Shantou

Lying at the mouth of the powerful Han River and gazing out at the sparkling South China Sea, the city of Shantou is awash with stunning natural scenery. Its prime location meant that it swiftly became one of the most important maritime trading hubs in Chinese history, when it was referred to as “Swatow” or “Santow” by foreign travellers. It was not, however, always a bustling hub of international trade. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Shantou was just a small fishing village where locals lived a simple yet tranquil life. It wasn’t until 1858, when it was designated as a treaty port, that Shantou rose to become a major centre for transport and commerce. Shantou may have started out as the ugly duckling on the river bank, but it quickly transformed into a beautiful swan!

The treaty ports occupy a somewhat controversial place in Chinese history, as they were largely the result of foreign aggression and pressure that was exerted on the imperial government. During the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the imperial government limited trade with foreign countries to the city of Guangzhou, in an attempt to curtail foreign influence. After the Qing Dynasty’s defeat during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), however, the imperial government were forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with several foreign countries, including Britain, the US, and France, which granted them access to ports throughout the country. It was in this way that Shantou was introduced to the rest of the world. 

By the 1930s, Shantou boasted an enormous trading network of junk boats that connected to ports throughout the provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, making it the second most important port in southeast China after Guangzhou. It was well-known for transporting exports of sugar, fruit, canned goods, and marine products. Thanks to its direct access to overseas trade, Shantou quickly became one of the main ports via which Chinese emigrants moved abroad to places as far flung as North America and Europe. Estimates indicate that between 1880 and 1909 around 2.5 million locals left Shantou to start a new life overseas. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the entire population of Paris!

In fact, Shantou advanced so rapidly during this period that in 1906 it became one of the first places in China to obtain a railway line. It seems that sometimes technology cannot replace nature, as the railway failed to overtake the river as the primary transportation system in the area and it gradually fell into disrepair. Shantou may have been rising to new heights but, as with every rise, there inevitably comes a fall! During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the port was severely damaged by a series of bombardments and was eventually captured in 1939, remaining under Japanese control until the end of the war. Shantou was, however, destined to bounce back, as it was named a special economic zone in 1981 and is now connected to over 200 trading ports around the world! 

Today, the city is home to stunning works of architecture that continue to link it to its multi-cultural past. In particular, the Shantou Old Town is home to a special style of architecture known as a Qilou. Qilou, also known as Tong Lau, became hugely popular throughout many regions in southern China, such as Guangdong province, Fujian province, Macau, and Hong Kong, during the late 19th century.

The style originated from the bustling city of Guangzhou, which was a commercial port used frequently for foreign trade. You may be surprised to find, however, that there are actually more surviving Qilou in Shantou than in Guangzhou! The foreign influence on this style of architecture is palpable, as it resembles a perfect intermingling of traditional Chinese and Western styles of architecture. Admiring the elegant Qilou is widely considered to be the highlight of any trip to Shantou.

As a city that has become intricately linked with the sea, it should come as no surprise that the most popular deity in Shantou is Mazu, the protective goddess of sailors and seafarers. There is a small temple dedicated to Mazu, where locals go to pray before they take any journey, regardless of whether it’s by boat or not. The temple itself was designed in the typical South Min-style, with the characteristic ceramic figures on the roof eaves and various ornate decorations. Its location in the old part of the city makes it an ideal place to stop and enjoy a tranquil rest after a day of exploration.

Queshi Park, which is connected to the city by Queshi Bridge, is heralded as one of the most scenic spots in Shantou and once served as the site of the American, German, and British consulates. This expansive park is dotted with an intoxicating mixture of elegant temples, lush greenery, azure waters, and sandy beaches. Its location offshore means that, from the outside, it looks like a miniature garden floating in the sea. Hike up one of its 43 granite peaks and you’ll be rewarded with a breath-taking panoramic view of the city itself. 

Alongside Queshi Park, Shantou is also home to Zhongshan Park, which was established during the 1920s to demonstrate the expertise of southern Chinese gardeners. As guests enter under the six-pillar gate bedecked with red lanterns, they’ll be greeted by the Chinese characters “Tian Xia Wei Gong” (天下为公) or “The World Belongs to Us All”, a phrase famously coined by the politician Sun Yat-sen. Much like Queshi Park, this beautiful scenic spot is surrounded by water on all sides and is connected to the city by three bridges.

The city is also home to a dizzying variety of museums and historic sites, such as the Shantou Museum and the highly controversial Cultural Revolution Museum. The most famous of these historical sites, however, is arguably Chen Cihong’s Mansion. This luxurious complex was constructed by a business magnate named Chen Cihong, who originated from Shantou. He amassed his vast fortune throughout Hong Kong and Bangkok during the 19th century, but always returned to his hometown of Shantou in order to construct mansions for his family and contribute to the local economy by investing in public welfare projects, such as building roads and funding local schools. The largest of these mansions, which once served as his residence, has been opened to the public and decked with elegant period furnishings. A stroll through its 506 rooms offers an unparalleled insight into what life was like for those Chinese businessmen lucky enough to make their fortune overseas.

