The Central Plains, or Zhong Yuan (中原) is the cradle of Chinese civilization. Covering roughly the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan and Hebei, it was here that the Yellow Emperor united the people and created the first Chinese nation, here that Fuxi developed Yin Yang and Bagua theories, here that Laozi, Zhuangzi and Mozi all wrote their great philosophies, and here that Qin Shi Huang united all of China and built the Great Wall and Terracotta Army. A large part of the central plains however, is very undeveloped and relatively poor, and besides a few main sites, sees few foreign visitors. However it is a treasure house of Chinese culture, and no trip to China is complete without travelling this ancient region.
The capital of the province, Xi’an (西安), as well as the nearby Terracotta Army, are must-sees for all visitors to China, but did you know in the north of the province, at Yu Lin (榆林), you can also see old and battered parts of the Great Wall? This province is really wedged between the central plains, the Mongolian Steppes and the Gobi Desert. Anyway, back to Xi’an, the place where Qin Shi Huang made his capital and united all of China, it is also the starting point of the Silk Road, and was the capital of China for much of it’s history. There’s the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, built to revere Xuan Zang who brought Buddhist scriptures back from India and had his life written into the novel Journey to the West. Xi’an also has one of the best preserved city walls in all of China. The Muslim Quarter is actually where I lived for three months when I first came to China is 2007 and is a great area to wonder around. Just next to the old Bell Tower and Drum Tower, the Muslim Quarter is a great place to buy souvenirs or eat some mutton kebabs and other delicious street snacks. Hidden away in it’s labyrinth of back alleys is a beautiful Mosque built in Ming Dynasty architecture with a nice quiet garden to sit and ponder the meaning of life.
Outside of Xi’an you have the Terracotta Army, as well as various tombs of various Emperors, more sites than you have time to see! Not too far away is also Hua Shan (华山), the “western mountain” of the five sacred mountains in China, which has some the most dangerous hikes in the world and some breathtaking scenery. You also have the city of Hancheng (韩城), a very well preserved old city, which is home to the great historian Sima Qian.
Henan means South of the River,and refers to the Yellow River, which is the life blood of northern China. It was here that civilization first took route as people began to till the fertile central plains. Henan is a large and heavily populated province, and is poverty stricken in many parts. the capital Zhengzhou is one of the largest transport hubs in northern China, and so getting around is very convenient, however, besides a large and impressive museum, there is little of interest here. Henan is home to Luoyang (洛阳) and Kaifeng (开封), both ancient capitals of China, and cities brimming with history. Luoyang’s main attraction is the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO world heritage site of hundreds of huge Buddha’s carved into rocks. Luoyang also has a nice old town with an old drum tower and parts of the old city walls still remain. Just outside the city is the White Horse Temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in China dating back to 1st century AD, although it has been rebuilt several times since. Kaifeng, is the real charm for me, having not a single high rise and many well preserved old buildings and city walls. The Kaifeng Fu is the reconstructed site of the Song Dynasty government, and there are various re-enactments of ancient rituals and state meeting held there.
The other big draw to Henan is Shaolin Temple on Song Shan mountain (嵩山) which juts up in the middle of the central plains. Shaolin Temple doesn’t really need an introduction as the “must see” pilgrimage site for all martial artists, and I think it’s reputation as a hugely over-commercialised site with a theme park feel is also well known. However, Song Shan itself has many quiet reaches, being the central of the five sacret Taoist mountains, besides the Buddhist temple of Shaolin, there are countless Taoist temples deep in the mountains, as well as some quiet Buddhist retreats, where monks have decided to escape the chaos of Shaolin.
And now to introduce the much lesser known parts of Henan: Zhoukou (周口) and Shangqiu (商丘). Zhoukou is said to be the home of Laozi, the philosopher who is acknowledged with beginning Taoism. Shangqiu is the home of Zhuangzi, Mozi (founder of Mohism) and the heroine Hua Mulan. Both areas are full of history and have many ancient sites and tombs which barely see foreign visitors at all, and can be said to be well off the beaten track.
Martial artists will find Henan province a treasure house. Besides the famous Shaolin Temple, nearby is the county of Wenxian and Chengjiagou, both huge centres of Taiji Quan and in Luoyang and particularly Zhoukou, the large populations of Hui Muslims practice Cha Quan, Xinyi Liuhe Quan and other styles.
Not to be confused with the aforementions Shaanxi, Shanxi means “west of the mountains” and is on the one hand, a dusty and polluted region known for coal-mining, but on the other hand a treasure trove of traditional Chinese culture and history. Just south of the uninteresting provincial capital, Taiyuan, you have the ancient city of Pingyao (平遥), which is THE best preserved old city in all of China. It gained huge amounts of wealth during the Ming and Qing dynasties as an important spot on the trade route for goods to and from the capital, and it even developed the first banking system in ancient China. For martial artists, the surrounding region of Qi county (祁县) is a hotspot for both Xingyi Quan and Dai Family Xinyi Quan.
Heading north of the province, surrounding the ugly industrial city of Datong, are many sites of spiritual importance. Wutai Shan (五台山) is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, being the earthly abode of the Boddhisattva Manjushri, and a site of pilgrimage for people as far away as Tibet and Mongolia. There is also the Yungang Buddhist Grottoes, where hundreds of Buddhas are carved into cliff faces, similar to Longmen in Henan. Finally is Heng Shan (恒山), which is the northern of the five sacred Taoist mountains, and is home to Xuankong Temple, which is one of the most spectacular temples in all of China being built right into the side of a cliff.