The giant Buddha at the Yungang Grottoes dates back to the Northern Wei
Dynasty (AD 386-534). Tuweimei.com
The Wooden Pagoda in Yingxian does not use a single piece of iron, brick
or stone. Raymond Zhou / China Daily
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.