Shantou’s final claim to fame is undoubtedly its strangest, as its location on the Tropic of Cancer resulted in the construction of the Symbolic Tower of the Tropic of Cancer in 1986. This 13-metre (45 ft.) high tower culminates in a tall plinth that has been carved in the shape of the character “北” or “north”, atop which rests a model globe of the Earth. A steel pipe runs directly through the centre of the globe and was placed there specifically due a phenomenon that takes place during the Summer Solstice. On the day of the solstice, the sun sits directly above the Tropic of Cancer and sunlight shines through the steel pipe, meaning that the tower itself casts no shadow for a brief period of time.

That being said, it is not only Shantou’s historic sites and splendid gardens that continue to attract the tourist crowds. The city is known as a haven of Teochew culture and the centre of Teochew Opera, since the majority of the population of Shantou is Teochew. While the Teochew people are officially considered to be a sub-group of the Han ethnic majority, their language is distinct from Mandarin Chinese and their culture is vastly different from that of the Han people. Unlike the well-known Peking style of opera, the Teochew style of opera is sung in a much more natural voice and will thus be more familiar to those with a preference for European styles of opera. This 500-year-old style incorporates fan dances and acrobatic displays into each performance, making it a spectacle not to be missed!

The Teochew people are also particularly renowned for their exquisite cuisine and their love of drinking tea. Shantou in particular is famed throughout China for Teochew dishes that revolve around a special breed known as the lion-head goose, which is larger than most breeds and has been raised in Shantou for centuries. Don’t let the name worry you; this goose’s roar is much worse than its bite!

Explore more about Shantou with us on the unique travel: Explore the Ancient Fortresses of Southeast China

Chikan

The picturesque town of Chikan represents the historic heart of Kaiping County and rests just 12 kilometres (7 mi) from the city centre of Kaiping itself. The town was originally founded in 1649 and immediately rose to become one of the most important maritime trading hubs in the region due to its proximity to the Tan River, which is part of the well-known Pearl River Delta. From the late 19th century until the early 20th century, this convenient transport link meant that Chikan swiftly ascended to become a major maritime trading hub and centre for emigration, as many locals were prompted to head overseas due to population pressure and poverty. 

Thanks to the combined effort of wealthy local merchants and emigrants who made their fortune overseas, Chikan benefited from an influx of investment during the early 20th century and rapidly rose to become one of the largest and most prosperous market towns in southern China. In short, they were the original rags to riches story! By the 1930s, there were nearly 1,000 shops operating in this bustling market town. While the Tan River has since become impassable, the town is now famed for its beautifully preserved Qilou and Diaolou. There are currently over 600 Qilou and around 200 Diaolou in Chikan, the most noteworthy of which are Jinghui Lou, Yinglong Lou, and Nan Lou.

Jinghui Lou is a Qilou that served as the former residence of a man named Zhang Jinghui, who was celebrated for his talents as a medical clinician and rose to fame during the early 20th century. After his death, this Qilou was converted into a museum so that his legacy may live on. More importantly, it will hopefully save him from being confused with the Zhang Jinghui of Liaoning province, who was a ruthless warlord that served the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo during the World War II. Talk about an unfavourable comparison!

The Qilou in Chikan

Yinglong Lou or “Greeting the Dragon Tower”, by contrast, is not technically located in Chikan, but can be found in the village of Sanmenli, which is considered part of Chikan township. It is one of the oldest surviving Diaolou in China and was built by the Guan clan during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Unlike the Diaolou that were built during the 20th century, Yinglong Lou is a colossal three-storey rectangular fortress that is almost purely Chinese in style and incorporates few features from Western styles of architecture. It was rebuilt in 1919 with grey bricks and a new roof was added, giving the old fortress a well-deserved makeover! 

Finally, Nan Lou is another defensive Diaolou that serves as a testament to the vicious nature of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Seven members of the Situ clan fought off the Japanese invasion of Chikan atop Nan Lou for 7 consecutive days before they were forced to surrender. They were only captured and killed by the Japanese once soldiers fired poisonous gas into the building. A memorial monument was built on the banks of the Tan River in their honour. 

In fact, the Situ clan and the Guan clan played an integral role in the historic development of Chikan. Their relationship, however, was not without its controversy! The Situ and the Guan resided on the upper and lower reaches of the Tan River respectively and were notorious for their ferocious rivalry, as they were in constant competition with each other. One of the greatest examples of this rivalry took place in 1923, when the Situ clan spent over 30,000 silver dollars building a public library known as “Situ’s Library”. Not to be outdone, the Guan clan matched this feat by constructing a library of their own, known as “Guan’s Library”, which was opened to the public in 1931. While you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, evidently these clans were hoping to be judged favorably by their libraries!

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the influence of these two clans began to wane and, by 1958, both of their libraries had been converted into government offices. They were tragically abandoned after 1968 and many locals were devastated as they watched these two historic buildings slowly fall to ruin. Fortunately, members of the two clans that lived in Kaiping petitioned the local government and campaigned for funding. Thanks to their persistence, the two libraries were renovated and re-opened to the public during the 1980s.

Nowadays, the town is considered so scenic that part of it was converted into “Chikan Studio City” or “Chikan Movie and Television City”, which is a popular set for Chinese filmmakers. Several martial arts epics, including The Grandmaster and Drunken Master II, have at least been partially filmed in Chikan. It is also conveniently located between the magnificent Li Garden and the Diaolou of Majianglong, making it the ideal location to visit some of the most renowned works of ancient architecture in southern China. Unfortunately, however, the town is currently undergoing renovation as part of a government initiative. Now may be your last chance to see it in its original condition before it is transformed into just another tourist attraction!

