Shanxi 山西: the less-traveled back garden of Beijing

Shanxi is a province with special meaning for me. My dad was born there in 1943 during WWII, and his uncle Yan XiShan (阎锡山)was one of the prominent post-Qing Dynasty military warlord and the de facto ruler of Shanxi for 38 years, before retreating to Taiwan with the KMT in 1949. This part of my family history has always seemed fascinating to me, so visiting Shanxi is like a root-finding journey for me.

map from

The area now called Shanxi, or the West of Mt. TaiHang (太行山), was where the Chinese civilization began. Shanxi is sometimes confused with Shannxi (陕西), where the world-famous terracotta soldiers (兵马俑) from the Qin (秦始皇) Dynasty were discovered near Xian (西安). However, there’s a saying about China’s history: look at Shenzhen for the last 10 years, look at Shanghai the last 100 years, look at Beijing for the last 1000 years, look at Shaanxi for the last 3000 years, and look at Shanxi for the last 5000 years (十年中国看深圳,百年中国看上海,千年中国看北京,三千年中国看陕西,五千年中国看山西). So if you want to see really really old stuff about China, Shanxi is the place to go. Even though its tourism industry has taken a back seat to the massive coal mining industry that’s supporting the province’s economy, Shanxi’s myriad of cultural artifacts and historical sites, as well as its down-to-earth people and delicious food, will make your trek out there worthwhile.

Highlights of Shanxi:

I first toured the Shanxi Province in Oct of 2006 but only visited the more popular north and middle parts of Shanxi: Datong’s Yungang Grottoes (大同云冈石窟), Wutai Mountain (五台山), Qiao’s Family Courtyard House (乔家大院), and Pingyao Old Town (平遥古城). The second time around in 2008, I visited the harder-to-reach Hukou Waterfalls (壶口瀑布) and Overcome Hill (克难坡) in the southwest JiXian (吉县) and the lesser known but well-preserved Residence of Emperor’s Teacher (皇城相府), WangMang Peak (王蟒岭), and XiYa Ditch (锡芽沟) near southeast city of Jincheng (晋城). I also visited my family’s hometown- Riverside Village (河边村) near Wutai Mountain, where Yan Xishan’s old residence has been transformed into a Shanxi Folk and Culture Museum (河边民俗博物馆).

Culture and History

Shanxi Traders’ family courtyards 晋商大院- the better three are the Qiao’s 乔家, Wang’s 王家 , and Chang’s 常家. These are former mansions of the Shanxi financiers/traders who did business with the Qing government and also abroad. They are the Chinese version of the JP Morgan and Rockefeller families. Qiao’s got famous because Zhang YiMou’s movie Raise the Red Lantern. There was then a popular Chinese TV drama called “Qiao’s Family Courtyard” which really opened up domestic tourism for the place in 2006. However, a lot of scenes in the drama were actually shot in Chang’s Courtyard, which was 16 times bigger than that of Qiao’s. Wang’s is also 4 times bigger than Qiao’s but less “touched up.” I’d recommend going to the Chang’s so you can really get a feel for how rich these families must have been; the Qiao’s is packed w/ tourists and vendors which make this place feel like a Universal Studio. Chang’s is about 2 hours by taxi from Taiyuan, while the other 2 are further down south.

Pingyao Old Town 平遥古城- about 1-2 hours by bus south of Taiyuan, it’s one of the best preserved walled ancient towns in China (the other well-known one is Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan). The town thrived in the Qing Dynasty, when the Shanxi financiers/traders set up shops here. There are still town people living inside, which makes the touring experience somewhat more authentic. It’s worth staying a night in town at one of the traditional Chinese guest houses. When I visited in 2006, there were talks about dressing tourists up Qing dynasty clothing and giving them ancient coins for spending in town…

Overcome Hill 克难坡 - this is a hill of special personal sentiment — my dad was born there during WII, when Yan XiShan’s (阎锡山, my grandfather’s cousin) Chinese troops stationed out here on the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi near Hukou Waterfalls fighting the Japanese. At its peak, the military and civilian population on the hill reached 120,000 people. Tens and thousands of cave rooms were dug during that time, and most of them are still well-preserved today. You can learn more about Yan XiShan and his 38-year rule in Shanxi at his old residence (now a Shanxi folk museum - 河边民俗博物馆) in Hebian Village 河边村 near Wutai County, about 2 hours by bus from Taiyuan.

HuangChengXiangFu 皇城相府 - located near the southeast city of JinCheng 晋城, this is a unique example of a mansion with a combo of late Ming/early Qing period style architecture. It belonged to the Chen family, whose owner was Emperor Kangxi’s teacher. The guy oversaw the compilation the famous Kangxi Dictionary 康熙大字典, which contains over 120,000 Chinese characters and was the most complete collection at the time.


Hanging Monastery 悬空寺- amazing petite structure that hangs off of the cliff in the Heng Mountain 恒山 by fragile-looking beams that were pounded into the wall. Because it was built cleverly, sheltered from rain and sun, this monastery withstood miraculously for the last 1400 years.

