China Travel Guide


Beijing & the North - Shandong & Henan
The ornately decorated
Shanshaan Gan Guild Hall

South of the Yellow River as it snakes into Shandong Province is the ancient walled city of Kaifeng, the capital of seven dynasties, which reached its zenith as the capital of the Northern Song (AD 960–1126). Its glory days as a burgeoning Song city are pictorially recorded in the 16-ft (5-m) long scroll "Going Upriver during the Qingming Festival," now kept in Beijing’s Forbidden City. However, its prosperity could not prevent the Yellow River from repeatedly flooding the city, with a heavy loss of life. Significant buildings were also washed away, including the synagogue. Today, Kaifeng is an attractive city with fine examples of temple and pagoda architecture and some lively markets.

Visitors' checklist

  • 44 miles (70 km) E of Zhengzhou
  • 4,800,000
  • Train Station
  • Southern Bus Station, West Bus Station
  • 98 Yingbin Lu, 0378 398 4593

Kaifeng city center

  • Da Xiangguo Si (2)
  • Fan Pagoda (5)
  • Iron Pagoda (3)
  • Longting Park (4)
  • Shanshan Gan Guild Hall (1)

Exploring Kaifeng
Much of modern Kaifeng lies within the old city walls. In the west of the city is the large and peaceful Baogong Hu (Baogong Lake). Within walking distance to the south of the lake, the Kaifeng Museum on Yingbin Lu houses three stelae that originally stood outside the old Jewish synagogue. They record the history of the city’s Jewish community. The No. 4 People’s Hospital on Beitu Jie sits on the remains of the synagogue in the Jewish quarter. All that can be seen today is the iron cover over an old well. Outside the city walls, 6 miles (10 km) to the north, is the Yellow River Viewing Point. From the pavilion, there are expansive views across the vast silt plain of the winding river. Adjacent to the pavilion stands an iron statue of an ox, that was originally a charm to protect the city from floods.

Shanshan Gan Guild Hall

  • Xufu Jie, off Shudian Jie
  • 8am–4:30pm daily

The exuberant Qing-dynasty hall was built by merchants of Gansu, Shanxi, and Shaanxi provinces, as housing. It sports a drum and bell tower, as well as a spirit wall. The building’s eaves have vivid scenes from merchant life, while the eaves in the main hall are carved with animals, birds, and gold bats (symbols of luck).

The magnificent Qianshou Guanyin, Da Xiangguo Si
The magnificent Qianshou Guanyin,
Da Xiangguo Si
Prayer flags in front of Da Xiangguo Si
Prayer flags in front of Da Xiangguo Si

Da Xiangguo Si

  • Ziyou Lu   
  • 8am–6pm daily

    Yanqing Guan

  • Yanqing Guan   
  • Baogong Hu Dongbei Shengli Jie   
  • daily

    Kaifeng’s most celebrated temple is Da Xiangguo Si (Prime Minister’s Temple). Originally built in AD 555, it was China’s principal temple during the Song era when it accommodated 64 halls and a huge legion of monks. Swept away by flood waters in AD 1642 at the end of the Ming dynasty, it was rebuilt around 1766. The octagonal pavilion at the back of the temple houses a remarkable statue of Guanyin, known as Qianshou Guanyin or the Thousand-Armed Goddess of Compassion. Carved from a single tree and covered in gold leaf, it is the temple’s finest statue, and its four-sided arrangement is a rare feature. The main hall has a frieze of luohan. A sprawling open-air market lies near the temple.

    To the west is the Yanqing Guan (Yanqing Temple), a small Daoist shrine known for the unusual design of its Pavilion of the Jade Emperor. This ornate, octagonal building, covered in turquoise tiles and carved brickwork, has a bronze image of the Jade Emperor inside.

    Iron Pagoda

    • Iron Pagoda Park, Beimen Dajie
    • 8am–6pm daily

    The 13-story Iron Pagoda (Tie Ta) rises up just within the Song dynasty ramparts in the northeast of the city. This brick pagoda was built in AD 1049 and is covered with brown glazed tiles, which give the tower its metallic luster as well as its name. Visitors can climb the narrow interior staircase for views over the city and its walls. The pagoda is Kaifeng’s best known landmark.

