China’s north region, stiflingly hot in the summer and barren in the winter, was once home to those hostile to China, Mongolian hordes, and Manchu warriors being a case in point. But now, long a part of the country, you can get a fascinating blend of cultures in the were just as many lives as nomads as they do in cities. The north was also home to some of the most exquisite Buddhist art, which are on display in the hundreds of temples still operating. A vital point of the Silk Road, China’s north produced the country’s first banking system, as well as some of the grandest homes and estates, of which many are open to visitors.
Travel north from Beijing and cross the Great Wall of China, and the high plains of Mongolia soon spread across the distance, as do the legends. Just as the word ‘Mongolia’ is likely to stir visions of the exotic-empty grasslands, wandering nomads, wild horses, and of course, the most famed Mongol of them all, Genghis Khan. Inner Mongolia is an elongated slice of land that stretches from the Gobi Dessert across mighty steppes and up to the border with Russia. Standing on the grassy plains, you may be the highest point for miles around, a sensation not unlike being adrift in the ocean.
When it comes to history, the province of Shanxi bursts at the seams, but time-warped Pingyao offers something extra-a rare opportunity to witness old China in action. It is quite possibly the best-preserved ancient walled city in the whole of the country. Go beyond the main commercial street, and you’ll find locals hanging laundry in courtyards, careering down alleyways on bicycles, or merely sunning themselves in doorways. The town also through up some great day trips, with the Shuanglin Temple and Wang Family Courtyard both highly recommended.