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Three ancient towns offer a vacation rich in contemplation
By Zhu Shenshen

JIAXIAN, Fugu and Wupu are towns in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province, which lie along the Yellow River, considered the nation’s mother river and cradle of civilization.

Though the river towns are little known and seldom visited by foreigners or even Chinese residents, they are worth a visit for a week or longer.

The highlights include Xianglu (Censer) Temple (built on a cliff along the river) and mural printings and original architecture more than 700 years old hidden in the remote Longxing Temple. There is also the ancient stone city of Wupu, which has only one resident family remaining.

A visit brings an appreciation of the Yellow River, which turns its namesake color from the sand and silt it carries. People can feel its magic and power in nearby famous sites like Hukou (Teapot Mouth) Waterfall. The river towns, however, are what gave me the space to imagination through relics left by ancient people. They add to the unique charm of Shaanxi, with its historical and cultural wonders such as the famous Terra-Cotta Warriors outside Xi’an.

It was also a pleasure to talk with locals, experience their daily life and shoot photos. The relative isolation, slow-paced life, smiling faces of peasants and child cow herders along the river all made me forget hectic city life.

Noodles and potatoes are staple foods in Shaanxi. A specialty is whipped potato with spicy sauce, or yangyu caca. Mutton and chicken are served but they are a little expensive. Carp caught in the river by local fishermen are also common. Try not to miss local fruit such as haihongguo in Fugu in spring or jujubes in Jiaxian in autumn. They cost one-tenth of what people must pay in Shanghai and Beijing.

The usual starting point to visit the river towns is Yulin, which has flights connecting to Shanghai and Beijing, or Xi’an, the capital city of Shaanxi Province. There are 10 to 20 daily buses traversing the highways connecting Yulin to Fugu, Jiaxian and Wupu.

Nearby sites include Mizhi and Suide counties in Shaanxi Province and Qikou in nearby Shanxi Province. All destinations are within two or three hours’ drive of Yulin or Jiaxian.

The best time to visit the area is spring and autumn, when temperatures are comfortable.

Jiaxian County

Jiaxian provides visitors rich choices of sunset views of Xianglu Temple and the Yellow River, stone tablets carved with Chairman Mao Zedong’s words, the No. 1 Taoist building in northwestern China and Song Dynasty sculptures in an uphill temple less visited by tourists.

Here you won’t see tour buses and other visitors rushing from place to place, a common scene in famous sites around Xi’an. You can slow down and take opportunities to walk around and talk with locals about their lifestyle.

Perched high on a bank of the Yellow River, Xianglu Temple is a perfect combination of natural wonder and human craftsmanship. The temple, meaning Censer Temple in English, was built on a cliff over the Yellow River, northeast of Jiaxian. One side of the temple is connected to the county, while the other three sides face the Yellow River.

If you look from higher vantage points, which is strongly recommended, you can see the temple lying on a huge stone pillar. The temple resembles a censer, hence its name.

I spent 15 to 20 minutes walking from the town to the temple, passing a tunnel made of stone. The most magnificent view of the river comes from Guanyin or Bodhisattva Hall, which is connected to the cliff bank with a 3-meter long crosspiece.

The temple was originally built in the Ming Dynasty (around 1614) but it was badly damaged. The Ming style can still be seen in the preserved construction style, stone carvings and calligraphy.

There are two entries for Xianglu Temple. For first-time visitors, try the southern entry and stay at a pavilion for a view on the way to the temple.

The first impression of Baiyun Guan or White Cloud Pavilion is the huge size of the buildings on Baiyun Mountain near Jiaxian. The 54 Taoist halls and hundreds of steps lead visitors up and up, like walking into the cloud, which its name reflects.

Beautiful stone carvings of lions and bells and 1,900 pieces of mural paintings and calligraphy are worth a half-day or full day of your time.

In contrast to the Buddha and Bodhisattva so often seen in Chinese temples, images in the Taoist religion are more varied and interesting. You notice it through hall names of Baiyuan Guan, like Five Dragon Hall, Zhenwu Patriarch Palace and Wenchang Hall.

I met people coming to the temple with various motivations, from fortune, new baby, happy marriage to good performance in important exams.

The temple was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and repaired and rebuilt in the following dynasties. It holds a Tao festival on the eighth day of April in the Chinese lunar calendar every year, which attracts crowds from cities in Shaanxi and nearby provinces in Shanxi, Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. The special celebration and beautiful music is a strong attraction to the festival.

The easiest way from Jiaxian town to Baiyun Pavilion is to take a taxi, 20 (US$3.2) or 30 yuan for a 20-minute drive.

• Xianglu Temple

Admission: 10 yuan

Opening hours: 7am-8pm

• Baiyun Guan or White Cloud Pavilion

Admission: 42 yuan

Opening hours: 6:30am-10pm

• Travel Essentials

Other sites: Yunyan Temple for colorful sculpture made from the Song Dynasty; stone tablets with Chairman Mao’s words in the downtown street.