    Longting Park

    • North of Zhongshan Lu
    • daily

    Millennium City

    • Millennium City
    • daily

    Songdu Yu Jie, built on the Imperial Way – Kaifeng’s main thoroughfare during the Song dynasty – leads north up to Longting Park. It features reproduction Song-dynasty restaurants and shops selling antiques, calligraphy, and knick-knacks. The street gets progressively more touristy as it heads northward to Yangjia Hu (Yangjia Lake), originally part of the imperial park, and now surrounded by tourist attractions and amusement parks such as the popular Millennium City. Longting Park itself stands on the site of the Song-dynasty Imperial Palace and its surrounding park. The Xibei Hu and Yangjia Hu lakes lie to its northwest and south respectively. The park is marked by several amusement rides for children, as well as the Qing-dynasty Dragon Pavilion, and is an excellent place to watch the locals relaxing in their leisure time.

    Fan Pagoda

    • 1 mile (1.5 km) southeast of Kaifeng
    • 15
    • 8am–5pm daily

    Hidden away (albeit reachable by bus) south of the city walls and just west of the pleasant Yuwangtai Park (Yuwangtai Gongyuan), the Northern Song-dynasty Fan Pagoda (Po Ta) is Kaifeng’s oldest Buddhist structure, and was built in AD 997. Known for its carved brickwork, the three-story pagoda once stood nine stories and 263 ft (80 m) high. Visitors can climb right to the top for views of the surrounding factories and houses.

    China’s Jews
    It is not known when Jews (youtairen) first came to Kaifeng, but evidence suggests that Jewish merchants arrived in China in the 8th century, along the Silk Routes. It is recorded that Chinese Jews were given seven surnames (Ai, Jin, Lao, Li, Shi, Zhang, and Zhao) by imperial decree in the Ming era. According to one story, in 1605 Jesuit Matteo Ricci traveled to Kaifeng because he was told there was a community here who believed in one god. Expecting to meet Catholics he was surprised to find they were in fact Jewish. The community struggled in isolation over the years, and all but disappeared after the synagogue, damaged by flooding, was torn down in the 19th century. Many Kaifeng Jews do not reveal themselves due to official state disapproval.

    Wenfeng Pagoda, Anyang
    Wenfeng Pagoda,
    A Shang-era war chariot and charioteer from an imperial tomb, Anyang
    A Shang-era war chariot and charioteer
    from an imperial tomb, Anyang


  • 124 miles (200 km) N of Zhengzhou   
  • 5,250,000

    Archeological excavations have identified that Anyang in northern Henan was the site of Yin, the capital of the Shang dynasty. In the late 19th century, peasants unearthed bones etched with ancient Chinese symbols, identified as "oracle bones" or bones used for divination. Further discoveries of bronzes, jade, and royal tombs, helped form a picture of the long forgotten city of Yin. The Museum of Yin Ruins (Yinxu Bowuguan), in the north of town, exhibits fragments of oracle bones, pottery, and bronze vessels, as well as six chariots, drawn by skeletal horses. To the east is the ostentatious Tomb of Yuan Shikai, a general who helped force the Qing abdication in return for the presidency, but later tried to have himself enthroned as emperor. The bustling Old City, centered around the Bell Tower south of Jiefang Lu, is also worth exploring. To the southwest, stands the octagonal, multi-eaved Wenfeng Pagoda, originally built in the 10th century and restored during the Ming era.

    Museum of Yin Ruins

    • 8am–5:30pm daily

    Tomb of Yuan Shikai

    • 8am–5pm daily


    • 440 miles (700 km) SW of Beijing
    • 7,000,000
    • Nongye Lu (Crn Huayuan Lu), 0371 585 2339

    Henan’s capital is used primarily as a stopover en route to Kaifeng, Luoyang, and the Shaolin Temple. The Shang City Walls to the east of town are all that remain of the city that existed here 3,000 years ago. To the west is Chenghuang Miao (Temple of the City God), with its roof sculptures of dragons and phoenixes. The pyramidal Henan Provincial Museum, in the north of town, has a superb collection of more than 130,000 relics with English captions, while the fourth floor houses a dinosaur gallery. For fine views of the Yellow River, visit the Yellow River Park, 17 miles (28 km) northwest of town.

    Henan Provincial Museum

    • 8 Nongye Lu
    • 9am–4pm daily
    Banpo Pottery Yellow River
    Banpo Pottery
    Yellow River

    The Yellow River
    China’s second-longest river, at 3,400 miles (5,464 km), the Huang He or Yellow River gets its name from its vast silt load, picked up as it carves its way through the soft clay of the loess plateau. As the river slows, it deposits much of this silt elevating the river bed above the surrounding plains – outside Kaifeng it is up to 35 ft (10 m) higher than the city – making flooding likely. It has also changed its path completely many times, sometimes running south of the Shandong peninsula, each time with widespread devastation. In 1642 an estimated 300,000 people died when the river broke through the dykes and took the southern route. These disasters have earned the river the nickname "China’s Sorrow." Rapid economic growth has lead to vastly increased water usage in north China and the Yellow River now regularly runs dry in its lower reaches.

