Shanxi 山西: the less-traveled back garden of Beijing

Shanxi is a province with special meaning for me. My dad was born there in 1943 during WWII, and his uncle Yan XiShan (阎锡山)was the de facto ruler of Shanxi for 38 years before retreating to Taiwan with the KMT in 1949. This part of my family history has always seemed fascinating to me, so visiting Shanxi is like a root-finding journey for me.

Map of Shanxi map from pinyin.info

The area now called Shanxi, or the West of Mt. TaiHang (太行山), was where the Chinese civilization began. Shanxi is sometimes confused with Shannxi (陕西), where the world-famous terracotta soldiers (兵马俑) from the Qin (秦始皇) Dynasty were discovered near Xian (西安). However, there's a saying about China's history: look at Shenzhen for the last 10 years, look at Shanghai the last 100 years, look at Beijing for the last 1000 years, look at Shaanxi for the last 3000 years, and look at Shanxi for the last 5000 years (十年中国看深圳,百年中国看上海,千年中国看北京,三千年中国看陕西,五千年中国看山西). So if you want to see really really old stuff about China, Shanxi is the place to go. Even though its tourism industry has taken a back seat to the massive coal mining industry that's supporting the province's economy, Shanxi's myriad of cultural artifacts and historical sites, as well as its down-to-earth people and delicious food, will make your trek out there worthwhile.

Highlights of Shanxi:

I first toured the Shanxi Province in Oct of 2006 but only visited the more popular north and middle parts of Shanxi: Datong's Yungang Grottoes (大同云冈石窟), Wutai Mountain (五台山), Qiao's Family Courtyard House (乔家大院), and Pingyao Old Town (平遥古城). This time around, I visited the harder-to-reach Hukou Waterfalls (壶口瀑布) and Overcome Hill (克难坡) in the southwest JiXian (吉县) and the lesser known but well-preserved Residence of Emperor's Teacher (皇城相府), WangMang Peak (王蟒岭), and XiYa Ditch (锡芽沟) near southeast city of Jincheng (晋城). I also visited my family's hometown-- Riverside Village (河边村) near Wutai Mountain, where Yan Xishan's old residence has been transformed into a Shanxi Folk and Culture Museum (河边民俗博物馆).

See my notes on the above mentioned sights in Shanxi here.

Transportation to Shanxi:

By air- the main hub is the capital Taiyuan (太原), which pretty much sits at the center of the province. Direct flights from Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and other nearby major cities are available. You can also fly into Henan's Zhengzhou (河南郑州) or Shaanxi's Xian airports and then drive into Shanxi from the southeast and southwest borders respectively.

By train - to and from Beijing, Xian, or Zhengzhou, you can take a sleeper train (~10 hours one-way) to Taiyuan.

Traveling within Shanxi:

Within Taiyuan, it's easy to get around by either bus ($1-3RMB) or taxi (starting at $8RMB). Long distance buses are also relatively comfortable although many are not non-smoking, so ride at your own risk. Tour buses or hired cars with guides are easier if you don't have any Chinese speaking people in your travel party. Tolled highways running north-south have been up for quite awhile now. Several tolled highways that run east-west are getting built esp. in the south, and when they're finished in the next couple years, travelers will be able to hit more remote sights on a single trip.


Shanxi is under-developed in terms of hotels. Except in Taiyuan and Datong, 4-5 star hotels are hard to find. In most towns, 3-stars are the best you'll get. Check with local travel agencies for the newer hotels. Around the Hukou Waterfall area, you can try to stay at one of the cave (窑洞) hotels. These are domed rooms that are dug into the steep dirt cliffs, which are relative cool during the summer time and warm during the winter time. The traditional cave rooms have "kang" 炕 beds, which are heated from underneath by warm air that runs through from the in-room coal-burning stoves. Cave rooms tend to be damp during the winter/spring time, so the best time to try these are in the summertime. The modernized ones have AC and toilets in the rooms as well. A modernized cave hotel we checked out near JiXian is called TanZhuangYaoDongBinGuan 谭庄窑洞宾馆 0357-7927285, Ms. Lian.


