With an average height of 1000m above sea level, Shanxi province is effectively one huge highland plateau. Its name, not to be confused with Shaanxi (home to Xi’an), means “west of the mountains”, though rocky peaks indeed stream happily throughout the provinces, ending abruptly at all borders bar its northeast and southwestern corners. 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 the coal-mining city of Datong lie the Yungang cave temples – one of China’s major Buddhist art sites – and the gravity-defying Hanging Temple. To the south lies Shanxi’s major mountain drawcard: the beautiful, if seasonally inaccessible, Wutai Shan range. South again, past the uninteresting provincial capital, Taiyuan, is 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.