Shanxi: A Cultural Gem That You May Not Know

"A few years ago, I watched a documentary on TV, about Pingyao Ancient Town. I was so obsessed with its old charm that I made up my mind to pay a visit someday. Not until this March did I have a chance to see it in person. And this tour gives me far more than just this ancient town."

--Yolin, product specialist at China Odyssey Tours

Shanxi is a province in northern China. Used to be the nation's coal mining center, it is more easily to be linked with coal mines, soot, and wealthy mine owners. Actually, with a long history dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.), Shanxi is home to numerous amazing ancient architectures, religious sites, and unique sceneries. Located on the Loess Plateau and adjacent to Inner Mongolia, this place is different from other Chinese cities. In my eyes, it is like a hidden gem, waiting for explorers who seek to step back to the old time and see ancient China in a different way. 

Our Route: Beijing - Datong - Pingyao - Taiyuan Departure

12-Day Ancient China Exploration with Shaanxi Beijing, Datong, Pingyao, Xi'an, Shanghai
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The First Stop: Datong City

"Clean, quiet, and laid back"

We went to Datong from Beijing by train. Surely taking a flight would save more time, but we decided to go by train for a bit of adventure. Since it was winter, there was not so much to see along the way except some bleak winter fields, small villages and fleeting city views, which did remind me that we were now entering the Loess Plateau!

We arrived at 9:00 pm, a good time to see the glittering Datong. Our guide and driver gave us a warm welcome at the train station and escorted us to the hotel. Frankly speaking, I was a bit concerned about the air quality in Datong. But it turned out to be very clean and friendly. On the first day, I started to love this city.

 
Night view of Datong City, Shanxi
The nice view of Datong city from our hotel room
 
Morning view of Datong City, Shanxi Province
Good morning, Datong!
 

Huayan Temple

This morning, we started our Datong tour with the Huayan Temple, the largest and most well-preserved temple of the Liao Dynasty (907 - 1125 A.D.) and Jin Dynasty (1115- 1234 A.D.), which lies quietly within the Ancient City Walls in the city center. Stepping into the old temple, we seemed to be isolated from the bustling world. It was so quiet that you would like to slow down, listen to the occasionally ringing from the bells hung on the eaves and steep into the moment.

Huayan Temple has two major halls. One is the Upper Temple and the other is the Lower Temple, both of which house huge Buddha statues and excellent clay sculptures. I wish I could show you how beautiful the halls and sculptures are, but it is not allowed to take pictures inside. Guess you have to wait till your tour to Shanxi.

 

Huayang Temple in Datong, Shanxi
The quiet and beautiful Huayan Temple

Buddha hall in Huayang Temple
The Upper Temple - the largest Buddha hall in China.
 

Yungang Grottoes

A 30-40 minutes drive from Datong led us to a World Heritage Site, Yungang Grottoes. Regarded as one of the three best carving sites in China, Yungang Grottoes is truly amazing. It was first built by the Wencheng Emperor in AD 460, the time when Buddhism was thriving. And it took 60 years of continual work to complete. There are 45 caves in total, with 51,000 Buddhist statues, ranging from 2cm to 17m high. The artistic design and excellent carving and painting skills offered us a vivid picture of Buddhist stories and a glimpse of the significance of Buddhism in the 5th century. Though I am not a Buddhist, I felt a burst of reverence from the bottom of my heart when I looked up and found myself under a dome of numerous Buddha statues and delicate bas-reliefs.

 

Buddha statue in Yungang Grottoes
The most representative Buddha statue in Yungang Grottoes
 
 
Yungang Grottoes near Datong
An outside view of the Yungang Grottoes
 
 
Huge Buddha Statue in Yungang Grottoes
Two workers were repairing a huge Buddha statue.
 
 
Painted carving inside Yungang Grottoes
The exquisitely painted carvings inside one of the caves
 
Wooden buildings of Yungang Grottoes
The wooden buildings that were built to protect the grottoes

 

Along the Way from Datong to Pingyao

On the third day, we drove south to the Pingyao Ancient Town, with time to discover the Hanging Temple and Qiao Family's Compound. Thanks to the suggestion from our guide, we went to the Hanging Temple on the old road instead of the new highway, which allowed us to see some small villages, crumbed Great Walls and cave dwellings (a distinctive house in northern China. It is said to be cool in summer and warm in winter) along the way.

 

cave dwellings along the way from Datong to Pingyao, Shanxi
Cave Dwelling
 
The crumbled Great Wall seen along the way from Datong to Pingyao
A distant view of the crumbled Great Wall. Not as stunning as the Great Wall in Beijing, but still a highlight en route.

 

Our guide told us that in the north border of Shanxi, there are more crumbled Great Walls, which contribute a great place for trekking lovers.

 

Hanging Temple

You won't want to miss this architectural miracle on your way to Pingyao. This over 1400 years old temple, as the name implies, was built into a steep cliff, and seemingly there are just some stilts supporting it. How can it survive and stick onto the cliff for such a long time? Well, that is the interesting part of it. Besides this, it is also a sacred temple that enshrines Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, famed for its excellent clay sculptures.

