Opinion / From the Readers

A Place Like Shanxi

By Elaine Coetzee ( Updated: 2016-10-14 08:56

Most of us are familiar with the cycle of ex-patriot life in China. Those who have experienced it firsthand will agree that it is, beyond question, a life-changing experience.

First there's the honeymoon phase, followed by the I-could-get-used-to-this phase. Once the reality of living in the most populated country in the world kicks in, things take a different turn. Sadly, some ex-pats return to their home countries without making a solid attempt. Others decide to leave, only to return a few months later. Then there are those who stick around and eventually fall in love with all the craziness that is China.

Somewhere in between, while making sense of it all, your entire perspective changes. Insignificant things that you used to take for granted suddenly increase in value. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. As time goes by you find yourself looking at the world from a different point of view, and in the process, an appreciation for certain things is established. Open spaces and less-crowded travel destinations suddenly find themselves at the top of the list.

My recent trip to Shanxi delivered both. A welcomed surprise considering the fact that, apart from ancient Pingyao and the impressive Yungang Grottoes, the rest of the province is not exactly praised by guidebooks. Driving from the capital Taiyuan towards Ningwu County, the views from the bus window changed dramatically. Continuing north in the direction of Luya Mountain, traces of urban life gradually disappeared, making way for fields of corn and blossoming sunflower crops. It was a warm welcome to Shanxi's beautiful countryside.

The next few days revealed a side of China not often experienced by ex-pat city dwellers. At Malun Grassland green meadows stretched as far as the eye could see, contrasting beautifully against a clear, blue sky. With fluffy clouds lingering above and cows grazing peacefully, undisturbed by our presence, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to switch gears and forget about city life. Out in the open, it was easy to turn back the clock and imagine a period when ancient Chinese emperors raised their brave battle horses on that exact prairie.

From grasslands and blue skies that reminded us of home, we moved on to something less familiar: a hanging village (Xuankongcun), hanging coffins and a hanging temple. These structures did not exactly dangle from ropes, as their names suggest, but were nevertheless extremely impressive. Far removed from civilization, we witnessed a functioning village perched on top of a cliff in the middle of nowhere. And a temple, a sacred place of worship, firmly embedded in steep rock high above the ground. Considering their remote location, we could not help but admire the local people for completing these highly labor-intensive tasks.

Continuing northwest to Pianguan County, right on the border of Inner Mongolia, we reached a very unique area where the mighty Yellow River and the Great Wall, two of China's greatest symbols, meet. The Yellow River, bordering Shanxi to the west, played a fundamental role in ancient Chinese history and the establishment of China's earliest civilizations. In addition, the province's hot and dry climate helped preserve ancient artifacts and architecture in a profound way. It's no wonder then that locals proudly refer to Shanxi as "a museum of ancient architecture."

Taking in the sweeping views of this remarkable valley, known as the "Old Cow River Bend," was an unforgettable experience. On one side there is Shanxi, with its endless hills, an ancient fortress and a ruined section of the Great Wall. And on the other side of the river lies Inner Mongolia. Moving on to a different viewpoint, more spectacular views continued to intrigue. With the Yellow River cutting its way through a sea of green hills, we were once again spoiled with the magnificent scenery in an area that most visitors never travel to.

But that's the thing about being an ex-pat in China. By entering the up-and-down cycle and embracing change, an appreciation for certain things, and more importantly places, forms. Places that you never dreamed of visiting, places that are not flocked with tourists and souvenir shops, with streets boasting of "Western" cafés and restaurants. A place that just is what it is.

A place like Shanxi. International Business Unit

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