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Shanxi, a Land of Splendors

Shanxi province is located in north-central China, neighboring Inner Mongolia to the north, Hebei province to the east, Henan province to the south, and Shaanxi province to the west of the Yellow River. The largest city in Shanxi is Taiyuan, along with Datong. The Taihang Mountains dominate much of the landscape, and they are the location for much of the province’s mining activity. Shanxi has a population of just over 34 million.

As in most of China, getting around this province is easy. You’ll find modern airports in both Taiyuan and Datong, with easy connections to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, among other gateway airports. A new high-speed train runs north and south through the province, with service to Beijing to the northeast and Xi’an to the southwest. Ground transportation is also excellent, with recently constructed highways serving all major cities and attractions.

During the Spring and Autumn periods of Chinese history, the territory was mostly owned by the state of Jin, therefore Shanxi is also known as “Jin.” Shanxi has a rich historic and cultural heritage covering more than 3,000 years. The province has been known as the “Museum of Ancient Chinese Culture,” as well as the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization.”

Shanxi features three UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Yungang Grottoes, Mount Wutai and the Ancient City of Ping Yao. There are also many more attractions for culture and history, including many notable miles of the Great Wall (such as Gugan Pass and Pinguan Pass), the City Wall in Datong, Jingci Temple outside of Taiyuan, and Qiao’s Courtyard near Ping Yao City.

Though not as well known around the world as other Chinese cuisines, the local tastes of Shanxi are as delicious as they are memorable. The locally produced vinegar is very flavorful and a common condiment served at each meal. Dates from Shanxi also are a local delicacy, both as an ingredient in several dishes and as a tasty snack. Shanxi lamb is a favorite, especially enjoyed in popular soups. And within China, Shanxi is known for its famous noodles.

Traveling through Shanxi is a face-to-face encounter with history, as so many notable sites there have been well preserved.

Starting in Datong in the north, the Yungang Grottoes offer a glimpse back to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), dating back over 1,500 years. More than 51,000 statues, carved from stone and carefully placed throughout numerous caves, tell sacred stories of past Buddhist devotion that carry through to beliefs of today.  [yunggang_grottoes1.jpg]

Located about 40 miles south of downtown Datong, you’ll find the fascinating Hanging Monastery (or Hanging Temple). Built in 491, this unusual structure was literally constructed into Mount Hengshan, on the west cliff of Jinxia Gorge. The building is an architectural wonder. Supporting beams were inserted into the rock and serve as the foundation, with the rock wall providing support that has lasted for more than 1,500 years. The monastery also is unique because it has served monks practicing Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, with more than 80 sculptures from each religion appearing together. Best of all, visitors get to walk throughout the monastery, up and down narrow steps and across precipitous balconies. The view is amazing, allowing visitors to appreciate the strategic location with its natural protection from floods, snow and direct sunshine.

Less than an hour’s drive away in Yingxian County, you can see another architectural attraction in the Wooden Pagoda, the oldest and tallest wooden structure in China. Designed and constructed during the Liao Dynasty (1056 AD?), the five-story pagoda is approaching 1,000 years of age. (Did you want to say anything about it being nine stories, with four of them hidden or no?) No nails or metal was used in the construction; the structure features 54 different types of hand-carved wooden brackets. Each story has eight walls for maximum strength. The roof features a lightning rod (to attract lightning strikes and avoid fire damage). Visitors can tour the first floor, which is dominated by a 33-foot-high Sakyamuni statue surrounded by smaller Buddha statues and a vivid mural depicting many historic figures from the Liao Dynasty. Walking around the pagoda to behold its unique design, the breeze will ring the small bells hanging from the octagonal eaves for each story, leaving visitors with a heightened appreciation of the era’s accomplishments in art, science and religion.

Mount Wutai is one of the most sacred sites in Chinese Buddhism. Located in Wutai County, it’s about halfway between Datong and Taiyuan. The attraction area consists of the town, several hotels, the Great White Pagoda, and Tayuan Template, all in a valley that is surrounded by five peaks. The natural scenery – rocky cliffs, clear mountain streams, and majestic green forests – is quite dramatic and inspiring. Walking among the temples, icons and prayer cloths is a profound introduction to Chinese Buddhism for visitors from abroad.

Jinci Temple, just 16 miles southeast of downtown Taiyuan, is a fascinating combination of cultural history and outdoor architectural beauty. Jinci Temple is unusual for both its age and the length of its history, which dates back to the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC to 711 BC). Saint Mother Hall is the oldest structure in the complex and one of the most popular sites for visitors from within China. Along with the Flying Bridge across the Fish Pond, and Offerings Hall, these are very unique examples of a major era in the development of architecture in China. For visitors of either individuals or larger groups, Jinci Temple is an enjoyable morning or afternoon stroll among tranquil natural beauty.

Qiao’s Courtyard (or, the Qiao Family Compound) is located in Qi County, just a 20-minute drive northeast of the Ancient City of Ping Yao. This site is famous among Chinese moviegoers as the setting for the film Raise the Red Lantern. Dating back to 1756 AD (Qing dynasty), the compound includes 313 rooms, six large courtyards and 19 smaller courtyards. The compound is notable as one of the best remaining examples of a wealthy private residence in northern China from this period. It has been converted into a museum and has many period furnishings. Visitors heading to the nearby Ancient City of Ping Yao won’t want to miss a tour of the Qiao Family Compound on the way.

The Ancient City of Ping Yao is an outstanding example of a traditional Han Chinese city from the Ming and Qing dynasties (14th to 20th century). It retains all the Han city features, provides a living museum showing the development of Chinese history, particularly among Chinese merchants, banking and government. Although it is now primarily a tourist attraction, the experience is quite authentic for visitors. The fortified walls of centuries past remain, shops sell traditional souvenirs, many restaurants serve authentic cuisine, and several boutique hotels offer comfortable accommodations. Ping Yao played an important role in the economic development of Shanxi – the first Chinese exchange shop was opened there in the late 17th century, and then over the next hundred years, the city was home to almost all of the large exchange shops in China. As it is now, the Ancient City of Ping Yao is an unforgettable place for exploration. Wandering along the Ancient Ming and Qing Streets and rows of residences, shops and restaurants inside the old town, visitors are fully immersed in an important stage of Chinese history.