Guangzhou

According to ancient legend, there was once a town in Guangdong province that suffered through a great famine. On the brink of starvation, the locals prayed to the gods for help. Suddenly, the clouds broke open and five celestial beings, each carrying a sheave of rice, descended from heaven riding five rams. They offered the sheaves to the people and taught them how to farm rice. When they finally returned to heaven, their trusted rams turned to stone and stayed in the town as a testament to the tale. From then on, the town prospered and the locals wanted for nothing. 

In time, this small town would transform to become the third largest city in China: Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong province. It is nicknamed the “City of Rams” and the image of the five rams has become iconic, gracing everything from public statues to business logos. The original stone rams can supposedly be found at the Taoist Temple of the Five Immortals, where they rest in perpetual tranquillity among the ornate temple halls and lush floral gardens. So, if Los Angeles is America’s City of Angels, then Guangzhou is China’s City of Immortals!

The city was originally founded during the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 BC) under the name Nanwu. It didn’t receive the name Guangzhou until 226 AD, when it had already blossomed into a large and wealthy trading port. Its location along the Pearl River made it one of the most important ports in southern China and a major stop along the maritime Silk Road. Even during the Mongol conquest, the city still found a way to make the best of a bad situation! 

Although it suffered much destruction during the initial turmoil, its economy surged during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) thanks to the Mongolians’ ardent support of maritime trade. This good fortune was soon to reverse during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when the Hongwu Emperor retracted his support of foreign trade and imposed a number of maritime trade bans. When the Portuguese sent their first embassy to Guangzhou during the early 1500s, they were forced to conduct much of their trade illegally. By the time the Dutch and the British arrived in the 17th century, foreign trade in China was still being carried out in secret. 

While the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) were more lenient and open to trade with their foreign friends, tensions soon began to rise in 1757 when they established the Canton System. This dictated that all foreign trade must take place in Guangzhou, so that the government could easily monitor and control the trade industry. Guangzhou swiftly developed into one of the world’s foremost trading ports, but the political atmosphere was rife with discontent. Foreign traders found the restrictions placed upon them irksome and unnecessary.  

The breaking point came in 1839, when the Qing government seized and destroyed large quantities of British opium, and effectively triggered the First Opium War (1839-1842). After a humiliating defeat, the Qing Emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing with Britain, which opened up a number of ports across the country to foreign trade. Almost overnight, Guangzhou had lost its privileged status as the sole trading port. By the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), large parts of Guangzhou had been carved out as foreign concessions and the city was virtually unrecognisable. The small town in the mountains of Guangdong had transformed into a bustling, multinational metropolis. 

From 1895 until 1925, Guangzhou’s most illustrious citizen came to the fore: Sun Yat-sen[1]. His campaign to abolish imperial rule in China culminated in the Guangzhou Uprising of 1911, which paved the way for the Xinhai Revolution later that year. He made Guangzhou the base of his operations and it was in this city that, under his tutelage, political giants such as Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong began their careers. 

Its revolutionary days may be behind it, but nowadays Guangzhou is still heralded as a major centre for commerce. Its annual Canton Fair, which has been held every year since 1957, is the oldest and largest trade fair in China. Attracting business owners and entrepreneurs from across the globe, it is a testament to the city’s undeniable allure. However, there’s much more to Guangzhou than shimmering skyscrapers and lively shopping districts. 

Sprawling areas of verdant greenery such as Baiyun Mountain, Nansha Wetland Park, and Yuexiu Park have earned it the nickname “City of Flowers”, while the traditional Xiguan Residences of Liwan District and the Western-style colonial mansions on Shamian Island add a touch of intrigue to the cityscape. Guangzhou’s multi-ethnic past is attested to by its many religious buildings, from the Buddhist Temple of the Six Banyan Trees to the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Huaisheng Mosque, which was originally built over 1,300 years ago, is widely considered to be the oldest of its kind in China and one of the oldest mosques in the world. 

Historically speaking, the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall make for an interesting mix, acting as proof of the city’s ancient origins and its revolutionary significance. The Chen Clan Ancestral Hall is a magnificent academic temple built by the Chen family during the Qing Dynasty, while the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall is a relatively modern construction that was built in honour of Sun Yat-sen. 

Alongside these glorious attractions, Guangzhou is renowned throughout China for its mouth-watering cuisine and vibrant nightlife. Sample some of the finest Cantonese dim sum, marvel at a performance of Cantonese opera, or simply soak in the scenery on an evening cruise down the Pearl River. When it comes to this lively city, you’ll certainly have to ram a lot into your schedule! 

[1] Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925): A Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, abolishing imperial rule and founding the Republic of China. He became the first president of China in 1912.

Explore more about Guangzhou with us on the unique travel: Explore the Ancient Fortresses of Southeast China

The Yulin Grottoes

On the shimmering banks of the Yulin River, the cliff-faces on either bank appear to be punctured with a myriad of small holes. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll discover that these small holes are filled with some of the most beautiful works of Buddhist art in China! The Yulin Grottoes, also known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Buddhas, are a collection of 42 hand-carved caves that contain over 250 Buddhist statues and a staggering 4,200 square metres (45,208 sq. ft.) of colourful murals. The name “yulin” (榆林) or “elm tree” is derived from the jade-hued elm trees that line the bank of the river, which endow the area with a picturesque beauty. It is easy to see how this verdant place inspired Buddhist monks to produce such magnificent works of art. This grotto complex is intimately connected to the nearby Mogao Caves, which have been heralded as one of the Four Grand Groups of Grottoes in China. The Yulin Grottoes may not have earned a fancy title, but they are certainly no less magnificent!

