Inspection Trip to Datong, Pingyao and Taiyuan
On December 14-19, David, Sabrina and I went on an inspection trip to Shanxi Province in North China, mainly visiting Datong, Pingyao and Taiyuan. This travel story is about the sites we visited in Shanxi.
Below is our tour itinerary:
Dec. 14 Guilin-Beijing-Datong: Take early morning flight (CZ3281, 09:00-11:45) from Guilin to Beijing, then take train (K615, 15:40-21:45) from Beijing West Railway Station to Datong City.
Dec. 15 Datong: Visit Yungang Grottoes in the morning, in the afternoon, Nine-Dragon Screen, Huayan Temple, Shanhua Temple, and ancient city wall.
Dec. 16 Datong-Pingyao: Visit Hanging Monastery. After lunch, drive to Yingxian County to visit Yingxian Wooden Pagoda, Yanmenguan Great Wall, Guangwu ancient village, then drive on to Pingyao ancient town.
Dec. 17 Pingyao: WangFamily Mansion, Zhangbi ancient castle, then drive back to and visit Pingyao ancient town.
Dec. 18 Pingyao-Taiyuan: Qiao Family Courtyard, Chang Family Mansion. Drive to Taiyuan and visit Jinci.
Dec. 19 Taiyuan-Guilin: Flight JD5220 (13:55-16:35)
Shanxi Province is famous for its abundant coal mines and rich historical relics. Our local tour guide told us that more than half of China’s national-level protected historical relics are located in Shanxi. He also told us that if you look for underground ancient relics, go to Shaanxi Province (such as Terracotta Warriors and Horses, Maoling Mausoleum), while for on-the-ground ancient relics, go to Shanxi Province.
Because Shanxi Province is famous for coal mines, we all thought air pollution would be terrible there. But it turned out ok. Datong City has the best air quality in Shanxi, but the air quality in Taiyuan is serious. It is suggested to wear a mask when you travel to north China in winter to keep away dust and protect your nose
All the sites we visited are great, but I think the highlights of the trip are Yungang Grottoes, Wang Family Mansion, Hanging Monastery, Pingyao ancient town, Zhangbi ancient castle. If you plan to visit Shanxi, these are must-see sites. There are also some tips I wrote at the end of this travel story which hopefully can be of use for your trip.
It is located about 20 km east of the city, about half an hour drive by car. If you plan to take public bus, bus no. 3-1, 3-2, 10 and 12 can take you there, and the fare is 1 yuan per person.
Yuangang Grottoes is one of the four most important ancient grottoes in China, and also the largest one. The Buddhist grottoes were carved out on the mountain during the 5th to the 6th century, stretching for about 1 kilometer long, all are delicate, lifelike and precious. Seeing those statues, big or small, grey or colorful, we felt that the ancient Chinese people are so intelligent and devotional. Such precious masterpieces were indeed made out of utmost respect and devotion to their faith, Buddhism. For photography buffs, bring wide-angle camera. The only thing you will worry about is how to capture the beauty and magnificence into pictures JNo wonder Yungang Grottoes was listed as a World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO.
We drove for about one hour from Datong city to get to the Hanging Monastery. When we actually saw it, we all marveled at how smart and brave ancient people were to build such as monastery that hangs on the mountain side! The monastery is the only one that enshrines Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism within one monastery. Because in ancient times, the Hanging Monastery was relatively remote and it served as place where travelers who passed here can have something to eat and take a rest. Because of the different religions that different people believed in, they were reluctant to get into the place which did not worship their religion. So the Hanging Monastery enshrined three major Chinese religions so that travelers of all religions can stay here.
The architecture is amazing and it really hangs up on the mountain side, about 50 meters above the ground! Although what we can see today that the monastery seems to be propped up by several long sticks, the sticks weren’t there for a long time when the monastery was built. They are actually movable and can even be taken away. So why those sticks were added there? Our tour guide told us that it is because when people saw that there was nothing holding up the monastery on the mountainside, they were afraid that it would fall. So the sticks were added to make people feel that it is safe. But it is actually very safe, even without the sticks.
Climbing up the monastery is not for the faint of heart. The stairs are narrow and we felt hanging up in the mid-air. With the gust blowing beside our ears, it’s had to imagine how ancient people dared to build such a building on the mountain side.
