One of the jewels of Shanxi Province, little known to tourists, but fundamental for the cultural heritage that it brings, is Mount Mian (绵山, Mian Shan), located 137 km south of Taiyuan.
It is here, in fact, that the Qing Ming Festival got started (清明节, Qing Ming Jie).
Mian Shan, whose peaks reach an altitude of 2,566 meters, is located in Shanxi Province, and more specifically in the city of Jiexiu (介休), cradle of the origins of what is simplistically defined as the “festival of the dead” (when in reality it is much more), and its height reaches 2,566 meters.
How to get to Mian Shan
Since the city of Jiexiu is connected to the rail network, getting to Mount Mian is simple. There are two stations in the city, Jiexiu, and Jiexiu East (for the high speed line).
From Beijing, a second class ticket on a fast train leaving from the Beijing West station costs about 200 Yuan and takes 4 hours, while leaving from Taiyuan the price is around 35 Yuan, and takes less than an hour’s travel.
Once you get to Jiexiu, you’ll have to head off toward the mountain. If you arrive at the Jiexiu East station, you have the choice of getting around by either bus or taxi.
Taking the only bus that goes by the station (3 Yuan) and getting of at the terminal, you’ll find the bus station, where number 15 (5 Yuan) will bring you to Mian Shan with departures every hour.
To go from Mian Shan to Jiexiu on the return, the last bus for the city center leaves at 5:00 p.m., but if you take this, you won’t make it in time to make the connection at the bus station.
If you opt for a taxi instead, the trip will cost you about 100 Yuan, with the meter running.
Admission into Mian Shan costs 110 Yuan (though the price is halved for students with the little book), to which they add 60 Yuan for a bus ticket that will bring you to the various main attractions. There’s a deposit of 10 Yuan for the bus card that will be refunded to you when you give it back. If you’d like to get yourself a map at the ticket counter that’s another 5 Yuan.
What to see at Mian Shan
Mount Mian, also called Mount Jie (at the end of this article you’ll find the story of the person to whom the mountain is dedicated), has a verdant and natural landscape.
Here you can spend a day far from the chaos of the city (try not to come during national holidays, and move on as much as possible from the main attractions where there’s more people).
Once you get there, the top will likely be wreathed in white-gray clouds, given the mountain’s height. Looking around will be a real spectacle.
Like all major tourist attractions, there’s no lack of shopping stalls where they’ll try to sell you objects of various nature, or even men waiting to transport you on a two-person seat.
Often the natural attractions have been “modified” so that, for example, the flow of a waterfall gushes out of the enormous mouth of a stone dragon.
Depending on the time of year, the landscape will be different. Autumn (with some trees with red leaves) and the Spring (with trees in bloom) are the most recommended.
Mount Mian will welcome you from the outside with an enormous statue dedicated to the minister Jie. The bus you’ll take once past the entrance will make seven stops in all, each at a main attraction.
If you don’t have time to visit them all, choose on the basis of your own interests. Taking the bus to the last stop, then returning slowly, stopping at points of interest, I recommend you see the following:
Water curtain cave
Getting off at the 水涛沟 (Shuitaogou) stop, follow signs for 水帘洞 (Shuiliandong), the water curtain cave. The name, as always, is not casually given.
After you walk a long path along a river with little falls you’ll arrive at the main one, whose name is “The great waterfall of the five dragons”. Admire it from below and move on.
You’ll have about an hour total of walking from the bus stop to the cave. Still along the river you’ll end up at a waterfall where the water seems to seep out of a rocky wall.
If it wasn’t for the man in front of me, I wouldn’t have guessed that the curtain of water was actually a secret passage (the water slippers and jackets for rent should have had me suspicious).
You move on by crossing the waterfall on the side and getting a nice shower, even though at that point there’s far less water. Behind the waterfall is a tiny temple in the rock with a pair of Buddha statues adorning it.
To get back to the bus, take the same route you took to get in. From here you can decide if you’d like to take the cable car (a round trip ticket costs 80 Yuan a person) that will take you to 介公墓 (Jiegongmu), a tomb commemorating the great life of the hero Jie.
