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Off the beaten track
China - Central China
all data refer to year 1997

China: a personal anecdote
Beijing: the Capital CityEastern China
Traveller's Memories: index

Chinese civilisation originated in the country's central regions, and smatterings of ancient temples and sacred mountains attest to the area's historical riches. More recently, the central provinces have been better known for their industrial potential, and many cities have grown fat (and smoggy) on underground riches. Recent history has included some of the early Communist stoushes and the early life of Mao Zedong, born in Shaoshan in Hunan Province, now a pilgrimage spot for millions of forgiving (or amnesiac) Chinese.
The south's capital cities are connected by air to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and one another. Xi'an (Shaanxi) is one of the best-connected cities in China - it's possible to fly to almost any major Chinese destination. Buses criss-cross the region as elsewhere in China, but if you've got the choice, the trains are usually more comfortable. Trains from Xi'an can take you to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan amongst others. Wuhan (Hubei) is on the main Beijing-Guangzhou train line; express trains to Kunming, Xi'an and Lanzhou run through here. Wuhan is also a major ferry stop along the Yangzi River (it's four days from Chongqing and two days from Shanghai). Daily express trains do the Guangzhou-Changsha (Hunan)-Beijing run; there's also an overnight express that runs from Changsha to Hong Kong. Nanchang (Jiangxi) is just north of the main Guangzhou-Shanghai railway line but most trains make the short detour via the city.

Shanxi was one of the earliest centres of Chinese civilisation, providing a defensive bulwark between the Chinese and the nomadic tribes to the north, and serving this century as a bastion of resistance to the Japanese. After 1949, the Communists began a serious exploitation of Shanxi's considerable mineral and ore deposits, and places like Datong and the capital Taiyuan became major industrial centres. Shanxi's above-ground wealth lies in its history. It's many temples and monasteries are reminders that this was once the political and cultural centre of China. Shanxi's chief attraction is the Yungang Buddhist Caves 16km west of dusty Datong. The caves contain over 50,000 statues and stretch for about 1km next to the pass leading to Inner Mongolia. On top of the mountain ridge are the remains of a huge 17th-century Qing Dynasty fortress.

Shaanxi incorporates some of the oldest settled regions of China, with remains of human habitation dating back to prehistoric times. The region is rich in natural resources, particularly coal and oil, but agriculture has long been important through the state's fertile central belt. The south of the province is lush and mountainous - quite different from the wind-blown northern plateau. The capital, Xi'an, was once a major crossroads on the trading routes from eastern China to central Asia, and once vied with Rome and later Constantinople for the title of greatest city in the world. Today Xi'an is one of China's major drawcards, largely because of the Army of Terracotta Warriors on the city's eastern outskirts. Uncovered in 1974, over 10,000 figures have been sorted to date. Soldiers, archers (armed with real weapons) and chariots stand in battle formation in underground vaults looking as fierce and war-like as pottery can. Xi'an's other attractions include the old city walls, the Muslim quarter and the Banpo Neolithic Village - a tacky re-creation of the Stone Age.

Chinese civilization has been traced to the northern tip of Henan: it was here that primitive settlements began to coalesce into a true urban sprawl (minus the honking traffic) about 3500 years ago. Today, Henan is one of China's smallest and most densely populated provinces and its charms for the traveller are limited. The capital, Zhengzhou is a sprawling paradigm of ill-conceived town planning. About the only reason to come here would be to shoot off to the Shaolin Monastery, 80km west of Zhengzhou, where China's most famous martial arts tradition was developed. Further afield, the Buddhist Longmen Caves once comprised more than 100,000 images and statues of Buddha and his disciples carved into the cliff walls of the Yi River, 16km south of Luoyang. Western souvenir hunters beheaded many of the figures, but the caves are still awe-inspiring. Henan's most attractive urban area is Kaifeng, a charming city near the Yellow River in the state's north. Kaifeng has been somewhat left behind in China's modernisation drive, meaning that many of the shops and houses are of traditional wooden construction.

Although Hubei is one of China's most important industrial provinces, for most travellers it's a stop on the Yangzi cruise down from Chongqing. The capital, Wuhan, is a major port on the Yangzi River and is probably the most cosmopolitan and lively of China's interior cities. It marks the halfway point in the long navigable stretch of the Yangzi from Chongqing to Shanghai; numerous ferries go up and down the river from Wuhan, some running its entire length. Other maybe-sees in Hubei include the yet-to-be-completed Three Gorges Dam, a two-km-wide 185m-high dam wall across the Yangzi River at Sandouping in the province's south; and the Wudangshan mountains which stretch for 400km across the province's north-west and are a sacred range to the Taoists.

Most people pass through Hunan on their way to somewhere else, but the province has its attractions. The Zhangjiajie nature reserve in the western part of the province offers some of the most bizarre mountain scenery in China and is home to the Tujia, Miao and Bai people, many of whom have maintained their traditional cultures. Shaoshan, birthplace of Mao Zedong, makes for an interesting visit and is a beautiful, relaxing village as well. If rabid excesses of Communist propaganda suit your sense of humour, there are also Maoist pilgrimage spots scattered around the capital, Changsha. Up north, Yueyang is a major stop for Yangzi River cruises, and the city has a unique port feel to it. Yueyang's restaurants often display their menu outside in cages, including hedgehogs, snakes, frogs and assorted rodents! Most culinary offerings are less confronting, though: Hunanese food is generally a good blast, making use of plenty of chillies and hot spices.


China: a personal anecdote
Beijing: the Capital CityEastern China
Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton