Part 2: Shanxi
In 2007, two friends and I decided to travel to China for about a month. As we planned on the places we wanted to visit, I suggested we visit Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Pingyao Ancient City is a World Heritage Site. It’s the best-preserved county-level community in China with an intact city wall. At that time, though, including it on our itinerary proved challenging. In the back of my mind, I kept it on a list of possible places to visit if I ever happened to be back in China. It took some time, but in 2023 I finally found the time and opportunity to visit Pingyao.
To get there Jun and I would travel to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi. The flight we took from Qingdao was uneventful, which in terms of air travel was what we wanted. When we arrived we took a taxi to the hotel in the city center. As in Qingdao, our hotel room wasn’t ready. Jun and I left our luggage and took another taxi to visit Taiyuan Shangta Temple.
The temple is renowned for the two pagodas within the temple complex. These two pagodas are considered the symbol of the city of Taiyuan. When we arrived it was late in the afternoon. As we walked around the temple we were delighted at how beautiful the grounds were with the tree blossoms and the spring flowers.
Jun and I tried to walk up to the top of one of the pagodas, but that proved challenging as the interior stairway was quite narrow and people were going in both directions. Compounding on the situation were the many children and older adults who needed time to go up and down the stairs. Jun and I decided about a third of the way up that we didn’t need to go all the way to the top. We decided to enjoy where we were for a few minutes and then venture back down.
After we got back to ground level, Jun and I walked around the park and explored some of the areas with fewer people. Then we took a walk in the surrounding park, which was equally beautiful. We also discovered a new flowering plant that was essentially a stalk of pink flowers. Neither of us had seen such a flower before and it was quite whimsical in shape and size.
From the park, we next went to have dinner near our hotel. The restaurant we chose was quite delicious with several wonderful dishes. I quite enjoyed the potatoes. They drenched the potatoes in wine and then cover the clay pot with a lid. They put more wine on the lid before setting it on fire! While that dish was my favorite, I equally enjoyed all the other dishes.
When we finished, Jun and I walked back to our hotel. Jun picked up the room keys and we were soon on our way up to the room. After cleaning up, both of us were ready to call it a day.
Our second day had us venture to the southwestern parts of the city. The first place we visited was the Tianlong Mountain Grottoes within the Tianlong Mountain Scenic Area. The grottoes are several Buddhist sites located along the side of a mountain. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of the Buddhas were damaged as people decapitated the heads of the statues so they could be sent to museums outside of Taiyuan. In the late twentieth century to the present, cultural authorities in the city, province, and country have worked to have them repatriated.
While most of the statues are damaged, some were better preserved. Those statues are shrouded to protect them from further damage. Within a museum at the base of the grottoes, Jun and I were able to see some of the returned heads.
The area was quite beautiful and not what we imagined the place to look like. Near the museum, there was a temple that was equally beautiful and offered wonderful views of the surrounding areas and up toward the grottoes.
The one downside to this site is how you have to get to the temples. The road within the scenic area is closed to regular traffic. To get there you need to take a special bus. We did not know that; when we first tried to go there we were left to ask the locals for help. Eventually, we did find our way to the bus and were fortunate that we were able to get on the bus within a few minutes. The bus on the way back was a bit frustrating as a number of older adults pushed and shoved aggressively to get on the bus. Jun was the last person allowed on the bus as the bus driver was not allowed to have passengers stand up while the bus traveled down the mountain. I begged the driver to let me on and that I would sit on the floor instead of having to wait for another hour for the next bus. He relented, which was nice of him. I was annoyed at all these older adults who behaved worse than preschoolers.
When we arrived back at the bus stop, Jun and I had a quick lunch at a local noodle restaurant. The noodles were a bit salty, but the eggplant dish we ordered was quite good.
After lunch, we next visited Jinci Scenic Area. This park is quite huge with over 100 pavilions, houses, bridges, and gardens. The area was breathtakingly gorgeous. At the back of the park is a closed area for Jinci Temple. Roughly 1,400 years ago the temple was founded, and since then it has been considered the most prominent temple complex in Shanxi. The history and traditions from different periods of dynastic China are quite apparent as you walk around the temple. Even the trees, some of which are about 3,000 years old, add to that feel of ancient China. Jun and I enjoyed walking around this part of the scenic area.
From Jinci Scenic Area we next went to Taiyuan Antiquity County, which is a recreation of a county city. Jun thought it was an actual historic site. When I told him it was a recreation he lost interest in it immediately. We decided to walk around a bit. Some part of it was quite nice to see, but it did have a quality of a movie set or theme park.
As it was getting late, Jun and I decided to go get dinner. As Jun needed to buy another shirt for the trip, we chose to go to a shopping center on the way back to the hotel. We ate dinner here and Jun bought his shirt. Dinner was delicious, and the shirts Jun bought were nice.