Shanxi's staple items are made of wheat, maize, millet, and potatoes. Shanxi is also famous for it's black vinegar, white liquor "fenjiu" (汾酒), red dates, black mushrooms called "heimuer" (黑木耳). You'll also see various kinds of noodles, among which is the most famous shaved noodles (刀削面). You have the best shot at tasting delicious locally-grown food when you're in the countryside. You almost cannot go wrong with ordering noodles. Also remember, Shanxi is far, far away from the sea so don't order seafood, unless it's something from the local rivers.

baked baozi WuTaiLang wowotou XiYaGou agri products HaoGangGang Wild berry drink stone heated bread datong hotpot pingyao food
Special thanks to the Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese in Taiyuan, Lifen, and JinCheng, as well as the county government of JiXian and Hukou, for graciously providing us transportation, escorting our tours, and treating us to delicious meals that busted our bellies. Contact me if you want to get in contact with these great folks for your trip to Shanxi.


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Noteworthy sights around Shanxi

Here's my personal quick take on the sights. I included links to their official websites where available, but most are in Chinese (or poorly translated English).

Culture and History

Shanxi Traders' family courtyards 晋商大院- the better three are the Qiao's 乔家, Wang's 王家 , and Chang's 常家. These are former mansions of the Shanxi financiers/traders who did business with the Qing government and also abroad. They are the Chinese version of the JP Morgan and Rockefeller families. Qiao's got famous because Zhang YiMou's movie Raise the Red Lantern. There was then a popular Chinese TV drama called "Qiao's Family Courtyard" which really opened up domestic tourism for the place in 2006. However, a lot of scenes in the drama were actually shot in Chang's Courtyard, which was 16 times bigger than that of Qiao's. Wang's is also 4 times bigger than Qiao's but less "touched up." I'd recommend going to the Chang's so you can really get a feel for how rich these families must have been; the Qiao's is packed w/ tourists and vendors which make this place feel like a Universal Studio. Chang's is about 2 hours by taxi from Taiyuan, while the other 2 are further down south.

chang chang chang Qiao

Pingyao Old Town 平遥古城- about 1-2 hours by bus south of Taiyuan, it's one of the best preserved walled ancient towns in China (the other well-known one is Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan). The town thrived in the Qing Dynasty, when the Shanxi financiers/traders set up shops here. There are still town people living inside, which makes the touring experience somewhat more authentic. It's worth staying a night in town at one of the traditional Chinese guest houses. When I visited in 2006, there were talks about dressing tourists up Qing dynasty clothing and giving them ancient coins for spending in town...

Overcome Hill 克难坡 - this is a hill of special personal sentiment -- my dad was born there during WII, when Yan XiShan's (阎锡山, my grandfather's cousin) Chinese troops stationed out here on the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi near Hukou Waterfalls fighting the Japanese. At its peak, the military and civilian population on the hill reached 120,000 people. Tens and thousands of cave rooms were dug during that time, and most of them are still well-preserved today. You can learn more about Yan XiShan and his 38-year rule in Shanxi at his old residence (now a Shanxi folk museum - 河边民俗博物馆) in Hebian Village 河边村 near Wutai County, about 2 hours by bus from Taiyuan.

Overcome Hill Overcome Hill Overcome Hill Old lady at Overcome Hill Winding road between Overcome Hill and Yellow River

HuangChengXiangFu 皇城相府 - located near the southeast city of JinCheng 晋城, this is a unique example of a mansion with a combo of late Ming/early Qing period style architecture. It belonged to the Chen family, whose owner was Emperor Kangxi's teacher. The guy oversaw the compilation the famous Kangxi Dictionary 康熙大字典, which contains over 120,000 Chinese characters and was the most complete collection at the time.

Huangcheng Huangcheng img_0323.JPG Huangcheng Huangcheng cave rooms


Hanging Monastery 悬空寺- amazing petite structure that hangs off of the cliff in the Heng Mountain 恒山 by fragile-looking beams that were pounded into the wall. Because it was built cleverly, sheltered from rain and sun, this monastery withstood miraculously for the last 1400 years.

Hanging Monastery-compressed Hanging Monastery-close up

YunGang Grottoes 云冈石窟- lots and lots of stone Buddha carvings with Central Asian influences. The carving work started back in 460AD, lasted roughly 60 years, and resulted in over 50,000 big and small carvings tucked away in 45 major caverns. The carvings are great but they are also deteriorating and colors fading by the day as they are exposed to wind, heat, and moisture brought in tourists' breath. Better go see them while they last.

Wutai Mountain 五台山- one of the China's four mountains for Buddhist pilgrimage (the other three are: Zhejiang's Putuo, Sichuan's Emei, and Anhui's Jiuhua). Taoist and Confucius teachings and practices are also represented in some of the temples, which is very unique to Wutai Mountain. The mountain is actually made up of five peaks (hence the name "Wu", or five), and to reach any of the temples, you need to climb up 108 flights of stairs. Buddhists say that man has 108 kinds of worries, and climbing up the stairs, you throw those worries away (sure, it's hard to hang on to those worries when your working out on a 108-step Stairmaster). The mountain is a good summer retreat even after you're" templed" out.

