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Shanxi - The little jewel of China

all seasons in one day 10 °C

Before I start, I have to mention 山西 (Shanxi) is not to be confused with another major province of China 陕西(Shan’an’xi), both of which have similar sounding names but offering vastly different experiences . Although I went to the desired destination but it was embarrassing to get their names mixed up. Shan'an'xi (陕西) is where X’ian, home of the Terracotta Warriors and that will be another story for another trip. Meantime, let’s focus onSahnXi (山西).

This province, located in the northern part of China, is not a well known tourist hotspot (at least not yet). But there are some jewels in this region including 3x UNESCO World Heritage sites. Its provincial capital Taiyuan, is about 550km and a 6 hours bus ride from Bejjing, For flights, it is connected to most major Chinese cities. Excluding Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau (I’ll leave out the politics), the only international route flying into this city is from Seoul and Singapore (with a stopover in Hainan island).

I discovered this place by accident. I was actually mulling going to X’ian when my friend told me of this “Hanging Monastery”. A search on the web showed some awesome pictures and my mind was made up. However, this destination was so unknown as compared to other parts of China that few major travel agencies marketed it aggressively. And our trip was almost curtailed due to lack of tour participants. In fact the number of passengers flying from Singapore to Taiyuan was so pathetic (I counted about 30 – 50 people) that without a stopover in Hainan to pick-up passengers, the airline would have probably scrapped this route for profitability reasons.

Food
Buns and noodles are a staple diet for people living n the north of China. Few people eat rice so this is one aspect we were not really used to it. Vinegar is also a big part of their diet – it is like us having chill as a supplement to our meals. In fact vinegar is such an integral part of life that part of our tour itinerary includes a factory visit to the vinegar yard. I always love the taste of vinegar with eating fish soup during wedding receptions. This trip plus the factory visit certainly made me re-energize my love for vinegar! I also realize there are a lot of red dates in this area, although our guide did not mention this area is a major production for red dates. Due to its landlocked area with little rainfall and no major rivers, seafood is also not common.

Land
Shanxi province is basically a landlocked dry area with little rainfall. Hence farming is not common in this part of China. The soil is basically hard rock which makes it even more unsuitable for farming. It is is a province with beautiful mountains along the routes which makes you marvel at its beauty. Because of the mountains, you sometimes have to admire at the tunneling skills of the Chinese as they bore through the mountains which to link up two cities by road and make traveeling relatively fuss free and fast. I also noted concrete walls were placed on side of the mountains, probably to prevent landslides from soil erosion. The weather contrast can be big during end winter / early spring, cooling in the morning with temperatures rising during afternoon. I do think the cold is bearable although a lot of people complain they are cold!

Economy
As farming is not common, most people trade. In fact one of the earliest banking industries can be traced to Pinyao county. As mentioned earlier, vinegar is a staple diet of Shanxi people, so it is not surprising to find Shanxi being a major producer for China’s vinegar needs. Beside vinegar, Shanxi is also a major producer for coal in Datong County

Now onto the juicy parts of the tour

Qiao Residence (桥家大院)
First stop of the trip is to Qiao residence. As the name suggests, this is the home of a self made millionaire merchant, Qiao Gui Fa (乔贵发), built in the 18th century but maintained in pristine condition. Basically we saw how today’s CEO’s equivalent ate, slept, relaxed back in those days. Shades of Suzhou’s Wang Xi Garden but minus the garden. This was also the site where various movies chose as set location. Interestingly the Qiao family is a business family (none are court officials, according to family decree) but few of present day descendants are still doing business (most are acadamics and doctors)

Pinyao Old City (平遥古城) (UNESCO WHS)
Next stop was a two hour bus ride to neighbouring Pinyao County, for a visit to Pinyao Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is not the first “Old City” that I have visited in China but this was certainly one that left a deep impression. Unlike Lijjiang Old city, which has been modified for modern needs (I still remember the whole stretch of beer drinking bars and loud music pubs), Pinyao Old City still manages to maintain its old charm. I certainly hope this will be the case for years to come

