SHAANXI province is dusty, harsh and unwelcoming, with a climate of extremes: in winter, strong winds bring yellow dust storms, while summer is hot and wet. However, it’s remarkable for the depth and breadth of its history, best exemplifed in the provincial capital, Xi’an: famed for the renowned Terracotta Army to the east, it was used as a dynastic capital over the course of 2000 years. Mysterious terracotta figures aside, there’s other evidence of the city’s former glories, in the shape of the tomb of the great emperor Qin Shi Huang, and a host of nearby temples and museums; it’s a far bigger, busier place than many visitors expect, and perhaps the country’s most cosmopolitan city outside the eastern seaboard.
Shaanxi, however, is more than just Xi’an. If you’ve had enough of the relics of ancient cultures, head east of Xi’an to Hua Shan, a spectacular mountain range which offers superb, easy-to-access hikes.
The rise to power of Empress Wu Zetian is extraordinary. Originally the concubine of Emperor Gao Zong’s father, she emerged from her mourning to win the affections of his son, bear him sons in turn, and eventually marry him. As her husband ailed, her power over the administration grew until she was strong enough, at his death, to usurp the throne. Seven years later she was declared empress in her own right, and ruled until being forced to abdicate in favour of her son shortly before her death in 705 AD. Her reign was notorious for intrigue and bloodshed, but even her critics admit that she chose the right ministers for the job, often solely through merit. The heavy negative historical criticism against her may be solely because she was a woman, as the idea of a female in a position of authority is entirely contrary to Confucian ethics (her title was “Emperor”, there being no female equivalent for so exalted a position).
The five peaks of Hua Shan provide some of the best mountain scenery in China – crowded though their trails may be, they make for thoroughly enjoyable hiking nonetheless. They rise in a series of rugged, occasionally tree-dappled granite crags from the plains 120km east of Xi’an; here you can choose your desired level of energy expenditure, from low (cable car) to medium (a hike up the North Peak), to hard (a terrifying hike along the “Danger Trail”). Though the summits aren’t that high, the gaunt rocky cliffs, twisted pines and rugged slopes certainly look like genuine mountains as they swim in and out of the misty trails.
Hua Shan was originally known as Xiyue (Western Mountain), because this is the westernmost of the five sacred Taoist mountains. It’s always been a popular place for pilgrimage, though these days people puffing up the steep, narrow paths or enjoying the dramatic views from the peaks are more likely to be tourists – or the astonishingly hardy porters who shuttle up and down the mountain, often several times a day, to deliver supplies.
The tale of Emperor Xuan Zong and his concubine Yang Guifei is one of the great Chinese tragic romances, the equivalent to the Western Antony and Cleopatra, and is often depicted in art and drama, most famously in an ode by the great Tang poet Bai Juyi. Xuan Zong took a fancy to Yang Guifei – originally the concubine of his son – when he was over 60, and she was no spring chicken. They fell in love, but his infatuation with her, which led to his neglect of affairs of state, was seen as harmful to the empire by his officials, and in part led to the rebellion of the disgruntled general, An Lushan. As An Lushan and his troops approached the capital, the emperor and his retinue were forced to flee southwest into Sichuan; along the way, his army mutinied and demanded Yang Guifei’s execution.