陕西, shănxī), with an average height of 1000m above sea level, is one huge mountain plateau. Strategically important, bounded to the north by the Great Wall and to the south by the Yellow River, it was for centuries a bastion territory against the northern tribes. Today, its significance is economic: this is China’s most coal-rich province, with 500 million tons mined here annually, a quarter of the national supply. Around the two key towns, Datong and the capital Taiyuan, open-cast mining has obliterated large parts of the countryside, and over a million people had to be recently rehoused due to land subsidence in the region.
Physically, Shanxi is dominated by the proximity of the Gobi Desert, and wind and water have shifted sand, dust and silt right across the province. The land is farmed, as it has been for millennia, by slicing the hills into steps, creating a plain of ribbed hillocks that look like the realization of a cubist painting. The dwellings in this terrain often have mud walls, or are simply caves cut into vertical embankments, seemingly a part of the strange landscape. Great tracts of this land, though, are untillable, due to soil erosion caused by tree felling, and the paucity of rainfall, which has left much of the province fearsomely barren, an endless range of dusty hills cracked by fissures. Efforts are now being made to arrest erosion and the advance of the desert, including a huge tree-planting campaign. Sometimes, you’ll even see wandering dunes held in place by immense nets of woven straw.
While Shanxi’s cities are generally functional and laminated in coal dust, once you get beyond them – sometimes not even very far – things improve dramatically. Tourism staff in the province call it a “museum above the ground”, a reference to the many unrestored but still intact ancient buildings that dot the region, some from dynasties almost unrepresented elsewhere in China. Just outside Datong, the Yungang cave temples are among China’s major Buddhist art sites, easily taken in en route between Beijing and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Not quite as accessible, Wutai Shan is a holy mountain on the northeastern border with Hebei, with an unusually devout atmosphere and beautiful alpine scenery. Farther south, all within a bus ride of the towns spread along the rail line between Taiyuan and Xi’an, are a host of little places worth a detour, the highest profile of which is Pingyao, an old walled town preserved entirely from its Qing-dynasty heyday as a banking centre. Southwest of here and surprisingly time-consuming to reach, the Yellow River presents its fiercest aspect at Hukou Falls, as its chocolate-coloured waters explode out of a short, tight gorge.