Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province. [Photo by Thanin Yous/ For chinadaily.com.cn]
My first memories of Shanxi date back to early 2011, during Spring Festival. Back then I visited the ancient city of Pingyao and the Yungang Grottoes. Pingyao was an old, pleasant place and I loved it, but I was especially impressed with the grottoes — their size, the great condition of the Buddha statues and the seemingly endless number of caves, especially the small ones. My plans were to head to Shaanxi and slowly make my way south to end in Kunming, so unfortunately I had only a little time to explore Shanxi. I say unfortunately because now I have seen so much more, I know that Shanxi is well worth exploring.
I have to admit that those first memories weren't the best. Datong made me feel depressed — the cold, the grayness and the strong scent of charcoal being burnt to keep the city's inhabitants warm didn't make me feel at ease. All those factors made me dislike the city. Although I was impressed with the Yungang Grottoes and the ancient feel of Pingyao, I didn’t feel an urge to return to Shanxi and explore more of the province.
My latest memories are from only a week ago and quite different from those first ones. When I think back to the “Shanxi through the eyes of foreigners” trip I was part of, I think of the lush green mountains I saw while on the roads, the monks saying their prayers and chanting, the Hanging Monastery that impressed me with its architecture and the amazing food I ate.
As a food lover, I was lucky to sample all kinds of local dishes, from noodles to fried buns with red bean paste and dishes with meat that melted on my tongue. I especially remember the cold noodles with vegetables and vinegar; which I could definitely eat every day.
The best part of the trip for me was when we got out of the cities. I loved the courtyard of the Qiao family, which was more than 250 years old and opened onto more than 300 rooms. Wandering through the courtyard and reading stories about the different rooms made me feel I had stepped back in time and wondering what life would have been like in the 18th century? The stories our guide Li Jing told helped me go back in time. While listening to her, I made a mental note to watch the movie Raise the Red Lantern. It’s not a movie about Qiao Zhiyong, but I’m sure it will still give me a good idea of how life was here hundreds of years ago.
Another part of Shanxi I fell in love with was Wutai Mountain. The surrounding peaks made for amazing scenery and great views, of clouds suspended over the mountaintops and cows grazing near the forest. On the day we visited, it rained heavily, so unfortunately I didn't get the opportunity to go hiking and further enjoy the mountains and their great views. Instead, we visited a few of the temples, which partly made up for missing the hike. Although the temples were crowded with tourists, I managed to find some areas with less people, which gave me the chance to take in the atmosphere, listen to the chanting of the monks and enjoy the beauty of such things as the prayer wheels.
My opinion of Shanxi has changed, in a positive way. I now know Shanxi has a lot more to offer than just the Yungang Grottoes and Pingyao. I have to admit that I wouldn’t come just for Pingyao, which has become too touristy for me. It seems the shops and commercial areas are taking over from the city’s authentic feel and architecture, especially when I compare today’s Pingyao with the Pingyao I visited four years ago.
Personally, I would come back for the nature and outdoor activities. I would love to go hiking and camping in Shanxi one day and would recommend others do so also.
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