Our driver had to ask for directions to get to Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡. He seemed a bit lost, as there was a new road and he had only ever been there on the bad old one. As we were getting close, he stopped to ask a young woman waiting by the roadside for final directions. She confirmed that he was nearly there and then, with a cheeky grin, asked for a lift to the village and hopped in. When we got there, she jumped out of the car and, in good English, bade us ‘goodbye auntie’ and ‘goodbye uncles’.
In front of us, as we got out of the car, was the extremely impressive castle of Xiangyu Castle 湘峪古堡.
From the outside, the castle looks like an impregnable fortress with its crenelated walls and dozens of enormous watchtowers. The river that flows in front of the walls and the hills in the background, only add to the castle’s splendor.
The Buddhist Haihui temple 海会寺where Minister Chen studied is just a short ride away from the castle and Guoyu village. However, our driver – even though he’s a local – has never been there and isn’t sure what it’s all about.
As we approach the complex, along a mostly empty road, and stop at a grand but rather abandoned-looking entrance area, neither are we. Should we fork out another 30 Yuan each, just to see two pagodas? Fortunately, we decide to go for it.
Just a ten minute stroll from the magnificent Minister Chen’s Castle, the peaceful, ancient, walled village of Guo Yu 郭峪古城 is that elusive old China you have been looking for, but of which you have only caught the odd glimpse.
Even these days, Guoyu is still dominated by its enormous and forbidding watchtower; so much so that nearly all the narrow flagstone alleys and secluded courtyards fall under its all-pervasive shadow. The fortified city walls and secret underground passage leading out from the watchtower point to a more turbulent past.
In more recent history, Guoyu also played an important part. It was used as a base for the 8th route army of the Chinese communists in the war against Japan and there is a memorial square to celebrate this fact.
What to see and do around Jincheng晋城 Shanxi Province Part One
The southern Shanxi city of Jincheng 晋城 will never win any prizes for beauty or charm. It’s a typical medium sized Chinese City, dominated by the ubiquitous white tiled buildings, interspersed with an occasional glitzy glass tower. The only attraction in town is a recently built temple complex with a Ming Dynasty pagoda.
So why go there? Well, if you like unspoilt Chinese towns where time seems to have stood still, incredible vernacular architecture, walled castles and ancient pagodas, then Jincheng is the perfect base from which to explore them. Jincheng also has a fantastic Huoguo restaurant, a decent hotel and friendly cab drivers.
We spent two nights in Jincheng; it was enough to see what we had planned to visit. However, there are a lot more sights to visit than appear in any guidebook.
We visited four places:
Prime Minister Chen’s Castle: Huangcheng Xiangfu: 皇城相府
The mountain town of Songpan 松潘 has undergone a lot of changes in recent years but some original remnants of its wonderful ancient architecture still remain. Two of those structures are the emblematic ancient covered bridges (Gusong Qiao 古松桥 and Yingyue Qiao 映月桥) that span the fast flowing Min river 岷江。 Below are our photos taken before the recent development.
Songpan is an ethnically diverse town with Tibetans, Hui (Chinese Muslims) and Han Chinese all living together. It’s a great place to relax and has numerous tea houses along the river and next to the bridges.
Lijiashan 李家山 is probably one of the best examples of Northern China’s cave dwelling architecture窑洞风格. Situated in a steep valley above the Yellow river 黄河, it exudes bucolic charm. However, if you are not going to stay the night or go off hiking, an hour or two is enough to see everything and have a cold beer.
Lijiashan (from Margie’s diary 26/8/2016)
Qikou 碛口Guesthouse 13.00
The driver, who had taken us to Qikou 碛口 from Lüliang Lishi 吕梁离石, has convinced us that Lijiashan village is much too far too walk. For another 30 Yuan he’ll drive us, wait and take us back. But first we can have a beer and something to eat. As we fancy the home-made noodles which have to be ordered for three, our driver joins us for lunch. We have cucumber salad, aubergine with beans, plus the delicious noodles with a simple fresh tomato, coriander and chive sauce.
The ride to Lijiashan is not far (5kms), but the road is windy and at times exceedingly steep. It’s also a scorching day and there’s little or no shade from the merciless sun, so we are pleased we took the lazy option. The village is really tiny, much smaller than I’d expected. Our guidebook had written a whole column about it. The setting is nonetheless lovely: the village is surrounded by green hills, some of them terraced, and there are lots of fruit trees and plants.
There are cave-dwellings, mostly abandoned, as well as more elaborate complexes, set around courtyards with cave-rooms at the back. Most buildings are dilapidated, though some Continue reading “Lijiashan 李家山窑洞村”
Arriving in Qikou after one of those frustrating and often terrifying China back road trips, we were rewarded with grand vistas of the mighty Yellow River and seduced by an enchanting classic Chinese ancient town, as yet not converted into a tourist theme park.
It had been a frustrating ride because of a huge, infernal traffic jam, caused by one of the thousands of overloaded coal trucks that ply the Shanxi roads, which had rolled over and blocked the narrow, mountainous and potholed road. Terrifying, because our tiny car, dwarfed by the lurching trucks, kept having to dodge them as they overtook each other on blind corners.
However, as we opened the first of many cold beers on the grand terrace of the Qikou Guesthouse, any nasty lingering memories of the trip were soon dispelled.
This must be one of China’s most charismatic hotels! It may not win any prizes for luxury, but its location and ambience are unbeatable.
The Inn or hotel, reportedly built some 300 years ago, is set right on the banks of the Yellow River 黄河, just before one of the river’s huge, sweeping bends. On the other side, the dry and barren hills of Shaanxi 陕西省 province stretch as far as the eye can see.
For centuries, Qikou town碛口古城was an isolated but significant outpost as, for kilometer after kilometer, along either bank of the Yellow River, there were no other towns in sight. In its heyday, it served as an important trading port between the provinces of Shanxi 山西省 and Shaanxi 陕西省, with hundreds of boats docking at its wharf. Today, standing on the few remaining, rickety wooden boards and overlooking the placid brown waters, all this activity is hard to imagine.
The Inn has had an equally colorful history, first as home to the various merchants who plied their wares along the Yellow River and later as a base for the Red Army during the War of Resistance against Japan.
Hidden away up an eroded valley a few kilometers from a remote stretch of the Yellow River is Lijiashan 李家山. It is one of Shanxi Province’s hidden gems. A village almost exclusively made up of traditional cave dwellings 窑洞. It’s a place to spend a few days disconnected from the modern world, read a good book on one of the sunny terraces of the local home-stays and sip a cold (or lukewarm) beer. All the home-stays are cave dwellings built into the side of the mountain. If the sky is clear, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular starry nights(full article coming soon).
Twenty years ago Wutaishan was a remote and spiritual destination that felt a million miles away from the modern world. On our recent visit we could see that times had changed as the picture below shows.