In China, the big four destinations of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, and Chengdu attract travellers in their droves. Combining China’s antiquity with its rapid modernity, they are key highlights that don’t disappoint. But if you crave more of an off-the-beaten-track adventure, it’s well worth considering concentrating on the area surrounding Beijing – the Shanxi province – where you can mix the top two historical cities in the country with rugged, isolated landscapes, former Dynastic towns, timeworn architecture, and man-made treasures.
Beijing is a great starting base and a vast area to explore. Easy to navigate with its metro system, you can spend days here enjoying the highlights including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and, of course, the Great Wall of China, various sections of which can all be easily accessed from Beijing.
Head north of Beijing to see a more desolate part of China known as Inner Mongolia, where cultures and traditions merge. Here, you can pass through vast open lands, cross flat plains that look as though they never end, and see the incredible grasslands. While there is not a lot of activity, the scenery is incredible and the isolation, beautiful. Be sure to swap your guesthouse for a ger – a true Mongolian local living experience.
Datong is the most northern city of this prefecture, bordering Inner Mongolia. Although much of the town itself is either under construction or being destroyed for modern high-rises and new business, the highlights exist outside of the city, with these two stunning spots being what the city is best known for:
- One of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sites in China, the Yungang Grottoes contain thousands of hand-carved Buddha statues within an extensive network of around 250 caves, said to be over 1,000 years old. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can’t help but meander in and out of these symbolic caves marvelling at the detail of over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas, from the miniscule to the mighty.
- The Hanging Monastery on the outskirts of town is built 75m (246 ft) above ground and within the cliff face itself. From afar, it is an architectural masterpiece; once inside, it’s a pure adrenaline rush, if you dare to look over the edge while many of your fellow travellers trample its worn wooden floorboards at the same time!
This city in Central Shanxi province is China’s best-preserved ancient site, so much so that the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although reconstructed in parts, its original layout and dominating city wall is still predominately as it once was, keeping the history of the city – dating back over 2,700 years – alive.
The beautiful cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways are everything you imagine old China to be: Exquisite in detail and encased in the red glow of the lantern lights. Here, many storefronts and eateries retain their historical feel, temples are tucked away off main thoroughfares, and the city wall gates stand majestically. If you look hard enough, you will still find traces of old shop signs and decorative paintwork on the preserved Ming-and Qing-style residences.
Pingyao’s most striking feature is its city walls, which you can walk around for a small fee. Be sure to look out for the watchtowers, which provide great views across the city, and for the stone staircases scattered sporadically along the way, which lead you down into new neighbourhoods to explore.
Xi’an is the capital of Shanxi province and one of the oldest cities in all of China, although as a modern bourgeoning city, its hidden historical gems are often overlooked. Best known for the archeological masterpiece that is the Terracotta Warriors located just outside of this mini-metropolis, the city itself has a lot to offer. Be sure to spend ample time in the Muslim Quarter and sample its many culinary delights before getting lost within the pockets of local life that exist all around it.
Xi’an’s city wall is much bigger than Pingyao’s, so much so that it would take you hours to walk around the entire parameter. Instead, hire a bike at one of the many stations along the wall and see if you can complete a full lap of it within the 90 minutes you are given to cycle.
It’s impossible to see everything in China without having a few weeks to spare, but if you are already familiar with the contemporary cityscape of Shanghai or are looking to maximize your time in and around Beijing, getting off the beaten track can uncover some of China’s most ancient and best-preserved wonders… and all in the space of a single province. In a country rapidly destroying its heritage in its thirst of modernization, this area is not one to be missed.