Lying in the middle reaches of the mighty Yellow River between Beijing and Xian is the northern province of Shanxi. Its capital, Taiyuan, is located roughly in the center, and south of Taiyuan are two major tourist attractions: the Qiao Family Courtyard House and the ancient city of Pingyao.
Rich and powerful merchants whose influence spanned five generations before waning in the early 20th century, the Qiao family built an imposing walled "home" around a number of courtyards, some small and closed in and others open with ponds and bridges.
The ancient city of Pingyao is located within the boundaries of the modern city of the same name. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, it is one of the four ancient Chinese cities (another is Xian) that have remained largely intact and is an outstanding example of cities in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
A temple on top of the wall surrounding the ancient city of Pingyao. The wall is over four miles in length and 20 feet high. The ancient city is one of four in China that have remained largely intact. Photo Credit: Roger Allnutt
The streets, shops and residences, compactly configured within the surrounding city wall (over four miles in length and 20 feet high) are almost completely preserved in their ancient forms, and yet the old city is still home to about 50,000 people.
As visitors stroll along the four main streets, they'll pass temples, museums, gaudy shops (the facades are unchanged) and residents hustling about their business.
There are two buildings in Pingyao with particularly interesting histories. The Ri Sheng Chang Draft Bank was set up in 1823 as a dyestuff shop. With branches throughout other parts of China, the founder quickly established a system of deposits and withdrawals just like modern banks; this continued until 1932, when other establishments took over. You can see the cashier's and accountant's offices as well as the basement "safe" (essentially a walled hole, judging from the obstructed view).
The Ancient Government Building is where city officials operated from, especially the civil and criminal courts. At times during the day, a re-enactment depicts an officious bureaucrat dispensing justice after interrogating the prosecutors and defendant; while the defendant's fate is somewhat left to the imagination, the punishment awaiting him is undoubtedly severe.
Visitors seeking to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of the old city should consider a stay at the Yun Jin Cheng Hotel, a hotel for nearly 300 years but boasting all the modern conveniences.
The landscape in the northern part of the province above Taiyuan is dry, erosion causing canyonlike effects. I was surprised at the lack of people, particularly women and children. At one point, we passed a section of the inner Great Wall.
Mount Wutai is one of the major Buddhist centers in China where the green temples of the Han nationality and yellow temples of Tibetan people coexist. There are five peaks rising over 10,000 feet, and 47 temples are scattered around the area.
The temples contain an assorted variety of statues of Buddha, prayer wheels, bells, offerings from devotees, classical Chinese architecture, sculpture and paintings.
At a height of about 200 feet, the nine-story Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian County, dating to 1056, is China's tallest and oldest multiple-floored Buddhist pagoda built entirely of wood, with no nails or rivets. It also leans slightly like the Tower of Pisa; visitors are allowed only on the bottom floor.
Not far away, precipitous and picturesque Hengshan mountain is one of the five holy mountains of China. Midway up the sheer face is the Xuankong Monastery, with about 40 halls and chambers hanging on the rock face. Steep steps and passageways link the different parts, some of the passages with very little protection from the sheer drop.
I was nervous the whole time, but the view was spectacular looking down on a frozen river in the early wintertime.
On the outskirts of Datong, the 1,500-year-old Yungang Grottoes are the largest cluster of grottoes in China and a world-famous treasure house of Buddhist art, with over 51,000 sculptures.