The following guide contains a few suggestions on how to plan your trip to the province of Shanxi (literally 山西, where 山 means mountain, and 西 west: west of the mountains).
The capital of Shanxi is Taiyuan, a city that’s only two and a half hours away by fast train from the Chinese capital, Beijing. From here you can leave for various itineraries to discover this province.
Shanxi is a meeting point between old and modern, with industrialized Taiyuan, center of the coal industry, natural landscapes, and ancient caves.
As local inhabitants of the province will tell you, Shanxi boasts a long history, and has an interesting cultural heritage. If you’d like to discover it, keep reading!
Planning a trip to Shanxi
There isn’t great difficulty getting around on a trip to this province, other than a few destinations that can only be reached with a car or bus.
Starting with the premise that getting to Taiyuan is very easy both by air or high speed rail, where a ticket from Beijing costs a little less than 200 Yuan, planning your trip is easier still with Taiyuan as your starting point for getting around.
In Taiyuan the metro is still being built, so, much as in other cities of Shanxi, you’ll have to get around by bus if you’re planning on taking public transportation. With a Baidu Ditu car, you can get (almost) anywhere.
Getting around by car is also a great option, since there are very cheap taxis (they start at 8 Yuan in Taiyuan, but prices go down in smaller cities), and the possibility of renting a car for full days at reduced prices.
In small cities, at some points, it will at times be hard to find a taxi driver that will agree to use the meter, offering you an “off the books” ride that will cost you more.
A small piece of advice: try not to travel during national holidays since, in those periods, the volume of Chinese travelers is quite consistent: traveling and visiting places will be quite tiresome, and will take more time and less comfort than usual due to the intense traffic.
Below you will find all the information you need to know to get to the places of greatest interest in Shanxi province, and some recommended itineraries to follow.
Pingyao – Taiyuan – Datong
Visit the city of Pingyao (connected by high speed rail), with side trip to the Qiao family residence.
Visit the city of Taiyuan with its attractions, at the Jinci temple, you can take a trip to Mount Wutai (three hours by car).
Visit the city of Datong with its attractions and a trip to the hanging temple and Mount Heng (one day), and the Yungang caves.
Depending on your passions, you can decide which sites are worth visiting. Keep in mind that to reach the Hukou waterfalls, located to the southwest of Taiyuan, you’ll need about 5 hours from the capital; for Mount Taihang, to the southeast, it will take 6 hours, while for Mount Wutai, to the northeast, 3 hours will be enough.
The city of Taiyuan
If you’d like to spend time in the city of Taiyuan (太原), I recommend that you check our guide to the city, which has all the most useful information.
Depending on the attractions you want to see, you can decide the number of days you want to spend in Taiyuan.
You definitely can’t leave the city without at least visiting the Jinci Temple, the city’s main attraction located about 25 km southeast of Taiyuan. For other stops, it’s your choice!
Getting from the middle of town to Jin Memorial Temple (晋祠寺庙）takes about 40 minutes by car, costing about 60 Yuan by taxi, but you can also get there with public buses numbers 308, 804, 848 and 856 (you’ll have to figure on about two hours of travel). The best time to visit is between April and October and an entrance ticket will cost 80 Yuan
This temple has a very long history, and its main buildings go back to about 1400 years ago (during the Song Dynasty, 960–1279), when construction began. Walking through Jinci you can admire ancient buildings, trees that are hundreds and thousands of years old, bridges and fountains.
Among the most important pavilions is the Hall of Female Deity, having been built by the king of the Fen district during the Song Dynasty in the north.
The Temple of the Twin Pagodas
The Temple of the Twin Pagodas (双塔寺) is an example of architecture from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) which includes two octagonal towers of stone and brick some 50 meters in height.
The eastern pagoda, older than its twin, was built in 1579, while the western one was built in 1612.
To admire the peonies that bloom in Spring, a visit is most recommended in April and May. It takes less than a half hour by car from the middle of town, and can also be reached by buses numbers 602, 606, 611, 808, 820, and 838, plus a bit of a walk on foot.