YunGang Grottoes 云冈石窟- lots and lots of stone Buddha carvings with Central Asian influences. The carving work started back in 460AD, lasted roughly 60 years, and resulted in over 50,000 big and small carvings tucked away in 45 major caverns. The carvings are great but they are also deteriorating and colors fading by the day as they are exposed to wind, heat, and moisture brought in tourists’ breath. Better go see them while they last.

Wutai Mountain 五台山- one of the China’s four mountains for Buddhist pilgrimage (the other three are: Zhejiang’s Putuo, Sichuan’s Emei, and Anhui’s Jiuhua). Taoist and Confucius teachings and practices are also represented in some of the temples, which is very unique to Wutai Mountain. The mountain is actually made up of five peaks (hence the name “Wu”, or five), and to reach any of the temples, you need to climb up 108 flights of stairs. Buddhists say that man has 108 kinds of worries, and climbing up the stairs, you throw those worries away (sure, it’s hard to hang on to those worries when your working out on a 108-step Stairmaster). The mountain is a good summer retreat even after you’re” templed” out.

Natural scenery

Hukou Waterfalls 壶口瀑布- located on the southwest border of Shanxi and Shaanxi, this is the second largest waterfall in China and the biggest fall on the Yellow River. It has the shape of a teapot sprout, hence the name “Hukou.” From a far, you can only hear the sound of water rumbling and a huge cloud of mist where the waterfall stands. Only when you get closer can you see the waterfall, narrowing from a 200m to 30m waterway before plunging a 50m deep chute. Summer is the season with the most water flow, while in the winter, the fringe of the waterfall is frozen over. Hukou is not easy to get to but definitely worth a trip. You can take a bus to Lifen 临汾, transfer to JiXian吉县 and stay a night in JiXian. Take a short bus ride the following morning to the waterfall and you can catch some rainbow off of the waterfall’s reflection around 9-10am.

Shanxi Hukou Waterfalls

WangMangLing 王莽岭- located 40km to the east of JinCheng 晋城, the WangMangLing is a cluster of steep peaks in the Taihang Mountain 太行山 range. It’s beautiful at sunrise and also hidden among the clouds. For the adventurous, hikes down are steep trails are possible. Nearby, XiYaiGou 锡崖沟 is a valley that was once blocked off on all sides by steep mountain cliffs. The locals dug 4 tunnels stacked on top of each other inside the rock cliffs and finally built themselves a 7km road after 30 years of hard work. Of course there are other roads to access the valley now, but you can still ride down the original tunnel — pretty amazing. There are some simple family-run inns in the valley and should be pretty nice to stay in during the summertime. Oh, don’t forget to try the dishes made w/ locally grown ingredients at the handful of small restaurants there.


Transportation to Shanxi:

By air- the main hub is the capital Taiyuan (太原), which pretty much sits at the center of the province. Direct flights from Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and other nearby major cities are available. You can also fly into Henan’s Zhengzhou (河南郑州) or Shaanxi’s Xian airports and then drive into Shanxi from the southeast and southwest borders respectively.

By train - to and from Beijing, Xian, or Zhengzhou, you can take a sleeper train (~10 hours one-way) to Taiyuan.

Traveling within Shanxi:

Within Taiyuan, it’s easy to get around by either bus ($1-3RMB) or taxi (starting at $8RMB). Long distance buses are also relatively comfortable although many are not non-smoking, so ride at your own risk. Tour buses or hired cars with guides are easier if you don’t have any Chinese speaking people in your travel party. Tolled highways running north-south have been up for quite awhile now. Several tolled highways that run east-west are getting built esp. in the south, and when they’re finished in the next couple years, travelers will be able to hit more remote sights on a single trip.


Shanxi is under-developed in terms of hotels. Except in Taiyuan and Datong, 4-5 star hotels are hard to find. In most towns, 3-stars are the best you’ll get. Check with local travel agencies for the newer hotels. Around the Hukou Waterfall area, you can try to stay at one of the cave (窑洞) hotels. These are domed rooms that are dug into the steep dirt cliffs, which are relative cool during the summer time and warm during the winter time. The traditional cave rooms have “kang” 炕 beds, which are heated from underneath by warm air that runs through from the in-room coal-burning stoves. Cave rooms tend to be damp during the winter/spring time, so the best time to try these are in the summertime. The modernized ones have AC and toilets in the rooms as well. A modernized cave hotel we checked out near JiXian is called TanZhuangYaoDongBinGuan 谭庄窑洞宾馆 0357-7927285, Ms. Lian.


Shanxi’s staple items are made of wheat, maize, millet, and potatoes. Shanxi is also famous for it’s black vinegar, white liquor “fenjiu” (汾酒), red dates, black mushrooms called “heimuer” (黑木耳). You’ll also see various kinds of noodles, among which is the most famous shaved noodles (刀削面). You have the best shot at tasting delicious locally-grown food when you’re in the countryside. You almost cannot go wrong with ordering noodles. Also remember, Shanxi is far, far away from the sea so don’t order seafood, unless it’s something from the local rivers.