Natural scenery

Hukou Waterfalls 壶口瀑布- located on the southwest border of Shanxi and Shaanxi, this is the second largest waterfall in China and the biggest fall on the Yellow River. It has the shape of a teapot sprout, hence the name "Hukou." From a far, you can only hear the sound of water rumbling and a huge cloud of mist where the waterfall stands. Only when you get closer can you see the waterfall, narrowing from a 200m to 30m waterway before plunging a 50m deep chute. Summer is the season with the most water flow, while in the winter, the fringe of the waterfall is frozen over. Hukou is not easy to get to but definitely worth a trip. You can take a bus to Lifen 临汾, transfer to JiXian吉县 and stay a night in JiXian. Take a short bus ride the following morning to the waterfall and you can catch some rainbow off of the waterfall's reflection around 9-10am.

Hukou Hukou img_0248.JPG

WangMangLing 王莽岭- located 40km to the east of JinCheng 晋城, the WangMangLing is a cluster of steep peaks in the Taihang Mountain 太行山 range. It's beautiful at sunrise and also hidden among the clouds. For the adventurous, hikes down are steep trails are possible. Nearby, XiYaiGou 锡崖沟 is a valley that was once blocked off on all sides by steep mountain cliffs. The locals dug 4 tunnels stacked on top of each other inside the rock cliffs and finally built themselves a 7km road after 30 years of hard work. Of course there are other roads to access the valley now, but you can still ride down the original tunnel -- pretty amazing. There are some simple family-run inns in the valley and should be pretty nice to stay in during the summertime. Oh, don't forget to try the dishes made w/ locally grown ingredients at the handful of small restaurants there.

Wangmangling xiyaigou


Free drinks with overpriced DVD's at Taikang Rd Oscar Club

I went over to Taikang Rd over the weekend and friends tipped me off to the old Ka De's reincarnation:  Oscar Club.  Ka De Club was the original mega underground DVD shop on JinXian Rd a few years back.  They had stores on Zhenning Rd and DaGu Rd also but after some kind of crack down, they changed their name.  I haven't been to this one at all, since I was pretty happy w/ my Dagu Rd shop.  The first thing we noticed was that the shop offered FREE cokes, bottled water, AND beer (ok, just some Sapporo light), no purchase necessary.  The funny thing is that not a lot of people seemed to have noticed the sign or the frig, which was standing right at the entrance.  I guess people were in a rush to go to the inner room to check out the new DVD's. 

Oscar's selection is still pretty extensive, but with so many other look-alike shops, it's no longer that impressive to me.  More over, it's by far the most expensive expat-oriented shop I've seen -- $8 for DVD and $16 for DVD-9.  Darn!  I'd give them that if they categorize by some scheme or had on-line ordering and free delivery service or something.  I guess it goes to pay for the free drinks we had at the door...

For cheaper DVD's, find a reliable shop near where you live (so you could return your defective discs) or try my favorite shops.


Knock-offs, fakes, copies - where do you buy them post-Xiang Yang Market

When the famous (infamous) Xiang Yang market shut its door back in June, 2006, local and tourists alike lost their must-visit shopping mecca that had been around since 2000.  What remains are the streetside peddlers holding worn-out catalog cards who promise nice fake LV's, Gucci's, and Rolexes.

So where do you find the stuff you still want to buy now (ok, no moral judgements here)?  The vendors are now much more discreet and don't flaunt the really good AAA stuff in plain sight.  For top brand bags, try the little shops along ChangLe Rd and XinLe Rd, between XiangYang Rd and Shannxi Rd.  Befriend the shop owners by buying a few pieces first, and then they might bring out the really nice ones.  They don't come cheap considering they're fakes -- prices range in the thousand(s) of kuai-- but the materials they use are much better than what you'd see on the street.  I prefer bags without blatant logos that can stand on its design and materials.  You can also pick up "brandname" shoes, sun glasses, and clothing that make you wonder whether they are leaks from the real factories.

For electronics, luggages, and more casual fashion items, head for Taobao Mall (580 Nanjing West Rd near ChengDu NorthRd).  The clean and modern mall is a much more pleasant place to shop than Xiang Yang market.  Ironically, all the shops have a sign out front that says that everything they sell are authentic...  Here, you tend to find 2nd tier/niche brands whose legal powers are not as strong as the top brands.

