Discovering China’s Shanxi Province

Xuankong (Overhanging Monastery) in Shanxi Province, China

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 1,000 m (3,281 feet) above sea level and being in the northern part of China it can get very cold in winter.

Taiyuan, the capital of the province, is located roughly in the center with the key tourist attractions radiating out of the city. With over 4 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 center 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 (pictured, left) and the ancient city of Pingyao.

The Qiao family were a rich and famous Shanxi merchant family who to demonstrate their wealth built an imposing walled “home” around a number of courtyards, some small and closed in and others open with ponds and bridges. The fittings, furniture, hanging lanterns, vases and 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 2,800 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 – close to 4 miles in length and 20 feet high. Turrets are placed at regular intervals along the wall which provides an excellent view of the old city, especially the ornate roofs.(Pictured, right: temple on top of wall at Pingyao Ancient City)

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 withdrawals 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 during which 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. It has been a hotel for nearly 300 years but this folk-custom hotel now has all mod cons – it is amazing how Wi-Fi has spread throughout China in the past two years.

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, with 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 using it to season noodles.

Between Taiyuan and Datong, the second city of Shanxi, are three major attractions.

Mt Wutai is one of the major Buddhist centers in China where both Green Temples of Han nationality and Yellow Temples of Tibetan people coexist. There are five peaks rising to 10,033 feet and 47 temples are scattered around the area so 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 centers, restaurants and cafes to meet the demands of the increasing number of visitors.

At a height of 220 feet, the nine story Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian county (pictured, left) 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 Mount 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.
Xuankong (Overhanging Monatery)

On the outskirts of Datong the 1,500-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 to 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.

For more information on Shanxi check or

Roger Allnutt visited Shanxi as a guest of China National Tourism Office in Sydney.

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