    The Yellow River

    Mother of China
    Evidence of some of the earliest Chinese settlements, dating back as far as 6000 BC, have been discovered beside the Yellow River, earning it another title "Mother of China."

    Traditional three door gateway, Baima Si (White Horse Temple), Luoyang
    Traditional three door gateway, Baima Si
    (White Horse Temple), Luoyang


  • 75 miles (121 km) W of Zhengzhou
  • 6,400,000   
  • Jiudu Xi Lu, 0379 432 3212

    Luoyang’s industrial face conveys little of its impressive history. The city was the site of the ancient Zhao court, where the sage Laozi was keeper of the archives. It was also the site of China’s first university in 29 BC, and was capital to 13 dynasties from Neolithic times till AD 937.

    East of Wangcheng Park is the Luoyang City Museum, which exhibits Shang bronzes, jade carvings, and Tang era sancai (three-color) porcelain. Visitors flock here each spring to attend the Peony Festival, when hundreds of peonies – brought here on the orders of the Tang Empress Wu Zetian – bloom in Wangcheng Park.

    Most of Luoyang’s sights lie outside the city. Guanlin, 4 miles (7 km) south, is dedicated to Guan Yu, a heroic general of the Three Kingdoms period. The buildings are ornately decorated, and stone lionesses line the path to the main hall housing an impressive statue of Guan Yu. About 8 miles (12 km) east of town is Baima Si (White Horse Temple). Claiming to be China’s oldest Buddhist monastery (AD 68), Baima Si remains active, with a constant stream of worshipers. The monks’ tombs lie in the first courtyard, while the main hall has a statue of the Buddha.

    Luoyang City Museum

    • 8am–5pm daily

    Guanlin Si

    • 8am–6pm daily
    Bodhidarma statue, Shaolin Temple
    View across the river Yi looking onto
    Fengxian Si and the west bank caves

    Longmen Caves
    This outstanding collection of religious statuary was started by the Buddhist Northern Wei rulers (386–534 AD) – creators of the Yungang Caves – after they moved their capital from Datong to Luoyang. The ensuing Sui and Tang dynasties further added to the grottoes especially during the rule of Tang dynasty Empress Wu Zetian, before anti-Buddhist purges abruptly halted its development. The tragic number of headless statues as a result of vandalism and theft creates a solemn mood, although today the caves are obviously well cared for.

    Visitors' checklist

    • 9 miles (14 km) S of Luoyang
    • 0379 598 1651
    • 53, 60; 83 from the train station
    • Summer: 8am–5:30pm daily; winter: 8:30am–5pm daily

    Fengxian SI (1)
    This cave, on the western bank, is largest of all the caves and dates back to AD 675.

    Bodhidarma statue, Shaolin Temple
    Seated Buddha, Sakyamuni,
    in the central cave Binyang Si

    Exploring the Longmen Caves
    There are around 2,000 caves or niches and over 100,000 statues (with English captions) in total clustered inside a few caves, largely within a half-mile (1-km) section on the western bank of the Yi River.

    The well-preserved Lotus Flower Cave (2) was built c.527 and is important as it was built as a complete entity, and not added to over the years. It derives its name from the large lotus flower in the center of its domed roof, surrounded by musical water spirits–apsarases. The Ten Thousand Buddha Cave (3) is a typical Tang dynasty cave built in 680. The many figures of Buddha create an overwhelming sense of the presence of the great teacher. The Prescription Cave (4) is so called because it has 140 inscriptions recording many treatments for a wide variety of diseases and conditions carved on the walls on either side of the entrance. The list has been added to over a period of 150 years and so provides a unique record of typological changes over time. The three Binyang San Dong (5) caves took 24 years to build and were completed in AD 523. On the main wall there are five very large Buddhist images: the central one, of Sakyamuni, is flanked by four bodhisattvas all in the ascetic and rather formal Northern Wei style. Together with the statues on the side walls, the three groups of figures symbolize the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. There were two large reliefs of the Emperor and Empress worshiping Buddha, but these were stolen in the 1930s and they now reside in museums in the USA. The southern Binyang cave has some beautiful sculptures that were completed in 641. These figures have serene features and can clearly be seen as a transition between the artistic styles of the solemn, austere Northern Wei and the lively naturalism of the Tang artists as displayed at Fengxian Si.