Then we went back to the hotel for the night.
Waking early, Jun and I took a car south to Pingyao. The drive went quickly and we soon found ourselves outside the Lower West Gate to the ancient city. The first thing we did was walk around the city wall. We went counterclockwise to take advantage of the sun’s position so we could get nicer pictures.
Jun and I agreed that the walk around the wall was the highlight of visiting the city. We got to see different structures of the wall, as well as get a better idea of the different areas of the city.
When we reached back to the Lower West Gate, we walked towards the center to get lunch at one of the restaurants there. The central part of the city is a pedestrian zone. Outside this area, it can get a bit confusing as to which way we could traverse through the city. In 2021, this part of China experienced some terrible floods. Pingyao was affected and they suffered a lot of water damage that they have been addressing. Many of the streets and alleys were under construction and untraversable.
When we finished lunch, we next went to visit some of the sites. We first went to the Cheng Huang Temple, which is the city’s temple. Many of the deities here are related to everyday life, such as wealth, children, and marriage. The different sanctuaries within the temple were fascinating and well-maintained.
From there we walked a short distance to the Confucian Temple, which in the past was where the local imperial examinations took place. This temple was interesting as it had a lot of weeping willows and flying cotton. As we walked around the temple, it felt as if it was snowing. The size of the temple was quite significant and we were able to see it quite clearly when we were walking on the wall.
After visiting here, we next went to the Ancient Government Building, which was where the chief administrator resided and government officials had offices. The complex also housed a prison, which was quite interesting for me. I hadn’t seen a historic prison before seeing this one. The regular cells were quite cold and gloomy, but the isolation cell was dark and freezing. Compared to the other parts of the structure, the prison was a stark contrast to the different divisions of society in Pingyao.
We next went back up South Street to West Street where we visited the First Armed Escort Agency in North China. Jun enjoyed this museum as these escorts did a bit of everything. They served as private security to people, delivered mail, as well as escorted money and other valuables to and from Pingyao. They served a unique role in China.
From here we decided to exit the city and visit Shuang Lin Temple to the southwest of the ancient city. Founded in the sixth century AD as a Buddhist temple, it is renowned for the 2,000 decorated clay statues in the different halls throughout the complex. The statues were created beginning in the twelfth century. Additional statues were created up to the nineteenth century. The statues were magnificent, but equally impressive were the artwork and decorations surrounding the statues.
The last thing we did in Pingyao was to visit Zhen Guo Temple. The temple itself is quite small, but it is also unique in its design and interior religious artwork. This Buddhist temple is famous for the Ten Thousand Buddha Hall. Originating in the tenth century AD, this temple is an exemplar of Chinese-painted statues and architecture. We arrived at a good time as a school group was leaving just as we entered. Besides one other visitor and a film crew, we were the only guests at the temple.
From there we hired a car to take us back to Taiyuan. Jun chose a restaurant to eat at when we arrived back. Traffic was horrible when we got back to the city. When we finally arrived at the restaurant, we had to wait. It wasn’t too long of a wait, though, and we were soon seated for dinner.
After dinner, we walked back to our hotel to call it a day.
Our last day in Taiyuan had us pack up and leave up luggage at the hotel so we could explore the surrounding area of the city where the hotel was located. We first walked to Wuyi Square where Shouyimen is located. This gatehouse is the most prominent example of what was left of the ancient city wall of Taiyuan.
From there we next went to Chunyang Palace. Originally constructed in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) as a Taoist temple, it now serves as an art museum with different statues from around Shanxi. While those statues were lovely to view, what impressed us was the design of the compound. It was quite lovely to view.
Then we walked a bit more to the Temple of Literature. Equally nice in design, we spent a short amount of time here. On the grounds is housed the Shanxi Archaeology Museum. They had a nice exhibit on some of the highlights of recent archaeological finds in the province.
As we started to walk to the restaurant we decided to have lunch, Jun received a message that our flight later that day was canceled due to storms in Shenzhen. When I asked Jun to call the airlines to see about rescheduling our flights, they informed us that they could get us on the 3:50 flight. Jun didn’t communicate that part to me and made it sound as if we should head to the airport then. As a result, we went back to the hotel, collected our luggage, and went to the airport.
When we got there were learned that we would be delayed until 7:50 that night. We as a result spent the rest of the day at an airport lounge until our flight left. Fortunately, the plane did leave and we were able to return to Shenzhen a little later than we had anticipated.
Besides that one hitch at the end of the trip, we enjoyed the trip to Taiyuan and Pingyao. It might have taken a few years to visit the ancient city, but I finally was able to experience it. And now I got to share that time at Pingyao with Jun.
Both parts of our trip were wonderful. We got to explore two unique places in China. And we enjoyed experiencing spring in northern China.
Return to Part 1