Wang Family Mansion
It is located about 35 kilometers from Pingyao ancient town. 80,000 square meters including 231 courtyards and 2078 rooms are open to the public today, however, its total area is 250,000 square meters! You can imagine how big and prosperous the Wang Family was back then. The Wang Family Mansion was built on the big mountain, and connected by a big bridge. Outside the mansion we also saw some cave dwellings, which is a traditional folk house in north China.
From its building and decoration reflected the sense of strict hierarchy back then. And the carvings and statues all imply lots of meanings and stories. We marveled at how ancient people thought so much and used every opportunity to reflect their thinking, hope, and view of life in their daily life and in the form of art as well. For example, there is a stone statue on the handrail in one of the courtyards for children. A carp and a “dragon gate” were carved on the stone, indicating the family’s wish for their offspring can succeed in the civil service examination and endeavor to make a success, just like a carp leaping into the dragon’s gate (In ancient times, “carp leaping into the dragon gate” was used to indicate promotion and success).
Pingyao Ancient Town
90 kilometers or about 2 hours drive south of the capital city of Taiyuan is Pingyao ancient town, the best preserved ancient town in China, and also a World Heritage Site enrolled by the UNESCO.
It has a long history of about 2700 years, the square ancient town is enclosed by a 6000-meter-long ancient wall. Inside the town there are many ancient buildings, folk houses that had underwent a long history. Now some of them have been converted into restaurants, bars or hotels. Some of China’s very famous scholars, officials, generals and artists come from Pingyao.
Because we didn’t have much time, we only visited two sites and strolled for a while inside the ancient town. What a pity. If Pingyao ancient town is in your tour program, my suggestion is that you can spend two days there if you enjoy the ancient but also bustle feel. In some bars you can relax, in some ancient buildings you can know about the history and its development, on the narrow or wide streets you can see the local folk life, in some shops you can buy souvenirs, handicrafts and snacks, and even watch the producing process of the local ancient handicrafts. Interesting, huh?
The two sites we visited are Xianya (town government office) and Rishengchang Draft Bank. Xianya is the largest and best preserved of its kind in China. There we learned about how ancient officials work and live, and also got to see the ancient prison and instruments of punishment, very eye-opening. Rishengchang Draft Bank is the first bank in China, and it best presents the culture of ancient Shanxi commerce and merchants. We learned about how it began, developed and waned through a history of 100 years, though war and national turbulence, and established the first but very mature banking and management system that even today’s management scientists praise and admire.
Zhangbi Ancient Castle
Zhangbi Ancient Castle is not a very famous site; none of us thought it would be so nice. Zhangbi Ancient Castle is located in Zhangbi Village, about 1.5 hours drive south of Pingyao. It is gaining more and more attention in recent years, due to its uniqueness – its underground tunnels. The ancient castle was built according to ancient Chinese astrology, and its purpose was mainly to hoard up weapons and some soldiers as well. Once we stepped inside the underground tunnel, we were amazed at how cleverly and scientifically they were constructed.
It is separated into three complex and connected layers. They go from high to low for the convenience of water flow if it ever comes in. Inside there are vaults for soldiers, the general, prisoners, and there are also vaults that served for purposes of attack, passing messages, and fleeing. All things were considered carefully when the tunnels were built. How clever are the ancient people! When we stepped out of the tunnels, a magnificent view of mountains greeted in front of us. We went down to the mountain foot, there is the Zhangbi Village. At the village, there are lots of ancient folk houses, and historical relics. Villagers are busy on their daily chores.
1. Weather is dry, windy and a bit dusty, wear a mask to protect your nose when traveling in autumn and winter.
2. Try local food, as much as you can! Our tour guide told us that even the same food, if they are made in different places, their taste and flavor differ, such as Yingxian Liangfen (bean jelly), noodles, dumplings, and many other dishes. We enjoyed so much there.
3. When in Pingyao, bring your admission ticket along with you, because the ticket will be checked if you want to visit the sites within Pingyao ancient town.
4. Because the sites in Shanxi Province are mainly historical and cultural, it is important to have a knowledgeable guide who can tell the history and stories behind them. China Highlights offers quality China tours. Send tour inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org to get quick and professional replies.
See Inspection Trip to Datong, Pingyao and Taiyuan (Part 2) at http://www.chinahighlights.com/community/user/35264/story-detail/info-330.htm