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.Read More
- Datong and around
One of China’s four Buddhist mountains, the five flat peaks of WUTAI SHAN (五台山, wŭtái shān) – the name means “Five-terrace Mountain” – rise around 3000m above sea level in the northeastern corner of Shanxi province, near the border with Hebei. The long bus ride here is rewarded with fresh air, superb scenery, some fascinating temple architecture and a spiritual (if not always peaceful) tone.
Though increasingly accessible today, the mountain’s formerly remote location has always given it a degree of protection, and many of Wutai Shan’s forty temples have survived the centuries intact – one reason why the mountains gained World Heritage status in 2009. The monastic village of Taihuai is the focus, sitting in a depression surrounded by the five holy peaks; highlights are its ninth-century revolving bookcase of the Tayuan Si and two ancient temples, the Song-dynasty Foguang and the Tang-dynasty Nanchan. All the temples today are working and full of resident clergy, despite an escalating number of tour groups trudging around them in peak season – though you’ll also see a surprising number of ordinary Chinese people here as pilgrims, thumbing rosaries and prostrating themselves on their knees as they clamber up the temples’ steep staircases.
The hordes of tourists that descend upon Wutai Shan in warmer months sometimes put paid to genuine feelings of remoteness. Crowds die down between October and April, though you will have to come prepared for some low temperatures and possible blizzards. Whatever the time of year, don’t hike off into the hills around Taihuai without some warm, weatherproof gear, food and water, and a torch, even though in good weather the trails here present no special difficulties. Allow plenty of time for hikes, as the paths are hard to find in the dark and even in summer the temperature drops sharply at sundown.
Wutai Shan was an early bastion of Buddhism in China, a religious centre at least since the reign of Emperor Ming Di (58–75 AD). At that time, a visiting Indian monk had a vision in which he met Manjusri (Wenshu), the Buddhist incarnation of Wisdom, who is usually depicted riding a blue lion and carrying a manuscript (to represent a sutra) and a sword to cleave ignorance. By the time of the Northern Wei, Wutai Shan was a prosperous Buddhist centre, important enough to be depicted on a mural at the Dunhuang Caves in Gansu. The mountain reached its height of popularity in the Tang dynasty, when there were more than two hundred temples scattered around its peaks. In the fifteenth century, the founder of the Yellow Hat order, now the dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet, came to the area to preach; Manjusri is particularly important in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism, and Wutai Shan remains an important pilgrimage place for Lamaists.
The tiny town of PINGYAO (平遥, píngyáo) has steadily become an understated travel favourite in recent times, and for good reason – not only does it form a logical stopover point between Beijing and Xi’an, but its wall-bound core – almost entirely filled with traditional eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings – provides something of a step back in time. This is one of the most authentic old towns in China, and provides travellers with the chance to sleep on traditional Shanxi beds (kang) raised up on platforms – in charismatic old courtyard mansions. Things have changed recently thanks to the soft wrecking ball of domestic tourism, but take a few steps away from the restaurants and souvenir stands of the (pedestrianized) main streets, and you’re in another world. Throw in a couple of fine rural temples and some impressive fortified clan villages, all within day-trip distance, and staying overnight becomes a pleasurable necessity, rather than a possibility.
Pingyao reached its zenith in the Ming dynasty, when it was a prosperous banking centre, one of the first in China, and its wealthy residents constructed luxurious mansions, adding city walls to defend them. In the course of the twentieth century, however, the town slid rapidly into provincial obscurity, which kept it largely unmodernized. Inside the town walls, Pingyao’s narrow streets, lined with elegant Qing architecture – no neon, no white tile, no cars – are a revelation, harking back to the town’s nineteenth-century heyday. Few buildings are higher than two storeys; most are small shops much more interesting for their appearance than their wares, with ornate wood-and-painted-glass lanterns hanging outside, and intricate wooden latticework holding paper rather than glass across the windows.
A common sight among the folds and fissures of the dry loess plain of northern Shanxi (and neighbouring Shaanxi) are cave dwellings, a traditional form of housing that’s been in use for nearly two thousand years. Hollowed into the sides of hills terraced for agriculture, they house more than eighty million people, and are eminently practical – cheap, easy to make, naturally insulated and long-lasting. In fact, a number of intact caves in Hejin, on the banks of the Yellow River in the west of the province, are said to date back to the Tang dynasty. Furthermore, in a region where flat land has to be laboriously hacked out of the hillside, caves don’t take up land that could be cultivated.
The facade of the cave is usually a wooden frame on a brick base. Most of the upper part consists of a wooden lattice – designs of which are sometimes very intricate – faced with white paper, which lets in plenty of light, but preserves the occupants’ privacy. Tiled eaves above protect the facade from rain damage. Inside, the single-arched chamber is usually split into a bedroom at the back and a living area in front, furnished with a kang, whose flue leads under the bed and then outside to the terraced field that is the roof – sometimes, the first visible indication of a distant village is a set of smoke columns rising from the crops.
Such is the popularity of cave homes that prosperous cave dwellers often prefer to build themselves a new courtyard and another cave rather than move into a house. Indeed, in the suburbs of towns and cities of northern Shaanxi, new concrete apartment buildings are built in imitation of caves, with three windowless sides and an arched central door. It is not uncommon even to see soil spread over the roofs of these apartments with vegetables grown on top.