The first few caves were initially carved during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535 AD), but the complex was renovated and added to right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Arguably the grottoes most unique feature is that it contains grottoes that were constructed during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227), in particular grottoes number 2 and 3. Historians know very little about this mysterious empire, which was ruled by an ethnic group known as the Tanguts. The scenes depicted in these grottoes provide an unparalleled insight into what Tangut culture was like and have given historians invaluable examples of the Tangut language, which is related to the language of the Qiang ethnic minority. While their language may resemble that of the Qiang ethnic minority, the Tanguts actually belonged to a Turkic ethnic group known as the Xianbei, who occupied large parts of north and northwestern China. In fact, the Xianbei people had originally spoken a Turkic language, but adopted the Qiangic language after conquering and absorbing several Qiang tribes. You could argue that it was one of the earliest examples of cultural appropriation!

What makes these grottoes still more exceptional is that, alongside scenes of Buddhist significance, the murals within some of the grottoes contain secular images, such as tableaus of people making wine, playing musical instruments, dancing, milking cows, playing games, or getting married. Within these scenes, you can witness the traditional dress of several ethnic groups who inhabited this region throughout Chinese history. According to archaeologists, these spectacular murals would have been painted using brushes made from rabbit’s hair and the deep richness of colour would have been achieved by grinding valuable minerals, such as red ochre, cinnabar, and lapis lazuli. 

In terms of layout, each cave is typically formed of an entrance corridor, an antechamber, and a main chamber. The 25th grotto, which was originally constructed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), is perhaps the most famous and emblematic among the many splendid caves within the grotto complex. It is distinctly Tibetan in terms of art style and it contains a vivid mural that depicts eight different bodhisattvas within the Buddhist canon, including the Vairocana Buddha, Maitreya (the Laughing Buddha), and Manjusri Bodhisattva. In the 29th grotto, there is a breath-taking mural depicting the pilgrimage that the monk Xuanzang took to acquire Buddhist scriptures, while the 2nd grotto is home to a similarly stunning mural of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, sitting calmly atop Luojia Mountain. On the east wall of the 3rd grotto, a mural depicting the One-Thousand-Armed Guanyin demonstrates the level of scientific development that had occurred at the time of its painting, since Guanyin is shown holding a variety of advanced tools in her many hands. While the grottoes’ artistic value is undeniable, they have also been integral to mapping out the history of the region and understanding the complexities of multi-ethnic life in this remote region of China. 

The Huaqing Hot Springs

The Huaqing Hot Springs are a complex of hot springs located at the northern foot of Mount Li in Shaanxi province, just 30 kilometres (19 mi) east of Xi’an. Thanks to its unusual shape, Mount Li or Mount “Black Horse” supposedly looks like a black horse galloping through the fields. With all of the unexpected popularity that it currently enjoys, you could almost say that Mount Li is the dark horse of the Qin Mountains! Its natural beauty, coupled with the stunning architecture of the hot springs, makes this scenic spot undeniably alluring. However, it’s not just its aesthetic charm that attracts visitors, but also its captivating history. 

During the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BC), King You built the Li Palace at the base of Mount Li. This palace was expanded during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD) dynasties, but didn’t reach its full prominence until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Emperor Xuanzong of Tang spent huge sums of money expanding it, surrounding it with defensive walls and incorporating the nearby hot springs into its bath houses. He then renamed it Huaqing Palace and, over the course of his 44-year reign, would visit it over 36 times. In fact, he spent so long there that it eventually led to a full-scale rebellion!

His obsession with the palace began with his consort Yang Guifei [1], who was considered one of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China and whose appearance was so striking that it supposedly put flowers to shame! Understandably Xuanzong was infatuated with her, so much so that he promoted her cousin, Yang Guozhong, to the position of imperial minister. Eventually Xuanzong began spending so much time at the palace with Consort Yang that he neglected his duties as emperor. Meanwhile, a cunning young general named An Lushan was amassing political power and was able to gain the patronage of the placable Emperor Xuanzong, which eventually led to him obtaining control of a 200,000-strong army. Since he was of Göktürk and Sogdian origin, he maintained amicable relations with several northern ethnic groups and convinced them to join forces with him. This set the foundation for the An Lushan Rebellion. 

In 755 AD, An Lushan captured the eastern capital of Luoyang and declared himself Emperor of the short-lived Great Yan Dynasty (756–763). As his forces advanced on the imperial capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), Xuanzong and the Tang court were forced to flee south. However, his guards believed the Yang family were responsible for An Lushan’s rise to power and assassinated Yang Guozhong. They then demanded that Xuanzong have Yang Guifei put to death. Reluctantly, he ordered his attendant Gao Lishi to strangle her, and this became the basis for Bai Juyi’s renowned poem “The Song of Unending Sorrow”. Although An Lushan was unsuccessful in his claim to power, his rebellion weakened the Tang Empire so greatly that historians believe it was at least partly, if not completely, responsible for the collapse of the dynasty.