Another bunch of shops migrated to the underground shopping mall at PuDong's Science and Tech Musuem (Subway Line 2).  I find the items, both clothing and souvenirs, very attractive here and if you go on the weekdays when there's less traffic, you might be able to bargain harder (although some people also told me that if you go on the weekdays, you'd be the target for ALL shop owners).  There's also a row of restaurants next to the shopping mall for you to grab a bite after you're done.

You can also check out QiPu Rd Wholesale Clothing Market, which is near Subway line 8's QuFu Rd station.  You can find trendy styles here and for cheaper, but the quality tends to be lower than the two places above.  Inspect items carefully before you buy.

A word on bargaining -- the old rule of thumb is to counter offer at 70% off and make the deal around 50% off, but the vendors can outsmart you by opening at even higher prices.  To gain upperhand is to be walk away from things when the price isn't what you want.  Remember, these items are sold at more than one shop!!


Quality Movie DVD shopping in Pudong

The other day, my friend who can speak Shanghainese took me to the shop where he usually picks up his stash of DVDs. I have always heard about DVD's being cheaper in Pudong but was always too lazy to go over the water and stuck with my Dagu Rd shop.

We went to a non-descript building near the Yaohan 八佰伴 at 1271 Pudong Nan Lu called "Rong Fu Deparment Store" 融富百货商场. The entire building is full of little shop/stalls peddling all kinds of wares. We went straight to the 3rd floor, stall B15, where Lady Pan's shop is. It's dinky shop, much like an old record shop, with rows and rows and DVD's not organized in any particular order. Everyone there was intently flipping through the DVD jackets, looking for those hidden treasures to bring home.

My friend claims that he goes through 20 movies per week, so always picks out a ton of stuff and is a favorite customer there. He's also a walking IMDB and served as a movie title translator for Lady Pan. I found Qatsi Trilogy, Baraka/Chronos, and an Ang Lee collection, which even contains "Xiao Yu" 少女小渔, a movie he co-produced but not directed. Most of the discs were DVD 9 format, the higher quality one, and it worked to be around $7-8RMB/movie.


Hainan Sanya: China's Hawaii Waikiki - part 2 food

Searching for places to eat is a bit of a challenge. The tourist places are definitely not cheap, and may even be on par with Shanghai prices. For the first couple of days, we went to the ol' McDonald's for breakfast/lunch. There is only one M in town, which is located at the Pedestrian Stree (行人徒步街). Later, we found some more authentic local vermecelli noodle shops near the First Agriculture Market (第一农贸市场). The "Baoluofen" 抱罗粉 (vermecelli with pig's guts and small crunchy bread bits) was really yummy. At the market, we also bought some locally grown tropical fruits such as jackfruit, rambutan, and mango. Fresh coconuts are also pretty ubiquitous, although we heard that a lot of them are actually imported from Vietnam.

The seafood is a must-try here. We went to a popular joint called Mingrun明润, which has one location on Binghai Blvd. To order the seafood, you go check out the various live seafood selection and they'll weigh them on the spot. They charge$6-10RMB/500g (一斤) to cook the dishes, any style. The bill should come out to be $50-$100RMB per person, if you didn't order too much exotic stuff. I really liked the deep-see jumbo shrimps, but the crab is not as good as the hairy crab varietal we get in Shanghai. There's this rare type of fish called "Su-mei"苏眉 that's supposed to be delicious but it wasn't in season when we were there. You can also have seafood dinner on fisherman's boat off the Hongsha Pier 红砂码头渔排 (to the east of Dadonghai) for $50RMB all-you-can-eat type, but we didn't get to try that either.

There's one nice western pub/cafe in Dadonghai called Rainbow. We went for brunch a couple times when we stayed in Dadonghai.


As Sanya develops into a world-class beach vacation spot, there should be a lot more opportunities for new restaurants of all kinds to move in. This is a town (city) that doesn't even have Starbucks yet! The local foods will be much more accessible and safer to eat if newer concept restaurants are opened.


See my part 1 write-up about Sanya's accommodations.



Mingrun Seafood Baoluofen vermicelli noodles - Hainan specialty

Hainan Sanya: China's own Hawaii Waikiki - part 1 accommodation

I recently spent a week down in Hainan Island's Sanya to check out some real estate and also to get away from the cold in Shanghai. After a 3 hour direct flight, I arrived at Sanya airport. The cheapest way to get into town is to take the city bus on the arrival level on the 2nd floor. For $4-5RMB, you can get to Sanya Blvd, which runs along the Sanya Bay beach. For $30RMB, you can also take the airport bus or taxi to get to the Sanya Bay area.