The Giant Buddha
To see the Giant Buddha (蒙山大佛), in all its 17.5 meters of height, you must first take a walk through the paths of Meng Mountain.
Its ancient history goes back precisely to 551, when it was engraved, making it one of the first Buddhas worldwide in both age and size.
About 20 km from the center of town, you’ll need approximately an hour to get there. Alternately you can get around with the public transportation system, but it will take more time by taking buses 5, 308, 310, 839, or 858.
Liuxiang (柳巷) is in the city center. Here you can choose to take a chance on the street of foods (食品街), where you can try a few Chinese delicacies, street food, and much more, or lose yourself shopping in the name brand stores that are here.
If you pass through Shanxi, remember to try the daoxiaomian (knife-cut noodles), cat’s ears (calm down, it’s just pasta!) and a cup of fenjiu!
If you’re a fan of history and want to know the secrets of Shanxi Province, leave yourself half a day for the Shanxi Museum (山西省博物馆) , where you can admire original historical displays preserved in time.
About 5 km from the center, it is easily reachable both by car or buses 69 and 865.
The city of Datong
The city of Datong (大同), going back to 200 B.C., offers a few attractions worth visiting, but is more than anything a starting point for day trips to points of greater interest.
Being located at the border with Inner Mongolia, you can consider a few day side trip to see the grasslands, remembering that the grass will be a bright green only during the summer season (June – August).
The city of Datong can be reached both by air or the rail network from Taiyuan, Beijing, and many other Chinese cities.
To decide where to stay, you can take a look at this article.
The history of the walls (古城墙) goes back to the Ming Dynasty, when they were built in 1372. The total length, which can be walked by buying an entrance ticket, is 6.5 kilometers.
In winter you’ll likely find a freezing wind waiting for you, making the visit (also possible on bike) tiresome.
The wall of the nine dragons
The wall of the nine dragons (大同龙壁), built during the Ming Dynasty with a length greater than 45 meters, represents nine flying dragons on a blue background.
From Datong you can leave for the Hanging Temple, Mount Heng (both doable in a single day) and the Yungang caves. Later we’ll talk about them in a section specific to these two places. You can keep reading or scroll below.
During your stay in Shanxi, you can take an excursion to the mountain and relax by breathing in clean air.
Shanxi, among its mountains,boasts one of the 4 Buddhist sacred mountains: Mount Wutai.
About 230 kilometers from Taiyuan, Wutai Mountain (五台山) is one of the four Buddhist sacred mountains.
To reach it you can consider making an arrangement with a driver for a full day’s service. Alternately, you can go to Shahezhen station (砂河镇) but, as an even further destination, you’ll need to take a taxi or bus to the foot of the mountain.
The mountain’s name, Wutai, comes from the five peaks that, standing imposingly above the clouds, rise up into the heavens like columns, where there are plains and the remains of trees on top. The highest peak reaches a height of 3061 meters. Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also a AAAAA tourist destination.
Only 62 kilometers from the city of Datong, and at an altitude of 2,017 meters, Mount Heng (恒山) also draws crowds of tourists every day.
Once you reach the main parking center (a one-day car rental is recommended), you’ll need to climb a path for 4 kilometers that is mainly stairs to reach the top .
The average height of the Taihang mountains (太行山 )is 1,500 meters, but a few peaks reach or surpass 2,000 meters. The landscapes found here are rich and varied: besides numerous ancient temples, you can admire valleys, cliffs, paths and above all Huguan Canyon.
The Grand Canyon of Huguan
The Grand Canyon of Huguan section of the Taihang mountains (壶关太行山大峡谷) spreads for over 40 km. Besides the spectacle of the canyon, you can take in the gorges. The best time to visit is between April and October.
15 kilometers along the length is the Red Bean Gorge (the name of a rare species of tree that grows here). After crossing the very tight access point, you can admire cliffs on both sides, hanging waterfalls, temples and interesting vegetation.