Zigzag plank road
Getting off at the 云峰寺 (Yunfengsi) bus stop, you’ll see a long staircase going up the side of the mountain. Start going up and you’ll find its beginning. Don’t be afraid and start climbing!
Under the scorching summer sun, the stairs seem like they’ll never end, but once you arrive at the top the views are spectacular.
As the name would suggest (云 “cloud” 峰 “top”, and 寺 “temple”), you’ll probably find the top covered in clouds, while you can admire the mountain landscape below; it’s disturbing if you suffer from vertigo, especially because the protection along the sides at certain points is rather low.
Allow yourself to be amazed by a silent China, where the noise of street hawkers can’t reach you: not many are adventurous enough to make it up here, where the views are breathtaking. You can sit in one of the little gazebos and enjoy the poetry of this place.
The Qing Ming festival
Even though the term 清明 (Qing Ming) literally translates to “clear and bright”, and it is usually translated as “Festival of pure light”, the translation that is most used in the English language is “Tomb-sweeping Day”, or the day to take care of the graves where one’s loved ones rest by sweeping them.
The Festival of pure light, following the lunar calendar, falls approximately in the beginning of April.
The origins of this celebration go back to about the eighth century A.D., but this tradition goes back to a time well before it, having origins in the Hanshi festival (keep reading to learn more). Both festivals are tied to the legend that tells the story of Jiexiu.
According to legend Prince Chong’er, after the death of his father, had to hide to escape the ambitions of his stepmother, who wanted him dead so as to have the power go more smoothly to her own son.
The prince manages to escape, remaining in exile for many years and surviving also in part due to the help of some of his ministers, among whom one in particular distinguished himself for his loyalty, whose name was Jie Zitui.
In a time when food is scarce, Prince Chong’er would have died of hunger if it weren’t for the help of Jie, who in order to save him, cut flesh off his own leg and cooked it for the prince so that he might live.
In 636 B.C, the prince managed to ascend to the throne to which he was entitled, and rewarded all those who were faithful to him, though forgetting the most loyal among them: Jie.
Being unable to feel at peace with this oversight, he decides to go looking for the minister, and finds out that he is living near Mount Mian, along with his mother.
Despite a thorough search it’s all in vain: there’s no trace of Jie. Following the advice of another minister, Chong’er decides to set fire to the mountain so as to force the minister to come out into the open and finally be able to reward him.
Even this inconsiderate gesture however doesn’t obtain the desired results, since Jie is still nowhere to be found. Only after the fire dies out are two burned bodies found on the mountain, bringing Prince Chong’er to desperation with regret for what just happened: it was Jie and his mother.
Mount Mian, where their remains were found, is also called Mount Jie, in honor of the minister. To commemorate his memory, the prince in later years forbade the setting of fires on that day, giving birth to the Hanshi Festival, or festival of cold food.
With more than 2,500 years of history, the Hanshi Festival (precursor to the Qing Ming Festival), is the festival with the longest history, and has its roots in the area around Mount Mian. The celebration lasts for three days and the first of those precedes the Qing Ming Jie.
Among the traditions tied to the festival of pure light is not just that of eating cold food, but numerous other rituals as well.
The main activity is cleaning the tombs: one does so at the graves of their dearly departed, where they take out the weeds and dust off the funeral monuments, then light sticks of incense. Besides praying to honor the dead, offerings of food and other objects useful in the afterlife are made.
The offerings are often paper tickets that represent the object, which are then burned so as to reach the world of the dead. These pieces of paper usually represent money, but also houses, clothing or more recently… smartphones or luxury cars!
Each Chinese festival has a dish associated with it! Among the cold food used for the Qing Ming Jie, we have Zitui (if the name sounds familiar, don’t be surprised, it’s the name of the historic hero), steamed cakes eaten cold, and also Qingtuan, sweet green balls of sticky rice.
Even eating a boiled egg is a lucky gesture that promises good health for the coming year.
In every part of China the culinary traditions for this festival are different, but this is what they eat in Shanxi, the festival’s birthplace. In the southern part of Shanxi they eat steamed bread in the shape of a dragon filled with nuts, dates and beans, with an egg in the center, symbol of getting the family together and happiness, to be eaten all together.
Photo Credits: Shanxi.Mian shan.2 by Antoine 49
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