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”.