Explore four of China’s historical cities, and experience the timeless civilization of China: Beijing, where the Forbidden City’s ancient palatial complex provides an insight into imperial China; Datong, where you will be amazed by the Hanging Temple and Yungang Grottoes; Pingyao, one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world, retaining its city layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368–1911); and Xi’an, within which is located the world-famous Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
There are three trains from Beijing to Pingyao, so you can choose the one that works best with your schedule and travel plans.
All are ordinary trains that travel much slower than high-speed trains. Meals, snacks, and drinks as well as magazines and newspapers are available to buy on the train.
Travelers can choose between seat cars or sleeper cars on the trains. In the seat cars, 2 or 3 passengers share a long seat. Pairs of long seats are designed facing one another, which is convenient for families, friends or even strangers to visit with each other. There is a small table for each pair of long seats to put food and drinks on, play cards, write letters or the like.
The sleeper cars have three stacked beds, with ladders to get to the upper beds. The beds are not very large, but are big enough for most adults. The crew will call each passenger before the train arrives at their destination, so you don’t have to worry about sleeping through your stop.
There are five main cities along this route: Beijing, Datong, Xinzhou, Taiyuan and Pingyao. Sightseeing highlights in each of these cities are described below. Each train has many stops, including some or all of these cities as noted.
The K609 is the fastest train between the two cities, making the entire trip in 9 hours and 37 minutes. It departs Beijing at midnight and arrives in Pingyao at 9:39 a.m., so you can start a new adventure after a night of sleeping on the train. You can take this train if you want to get off and tour around Taiyuan before continuing on to Pingyao.
The K603 also runs during the night, leaving Beijing a little earlier than K609 and arriving in Pingyao at 5:18 a.m. This train has stops in Xinzhou and Taiyuan.
If you want to sightsee in Xinzhou, Taiyuan and Datong, you’ll need to take the 2603 train that stops in all three cities. The complete trip from Beijing to Pingyao takes the longest on this train, 14 hours and 23 minutes, because it has the most stops along its route.
Whichever train you choose to take, you can enjoy the scenery along the way and visit with local passengers who may give some valuable tips to tourists who want to see less known sights.
Beijing, the capital of China, is a perfect window for tourists to learn about China. There are so many options of things to do that it is advisable to do some research and plan what you want to see before starting your trip.
Visitors will see many different forms of Chinese culture in Beijing. The architecture is a good example. Within the city, you can visit the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the Yonghe Lama Temple, which are all great reflections of the culture of the time in which they were built.
The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City was once the imperial palace. Along with the original complex of buildings and large gardens, a museum houses a collection of various articles owned by the royal families. Bilingual guides and self-guided audio tours are available to help visitors learn about the history and secrets of the ancient days in the Forbidden City.
The royal families lived in the Summer Palace during the summer months. There is a big lake and a forest-covered hill within its walls. Wandering around the lake and hiking the hill are popular activities, as well as paddling a boat in the lake.
Apart from the grand residences, the local-style dwellings are also worth seeing. Local residents used to live in Hutongs. There are many famous Hutongs in Beijing, full of old memories of the city. Touring the Hutongs by tricycle is a popular choice for those who are interested in folk life.
Beijing Roast Duck and the Noodles with Soybean Paste
The local cuisine is another example of Beijing’s unique culture. Beijing toasted duck is a specialty not to be missed. It is toasted over a fire lit with fruit wood and the duck meat absorbs the fresh smell of the wood. Look for the famous traditional Beijing toasted duck meal at restaurants such as Quanjude, Bianyifang and Yulin.
Another typical Beijing food is noodles with soybean paste. Most Beijing locals are good at making this dish. The secret is in the paste, and each family recipe may have its own special flavor. The best places to find the most unique versions of this popular dish are small, family-run restaurants.
A great place to learn more about Beijing and Chinese culture are the public parks. Local elders enjoy singing, dancing and other kinds of entertainment in the park, and they are eager to teach visitors Taiji Kongfu, Kongzhu or other traditional staffs. Many are also willing to talk about the city’s history with visitors. Some good options are Jingshan Park, Yuyuantan Park and Chaoyang Park.