The ancient city of Pingyao
The ancient city of Pingyao (平遥 ) is a town that boasts more than 2,500 years of history, surrounded by massive walls some 12 meters in height, a World Heritage Site since 1997.
Besides being an undeniable historical heritage, Pingyao was also an important financial center, with the first Chinese bank in 1920.
Once you reach your destination (the city is connected by high speed rail not only with the city of Taiyuan, reachable in just a half hour from the south station of the capital of Shanxi, but also Beijing), you can decide what to do from a variety of activities.
Among the most recommended is a walk along the walls of the city, whose stones narrate an ancient history. It’s from here that you can breathe in the appeal and authenticity of Pingyao.
The city walls of Pingyao were built in the XI century, and surround the city. On each corner of the square rises a small tower.
Walking through the streets of the old city of Pingyao, at times, the sensation of mystery and thousands of years of history is sadly lost among the stalls of gadgets and typical local products: Pingyao is a very touristy city, which struggles to keep its appeal and historical identity due to the obsession with selling tourists everything.
For this reason I recommend that you lose yourself among the streets of Pingyao, leaving the main roads behind and heading into the backstreets. In the gardens and small courtyards of buildings you can find, without being too intrusive, really interesting glimpses of the China of the past that conserve an original architectural style.
Among the local specialties you can try dried beef and vinegar.
The Yungang Caves
The Yungang Caves (云冈石窟), which are not to be missed, are located 16 kilometers from Datong, toward the west, and go on for about a kilometer. Their construction began in the second half of 400 at the request of a monk. You can’t stop until you reach the end because it’s there that you’ll find the most majestic statue.
The caves can be easily reached from Datong via public transport, with buses numbers 3 or 603.
Adjacent to a wide garden, the Yungang Caves are carved in the rock, and their conservation is also the result of dedicated attention to the protection of this site of artistic and cultural heritage.
The Hanging Temple
The Hanging Temple (悬空寺 ) is a true spectacle to see: leaning on the rock and supported by ancient wooden poles, it rises up along the walls of the mountain. If you suffer from vertigo I recommend that you recommend the view from the road without going off to walk among the narrow corridors of the temple hanging over the edge.
The Hanging Temple, built during the North Wei Dynasty (386–534) and partially rebuilt during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, is found at the foot of Mount Heng (恒山), and seems ready to fall at the first gust of wind, while it has instead been firmly fixed there for about 1,500 years.
From Datong it takes about an hour by car to reach the Hanging Temple. Alternately you can take a shuttle that leaves from the bus station, which will bring you to the temple’s parking lot, but in doing so the time will be much more.
Remember that hotels often arrange transport or guided tours to the major attractions.
The Hukou Falls (壶口瀑布) are hard to reach by public transport, so it would be best to get there by car. They’re located at the border between the provinces of Shanxi and Shanxii.
A natural spectacle hard to find anywhere else, it is extremely special: the waters of the Yellow River come down the falls and run quickly and powerfully down their course.
If you’re asking why the Yellow River is called that, here’s the answer: this river collects the bottom of the ground and mixes with water, giving (especially in certain points) the water a yellowish color.
To be honest, the color you’ll see at the falls is more of a faded brown, and the first inevitable sensation is that you’re looking at dirty water when in fact it’s detritus.
The Qiao court
The Qiao family residence (乔家大院 ), once private but now able to be visited, isn’t far from the city of Pingyao. To get there, you’ll want to arrange for a car in Pingyao that, in less than an hour, will take you to your destination.
Alternately you can take a slow train as far as Qixian (祁县) and from there you can move quickly by taxi (or, more plausibly by electric cart: it will be hard to find regular taxis at the station). I recommend the car option starting in Pingyao to save time.
The dimensions of the residence is about 5,000 square meters, and it is surrounded by magnificent gardens. Qiao Zhiyong, a famous merchant of the Qing Dynasty once lived there.
It is here that Zhang Yimou’s famous movie, “Red Lanterns” was filmed.
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons License): www.flickr.com/photos/emmajg/]