Pinyao Old Town

Pinyao Old Town

The city is literally surrounded by four walls with a 6km by 6km radius with architecture from the Ming and Qing dynasties built in a tortoise like structure for good fengshui purpose. At present moment it is itself a self sufficient township, with people still residing here. At first look it can be intimidating as we waltzed through side alleys after side alleys on the way to the hotel which caused great directional confusion. But after a while you realize that most visitors will not wander off to the side streets and will just stay on the main streets so this became less of a worry
Perhaps being the off season, the crowds were thin at best which makes wandering through the streets a breeze. Like many other Chinese old towns, shops sold items of all kinds that you can think of. We even had time to go for a foot massage. It was unfortunate that my travelling companions were not keen to explore further otherwise I would have completed my trek from the South wall to the North wall.
The local guide brought us to YaMen, one of the main attractions. If Qiao Residence reflects how a 18th century business lived, this was the equivalent of the residence cum working environment of a court official. In ancient times, due to its economic significance, Pingyao county was governed by a higher ranking court official (五品官) as compared to other counties. The most eye catching items on display must surely be the torture devices on display, which were used to extract convictions (both guilty and innocent) from prisoners. It reminded me of the movie “满清十大酷刑“。 Gross!!! It was also interesting to note that there is a “civil court” used to settle domestic and non-criminal disputes.
Next stop was RiShengChang (日升昌). This was the equivalent of today’s bank and is now reduced to a exhibit as compared to its heyday, with a few figurines behind the teller. There are also a records room and an accountant room. However, due to the ravages of war, this bank no longer exists.
Outside of the city walls lies a vibrant town. Stepping outside, you realised as if as if you have been warped to another dimension. Sadly, I only got to know of it when the bus left the four walls. Sigh. No chance to explore it.

Hong Dong Big Locus Tree(洪洞 大櫆树)
This is a tourist site that commemorates the mass migration periods during the late 1300s to early 1400s in a bid to spread out the over population situation in Shanxi.
As a result of mass migration, it is said that a portion of Chinese ancestral roots can be traced right back to Shanxi province. Hence it is also the site where people pay homage to their ancestors especially during Qing Ming festival.

Hukou Waterfall (壶口瀑布)
This is the second largest waterfall and China located in Linfen city. Actually it doesn’t look like a waterfall in the sense that you do not witness water falling from a height then hitting the base. Instead what you witness is water narrowing through a gorge before violently smashing into a stone pond below. It is great to watch while you marvel at nature’s beauty but I would not put it in the ‘spectacular’ category. Shades of the Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan.

Hukou Waterfall. Watch the firece waterflow

Hukou Waterfall. Watch the firece waterflow

To make money, the tourism authorities created a Dragon Hole (龙洞) to allow curious visitors to view this nature show from the base of the waterfall. We basically had to trek down a small stairway, wrapped our feet to knee level with plastic bag provided then literally walk right into the waterfall a get a closer look from base, It was a definitely a different feel to view the waterfall from another angle and for curious visitors like me, it was refreshing.

Hukou Waterfall. View from the base

Hukou Waterfall. View from the base

The rest of Hukou town looks like a dead city, unfortunately. Other than the waterfall, there are no other attractions. There are some comfortable hotels and shops mainly selling food but not a place to entice tourists to stay for long.

Jin Ancesral Hall (晋祠)
This is an ancient temple structure located in Taiyuan built around the AD 400s and subsequently expended and beautified in subsequent dynasties. If features some ancient Chinese architecture. Do come if you are a building structure buff, especially one interested in ancient Chinese architecture

Mount Wutai (五台山)(UNESCO WHS)
This is one of China four sacred Buddhists Mountains. For the truly devoted, it may be worth staying for 3 days to a week visiting the temples and doing meditation. But for day trip visitors, we only covered the 3 main attractions显通寺 (the biggest temple in Mount wutai), 菩萨顶, 塔院寺.
The biggest memory I have, besides viewing the temples and offering my prayers, is perhaps the 108 steps we took to desent from top of Xian Tong Temple and to see the miracle photograph of a smoke rising like a Buddha when the placed was being bombed during WWII
Along the way to this attraction and subsequent descent toward Hengshan, one gets to enjoy some beautiful mountain scenes. These may not the snow capped like mountains I witnessed en route Huang Long during my Jui Zhai Gou trip but still they were a were beauty to watch.