Sanya is roughly divided into 3 sections: Sanya Bay 三亚湾, Dadonghai 大东海, and Yalong Bay 亚龙湾. Sanya Bay is the most popular beach with local Chinese vacationers; the beach itself is a narrow band that runs several miles long, but the sand and water qualities are so so due to heavy traffic. There's a newer section of the Sanya Bay near the airport called Haipo 海坡, where a lot of new apartment and villa complexes are being built along the beach front. Dadonghai (Big East Ocean) is a smaller crescent shaped beach, mostly taken over by the Russian vacationers; the sand and water is nicer than those of Sanya Bay, esp. if you go toward the Xiaodonghai (Small East Ocean). Yalong Bay is packed with upscale international 5 star hotels like Hilton, Sheraton, Marriot, Ritz Carlton, as well as some Chinese branded 5 star hotels. Sanya and Yalong Bay became better known after the Miss World Pagent finals were held there, but the golfers have been going there for the nice weather and courses.

For accommodation, I had researched several "family hotels" that are located in the beach front apartment complexes; these are pretty much clusters of apartments managed by professional property management companies on behalf of owners who don't live in Sanya. Being a budding short-term apartment rental manager myself, I'm obviously eager to check these counterparts out ;-) Me and my friend decided to stay at multiple places in the different areas around Sanya to get a feel for the real estate quality.

The first place we stayed at was a "super deluxe ocean view room" at 海豹家庭旅馆 (the Seal Hotel) in the Future Life complex (碧海蓝天). The room was nicely decorated w/ 2 single beds and a bathroom. The balcony has a great ocean view from the 19th floor. It turned out that the room belonged to another hotel in the same building called Yomovo 游牧虎, which has a nice English site. The room was $200RMB/night, a great value considering the ocean view we got. They waived the $10RMB/night charge for internet connection (no wifi) after we protested that their competitors' were free of charge. Most complex residents are local Chinese, and I suspect many of them are also staying at one of the many family hotels in the complex. There's a big swimming pool (well, most complexes in Sanya have it), tennis courts (remember to bring your own racket), and a very well-stocked supermarket. Several bus lines also stop in front of the complex and take you to pretty much all the scenic spots along the beach, as far out as Yalong Bay.

Next, we moved to the Haipo area's BT Inn, which is located in a well-developed complex called Sunny Oceanfront (阳光海岸). This family hotel was a disappointment, as the room they gave us was not at all what's shown on their website. The furnitures are sparten and worn, and there was no interior deco to speak of (the bathrooms had exposed piping). At this hostel quality level, they charged us $260/night! What a rip-off. The beach out front is not too much nicer than Sanya Bay's -- even narrower and lack maintanance. We did stop by the Kempinski Hotel another 10 min by bus toward the west end, and the hotel seemed very nice with a big, private beach out front. The Holiday Inn that's a few doors down from Sunny Oceanfront was so-so, and doesn't have any stand-out facilities.

After one unhappy night at BT Inn, we fled to Dadonghai. We tried out the Bluesky Youth Hostel for $120RMB/night, recommended by Lonely Planet. The famed Peter guy wasn't in and the building was a bit old. We decided that we needed more view and comfort than what a hostel can offer, so we moved again after one night. We had our eyes set on Nanfeng, a first-line oceanview family hotel right in the center of Dadonghai, but they were solidly booked until end of March!! Wow, that's some good biz they're doing there. We settled for another family hotel, Yi Jia 怡佳, in the same apt building but on a lower floor. The view from the room was great and so was the price: $200RMB/night. Yi Jia is not as well-run as Nanfeng upstairs, that's why they still had open rooms when Nanfeng was full.

Overall, it's a great deal to stay at the family hotels when you come to Sanya, esp. if you want to stay for extended period of time. The monthly rent on these apts are pretty low: you can get a decent ocean front place for less than $3000RMB/month, which won't last you 3 nights at those 5-star places. I do have to admit though, that the hotels and beaches at Yalong Bay were super nice and definitely the choice for those with the dough.

See my part 2 write-up about Sanya's food.

view of Sanya Bay from Seal Hotel Seal Hotel room View of Dadonghai Yijia Hotel at Dadonghai Sheraton