Yet it seemed that this wouldn’t be the last rebellion to grace the Huaqing Hot Springs, as the site was also the scene of the infamous Xi’an Incident in 1936. From 1927 through till 1936, China was embroiled in a vicious civil war between the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communist Party. The head of the CNP, Chiang Kai-shek, dedicated all of his energy and resources to campaigns against the CCP, in spite of pleas from his colleagues Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng that he focus instead on amassing power to defend against the invading Japanese army. 

On December 12th 1936, Chiang Kai-shek was staying at the Huaqing Hot Springs and the warlord Zhang decided to grasp the opportunity. He instructed his army to open fire on the pavilion where Chiang was staying, but Chiang managed to escape through a window and leapt over the back wall. He was captured hours later on Mount Li, and the place where he was found is now marked by an iron chain and a pavilion. After nearly a month of being held hostage and taking part in intense negotiations, Chiang eventually agreed to an alliance with the CPC and the first Chinese Civil War ended. So you see, the Huaqing Hot Springs weren’t just a popular spa retreat, they were also a place of revolution. Maybe there really was something in the water after all!

Since much of the original palace was damaged during the An Lushan Rebellion, many of the structures you see today were either rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) or after 1949. On first entering the palace’s west gate, you’ll come upon the enchanting Nine Dragon Lake. Lotus flowers float delicately on the lake’s surface and a magnificent white marble statue of Yang Guifei is reflected in its waters. Just don’t stare at her for too long, or you might get branded a Peeping Tom!

Many of the surrounding pavilions were rebuilt in the Tang style, such as the Frost Flying Hall, Yichun Hall, Five Chamber Hall, and the Dragon Marble Boat. The Frost Flying Hall was once the bedroom of Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei, while the Five Chamber Hall was where Chiang Kai-shek stayed before he was captured and was also used by the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi as a refuge when the Eight-Nation Alliance captured Beijing in 1900. Evidently it wasn’t as great a hiding place as they all thought!

Yet no spa would be complete without a few luxury baths. There are a total of six bathing areas within the complex and each one had a different function. For example, the Lotus Pool was exclusively used by the Emperor and was named for its characteristic lotus-shape; the Haitang Pool is shaped like a Chinese crab-apple and was used by the Emperor’s concubines; and the Shangshi Pool was solely for the use of government officials. Nowadays the pools have been drained and cannot be used by visitors, so don’t go wearing your swimsuit under your clothes or you’ll be sorely disappointed!

  1. Guifei: During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this was the highest rank that could be bestowed on an imperial consort.  

Huangya Pass

Winding its way through the mountains of Tianjin’s Ji County at an average altitude of 701 metres (2,300 ft.), Huangya or “Yellow Cliff” Pass represents one of the most integral yet overlooked sections of the Great Wall. Its unusual name is derived from the cliff rocks to the east of the pass, as they are mostly yellow in colour. At sunset, they are said to appear as though gilded in gold. The Huangya section actually stretches for a whopping 42 kilometres (26 mi), from Malan Pass in Hebei province to Jiangjun Pass in Beijing. As part of the Great Wall, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. 

It was originally constructed sometime during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 AD), but was rebuilt and reinforced with bricks and towers by a military general named Qi Jiguang during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). As if that wasn’t enough, it was heavily renovated in 1984 as part of an incentive proposed by politician Deng Xiaoping to “Love China, Restore the Great Wall”. This colossal renovation project meant that over 3 kilometres (2 mi) of the Huangya section, including 20 watchtowers, one pass fort, and one gatehouse, were given a much-needed facelift! Nowadays, although it may not appear as authentic or “wild” as other parts of the Great Wall, Huangya Pass is the ideal place for a challenging historical hike without having to battle the tourist crowds.

Nicknamed the Eight Trigrams Fortification City, the pass is known for the 40 crisscrossing streets within its walls, which were designed after the shape of the Bagua(1) or “Eight Trigrams” symbol. At the centre of this labyrinthine system lies the Great Wall Museum, which once served as the Dispatcher’s Office during the Ming Dynasty. With spectacular exhibits of the weapons and items used by soldiers patrolling the Great Wall, it offers a fascinating insight into what life was like during the height of the wall’s importance.   The museum also highlights the strategic military significance that this stretch of the wall once held. Watchtowers form a focal part of this section. They are either solid or hollow and come in a variety of shapes, from round to square. 

While the watchtowers are a common feature throughout any part of the Great Wall, the Huangya Water Gate is reasonably unique to Huangya Pass. This giant bridge spanning the nearby river was built with five arches, which could be closed or opened in order to enable or impede the flow of water. During wartime, the arches would be closed and soldiers would settle gun barrels along the battlements of the bridge in order to defend against any enemy utilising the waterway. In short, Ming soldiers knew how to handle themselves during a water fight!

Another unusual feature of this section is the Huangya Sky Ladder, the steepest stairway along this stretch of wall. Its nickname derives from the fact that it appears to rise at an almost vertical slant and, from its base, it looks as though it leads straight to the sky! Once you’ve conquered this challenging climb, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of a primitive stretch of the Great Wall that dates back to the Northern Qi Dynasty.