Hengshan Hanging Monestary (恒山悬空寺)
This was what I had been looking forward to since Day 1. After seeing the pictures on the internet, I knew I had to see it for myself first hand. It certainly did not disappoint.
Sometimes you really have to admire at the skills of to builders to be able to build something right smacked in the middle of the mountain 90m above ground without the use of modern heavy lifting equipment. The structure is made entire of wood of wood with no nails. The monastery encompasses the 3 main schools of thoughts – Taoism, Buddhism and Confucian.
Nowadays the monastery is unoccupied and serves as a tourist attraction. We were fortunate that this is the off season so the place is not crowded so we have plenty of time and space to explore the mid air structure and find hotspots for photos without having to deal with the notorious unruly huge crowds.
Hanging Monastery - Shot from the base. Amazing structure

Hanging Monastery - Shot from the base. Amazing structure

Nine Dragon Screen (九龙壁)
This screen depicts ancient Chinese screen carvings. However, there is nothing much on display other than this. Just a few photo shots and we are off.

Yungang Grottoes (云冈石窟)(UNESCO WHS)
I have to admit I am absolutely guilty of mis-reading this wonderful attraction. The only thing from the travel brochure I remembered is that it is a UNESCO World heritage site. After visiting this attraction I thanked my lucky stars for having a chance to visit this attraction before time runs out and nature’s wrath takes over.
I have to admit I did not know the meaning of “grottoes” (an artificial cavernlike recess or structure) before this. So when I entered this attraction I thought this would be another temple-like attraction. It was when we were brought to the grottoes that our jaws fell gapingly open. These were some of the most magnificent Buddha carvings that I can ever remember. According to records, there are more than 51,000 statues and carvings on display. These were constructed as a way to honour and glorify Buddhism. However, due to the ravages of nature, it is sad to note that some of these magnificent carvings, mostly of sandstone, have already been decimated beyond repair. Some carvings and statues have already lost their saline features due to natural wear and tear while others have been destroyed due to poor protection and preservation works. Restoration is not entirely possible as it would bring further damage to the carvings.

Yungang - Photo taken outside the Grottoes

Yungang - Photo taken outside the Grottoes

The rich carvings can be compared to those found at Angkor Wat but definitely in much more prestine conditions.
It is sad to note that photography is strictly prohibited inside the first few grottoes where some of the best carvings are found. So the only way to truly appreciate this is to make a personal trip down. We were however, allowed to photograph some of the grottoes outside of the first few.
If you only have time to visit only one attraction, this will be it. I would even rank it above my initial favourite, the Xuan Kong Hanging Monastery. And please come before the ravages of nature continues to erode these beauties until such time when everything is destroyed beyond repair and nothing can be seen

Yungang- Beautiful giant Buddha statue

Yungang- Beautiful giant Buddha statue

For more information, do visit this link
http://tour.yungang.org/en/

Shanxi Museum (山西博物馆)
As an added incentive, we were brought to the local museum. Given only 60 minutes, we practically raced through the exhibits like the Amazing Race and did not really had time to enjoy it. It was such a waste as the museum contained some interesting artifacts, from coins to porcelain, paintings, jade and a section devoted to Buddhism. I would really love to go again and spend one whole day there to go through the exhibits slowly

Shanxi Coal Museum
The trip also encompasses a trip to Shanxi coal museum, to understand more of the science and history behind coal production. This was refreshing as I had never visited a coal museum before. This museum trip also included a simulated tram ride inside the coal mine shaft as well as a feel of what is it like to be inside a mine shaft (actually it feels more like a broadwalk than being in the mine shaft ). The trip ended with a display of murals (unrelated to the coal mine theme)

Shopping
Everybody’s favorite pastime. We were brought to Liuxiang shopping district. This is the busiest and most happening place to be for local shopping needs selling everything from bags, shoes clothes and food from shops to bazzars. As expected of China, expect most things to be cheap imitations for items in the bazzar. It is interesting but like most parts of China, the things on sale don’t really suit us.
I rather stick to Bangkok for my shopping fix.

Tour friends
I seldom write about this in my previous entries but I think I will jot them down this time. Joining us or this trip included the Ang family, with their 5 sisters, Richard, husband of one of the sisters, who brought us so much laughter and especially to 88-year old Senior Ang, whose energy and fitness levels will put people half his age to shame.
There is also Shirley, the accountant turned teacher, who shared many of her travelling experiences with me, from Sri Lanka to Europe, the USA and South Africa. How I wish I could have travelled so much like her.
There is also the Koh family and Janet, the devoted Buddhist. And lastly the forgetful Vincent, a lecturer at of the polys.

Thanks to everybody for a wonderful trip

Posted by acerchuan 08:49 Archived in China

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