By ROGER ALLNUTT
Many travellers to China include Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province and famous for the Terracotta Warrior s as a key part of their itinerary. However there is another province with a similar name Shanxi which lies between Beijing and Xi’an that has many and varied attractions, a number of which are World Heritage listed.
Shanxi Province, which means ‘west of the Taihang Mountain’ lies in the middle reaches of the mighty Yellow River. On a map it resembles a teardrop with the Yellow River forming its western boundary with Shaanxi Province. Most parts are above 1000m above sea level and being in the northern part of China it can get very cold in winter.
Taiyuan, the capital city of the province, is located roughly in the centre with the key tourist attractions radiating out for the city. With over four million inhabitants it is a bustling typically Chinese place with the usual massive residential tower blocks dominating the skyline. The main attraction in Taiyuan is the lovely Jinci Temple.
Taiyuan is also in the centre of a large coal mining area and hence the air quality is often not too good. If you are tired of visiting temples and pagodas in China then a visit to the Chinese Coal Museum is interesting and instructive. An excellent hotel in Taiyuan is Lihua Grand Hotel
South of Taiyuan are two major tourist attractions, the Qiao Family Courtyard House and the ancient city of Pingyao.
The Qiao family were a rich and famous Shanxi merchant family and to demonstrate their wealth built an imposing walled ‘home’ built around a number of courtyards some small and closed in and others open with ponds and bridges. The fittings, furniture, lanterns hangings, vases, sculptures tell of an important dynasty; the family influence continued for five generations before waning in the last century.
The Ancient City of Pingyao (it has a history going back 2800 years) is located within the boundaries of the current modern city of the same name. Now on the UNESCO World Culture Heritage list it is one of the four ancient Chinese cities (another is Xi’an) that have remained largely intact and is an outstanding example of cities in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
The city wall, streets, shops and residences are almost completely preserved in their ancient forms and yet the old city is a ‘living’ place housing around 50,000 people. The aged constructions are in a tight-knit, compact fashion within the city wall which surrounds it – over 6km in length and 6 to metres high. Turrets are placed at regular intervals along the wall which provides an excellent view of the old city, especially the ornate roofs.
As you stroll along the four main intersecting streets you pass temples, museums and gaudy shops – the facades are unchanged – and residents hustling about their business (not many cars are allowed). The temple on the wall above the main south gate is particularly attractive.
There are two buildings with interesting histories. The Ri Sheng Chang Draft Bank was set up in 1823 as a dyestuff shop. With branches throughout other parts of China the founder quickly established a system of deposits and withdrawal s just like modern banks.(Ri Sheng Chang means thriving and prosperous) and this continued until 1932 when other establishments took over. You can see the cashier’s and accountant’s offices as well as the basement ‘safe’.
The Ancient Government Building is where the city officials operated from, especially the civil and criminal courts. At times during the day a short ‘play’ is enacted where an officious bureaucrat dispenses justice after interrogating the prosecutors and defendants. It is a very realistic show.
If you want to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the old city I recommend staying at Yun Jin Cheng Hotel (also known as the Pingyao International Financier Club) which has been a hotel for nearly 300 years but this folk-custom hotel now has all mod cons – it is amazing the superfluous of wi-fi in the past two years throughout China.
If you have time there are many fine spectacles in the southern part of Shanxi with the Hukou Waterfall (the second largest in China) on the Yellow River a major drawcard as the river passes tumultuously through the Qin-Jun Canyon.
In my visit the tour concentrated on the northern half of the province. The distances are quite large but the country is bisected by a number of major roads, usually two lanes in each direction. Toll gates appear at regular intervals and perhaps the tolls are expensive as the highways seemed very empty with mainly buses and large trucks.
The landscape is dry, erosion causing canyon like effects, and I was surprised at the lack of people particularly women and children The Chinese have planted zillions of trees everywhere which presumably is designed to combat CO2 emissions from industrial areas. At one point was passed a section of the inner Great Wall.
One product for which Shanxi is famous is vinegar which the locals claim is the best in China. The main ingredient is sorghum. The locals drink it daily for its health giving properties as well as it being used with noodles.
Between Taiyuan and Datong, the second city of Shanxi, are three major attractions.
Mt Wutai is one of the major Buddhist centres in China where both Green Temples of Han nationality and Yellow Temples of Tibetan people coexist There are five peaks rising to 3058m and 47 temples are scattered around the area and there are many monks and nuns. The temples contain an assorted variety of statues of Buddha, prayer wheels, bells, offerings from devotees, classical Chines architecture, sculpture and painting.
There is a lot of construction underway building new hotels, condominiums, shopping centres, restaurants and cafes to meet the demands of the increasing number of visitors.
At a height of 67.3 m the nine storey Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian county dating from 1056AD is China’s tallest and oldest multiple-floored Buddhist pagoda built entirely of wood with no nails or rivets. It is highly regarded as an outstanding example of Chinese architecture, interior decoration and sculpture. It also leans slightly like the Tower of Pisa and rather unfortunately you are only allowed in the bottom floor.
Not far away precipitous and picturesque Mt Hengshan is one of the five holy mountains of China. Midway up the sheer face is the Xuankong (Overhanging) Monastery with around 40 halls and chambers hanging on the rock face. Steep steps and passageways link the different parts, some of the passages with very little protection from the sheer drop. I was nervous all the time but the view was spectacular looking down on a frozen river in the early winter time.
On the outskirts of Datong the 1500 year old Yungang Grottoes is the largest cluster of grottoes in China and a world- famous treasure house of Buddhist art with over 51,000 sculptures.
Datong which is on the route between Beijing and Xi’an is a city of over 3 million people but I found it depressing when you pass about 50 high rise apartment buildings on the edge of the city that all seem empty or not quite completed. Perhaps the people from the country have stopped moving to the city.
Writer visited Shanxi as a guest of China National Tourism Office in Sydney.