In sun-soaked valleys, compact fields of corn and apricot trees ripen. Rivers, sluggish with mud, cut through weathered landscapes where villagers live in caves. In remote mountains dusted with snow, the bells of red-roofed temples tinkle. And from cracks in cliff faces, giant stone Buddhas have maintained a millennium of serene smiles.
Welcome to Shanxi Province. For those who have already been to Beijing or Shanghai, this province offers a very different experience of China. A vast plateau some 400 kilometres west of Beijing, Shanxi Province lurks under the shadow of the dusty Gobi Desert and is bisected by the majestic Yellow River. Sand and silt have formed its soft, crumbling landscapes where fields of corn and wheat are framed by arid mountains in a scenic palette of browns and yellows.
Thanks to the fertility of the Yellow River, this was one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation. But Shanxi is also one of China’s powerhouses, providing a quarter of all its coal needs. Most visitors fly into the provincial capital of Taiyuan, an industrial and mining centre, before heading south to nearby Pingyao, one of the most wonderful places in China.
The eighteenth-century Qing Dynasty town is a mere newcomer by Shanxi standards but, as one of China’s first banking centres, is graced with mansions and surrounded by a protective wall. The old town is still virtually intact, its pedestrian-only streets lined with latticed shops and old courtyards where old men in blue caps play cards and slurp tea.
From Taiyuan, visitors also head north, with a first stop likely to be at Jin Temple. This superb Song Dynasty complex is spread over a vast park. Ramble past numerous pavilions and halls. The highlight is the Hall of the Holy Mother, one of the oldest wooden buildings in China. Inside, the female founder of the third-century Jin Dynasty is surrounded by attendants in court dress, painted in lovely pastel shades, and carrying jugs and brooms. Outside, wooden dragons curve around the hall’s pillars like a movie set from The Lord of the Rings.
Two hundred kilometres north of Taiyuan is Wutai, where five peaks rise some 3,000 metres into the fresh air of northeast Shanxi. This is one of China’s four most important Buddhist mountains. By the fourth century, Wutai was a well-known Buddhist centre and eventually had hundreds of active temples. Thanks to its isolation, some 40 buildings have survived. The most spectacular group is at Taihuai, where a fabulous collection of hillside temples is linked by steep staircases and backed by snowy peaks. Presiding over it all, the soaring 50-metre White Stupa is hung with dozens of bells that tinkle prettily across the valley.
Further up the hillside, Xiantong Temple is the most visually stunning, with a Bronze Palace covered in animals, flowers and Buddhas. From here, tourists, pilgrims and monks alike clamber up a steep staircase to Pusading Temple. The 108 steps are said to represent the 108 earthly worries that are cast off as you ascend. From the upper terraces, views over the temple complex’s rooftops and mountains beyond may well suggest nirvana.
Continue into northern Shanxi Province and a spectacular mountain road will bring you from Wutai to the Heng Mountains, southwest of Datong. This is an ancient Taoist centre. Like many emperors past, you can show off your prowess by climbing Xuanwu, at 2,000 metres the highest peak hereabouts, passing fine temples along the way. Most visitors simply visit the region’s famous Hanging Temple, suspended on a cliff face in a narrow and rather sinister valley. The monastery, partly hewn from the rock, houses shrines to all three of China’s main religions: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Rickety and atmospheric, the temple is like something from a kung-fu movie set, but only those with a head for heights will enjoy clambering around its dizzying wooden staircases and corridors.
Most tours of Shanxi end at Datong, an industrial city lurking under a pall of smoke from its vast power stations. A mine tour with the local tourist office, followed by lunch in the miners’ cafeteria, makes an interesting change from admiring ancient China. The city has some good shopping, and its recently built ‘antique’ Huayuan Street has a great row of souvenir and craft shops. This now thoroughly modern city, however, was once the ancient capital of two Chinese dynasties, during a time when some of the country’s most outstanding Buddhist sites were created over centuries of hard work and painstaking artistry.
Small temples and monuments can still be tracked down among the apartment blocks of the gritty industrial suburbs, but the highlight lies 16 kilometres away at Yungang. The grottoes here are the earliest, best preserved and most fabulous of several Buddhist cave sites in China. Construction of the cave temples began in 453 and went on for nearly a hundred years. Carvers came from as far as India and Central Asia for the project: you can trace Greek, Persian and Hindu motifs in the carvings, and some Buddhas have a distinctly non-Chinese appearance. The range and styles of these sculptures are dazzling. Some still retain their plaster casings and brightly coloured paint, while others have been worn away by wind and rain.
There’s a whole kilometre of cliff to explore, but Caves 5 to 13 are certainly the most outstanding. In Cave 5, which seems to glow with a honeyed light, a 17-metre Buddha with a golden face is flanked on either side by two serene attendant Bodhisattvas. Cave 6 still has its wooden temple façade. Inside, a square chamber has been carved out of the rock, leaving a central pillar intricately carved with Buddhas in a swirl of flying angels and strumming musicians. In all, there are upward of 50,000 Buddhas, dragons, phoenixes, maidens, angels and musicians carved into the caves here. You’d need a lifetime of study to understand all the religious allusions, but no matter: this is a feast for the eyes, and the most marvellous of Shanxi Province’s many treasures.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Helen Wong’s Tours. Follow his blog at www.thoughtfultravelwriter.com