THE great Yellow River, China’s mother river and cradle of civilization, flows for 5,464 kilometers. It’s impossible to take it all in a short trip.
My choice was a three to four day visit to northern Shaanxi Province to experience different faces of the river, which turns yellow because it carries so much yellow sand and silt.
Waterfalls, the sinuous, winding river and ordinary villages are captivating.
The river’s power and magic can be experienced at the 20-meter-high Hukou (Teapot Mouth) Waterfall, the biggest falls on the Yellow River and the second biggest in China (after Huangguoshu Falls in Guizhou Province). Spectacular rainbows form in the torrents of water and billowing mist. The sight is familiar - the falls appear on old 50-yuan notes in circulation between 1987 and 1997.
Compared with iconic Hukou Waterfall, the Yellow River Curving National Park staggers the imagination. It was named “curving” because the river curves like a snake.
The view of Qiankun Bay reminds visitors of Taiji (the yin-yang concept and symbol), the Supreme Ultimate state of undifferentiated absolute and infinite potentiality in Chinese philosophy. It creates all things in legends. One of the greatest emperors, Helian Bobo of the Hun (Xiongnu), China’s biggest nomad group, is said to be buried somewhere nearby.
Besides enjoying the magic of nature and recalling legends, it was a great pleasure to talk with locals, experience their daily life and shoot photos. The relative isolation, slow-paced life, smiling faces of peasants and child cowherds along the river — all made me forget hectic city life.
More touching moments can be found in the photo book “Life Along the Yellow River” by professional photographer and photojournalist Tang Shiceng. He captures scenes in the Curving Park and river towns, including daily activities — eating dinner, going to school, chatting and taking a break on market day.
Noodles and potatoes are staple foods in Shaanxi. A specialty is whipped potato with spicy sauce or yang yu ca ca. Mutton and chicken are served but they are a little expensive.
The usual starting points for Yellow River destinations are Yan’an, a “holy land” and base for the Communist Party of China, and Xi’an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province, containing the Terra Cotta Warriors and tombs of Han (206 BC-220 AD) and Tang (618 AD-907) emperors.
The best time to visit Hukou Waterfall is in spring (April to May) and autumn (September to November) because of the surging tides and magnificent views.
In winter, the frozen waterfall is a big draw for photographers who brave slippery, icy paths. Avoid Curving Park in winter and on rainy days, because roads are muddy and dangerous.
Hukou straddles two provinces, Shaanxi and Shanxi. It’s almost an hour’s drive to either Yichuan in Shaanxi and Jixian in Shanxi.
As the Yellow River approaches Hukou, it passes through high mountains on both sides. The width narrows to about 30 meters from 500 meters, the velocity increases and then the water plunges over a narrow cliff opening and pours down. The 15-20-meter high waterfall looks like water pouring from a huge teapot and the name “hukou” means mouth of a teapot. The famous falls is believed to be the inspiration of a famous song, “Chorus of the Yellow River” that encouraged Chinese to fight in the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
The width of the waterfall changes with the seasons; during the flood season it increases from around 30 meters to 50 meters.
A bridge connects the Shaanxi and Shanxi sides and I visited both to take photos, including a spectacular shot of the falls and a rainbow in the huge clouds of mist.
Advice to photographers: Plan ahead if you take professional DSLR cameras. Take a UV lens and waterproof cover to protect cameras. You can take beautifully silk-style photos with a tripod, or applications such as Slow Shutter on the iPhone. Get there early, before 9am, for the best light. Avoid tour groups.
Opening hours: 6:30am-7:30pm April-October, 8am-5pm in other months
Admission: 91 yuan (US$15)
Transportation: 3-4 hours from Yan’an (40 yuan), 7 hours from Xi’an (115 yuan). Tourist buses available.
Accommodation: Staying at the falls is expensive. Instead, visitors can stay at neighboring Yichuan County (45 minutes’ drive to Hukou), with many choices of hotels and inns.
Waterfall View (Guanpufang) Hotel
Price: 320 yuan
Best hotel at waterfall site. With Internet.
Electricity Bureau Hotel
Price: 120 yuan
Downtown Yichuan, with Internet and many restaurants nearby.
Yellow River Curving National Park
Many tourists are not aware of the park, probably because of forbidding rough roads leading there and clouds of dust in the air.
The silent and soft part of the river can be seen in Qiankun Bay and in the mysterious, winding canyons. In Chinese the park is known as the park with snake-shaped (shequ) turns.
I think Qiankun Bay is one of the most spectacular sights in China, combining grandeur and philosophy. It has a huge, U-turn view like Horseshow Bend in the Colorado River, Arizona, but it’s larger than the US formation. A small island in the bay creates a “taiji-like” picture, suggesting yin and yang. The words “qian” and “kun” originated from “taiji” and originally meant sky, land and all things between. I was deeply moved by the mysteries of Chinese culture expressed in the geography of the bay.
The park probably contains more snake-shaped turns than any other part of the Yellow River. It is part of Jin (referring to Shanxi) Shan (referring to Shaanxi) Grand Canyon.
The river is powerful and dangerous in many places, famous for devastating floods throughout history. So I often asked myself during this trip: Why is the river so soft and tame here? I believe there’s something holy behind it.
The park contains the tomb of Helian Bobo, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty (AD407 -431). In AD407, the Hun hero founded the nomad dynasty that covered parts of today’s Shaanxi, Shanxi, Gansu and Henan provinces and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Once he even conquered Chang’an (near today’s Xi’an), the capital city of ancient China.
The park also contains the tomb of an unidentified nobleman, with a beautifully decorated door that represents a high level of architecture more than 1,000 years ago.
Compared with the major sites, it was more interesting for me to interact with locals in Xiaocheng and other villages, where accommodations are available. Traditional family scenes typically consist of parents with white “hanjin” (cloths wrapped around the head), tobacco pipes and handmade shoes. Children wear old clothes covered with yellow dust.
I felt real friendship and warmheartedness as I visited villages unspoiled by tourists and commercial development. Occasional bicyclists came along to buy food and water.
Don’t miss the opportunity to stay for at least one night in a yaodong or cave house carved into cliffs and inhabited by many Shaanxi residents. The caves are cool in summer and warm in winter.
The park is one of the few places where it’s safe for drifting or rafting on the Yellow River, which is powerful and too dangerous for water sports.
To shoot a full view of Qiankun Bay, I brought a wide-angle lens and a Nikon camera, but despite climbing for almost an hour, I couldn’t find the best vantage point. I think the photo we see on postcards was shot in an airplane.
Opening hours: All day in all seasons
Transportation: Take a taxi in Yanchuan and take a 2-day trip (500 yuan/day, including driver). Regular buses go from Yan’an to Yanchuan, 2 hours (26.50 yuan).
Price: 50-60 yuan/person.
Family inn in Xiaocheng Village. Yaodong or cave houses accept guests; meals are served.