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 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.
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.