Transportation: Regular bus to Yulin, 31 yuan for 3 hours

Food: Jujube, 2-4 yuan for 1 kilogram, nice choice for snack food

Accommodation: Jiaxian Hotel (0912-673-3249; 160 yuan a room each night, safe and clean)

Wupu County

It was like a journey 1,000 years back in time when I visited the ancient city of Wupu, also along the Yellow River. Stone relics of a school, temples, government bureaus and even a prison told people stories of ancient times.

Most people now live in the new town of Wupu, with its modern life of restaurants, supermarkets and motels. Fish from the river here are delicious.

Everything inside of Wupu Ancient City is made of stone, now entangled with trees and grass that have grown amid the ruins over the ages.

I guessed the old stone city was built for military use because of the location on riverbank, four stone gates and stone walls with holes for archers.

The city was built in Later Han Dynasty (AD 950) and was probably used as a castle in the following dynasties, based on its strategic position.

Lots of the stone buildings, including government bureaus and temples, were broken during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression around 1941. Then it was abandoned for several decades before it became a tourism site.

Beautiful stone carvings, streets and relics made of stone make the site worth visiting for everyone, especially history and art fans.

Don’t forget to visit the only resident family in the city. A book written by the husband, Wang Xiangxian, with a map of the city, costs 12 yuan and helps visitors envision the city’s previous layout from spotted stone relics.

It’s a special experience to walk through trees and stone relics in an ancient castle with no people, shops, restaurants or any modern things.

• Wupu Ancient City

Admission: Free

Opening hours: All day

• Travel Essentials

Other sites: Museum and Library of Liu Qing, author of “The History of Entrepreneurship”

Transportation: Regular bus connecting to Yulin, Suide County and Xi’an from/to Wupu County

Accommodation: Hengtai Hotel (0912-661-0777; 208 yuan, close to the bus station, well-decorated)

 Fugu County

Ming Great Wall relics, stone castle and monument tablets for generals and soldiers in the ancient city tell visitors Fugu used to be a front-line battlefield.

The county, located at the northernmost part of Shaanxi Province and near Shanxi Province and Inter Mongolia Autonomous Region, has become prosperous since coal and gas were found in the region, pushing up travel costs.

For culture and art fans, take a one-day trip to Mazhen Town, north of Fugu County, for beautiful and well-preserved mural paintings hidden in Longxing Temple in a remote village.

The Yellow River along Fugu is clear and green, totally different from most people’s impression.

Fugu Ancient City, initially built in the Ming Dynasty 500 years ago, is the most complete ancient city remaining among the three river towns (Jiaxian, Wupu and Fugu). Residents still live in the old city. The highlight here is the well-preserved Confucian Temple. Colored glaze tiles grace the roof of the temple’s major building, beautifully shining and reflecting sunshine. Different from most Confucian temples nationwide, monuments for battle heroes from the She family, whose stories are told in the famous novel “Generals of Yang Family,” are placed inside. The temple, originally built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and rebuilt in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), remains  well-preserved. A walk near the ancient wall is strongly recommended for a great view of the Yellow River.

• Fugu Ancient City

Admission: Free

Opening hours: All day

Longxing Temple

The journey to Longxing Temple is like discovering treasures. The architecture is less impressive than other Shaanxi buildings like Xianglu Temple. But mural paintings behind pillars and newly made statues gave me surprise and great enjoyment. They have a wide variety of titles covering religion, architecture and the local lifestyle in the Ming Dynasty. The paintings are well preserved, and those in the second-floor buildings inspired more imagination and feelings with their vivid facial expressions and concise descriptions of complicated buildings.

People in the temple worship gods from three major Chinese beliefs — Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Longxing Temple is in Mazheng, a small town unknown by most Chinese tourists to the north of Fugu, where local residents have a slow-paced lifestyle. People often sit together and play chess in main roads after dinner.

It takes visitors one hour from Fugu to Mazhen and a 10-minute walk to Longxing Temple. There are only two family-operated inns in the town offering beds in limited number.

• Travel Essentials:

Other sites: Gushan Pu or Gushan Castle, former castle near the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

Transportation: 4-hour bus trip to Yulin costs 65 yuan

Food: Try local fruit haihongguo in August or September or buy a bottle of beverage made from it in local supermarkets.

Accommodation: Simple inns near bus stations or hotels in downtown. Bingyuan Hotel (0912-880-0001; 318 yuan; clean and comfortable, restaurants nearby)

• Other counties/town recommended to visit in the region:

Mizhi County is believed to be the hometown of Diaochan, one of the four most beautiful ladies in Chinese history. That may be why young women in Mizhi are tall and pretty. In the old downtown, there is a palace for Li Zicheng, who succeeded overthrowing Ming Dynasty as a normal peasant.

Suide is a hometown of many heroes in the Chinese history. They include Lubu, a legendary hero in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 208-280) about 2,000 years ago and Han Shizhong, a hero who defended against invaders in the Song Dynasty. Suide’s artists are famous for stone carving and sculptures.

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