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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.
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.
Famed for being gritty, polluted and ugly, DATONG has recently been the subject of one of China’s biggest urban makeovers – though there’s some way to go until the city could be described as attractive. The knobbly remains of the earthen ramparts that once bounded the old city have been lovingly rebuilt, and by the time you read this it should be possible to cycle their full perimeter. Inside the walls, and spreading east and west of a centrally located Ming-dynasty Drum Tower (鼓楼, gŭlóu), you’ll also find a new, rather successfully contrived Qing-style district. The unrestored parts of town exude a rugged atmosphere that those who don’t have to live here might just find appealing, and a good number of small temples and old monuments are hidden away in the backstreets. Despite these definite improvements, though, many visitors merely use the city as a springboard to outlying sights, especially the Yungang Caves and Hanging Temple.
Isolated way out in Shanxi’s western backblocks, Hukou Falls are the Yellow River at its most impressively turbulent. Flowing north, the mighty river’s span approaches 400m at this point, yet it suddenly finds itself forced through a gap only 20m wide – the resultant torrent is predictably fierce, and predictably loud. The falls are regarded by the Chinese as one of their premier beauty spots, though you may question whether reaching them is worth the effort: they’re accessed via Linfen (临纷, línfēn), itself 140km south of Pingyao and still a further 150km-long, 4hr-plus bus-ride from the falls. Linfen’s CITS often runs tours from the south side of the city’s train station plaza, or can recommend where to pick up a tourist minibus.
The tiny town of PINGYAO has become a firm 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 a step back in time. This is one of the most authentic, old towns in China, and it provides travellers with the chance to sleep on traditional Shanxi beds (kang), raised up on platforms, in charismatic old courtyard mansions. Despite the density of modern domestic tourism, 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.
Clinging to the side of a sheer cliff face in a gorge some 80km southwest of Datong, the Hanging Temple is one of the most visually arresting sights in all China. It’s not, however, an attraction for those nervous of heights – literally translating as “Temple Suspended in the Void”, its buildings are anchored by wooden beams set into the rock.
There’s been a temple on this site since the Northern Wei, though the buildings were periodically destroyed by the flooding of the Heng River (now no longer there, thanks to a dam upstream), occasioning the temple to be rebuilt higher and higher each time. Your first glimpse of it will be spectacular enough, but things get a great deal more atmospheric once you’re inside the rickety, claustrophobic structure. Tall, narrow stairs and plank walkways connect the six halls – natural caves and ledges with wooden facades – in which shrines exist to Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, all of whose major figures are represented in nearly eighty statues in the complex, made from bronze, iron and stone.
At the centre of the small town of YINGXIAN (应县, yìngxiàn), 75km south of Datong, the stately Wood Pagoda, built in 1056 in the Liao dynasty, is one of the oldest wooden buildings in China, a masterful piece of structural engineering that looks solid enough to stand here for another millennium – however, it’s not possible to ascend. During a recent renovation, a cache of treasures was found buried underneath the pagoda, including Buddhist sutras printed using woodblocks dating back to the Liao.
The ceilings and walls of the Wood Pagoda’s spacious internal halls are networks of beams held together with huge, intricate wooden brackets, called dougongs, of which there are nearly sixty different kinds. Interlocking, with their ends carved into curves and layered one on top of another, these give the pagoda a burly, muscular appearance, and as structural supports they perform their function brilliantly – the building has survived seven earthquakes.
One of China’s four Buddhist mountains, the five flat peaks of Wutai Shan – the name means “Five-terrace Mountain” – rise around 3000m in the northeastern corner of Shanxi province, near the border with Hebei. Its main base, the village of Taihuai, lies on a backroads route linking Datong and Taiyuan, and it’s possible to access the mountains from either of those cities. 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, many of Wutai Shan’s forty temples have survived the centuries intact and remain functioning, full of resident clergy.
Despite 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 – it has to be said that intense summertime tourism at Wutai Shan can put paid to feelings of remoteness, and might make you regret the effort taken to reach here. Crowds fade away between October and April, though during this period you will have to come prepared for some low temperatures and possible blizzards. Note that all temples are open daily from sunrise to sunset.
There’s some decent hiking in the area south of Taihuai; whatever the time of year, don’t head off into the hills 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.
Just 16km west of Datong, the monumental Yungang Caves, a set of Buddhist grottoes carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, are a must. Built around 400 AD at a time of religious revival, the caves were the first and grandest of the three major Buddhist grottoes, the other two being the Longmen Caves in Luoyang and the Mogao Caves in Gansu. These are the best preserved, but prepare to be disappointed by their surroundings – the atmosphere has for years been blighted by nearby coal mines, and the benefits afforded by the recent addition of parkland have been eroded by a huge and even more recently built shopping mall. However, it’s still well worth the trip.
Construction of the Yungang Caves began in 453 AD, when Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei dynasty, and petered out around 525, after the centre of power moved to Luoyang. The caves were made by first hollowing out a section at the top of the cliff, then digging into the rock, down to the ground and out, leaving two holes, one above the other. As many as forty thousand craftsmen worked on the project, coming from as far as India and Central Asia, and there is much foreign influence in the carvings: Greek motifs (tridents and acanthus leaves), Persian symbols (lions and weapons), and bearded figures, even images of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu, are incorporated among the more common dragons and phoenixes of Chinese origin. The soft, rounded modelling of the sandstone figures – China’s first stone statues – lining the cave interiors has more in common with the terracotta sculptures of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu, begun a few years earlier, than with the more linear features of Luoyang’s later limestone work. In addition, a number of the seated Buddhas have sharp, almost Caucasian, noses.
The caves’ present condition is misleading, as originally the cave entrances would have been covered with wooden facades, and the sculptures would have been faced with plaster and brightly painted; the larger ones are pitted with regular holes, which would once have held wooden supports on which the plaster face was built. Over the centuries, some of the caves have inevitably suffered from weathering, though there seems to have been little vandalism, certainly less than at Luoyang.
Today a 1km-long fragment of the original array survives, arranged in three clusters (east, central and west) and numbered east to west from 1 to 51. The earliest group is caves 16–20, followed by 7, 8, 9 and 10, then 5, 6 and 11 – the last to be completed before the court moved to Luoyang. Then followed 4, 13, 14 and 15, with the caves at the eastern end – 1, 2 and 3 – and cave 21 in the west, carved last.