From its lofty source on the Tibetan plateau, the famed Yellow River (黄河, huánghé) runs for almost 5500km before emptying into the Yellow Sea, making it China’s second-longest waterway after the Yangzi, and the sixth longest in the world. The river’s name stems from the vast quantities of loess it carries, a fertile yellow silt which has done much to benefit the region’s agricultural potential over the millennia. However, the river’s popular nickname, “China’s Sorrow”, hints at the regular floods and changes of course that have repeatedly caused devastation – the waterway is often likened to a dragon, a reference not just to its sinuous course, but also to its uncontrollable nature, by turns benign and malevolent. On the flipside, it provides much-needed irrigation to areas otherwise arid and inhospitable, and has created some of China’s most distinctive landscapes, barrelling past colossal sand dunes before sliding along pancake-flat loess plains scarred with deep, winding crevasses.
Between the first and last major cities the Yellow River hits – Lanzhou and Ji’nan; such is the river's length that they are covered here in different sections – it flows through Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Henan, and has played a vital role in the history, geography and fortunes of each province – though sadly its capricious nature makes river travel impossible in the region.
The most famous sight in the Yellow River’s catchment area is actually some distance from the river itself: the city of Xi’an is one of China’s biggest tourist destinations, with as many temples, museums and tombs as the rest of the region put together, and with the Terracotta Army deservedly ranking as one of China’s premier sights. Xi’an is also home to a substantial Muslim minority, whose cuisine is well worth sampling. East of the city, and also within Shaanxi province, is the spectacular Hua Shan range, whose temple-studded slopes offer superb – if occasionally terrifying – hiking opportunities.
Heading northwest into Ningxia, a tiny province with a substantial Hui minority, you can witness the river’s mighty waters running between desert sand dunes at the resort of Shapotou. Still a relatively exotic, tourist-free zone, Ningxia also offers quiet, attractive cities, while the provincial capital of Yinchuan is a base for fascinating sights such as the mausoleums of the Western Xia, ancient reminders of a long-extinct culture. The river then slides into Inner Mongolia, passing through the super-industrial city of Baotou, jump-off point for the supposed tomb of Genghis Khan. The grasslands surrounding the provincial capital of Hohhot make it possible to catch a glimpse of the Mongols’ ancient and unique way of life – you can sleep in a nomad’s yurt, sample Mongol food and ride a horse across the grasslands, all within half a day’s train journey from Beijing.
Further downstream, Shanxi province boasts some great attractions, most notably the Yungang cave temples and Hanging Temple near Datong (itself turning into an ever more fascinating place to stay), and the beautiful holy mountain of Wutai Shan.
Heading downstream again is the province of Henan, whose capital Luoyang is a great jumping-off point for the legendary Shaolin temple, and the superb Longmen cave temples. Henan’s capital, Zhengzhou, is of most importance as a transport nexus, though just east is the appealing lakeside town of Kaifeng, a small place with little grandeur but a strong local character.
Sites of Neolithic habitation along the Yellow River are common, but the first major conurbation appeared around three thousand years ago, heralding the establishment of the Shang dynasty. For the next few millennia, every Chinese dynasty had its capital somewhere in the Yellow River area, and most of the major cities, from Datong in the north, capital of the Northern Wei, to Kaifeng in the east, capital of the Song, have spent some time as the centre of the Chinese universe. With the collapse of imperial China, the area sank into provincialism, and it was not until late in the twentieth century that it again came to prominence. The old capitals have today found new leases of life as industrial and commercial centres, and thus present two sides to the visitor: a rapidly changing, and sometimes harsh, modernity; and a static history, preserved in the interests of tourism. This latter feature contrasts strongly with, for instance, southwestern China, where temples might double as tourist attractions but are also clearly functional places of worship; here, most feel much more like museums – even if they seldom lack grandeur.