Datong is the second largest city in Shanxi Province. It is famous for its rich coal mineral resources and abundant historic relics. The Datong people are so proud of the ancient city that they once tried to tear down the modern buildings and streets so they could reconstruct them in ancient styles.
The old city of Datong has a distinct charm. During the Spring Festival, families make a coal mountain in front of their gates and light it at midnight to usher in the New Year. The practice is called Shengwanghuo, which means making fires to bring good luck in the coming year. Families then might gather around the fire, playing games or other activities. The brighter the fire, the luckier the family would become.
Apart from such traditional activities, visitors can enjoy seeing the many famous attractions nearby. Many are located some distance away from the central part of Datong, so visitors should plan their schedule before setting out.
The Ancient city wall in Datong
Yungang Grottoes is the most well-known attraction near Datong. Located 17 km west of downtown, Yungang Grottoes spans about 1,000 meters along the Wuzhou Mountain. Dating back more than 1,500 years, Yungang Grottoes has the largest number of grottoes in China. There are 45 main caves and more than 250 niches holding Buddha statues cover the mountains like honeycombs. The grottoes have great examples of different art forms, ranging from painting, music, carving and religious art.
Yungang Grottoes in Datong
Located 62 km from the central part of Datong is Hengshan Mountain, one of the Five Great Mountains of China. It is one of the five tallest peaks in China proper and one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism. As a gorge between central and northern China, it was also very important militarily. The old battlefields – Daomaguan Barrier, Pingxingguan Barrier and Yanmenguan Barrier – are famous attractions today, where visitors can feel the tense atmosphere of war in ancient times. Visitors can take public transportation to the mountain.
A wonderful spot in Hengshan Mountain is the Hanging Monastery, sitting 60 meters high in the cliffs of the west side of Cuiping Peak, Jinlongxia Canyon. It is the only temple in China that brings together Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The temple is cleverly engineered and constructed completely of wood. The statues in the temple are also worth seeing.
Xinzhou is located in northern Shanxi Province. Ages ago in the Han Dynasty, it was called Jiuyuan, belonging to Taiyuan City. In the years following, Xinzhou was frequently a target of wars. With such a long history, there are many attractions in this old city. There are three things that shouldn’t be missed in Xinzhou.
The first is a limestone cave called Yuwang Cave. It is the largest cave in north China and is named after Dayu, an important icon in Chinese history who was said to be there and dealt with the flood once. The cave is located in the southeast section of Xinzhou City. Visitors can take the tram to the cave and enjoy the scenery of the surrounding national forest along the way. Inside the 2,000-meter deep cave, the colorful limestone formations are breathtakingly beautiful. Some of them look like flowers or trees, some like animals and some like people. Visitors enjoy climbing, exploring and socializing on the Yuwang Cave grounds.
The Yuwang Cave
The second attraction is the hot springs. The hot springs in Xinzhou are not as famous as those in other places, such as Huaqingchi in Xi’an, but they have growing popularity in the area. With springs scattered around the Qicun and Duncun villages, the once poor and ordinary small villages have become like mini-resorts. Visiting the hot springs in the winter is especially enjoyable, when you can enjoy the hot spring amidst pure white snow.
The third thing is the Diaochan Cemetery in Muzhi village. Diaochan was one of the most famous beauties in Chinese history. Using the advantage of her beauty, she had great influence in the history of the Three Kingdoms Period. Diaochan’s hometown is Muzhi village, a small village in southeast Xinzhou. It was once called Fungus village, for it is rich in fungi. It was renamed Muzhi village in recognition of a very large ganoderma. In an antique building in the cemetery, hundreds of figures displayed tell the story of Diaochan’s life. It is a unique historical experience.
One additional spot you might want to visit is Wutaishan Mountain. Wutaishan is one of the most beautiful scenic spots in Shanxi Province. Its height and the thousands of trees make the mountain a pleasantly cool place to visit in the summer. In addition, it is also an important spot in the history of Buddhism.
