Armchair Traveller: Shanxi Province
Shanxi is to the southwest of Beijing. The name means "West of the Mountains", as it is separated from the Huabei plains by the Taihang mountains. It is often refered to as "Coal Sea" because of its rich coal resources. The province is covered mostly by ranges of hills; the western regions border the Loess Plateau of Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, and exhibit the characteristic rolling hills of yellow earth, heavily eroded by rain and flash floods. The Fen River (Fen He) starts in the North, collecting what little rain runs off the parched earth, and meanders down the central valley to meet the Yellow River (Huang He) in the Southwestern tip of the province. The south of the province, nestling in the bend of the Yellow River is known to be one of the ancient cultural centers of China. About 200 paleolithic and 500 neolithic sites have been unearthed in the region, as well as 500 tombs and other ancient ruins.
Most travellers miss out Shanxi province, as they head from the many sights of the capital in Beijing to the former Tang capital at Xi'an, most noted for the Terracotta warriors of Qinshihuang. However, those who do stop off in Shanxi are rewarded with a unique insight into China and Chinese life rarely seen in the more visited parts of the country. The dirty, industrial atmosphere of the province partially obscures a vast treasure-house of Chinese art and culture. Shanxi boasts 72% of the ancient wooden architectural structures (pre-13th Century) extant in China, and some of the best examples of painted Buddhist scultpures and murals.
The capital city, Taiyuan, is in the centre of Shanxi. Taiyuan was founded in the Western Zhou (1066-771 B.C.). It is one of the main industrial centres in northern central China, with one of the largest steelworks in the country, and is important for chemicals and heavy industry. Vinegar and spirits brewed in this region are famous through China.
Despite a rather drab appearance, there are a number of interesting sights in the centre of the city; the remains of the old city walls can still be seen in a few places, and there is a rapidly-diminishing area of splendid traditional courtyard housing.
The main sites include:
Jinci Temple. Dating back 1,500 years, it is one of the oldest wooden temples in the country, an architectural masterpiece. It is also famous for the elegant female statuettes in the Hall of the Holy Mother. It is 25km south west of the city centre.
There are also a number of temples in the city centre. The face of the city is changing rapidly with the current surge for development, and it is now fast becoming a well-equiped modern city with all the facilities to attract domestic and foreign businesses.
Tianlong Mountain. Just round the corner from Jinci temple, this mountain boasts Buddhist grottoes from the Northern Wei period.
Shuangta Temple. The twin pagodas, symbol of Taiyuan, perch on a hill just to the east of the city.
Xuanzhong Monastery, about 2-3 hours southwest of the city. This is the home of the pure-land sect of Buddhism.
The most well known city in Shanxi, Datong, is in the north of the province, just south of the great wall, and only 8 hours by train from Beijing. It was the capital of Northern Wei dynasty, and although it never regained its capital status, it is the best example of an old Chinese city still standing, a little ahead of Kaifeng in Henan province. The old walls surround the city, and much of the old housing and narrow alleyways remain. In the centre of town is a very fine wooden drum tower.
The prime sights include:
The Yungang Grottoes, a short distance to the west of the city. One of the four main sites of Buddhist carvings, the others are Mogao grottoes (Xinjiang), Maijishan (Gansu) and Longmen Grottoes (Henan).
These were mostly constructed in the Northern Wei, though there are some later additions. They constitute one of the major repositories of Buddhist artwork in China, with 53 caves housing as many as 51,000 sandstone carvings. The largest figure, more than 17 metres high, is portrayed in a pose of reconciliation, and features on the 2 yuan stamp.
Datong, surviving until recently entirely on the coal industry, has also been modernising fast, and a large area of the old housing in town has been raized to make way for wider access roads. It boasts the largest surviving steam locomotive factory in China (quite a sight!).
The Huayan Temple, in the centre of town, was built in the 1038 during the Liao Dynasty, and restored in 1140 during the Jin Dynasty. The Grand Buddha hall is one of the largest wooden Buddhist buildings still standing from the Jin Dynasty, and the interior has Qing frescoes dealing with the life of Sakyamuni. The temple also houses 1,700 volumes of Buddhist sutras.
Closeby there are the following places of interest:
Xuankong Temple, the "Temple in Mid-Air", suspended from a cliff face on Hengshan mountain.
Yingxian pagoda, the oldest wooden tower in China, still withstanding earthquakes after more than 10 centuries.
Yamenguan Pass on the Great Wall.
Wutaishan is the least spoilt of the four mountains in China sacred to Buddhists; the others are Emei Shan (Sichuan), Jiuhua Shan (Anhui) and Putuo shan (Zhejiang?). Situated equidistant between Taiyuan and Datong (about 200 km) there are 34 temples and monasteries lying in the central valley between the main peaks, and a number of other temples on the outer slopes. The town in the valley, Taihuai, forms the focus of religious activities, and contains a number of monasteries. There are few more atmospheric experiences in China than wandering around the town at dawn, with monks chanting their morning prayers, incense smoke billowing from temple doorways, whilst the mountain streams on the hillsides tinkle as the morning mist rises and the first rays of the sun hit the glazed tiles of the temple rooves.
There are numerous temples side-by-side on the hillock in the centre of the town, clearly dominating the valley. There are so many I've forgotten all the names, but they each have distinctive flavours, from the one with the bronze pavilion to the one with the great white stupa, and not forgetting the one with a mechanical Buddha which emerges from a Lotus flower as the monk grinds away on the pedals behind the scenes...
The following are the most impresive temples outside Taihuai:
Longquan Temple, with a magnificent marble archway at the top of a steep and very wide stone stairway. Has a huge stupa engraved with sutras in one courtyard.
Nanshan Temple, with a huge central hall off a small courtyard surrounded by wooden 2-storey dwellings; has an excellent view over the whole valley.
Puhua Temple, in the valley bottom, which has one of the nicest atmospheres; currently off the tourist trail (and better for it) as a bridge is being built outside it.
Pingyao, about 4 hours south of Taiyuan, is another fascinating town. Famous throughout Northern China for production of high quality beef, the town has a long history. The reconstructed walls surrounding the town tower above all other buildings, and provide an excellent vantage point to view the city, centred, like Datong, with a large drum tower. Many of the old streets still remain. Chinese visitors may be more familiar with the area as one in which some of the more decisive battles were fought during liberation.
Shuanglin Si, Twin-Forest Temple, is a short ride outside town. This houses some stunning wooden carving, with walls decorated with statues of arhats floating in an aetherial atmosphere of delicately carved clouds.
To be continued; sections will include Yuncheng, Houma, Linfen, Changzhi, Ruicheng, Jincheng......
For more in this section when IHEP has updated it, try Shanxi Province.
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