When you first arrive in Kaifeng, you may wonder if you made the right decision for a vacation. It's a big, dusty, modern industrial city of more than 5 million residents on the south bank of the Yellow River. It's filled with tall buildings and sprawl, chaotic traffic.
Where's the grandeur and history of this ancient city that was the capital of seven dynasties? Ruins of the city wall are visible here and there. The rest is gone, destroyed by floods and conflict, buried in a thousand years of silt.You have to go looking for long-gone days of glory and the city has made a massive investment in recreating history in a theme park with multiple shows every day.
Kaifeng was the scene of Zhang Zeduan's monumental landscape painting in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), "Along the River During the Qingming Festival," a scene of bustling riverside life and infinite human variety. The original hangs in the Palace Museum in Beijing. A spectacular animated version was a major attraction at the China Pavilion at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
That painting encapsulated ancient city life, not just a particular place. It depicts people of all walks of life, nobles to beggars, monks to acrobats, soldiers to civil servants, telling us what it was like to live in Kaifeng back then.
"That was a time of greatest happiness," a tour guide explained to her group at the Qingming Riverside Landscape Garden (清明上河图), also known as the Millennium City Park.
Today the look and spirit and even the people of old Kaifeng are recreated in that Disneyland-like Qingming theme park.
Kaifeng was the capital in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), Wei Kingdom (AD 220-226), the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period (AD 907-979) and Song (960-1279) and Kin (1115-1234) dynasties.
Visitors can revisit and even walk into scenes from the painting, both in the street and behind the facades, interacting with costumed actors and watching reenacted scenes from the Northern Song Dynasty.
When the park opens at 9am every day, a grand welcoming show features a parade of costumed horsemen, marching to the booming sound of drums played by a drum corps. They are led by Bao Zheng (999-1062) or Lord Bao, the personification of justice and an icon of all honest and upright officials. The actor playing Bao then walks out into the crowd and throughout the day takes part in several scenes.
Strolling around the park, visitors may feel as though they stepped back 1,000 years in time. Crossing the red bridge over the Bianhe River, there are merchants, vendors, fortune sellers and even beggars in rags. The beggars look so pathetic that visitors could mistaken them for homeless people.
Visitors crowd around to take photos of the especially colorful actors, all local residents. They can chat with food sellers if they buy snacks, but the beggars and others won't engage in chit-chat since they are totally in-character.
The park stages different shows daily in different locations. Checking the timetable and suggested route, visitors can see most of the shows. One is set on the water, telling a story of corrupt officials trying to extort money from a ship's captain. Lord Bao steps in and brings the guilty officials to book.
Not far from the theme park is Long Ting (龙亭), literally Dragon Pavilion, a spectacular palace and park. It's the most famous and largest scenic spot in Kaifeng.
After serving for 167 years as the capital of the Northern Song Dynasty, Kaifeng lost most of its imperial architecture to wars and natural disasters, such as the flooding of the Yellow River. The only remaining imperial architecture is Long Ting, which was constructed in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The site is said to have been the location of imperial palaces of six dynasties or kingdoms.
The awesome, towering architecture is built with lakes on both sides and is reached by a walkway between the two bodies of water. Walking up the stairs to the entrance of the majestic grand hall, visitors can turn around and survey the imperial complex as the emperor himself must have done. The setting is quiet, the surface of the lake placid and moment solemn.
Elsewhere in Kaifeng stands the 13-story, octagonal Iron Pagoda (铁塔), built 900 years ago in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was faced in brown, glazed tiles. In the crowded old section of the city, there are two main attractions, Daxiangguo Temple and Kaifeng Fu, the yamen or administration building where Lord Bao worked.
The temple built in AD 555 still attracts many visitors, including the faithful. It was rebuilt in 1671 after a devastating flood and expanded in 1992. The interior contains many large, gold-colored statues and the air is filled in incense.
The Kaifeng Fu today contains relics and exhibitions about the operations of government, including local finance, capital works, judging civil and criminal cases and issuing decrees and policies. From time to time, costumed actors reenact scenes, including Lord Bao listening to cases and passing judgment.
On busy streets many shops and vendors sell local snacks, such as peanut cake, a sweet, crunchy pastry, as well as tender and juicy soup dumplings. Both are famous.
Kaifeng is a good place to learn about the Northern Song Dynasty, from its imperial history to the daily lives of its people. The government has made a great effort to develop tourism, build sites and host shows.
Despite the city's mundane outward appearance, it contains some spectacular sights and vivid recreations of history that transport visitors back to another time and place.