Taiyuan is the capital city of Shanxi Province. Situated in the crossroads of central and northern China, Taiyuan has long been a strategic military location. The climate is typical of northern cities, with four distinct seasons and varying scenery complementing each.
The central commercial zone of Taiyuan is called the Willow Lane, which has a history of more than 300 years. It used to be a small gathering spot for individual businessmen and the trade center for buying daily necessities. The lane became prosperous because of the night market. The night market in the Willow Lane is said to be the largest in north China, selling snacks, drinks, clothes and other staffs. With the introduction of modern stores, the night market no longer serves as a primary spot for daily shopping, but it offers an entertaining place for residents and visitors alike to enjoy an evening.
To learn more about the history of Taiyuan, you’ll want to go to the Museum of Shanxi Province. The museum displays the history and stories of Taiyuan City and Shanxi Province, as well as important affairs and items of the central and northern parts of China, making it a good place to study the history of China’s commercial development.
Not far from the museum is another popular spot, the Double-tower Temple. For thousands of year, Chinese temples were built facing south; however, the Double-tower Temple was constructed according to the topography, facing north. The Double-tower Temple, as its name suggests, is comprised of two towers. The towers stand near the Taihang Mountains facing the Fenhe River, and visitors can get a bird’s eye view of Taiyuan City and the central basin of China.
There is a saying that “no visit of Taiyuan is complete without Jinci Temple”, showing the importance and popularity of this temple in the southern suburban area of Taiyuan. Jinci Temple is full of treasures of landscape architecture from the Tang and Song Dynasties and is a good example of the classical gardens in northern China.
Beside the Jinci Temple, Tianlongshan Grottoes also attracts visitors from home and abroad. The grottoes are vividly carved and show the development of grotto art since the Wei Dynasty. If you are not able to visit the grand grottoes in Datong, Tianlongshan Grottoes is a good alternative
For a short journey packed full of Chinese history and ancient artifacts, take a train from Pingyao to Xi’an. Rail service is via traditional trains rather than the often preferred high-speed, state-of-the-art trains. But many, including the Chinese “Art Youth”, are happy to go without the comfort and amenities of modern rail service, in exchange for a slower pace at a much lower price.
Five trains per day depart Pingyao headed for Xi’an. The whole journey takes about 9 hours. Three of them leave in the evening or at midnight and reach Xi'an in the morning. These are good options for maximizing sightseeing time during the day by traveling during the night. The whole journey takes about 9 hours. There are three major stations along this route.
Pingyao is a county city in Shanxi Province. In the small county, visitors could enjoy almost all the best local food of Shanxi Province. Wantuo, Kaolaolao, Cat’s Ear (a kind of snack made of flour which looks like the ear of the cats) and Youmianyuyu are all typical traditional Shangxi snacks.
Pingyao Ancient City
The remote small county is known to people because of Pingyao ancient city. Pingyao ancient city is the most integrated ancient city existing in China, with a history is more than 2800 years. The ancient city is constructed exactly according to the Chinese traditional construction thoughts. The city is a closed one, with a building in the center, four big streets and eight small streets around. Each street in the city has a clear function and all the buildings are well-organized. The folk house is Siheyuan, which is a kind of quadrangle dwelling with a clear middle line and the two sides of the yard is symmetrical. There are 3797 Siheyuans in the Pingyao ancient city now, and 400 of them are well-preserved. Apart from the folk dwellings, there are also some old temples and old-style stores within the city. All of these antique buildings draw a perfect outline of the life in Ming and Qing Dynasties for visitors.
The Zhenguo Temple
Coming out of the north gate of the ancient city and heading towards the north-east, there is another treasure of Pingyao, the Zhenguo Temple. The Wanfodian Building in the Zhenguo Temple is more than 1000 years old, ranking the third most valuable wooden construction in China. The Wanfodian Building is also famous for its painted sculptures. Opposite to the Zhenguo Temple, another temple, the Shuanglin Temple, which is also known to people for the painted sculptures, is standing in the north-west of the ancient city. The Shuanglin Temple is built in the year of 571 and 2000 vivid sculptures are still existing today.