 

Hangling Temple in Datong City, Shanxi Province
The amazing Hanging Temple
 
The stilts and woods of Hanging Temple, Datong
A close look at the stilts and woods

 

Our guide told us to touch one of the stilts. I did and found it swaying! Later I learned that the long stilts are not the supports. It is the woods cutting into the cliff that holds the temple.

Visitors at Hanging Temple, Datong Shanxi
We met some foreign travelers at the Hanging Temple. They were waving hands to their friends, so excited
 
Narrow stairs inside the Hanging Temple
The narrow stairs inside the Hanging Temple

 

Due to its unique position, the corridors and stairs are very narrow and moderate climbing is required. When visiting, don't forget to wear comfortable shoes and go one way up and the other way down as the signals say.

 

Wooden Pagoda

We had a chance to encounter the world's oldest wooden pagoda when we had lunch in Yingxian County. I guess that is the way to tour Shanxi, meeting things with long stories behind along the way. P.s. This wooden pagoda is too old to climb now. We just had a look at it from the outside.

 

Wooden pagoda in Datong
The Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County
 

Qiao Family's Compound

Qiao Family's Compound, known as one of the finest examples of Shanxi's courtyards, rose to fame as the filming location of the film "Raise the Red Lantern" and the TV series "Qiao Family's Compound" and has attracted many historical lovers and movie fans. Indeed, the beautiful courtyards, well-decorated rooms, fantastic carvings, iconic red lanterns, family instructions, etc. make it a must-see in this area.

 

Qiao Family's Compound near Pingyao, Shanxi
A beautiful courtyard with red lanterns
 
Bedroom in Qiao Family's Compound
Things are all well-maintained, perfectly presenting the life of Qiao's family.
 
Backyard of Qiao Family's Compound
A girl dressed like a bride in the TV series "Qiao Family's Compound" in the backyard. Who is she waiting for?

Pingyao Ancient Town

"Elegant, traditional and a place to get back in the past"

As one of the most well-preserved ancient cities in China, Pingyao Ancient Town is famous for its antique buildings of Ming (1368 - 1683 A.D.) and Qing (1636 - 1912 A.D.) Dynasties, city walls, exchange shops and old houses where local people still live a traditional life. On our way to the ancient town, I had been thinking, would it be the same as what I saw and what I thought? When the long small lanes and brick courtyards came into sight, I knew it was what I thought it would be.

 

Ming and Qing Street in Pingyao Ancient Town
The bustling Ming and Qing Street
 

There are many restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops on Ming and Qing Street. You can spend hours or a half day tasting some local specialties or exploring this place on your way. If you prefer to discover the old houses and courtyards, to get a glimpse of local people's life, just walk beyond the main streets and take your time to explore.

 

Old houses in Pingyao Ancient Town
Old houses are everywhere in Pingyao Ancient Town. 
 
Pingyao Beef - a famous local dish
Pingyao Beef - A famous dish
 
Rishengchang Exchange Shop in Pingyao
Rishengchang Exchange Shop, the first bank in China

 

When we were visiting the Rishengchang Exchange Shop, we encountered some lovely pupils, who were practicing how to introduce this attraction to visitors. These little guides were so lovely and they did a great job. Maybe you will see them as well during your visit.

 

Kang-style bed in a courtyard hotel of Pingyao
A Kang-style bed. Kang is built in bricks and can be heated in winter, quite common in north China.
 

Staying overnight in Pingyao is also a unique experience. Because almost every hotel in Pingyao is built in ancient courtyards, you will have a chance to sleep in a Kang-style bed and experience the life of local people.

 

Wang Family's Compound

"May I call it the Forbidden City in Shanxi?"

Near the Pingyao Ancient Town lies the magnificent Wang Family's Compound. This is the residence of a very powerful and wealthy big family. You may think this may be just another Qiao Family's Compound, but it is not. With rich collections and an area of 250,000 sq meters, it offers a much more magnificent picture of Shanxi's courtyards and local culture. We just had a 2-hour visit there. Given more time, I would stay there for a whole day.

 

Scale model of Wang Family's Compound
The mazy compound has a well-knit layout. Don't worry about getting lost.
 
Wang Family's Compound near Pingyao, Shanxi
A bird's eye view of Wang Family's Compound. Hope so much that my camera could take all the views in front of me.
 
Sculptures of Wang Family's Compound
Fantastic sculptures are easy to find at the doors, windows, walls and even the doorsills.
 
Exhibition Hall at Wang Family's Compound
The exhibition hall at Wang Family's Compound, where you will see many valuable antiques.
 
Backyard of Wang Family's Compound
A corner of the garden
 
Wang Family's Compound climbing
Wang Family's Compound is so large and a lot of climbing is required. Do remember to wear comfortable shoes.
 
Cave dwellings beside Wang Family's Compound
Cave Dwellings beside the Wang Family's Compound

All in all, this tour is a memorable journey through Shanxi's historical sites and distinctive cultures. What I saw and what I felt are still vivid in my mind, though my pale words may not be able to fully express them. Shanxi has so much to offer and this tour is too short to discover more attractions such as the time-honored Jinci Temple, Zhangbi Ancient Castle, Mount Wutai, Hukou Waterfall, and many other old villages. Hope that I can pay another visit in the near future and say Hello again to Shanxi.

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