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Great Wall outpost a towering achievement
2014-01-08
By Zhu Shenshen

For connoisseurs of the Great Wall and ancient city walls around China, Yulin in Shaanxi Province is not to be missed. On the edge of the Ordos Desert, it’s a gateway to exploration. Nearby is Red Stone Gorge filled with grottoes and sculpture.

The former frontier town of Yulin City in Northwest China is an undiscovered and largely unspoiled destination whose treasures include a famous watchtower and garrison on the Great Wall, well-preserved city walls, and the dramatic Red Stone Gorge of sculpture and grottoes.

Unlike Beijing and Xi’an, which also have city walls and parts of the Great Wall, Yulin in Shaanxi Province is not flooded with tourists or spoiled by excessive commercial and industrial development.

The city still contains a great deal of Chinese classical architecture, including the original city wall built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), some of which has been restored and is beautifully lighted at night. It also contains well-preserved Ming Dynasty temples.

In the nearby Great Wall, visitors can still see pieces that are carved with the characters for the five elements of the universe: gold, wood, water, fire and earth.

 Zhenbei Terrace, the No. 1 Watchtower of the Great Wall, still stands in Yulin, 20 minutes drive north from the old town. Built during the Ming Dynasty, it’s the largest troop fortress built on the entire Great Wall. Much has been restored, but some stones date back to the Qin Dynasty — over 2,200 years ago.

Also outside the city is the Red Stone Gorge, a canyon lined with grottoes of Buddhist and Taoist art, as well as engraved calligraphy on cliffs. Sunset in Red Stone Gorge is not to be missed. The canyon is where Wong Kar-wai filmed major scenes in “Ashes of Time” (1994).

The city also contains the ancient Lingxiao Tower pagoda near the south gate of the old town.

In addition to its archeology and history, Yulin’s magic is its people and their relatively unspoiled, slow-paced life, due in large part to the city’s relative isolation.

Though the total population is around 3.8 million, in the old town, people enjoy wandering and shopping in the old town and eating spicy leg of mutton washed down with iced beer late at night. Visitors from metropolitan China, cities like Shanghai and Beijing, are pleasantly surprised.

Yulin is described by author Peter Hessler in his famous book “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze River” (2001), looking for the real life of the majority of Chinese people.

For most travelers, Yulin City is the gateway to Shaanbei (north of Shaanxi) region, the place to start exploring.

On the edge of the Ordos Desert, the city is near the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to the north, Shanxi Province to the east, and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to the west. All can be reached from Yulin in a three to five hour’s drive. Though the region is arid, the area surrounding the city is green because of extensive tree planting to fight desertification.

From Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, home of the terra cotta warriors, it takes an hour’s flight or an overnight train ride to reach Yulin. The city attracts photographers and individual travelers interested in history, folk culture and culinary specialties.

From Yulin it is easy to reach the red stone and lines in Jingbian County, the ancient castles in Shenmu County, and a temple built on the cliff beside the Yellow River in Jiaxian County.

Yulin connects major sites in the province, such as Yan’an and the Hukou Waterfalls.

Yulin City Wall

Emperors repeatedly restored Yulin city wall, which kept out invaders from the north, since it was first constructed in 1473 in the Ming Dynasty.

Because of outpost’s relative isolation, the city wall was well preserved up to the 1950s and people could walk and ride bicycles along the broad top of the wall.

It stands around 12 meters high (compared with 11.6 meter of Beijing) and separate segments extend around 2 to 3 kilometers.

A protection policy is in place, but people can still see and touch the original Ming walls in the south, east and north. In the west, only sand and drumbling stone remain.

The best way to visit the city wall is to walk around the wall, observing and touching the bricks in the morning and afternoon.

At night, photographers can get great pictures of the wall using a tripod. At night, lights from the city wall, neighboring buildings and passing vehicles seem to blend ancient and modern times.

Opening hours and admission: open all day, admission free.

Yulin Old Town

Surrounded by the city walls, Yulin Old Town is a pedestrian area and a highlight of the visit.

It contains Ming Dynasty temples, six arched buildings across the main street, well preserved narrow lanes of hutong, with legends attached, as well as restaurants and shops.

Entering the old town, visitors see the six arches, which were built  in the Ming Dynasty and broken later. They were recently restored and capture the original flavor of the city.

The highlight among the Ming relics is Daxing Temple on a hill, reached through hutongs from the main street. It offers a perfect view of the old town. Each hutong retains its ancient name, such as Lane of Scholar Li, who lived there several hundred years ago.

Dozens of shops and restaurants on both sides of the main street offer local products and food at reasonable prices. Locals go about their daily life, making the area colorful and lively.

There’s a half-day walking tour of the old town, connecting the six arch buildings, several hutongs, Daxing Temple and the city walls.

Opening hours and admission: open all day, admission free.

The Great Wall — Zhenbei Terrace

Though less well known than other Great Wall landmarks, Zhenbei Terrace is one of three best Great Wall stops, in addition to Jiayu Pass in Gansu Province and Shanhai Pass in Beijing. Four hundred years ago, it was the biggest military watch tower on the frontier, and an important trading hub in the Ming Dynasty.

After climbing to the top of the four-layer tower, visitors can appreciate the rugged frontier landscape including desert and trees. Those with excellent eyesight can spot six other ancient watch towers, all quite dilapidated.

The tiny but informative Great Wall Museum near the watch tower is worth visiting because it covers the history and development of the wall, where Han and Mongols used to trade horses. It displays relics, such as stones carved with the five elements.

Opening hours and admission: 7:30am-7pm, 30 yuan (US$4.9).

Red Stone Gorge

Red Stone or Hong Shi Gorge is famous for the red boulders and cliffs with carved calligraphy and ancient pictograms. The grottoes carved into the cliffs contains well preseverd intriguing art, some Buddhist, some Taoist and some a combination of both where Buddhism met Taoism in the region.

The sunlight on the red and orange stone creates magical colors, and sunset photos are worth waiting for.

Both Zhenbei Terrace and Red Stone Gorge are outside of downtown Yulin, but not far. Visitors can take buses Nos. 3 and 11 or take a 20-minute taxi ride from the Old Town.

Opening hours and admission: 7:30am-7pm, 30 yuan (US$4.9). 

Food

Yulin is famous for snacks and dishes such as yang za sui, or sheep offal soup with noodle; Yulin tofu, and zhu lian rou, or pork from pig’s face.

The best restaurants are on Great Wall Road and Xinjian Road S. Night food markets are located on Xinminglou Street and in the Yuanyang Lake area.

Accommodation

Lovely Final Hotel

Near the old town and at a bus stop. Clean and comfortable. 138 yuan(US$22.6)/night.

Address: Xinjian Rd S.

Tel: 0912-382-4666

Rising Dragon International Hotel

One of the best hotels in Yulin, near the city wall. Pleasing decor. 298 yuan/night or 338 yuan with computer.

Address: Great Wall Rd

Tel: 0912-353-0000

HT Inn (Hanting)

Near the old town, easy online booking. 209 yuan/night

Address: Xinjian Rd S.

Transportation:

By air: Direct flights to Yulin from Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an. Airport shuttle takes visitors downtown; one hour’s ride costs 20 yuan.

By train and bus: Regular trains and buses to all nearby counties and destinations such as Taiyuan in Shanxi Province and Yinchuan in Ningxia.

Climate:

Located near a desert in northwestern China, Yulin has hot summers that are surprisingly humid.

It gets cool or cold at night. Winter is very cold.

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