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The Marvels of Shanxi

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The province of Shanxi covers a broad plateau in northern China. Landlocked and averaging at 1000 meters above sea level, the Yellow River flanks its western border, while its tributaries, the Fen and Qin, feed much of this rain-starved region. Mount Wutai in the northeast is Shanxi’s tallest peak standing at 3058 meters.

Shanxi’s story reaches back into the fog of time. The Spring and Autumn Annuls document the State of Jin, which began in the eleventh century BC, and is remembered symbolically today with the character “晋–Jin” adorning Shanxi number plates, while the regional cuisine is still described as Jin fare.

Predating imperial China, and situated on the northern frontier, Shanxi has repeatedly fallen under the administration of foreign rule or become part of a separatist fiefdom, a dilemma expressed in the ruins of the Ming Great Wall that delineate its northern border with Inner-Mongolia. Of these periods the Northern Wei Dynasty from 386 to 534 and the Liao Dynasty 907-1125 saw Shanxi furnished with some of its finest architecture and sculptures.

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A centrally located place during the introspective Ming and Qing Dynasties, Shanxi flourished as a financial center, developing China’s first modern banking system in the walled city of Pingyao. But in the twentieth-century war and chaos, compounded by environmental degradation left Shanxi a buzzword for malnutrition and hardship. The discovery of coal has kept the economy turning – Shanxi has vast reserves. But it is only in the past decade that a modern transport infrastructure has enabled tourists to return to spruced-up cities.

Shanxi's major historical and cultural sites remain peripheral, located in the remote countryside, as old and tired as the earth that supports them. You’ll need to use the cities as jumping off points, but here are a few gems you must seek out in the arid northern wastes of time-soaked Shanxi.

Zhengguo Temple & Shaunglin Temple

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A 12km bus ride from Pingyao Ancient City delivers travelers to a half-forgotten temple surrounded by corn and maize and backed by a railway line. Amazingly Zhengguo’s Wangfo Hall is said to be one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in China. The temple was built in 963AD. The temple site is an incredibly evocative place to explore, not least for its age, but also because of the Ming-era Dizang Hall, bearing paintings of the King of Hell, as well as the Qing dynasty frescos depicting the Buddha’s life.   

Heading southwest out of Pingyao also leads curious travelers to a historical marvel: The Shuanglin Temple comprises ten halls surrounding three courtyards that are mostly of Ming and Qing vintage, though a temple here dates back to the Northern Wei that rose some thousand years before. However, the real treasure is housed inside the temples, namely 1,600 Tang-Song terracotta and wood sculptures. These amazing and colorful figurines illustrate stories from China’s Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

Hanging Temple & Huang Shan

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After an hour and a half drive through the rocky clay and cornfields southwest of Datong City, you’ll find yourself at one of the most spectacular sights in North China – the Xunakong Si, the “Temple Suspended in the Void” better known to the world simple as the Hanging Temple. Suspended on a sheer cliff face near the da Heng River – it was built higher and higher to escape the flooding that once blighted the region. The first temple was constructed here in 491 though it was last reconstructed in the Qing Dynasty. After purchasing a mandatory ticket, one crosses the Jinxia Gorge to the temple entrance from where you can ascend into the rather claustrophobic temple itself. Situated 75 meters above the ground the temple house shrines dedicated to the three pillars of Chinese culture, namely Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. However, it’s perhaps the soaring views that make this visit so worthwhile.

Beyond the temple, a range of peaks known collectively as Heng Shan constitutes the Beiyue – the sacred Taoist mountains of the North. There are five of these sacred peaks peppered across China. As usual, there’s an unsightly cable car belying the fact that the best way to experience Heng Shan is to hike up it in the footsteps of many notable emperors including Qin Shihuang himself. Hengzong Temple is the principle site of worship here though the path is lined with temples until you arrive and the immensely peaceful, if windswept, summit. 

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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