On the opposite end of the Huangya section, you’ll find Taipingzhai or the Taiping Mountain Stronghold. Spanning just 1,000 metres (3,281 ft.), it once played a focal role as a vital mountain fortress during the Ming Dynasty. A statue of Qi Jiguang marks the entrance, commemorating the general whose noble efforts helped to protect China’s northern borders. To the west of the main stronghold lies the Widow Tower, a two-storey square beacon tower that was built using funds donated by twelve widows whose husbands lost their lives while building the wall. If you look closely, you’ll notice intricate dragon’s head sculptures and statues of qilins (Chinese unicorns), phoenixes, and lions crouching on the eaves of its roof.

Although you can enter the Huangya section at the Huangya Pass entrance, it’s usually recommended that you start your hike from the Taiping Mountain Stronghold entrance, since the downhill slant will provide you with some respite from the wall’s mercilessly steep stairways. Once you reach the pass, which typically takes between two to three hours, there are plenty of farmhouses dotted about serving up fresh, rustic meals for weary hikers. If a leisurely pace is too slow for your speedy sensibilities, you can always consider taking part in the Great Wall Marathon!

Every year in May, a marathon race is held along the Huangya section of the Great Wall, with thousands of runners taking part annually. While there are now numerous marathons being held on other sections of the Great Wall, the Huangya marathon is one of the oldest and has been held since 1999. Over time, its popularity around the world meant it developed into an international event that is now acknowledged by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS). The full marathon covers the entire 42 kilometres (26 mi) of the Huangya section, although there is an optional half marathon, 10-kilometre (6 mi) run, 5-kilometre (3 mi) run, and child-friendly 8.5 kilometre (5 mi) Fun Run. If you think the run is too difficult, just remember: this was all in a day’s work for a Ming Dynasty soldier!  

(1) Bagua: The eight trigrams used in Taoist philosophy to represent the fundamental principles of reality. In their most simplified form, they symbolise the sky, the lakes, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountains and earth respectively.

The Giant Buddha Temple

The city of Zhangye once served as a bustling trading hub along the ancient Silk Road and, as such, it was one of the first Chinese cities to be exposed to Buddhist influence. The Giant Buddha Temple stands as a testament to the profound impact that Buddhism had on this city. With a name like the Giant Buddha Temple, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess what this place is famous for! Originally built during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227), the temple is home to the largest statue of the Reclining Buddha in China. The eponymous Giant Buddha statue is 33 metres (108 ft.) high, 49 metres (161 ft.) wide, and 24 metres (79 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, it is over five times the height of a giraffe and about as long as the average blue whale! The temple itself is also one of the largest remaining relics of the Western Xia Dynasty, a mysterious empire that was led by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts.

According to legend, a member of the imperial Tangut clan named Sineng decided to become a Buddhist monk and was traveling in the area surrounding Zhangye when he heard heavenly sounding music. Following the sound, he came to the foot of a mountain where a numinous light was shining. After digging at this luminous location, he unearthed a collection of Buddhist artefacts and among them was a statue of the reclining Buddha. Sineng interpreted this as a sign of divine approval and vowed to build a magnificent temple in honour of this sacred statue.  Five years later, his wish came true when in 1103 the Western Xia Emperor Chongzong provided the funds necessary to begin building the temple on the grounds of a pre-existing temple, which had been known as the Jiaye Rulai Temple. This original statue is reputedly hidden deep within the belly of the much larger Reclining Buddha statue that takes pride of place within the temple today.

Nowadays, the temple complex is separated into three main areas: the Buddha Hall, where the giant Reclining Buddha is located; the Buddhist Art Exhibition Hall, where various Buddhist paintings and sculptures are exhibited; and the Sutras Exhibition Hall, where the original sutras collected within the temple are displayed. The giant statue of the Reclining Buddha was carved from clay that was plastered over a wooden frame before being painted and gold-plated, which gives it an uncannily lifelike appearance. Directly behind the main statue, there are statues of the 10 principal disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. The sides of the hall are similarly home to statues of the 18 arhats, who are regarded as legendary guardians of Buddhism that supposedly possess supernatural powers. Alongside these vivid statues, the walls of the Buddha Hall are no less magnificent, as they have been covered with colourful murals that depict scenes from both the Mountains and Waters Sutra and the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The Sutras Exhibition Hall, also known as the Hall of Scriptures, is currently home to over 6,000 volumes of ancient Buddhist sutras that have miraculously managed to survive within the temple. Some of these dusty tomes have actually been written in powdered silver or gold, making them exceedingly valuable and rare. After all, diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but only the Diamond Sutra will help you achieve enlightenment!

Alongside the main temple halls, the temple complex itself is also home to two unique buildings: the Clay Pagoda and the Shanxi Guild. Originally, there were five pagodas in Zhangye known as the Five Element Pagodas, which were built in accordance with the traditional Chinese concept of the Five Elements. Now the 13-storey-high Clay Pagoda in the Giant Buddha Temple and the Wooden Pagoda in the Wooden Pagoda Temple are the only two that remain, making them important historical relics of the city’s ancient past.