Pingyao is one of the origins of Jinshang, which is the title of outstanding Shanxi businessmen. The first Piaohao (the early form of bank) of China, Rishengchang, was born there. While the Shanxi businessmen doing business home and abroad, the Piaohao was developing very fast. Pingyao was the financial center of China at that time. Visitors could go to the old Rishengchang Piaohao, to feel the prosperity of old time.
The old story of Pingyao is glory, while the Pingyao people are trying to make today’s Pingyao a different one. Each year, a grand party of outstanding photographers will be held in Pingyao and the Pingyao Photographic Exhibition has become into a new name card of the old city.
The Zhenguo Temple
Mount Hua is a famous mountain located near the city of Huayin in Shaanxi Province, about 120 kilometers east of Xi'an. It is one of China's Five Great Mountains and has a long history. Mount Hua has a variety of temples and other religious structures on its slopes and peaks. The Cloister of the Jade Spring lies at the foot of the mountain.
It is classified as having five main peaks, the highest of which is the South Peak at 2,154.9 meters. Three peaks were identified with respective summits: the East, South, and West peaks. The East Peak has four summits, the South Peak consists of three summits, and the West Peak has only one summit, the Lianhua Feng, which means Lotus Summit. The elevation is 2,082.6 meters.
Two walking trails lead to Huashan's North Peak, the lowest of the mountain's five major peaks. The most famous is the traditional route through Hua Shan Gorge, which starts at Huashan village and 6 kilometers later arrives at the North Peak. A new route in Huang Pu Gorge follows the cable car to the North Peak. There are cable car stations at the beginning and the end of this trail. From the North Peak, a series of paths rise up to the Canglong Ling, which is a climb more than 300 meters on top of a mountain ridge. This had been the only trail to the four other peaks, until a new path was built to the east around the ridge in 1998. Many people begin the climb at nighttime, in order to reach the East Peak by dawn. The darkness cloaks the dangerous view during the ascent, and hikers can avoid meeting descending visitors at points where pathways have barely enough room to pass through.
Mount Hua is a great place for people who enjoy adventure. The aerial ladder and sky road especially will really make it hard to breathe. So if you seek adventure, you will surely have fun at Mount Hua.
Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province, is one of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,100 years of history. The city was known as Chang'an before the Ming Dynasty. In addition, Xi'an is one of the Eight Great Ancient Capitals of China. It used to be the center in several dynasties in Chinese history. The important Silk Road trade route that begins in Xi'an gives witness to many tales occurring over the centuries.
With so many historical monuments and ancient ruins as well as nearby tombs, tourism is an important component of the local economy, and Xi’an has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in China.
One place you must visit is the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor. It took 38 years to build, from 246 to 208 BC. The layout of the mausoleum is based on the Qin capital Xianyang, divided into inner and outer cities. It is the first imperial mausoleum in Chinese history, and the most magnificent one.
To the east of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s tomb mound lies the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army served as a garrison to the mausoleum and has yet to be completely excavated. It is a collection of life-size sculptures depicting the emperor’s armies. The artificial army was buried with the emperor in 210-209 BC to protect him even after he died. The sculptures are incredibly vivid, each a unique artistic work of its own.
Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang
The city is surrounded by a well-preserved city wall, which was restored in the 14th century during the early Ming Dynasty and was based on the inner imperial palace of Tang Dynasty. Walking along the city wall, you will feel like you are in the scenes of movies and games, with the river of history flowing underneath.
The Ancient City Wall in Xi'an
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a major landmark in Xi'an. Built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty, its main function was to hold Buddha figurines that were brought from India to China by the Buddhist translator and traveller Xuanzang. There is a fountain square and streets lined with shops nearby, so it is really a good place for sightseeing and leisure.
Apart from the sites above, there are many more landscapes and sights to see in this attractive ancient city. If you are fascinated by history and have sufficient time, you’ll find it rewarding to spend extra time in this city.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda