Shanxi is well known for its abundant coal production. But the province of 34 million people and 156,000 square kilometers in area offers much more than natural resources. A trip to Shanxi can be a walk down history lane. So many filmmakers come here that it is the only province I know that shies away from this kind of free publicity.
Taiyuan, the capital city, is roughly at the center of Shanxi province. It divides the attention of a traveler into two equally enticing choices: The north route is rich in Buddhist culture, highlighted by Mount Wutai and Yungang Grottoes, both UNESCO-endorsed world heritage sites.
But you don't have to be a Buddhist to be fascinated. This used to be the frontier land, where the Han-dominated "central plains" met the nomadic tribes of the north, violently clashing or joined by a shared faith. The ruins of ancient barracks and fortresses and the remnants of the Great Wall speak of a time when the clouds of war hovered over many heads.
South of Taiyuan is a different story. Here you'll encounter old towns and spacious courtyards that are testament to the thriving business communities once active here. For a while this was the verifiable center of China's financial industry, an equivalent of Wall Street, so to speak. The bankers are long gone, but some of the homes and towns they built are still intact or restored to their former splendor.
The western and part of the southern border of the province is encircled by the Yellow River, creating a swath of fertile land where numerous relics from antiquity are preserved. At Hukou, the river falls precipitously, forming the most frequently filmed background of China's "mother river".
This special coverage of Shanxi focuses on the northern half of the province. You can arrive either at Taiyuan or Datong at the northern tip by air or train. Taiyuan is only three hours from Beijing by express train. Most county towns are accessible by freeways. The last leg to Mount Wutai is through a narrow mountain road, though.
The best season to visit is May through October. It gets cooler as you travel north or into the mountains.
Photo sets and video clips are available on the China Daily website, on Jinci Temple, Mount Wutai, Yungang Grottoes and local noodle making.
At a Glance
10 good reasons to visit Yungang Grottoes
1. It's a walk back in history. The grottoes were mainly constructed during the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534) between 460-525. They have been weather-beaten and repaired many times, taking on layer-upon-layer of significance.
2. It's a lesson in engineering. Find out how the statues were carved. Learn how the wooden faade is effective in shielding the statues from rainwater, one of the most corrosive forces in nature. The addition of further facades was avoided in case they fell on the statues. The abundance of small holes signifies the use of scaffolds.
3. It's a study in war and peace. The grottoes suffered from bouts of attention and neglect that coincided with dynastic changes in the area. Datong, a booming city 16 km away, used to be the capital of the Northern Wei, but it changed hands frequently as tribes from the north and the south waged wars at what both sides considered the frontier. The name Datong speaks of the popular wish for long-lasting peace.
4. It offers a class in accounting, or rather, counting. There is a total of 45 caverns, 252 grottoes and more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes, the tallest 17 meters and the smallest 2 centimeters. One Buddha has a matrix of small Buddhas on his sleeves. There are also some 1,400 Buddha heads stolen and smuggled overseas.
5. It's a lesson in fine art. UNESCO called Yungang "a masterpiece of early Chinese Buddhist cave art", but it is not just Chinese. An early phase of the grottoes shows a palpable influence from south and central Asia. Some experts even claim there is a resemblance to Western sculptures and there are a few with strikingly Caucasian facial features. But it is certain that later craftsmen made the move to localization, just as multinational corporations do with their products in the modern age.
6. It's a fusion of religion and politics. The giant Buddhas may look all the same to casual visitors, but upon closer scrutiny each is unique. The ones on the west side are thought to be modeled on five emperors of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
7. It's a test of your knowledge of music. There are many musical instruments portrayed in sculptural form. Can you tell their names and origins?
8. It's an inspiration for choreography. The wealth of human movements, from sitting to flying, is a gold mine for anyone who wants to recreate the grace and fantasy of Buddhist figures.
9. It is an inspiration for costume design. The robes and shawls have endlessly cascading pleats. The ornaments are also a source of fascination.
10. It offers a good chance for exercise. The grottoes stretch for a kilometer and you can amble along at your leisure. It's good for your body as well as your spirit.