The Shanxi Guild
The Shanxi Guild

Unlike the Clay Pagoda, the Shanxi Guild was technically never part of the original temple but has since been incorporated into the complex. The Shanxi Guild was founded in 1724 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as a place for traveling merchants from Shanxi province to network with one another and to feel more at home in this far flung city. These Shanxi merchants, more commonly known as the Jin Merchants, were astute businessmen who began by trading salt, which the imperial government permitted them to do so long as they provided food to imperial troops stationed within the frontier regions. This is why so many Shanxi merchants ended up in the remote western regions of China, such as Gansu province. Today, the Shanxi Guild still contains a well-preserved gate, theatre stage, audience tower, bell and drum tower, memorial archway, wing rooms, and hall. Wandering through these ancient buildings, you’ll effortlessly be transported back to what life was like for traveling merchants in this isolated oasis town.

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The Great Mosque of Xi’an

Nestled within the Muslim Quarter in the city of Xi’an, the Great Mosque is the largest of its kind in China and, alongside being a popular tourist site, remains an active place of worship to this day. What makes this mosque particularly unique is that it combines traditional Chinese architectural features with Islamic ones, looking from the outside like a typical Chinese temple but bearing the hallmarks of an Islamic mosque within its interior. According to historical records engraved on a stone tablet within the complex, the original mosque was built on this site in 742 AD, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). This mosque was built in order to accommodate the many merchants and travellers from Central Asia who settled in Xi’an, the then capital of China, and introduced Islam to the country.

The current mosque, however, was constructed in 1392, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and was renovated numerous times thereafter, meaning that many of the structures we find today date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the time of its construction, the mosque lay just outside of the Ming Dynasty city walls in a neighbourhood that was designated for foreigners, but today this area has been incorporated into the city proper and can be found close to the city’s famed Drum Tower. 

Sprawling across an area of 12,000 square metres (14,352 sq. yd.), the Great Mosque of Xi’an contains over twenty different buildings. Unlike a typical mosque, it is made up of pavilions and pagodas, and is laid out much like a Chinese temple, with successive courtyards following a single axis. The major way in which it differs from a Chinese temple, however, is that its grand axis is aligned from east to west in order to face Mecca, rather than from north to south in accordance with traditional feng shui[1] practices. In-keeping with Islamic tradition, the mosque is richly decorated with geometric and floral motifs, but contains few depictions of living creatures, the only exception being occasional images of dragons. Fabulous works of calligraphy are displayed throughout the complex, some of which are in Chinese, some of which are in Arabic, and a handful of which are in a fusion of styles referred to as “Sini”, which consists of Arabic text written in a traditionally Chinese calligraphic style. 

The complex is made up of four successive courtyards that lead up to the main prayer hall, which is backed by a fifth and final courtyard. Each courtyard is lined with lush greenery and contains a signature monument, such as a pavilion, screen, or freestanding gateway. After all, in a complex this expansive, you need something to help you stand out! In the first courtyard, the signature monument comes in the form of an elaborate style of wooden gateway known as a paifang, which is 9 metres (30 ft.) in height and is topped with a brightly coloured glazed-tile roof. This paifang is matched by a similar one in the second courtyard, although this is not its central feature. That honour is reserved for the two stone steles[2] that stand opposite this paifang, which have each been carved by a famous calligrapher. The first was written by Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), while the second was inscribed by Dong Qichang of the Ming Dynasty.

Step through another elegant roofed pavilion and you’ll find yourself in the third courtyard, which is known as the Qing Xiu Dian or “Place of Meditation”. This courtyard is home to the illustrious Xingxin Tower or “Tower of the Visiting Heart”. With a name that romantic, you know it must be something special! This spectacular brick tower is over 10 metres (33 ft.) in height and serves a particularly unique function within the mosque. Traditionally mosques built before the Great Mosque of Xi’an would have a minaret, where the call to prayer would take place, and a separate bangke or “moon watching” pavilion, which was a staple of traditional Chinese temples. The Xingxin Tower, however, was the first of its kind to combine both of these functions, representing another merge between the traditionally Chinese and Islamic features of the mosque.

The fourth courtyard is home to yet another beautiful pavilion, which is known as the Fenghua or “Phoenix” Pavilion. Built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the pavilion was so named because of its resemblance to a phoenix spreading its wings. Alongside being a beautiful addition to the mosque, the Phoenix Pavilion serves a very special purpose, as it blocks a direct view to the prayer hall at the western end of the courtyard. The prayer hall, which is the main focus of the entire complex, is the only part of the mosque that is not open to the public and is still used today by the local Hui Muslims. Prayer services are held in this hall five times per day and the hall itself can hold upwards of 1,000 people at any given time. Behind the prayer hall, there are two circular moon gates that lead to the fifth courtyard, where two small manmade hills have been constructed for the ceremonial viewing of the new moon. 

[1] Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good fortune.

[2] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

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The Hu Family Mansion

Nestled within the bustling city of Tianshui, the Hu Family Mansion looks somewhat out of place among the modern shops and skyscrapers that surround it. It once served as the private home of the wealthy Hu clan and was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by an official named Hu Laijin, with the help of his son Hu Xi. What makes the Hu Family Mansion so unique is that it conforms to a traditional style of Chinese architecture known as a “siheyuan” or “quadrangle courtyard”, which is extremely unusual in northwestern China.

Nowadays, it has been opened to the public and decorated with gorgeous period furnishings, with detailed descriptions of every room’s function clearly signposted. From the rich jade-green bamboo that grows within its courtyards to the intricate woodcuttings that bedeck its interior, the Hu Family Mansion was designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible and is a real feast for the eyes. Wandering through this tranquil mansion is sure to give you a clear idea of the simple yet scholarly lifestyle enjoyed by many Ming Dynasty officials.  

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The Yuquan Taoist Temple

Located at the base of the Tianjing Mountain in the city of Tianshui, the Yuquan Taoist Temple is a colossal complex that sprawls up the mountainside, covering an area of nearly 170,000 square metres (203,318 sq. yd.). The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the rather uninspired name of Beishan or “North Mountain” Temple, but its name was eventually changed to the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” Temple during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The name was derived from a local spring, which supposedly sprouted water that was so clear and beautiful that it resembled lustrous jade. In-keeping with its aquatic name, you’re sure to be blown out of the water when you see how beautiful this temple complex is!

Tragically the original temple was almost completely destroyed during the collapse of the Song Dynasty, but it was restored to its former glory during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and underwent over 30 extensions from then until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The final renovation project took place during the 1980s and left the temple with more than 90 separate buildings. The temple complex itself is peppered with lush cypress trees, some of which are over 1000 years old, and contains two very famous stone tablets: one of which was inscribed by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty; and the other by an illustrious Yuan Dynasty calligrapher named Zhao Mengfu. The most notable features within the temple are arguably: the Spirit Official Hall, the Jade Emperor Hall, the Doumu Hall, the Three Qing Hall, the Jade Spring, the Immortal Cave, the Three-Immortal Cave, and the Dai Temple.

The Spirit Official Hall is the first part of the temple that you come to after entering and is dedicated to Spirit Officer Wang, the Supreme Patron God of Taoism. According to Taoist tradition, Wang is ranked among the top five hundred spirit officers and supposedly possesses the ability to suppress demons. That’s a pretty impressive skill to have on your CV, even for a deity! Unfortunately he pales in comparison to the inhabitant of the nearby Jade Emperor Hall, where one of the most holy deities in the Taoist canon is consecrated. The Jade Emperor ranks among the highest deities in the Taoist pantheon and his hall is more like a miniature temple in its own right, which is a testament to his importance. It consists of a main temple hall, two side temples, a pavilion, a bell tower, a drum tower, and an archway. Every year, on the 9th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, a magnificent temple fair is held in this hall in honour of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. Talk about extravagant!

It seems, however, that even the Jade Emperor has competition! The Three Qing Hall is dedicated to the “Three Qing” or the Three Pure Ones, which are unequivocally acknowledged as the highest ranking deities in Taoism and are sometimes referred to as the “Taoist Holy Trinity”. According to traditional Taoist theory, the way of the Tao produces One, One leads to Two, and finally Two creates Three. The first of the Pure Ones, Yuanshi Tianzun, represents One, since he oversaw the creation of the universe out of nothingness. Once their job was completed, Yuanshi Tianzun manifested into the second of the trinity, Lingbao Tianzun, who classified the elements into their rightful groups and separated the Yang from the Yin. During the final stage of creation, known as Two creating Three, Lingbao Tianzun manifested into Daode Tianzun, who preached the Law to all living beings and thus brought about civilisation. The Three Pure Ones are a distinctly abstract concept, as they each represent both a deity and a heaven. That being said, to avoid confusion, they are often depicted as elderly sages sat upon thrones.

While she may not have achieved the illustrious status of the Three Pure Ones, the Doumu Hall is dedicated to the goddess Doumu, who nonetheless ranks quite highly within the Taoist pantheon and is considered to be the mother of all stars. In fact, she is thus believed to have absolute power over the future of all things in the universe, so don’t underestimate her importance or you’ll sorely regret it! During the early Yuan Dynasty, the hall was often referred to as the “Big Dipper Platform” because it was used by a Taoist priest named Liang Zhitong to worship the stars and the Big Dipper. In other words, a trip to this hall at night may just leave you feeling starry-eyed! Near to the Doumu Hall lies the titular Jade Spring, where crystal clear spring water has supposedly flowed for hundreds of years. It is rumoured that this spring water is not only extremely refreshing, but can also treat a variety of eye-related diseases, meaning it is sometimes nicknamed the Mingyan or “Brightening Eyes” Spring.

At the back of the temple complex lie the Immortal Cave and the Three-Immortal Cave which, though they may sound similar, serve slightly different purposes. The Immortal Cave was originally used by the Taoist priest Liang Zhitong to practice special Taoist rituals and he was supposedly buried in this cave after achieving immortality. We’re not quite sure why an immortal person would need to be buried, but we’re happy to leave it a mystery! The Three-Immortal Cave, on the other hand, is a hand-carved cave that commemorates the three legendary founders of the temple: Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism; the aforementioned Liang Zhitong, who achieved immortality during the Yuan Dynasty; and Ma the Immortal, who was another Taoist priest that supposedly achieved immortality during the Qing Dynasty.

The Dai Temple is located in a completely separate part of the temple complex and was constructed during the Qing Dynasty, making it the youngest part of the temple. It originally consisted of two ancestral halls: one for Lord Zhou, and one for Lord Tuo. It was eventually rebuilt as the Dai Temple and is primarily dedicated to one of the Four Heavenly Emperors of Taoism: Dongji Qinghua or the “East Pole Emperor of Blue Essence”. More importantly, however, this section of the temple is home to a gruesome display of statues that are designed to represent the many tortures that immoral people will face in the underworld. It’s the ideal place to visit if your friends and family have been behaving badly!

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