    Longmen Caves
    The east bank of the river provides a great vantage point to appreciate the grandeur of the carvings of Fengxian Si. There is also a temple and a few minor caves.

    Longmen Caves

    Longmen Caves

    Vairocana Buddha
    Over 56 ft (17 m) tall, this colossal statue’s face was reputedly modeled after the empress Wu Zetian. The statue’s enigmatic smile has earned it the nickname the "Eastern Mona Lisa."

    Smashed Ananda
    Some statues were damaged in the late-Tang dynasty, as Buddhism fell out of favor. Other figures were stolen by souvenir hunters or attacked by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

    This statue is of Ananda, a disciple of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. A master of memory, he compiled the Buddhist sutras.

    Heavenly King
    Holding a votive pagoda in one hand and crushing a demon under his feet, this sculpture of a Heavenly King is remarkable for its sense of movement and realistic posture.

    Bodhidarma statue, Shaolin Temple
    Bodhidarma statue,
    Shaolin Temple

    Song Shan & Shaolin Temple

  • 50 miles (80 km) W of Zhengzhou   
  • from Luoyang & Zhengzhou to Dengfeng & Shaolin Temple   
  • Dengfeng 203 Beihuan Lu, 0371 6288 3442

    The Central Peak of China’s five sacred Daoist peaks, Song Shan soars 4,895 ft (1,492 m) high. Its sights can be best explored by staying at Dengfeng, at the foot of Taishi Shan, where numerous trails lead past temples and pagodas, and offer splendid views around the valley. Just 3 miles (5 km) east is the vast Zhongyue Miao (Central Peak Temple). Possibly China’s oldest Daoist shrine, it was consecrated over 2,200 years ago, although what exists today is more recent.

    The monumental Forest of Stupas, Shaolin Temple
    The monumental Forest of Stupas,
    Shaolin Temple
    The monumental Forest of Stupas, Shaolin Temple
    The monumental Forest of Stupas,
    Shaolin Temple

    About 2 miles (3 km) north of Dengfeng is the Songyang Academy. A Confucian college that was one of China’s four great centers of learning, its courtyard has two tall cypresses, said to have been planted 2,000 years ago by the Han emperor Wudi. Farther uphill, the 12-sided Songyue Si Pagoda, dating from the 6th century AD, is China’s oldest brick pagoda. Just 6 miles (10 km) southeast of Dengfeng, the Gaocheng Observatory dates from the Yuan era. Its pyramidal tower is China’s oldest intact observatory. Shaolin, literally "Young Forest," is the name of the fighting order of monks who reside in the Buddhist Shaolin Temple, 8 miles (13 km) northwest of Dengfeng. Founded in the 5th century AD, it acquired its martial spirit under Bodhidarma, an Indian monk who arrived here in AD 527. He devised a system of exercises that evolved into shaolin quan, or Shaolin Boxing, the origin of all the great Chinese martial arts. The temple has burned down repeatedly and today its mystique has been dulled by blatant commercialization. It remains a place of pilgrimage for many martial arts devotees, who still flock here to develop gong fu (skill), popularly known as kung fu, although many schools have moved to Dengfeng. The large temple has several halls. Toward the back, the Standing in the Snow Pavilion marks the spot where the monk Huihe chopped off his arm to commune more closely with Zen Buddhism. Behind, the Pilu Pavilion’s floor is marked with pits where monks practiced their footwork. Within the Chuipu Hall, terracotta figures depict various styles of Shaolin Boxing.

    The Forest of Stupas, a short walk from the temple, is a large assembly of brick pagodas, commemorating renowned Shaolin monks. Each September, the famous wushu (martial arts) festival is held here. The cave where Bodhidarma reputedly sat in meditation for nine years is up the mountainside.

    Shaolin Temple

    • 8am–5pm daily

    Zhongyue Miao

    • 8am–5pm daily

    Kung Fu
    Chinese Martial Arts are loosely referred to as kung fu or gong fu in the West. Gong fu means "skill" and can describe the accomplishments of a calligrapher or pianist, as much as a martial artist. No one is certain when the fighting arts came to the country, but it is clear that China has the largest number and most colorful of fighting styles, including Drunken Boxing and Praying Mantis Fist. Although there is considerable blurring between them, kung fu divides into internal (neijia) and external (waijia) schools. The internal schools tend to stress internal power or qi , using evasion and softness to lead an attacker off balance, while waijia forms seek to over-whelm an opponent with physical strength and power. Kung fu employs many weapons, including the spear broadsword, pole, and whip and even encompasses training in the use of everyday objects, such as the fan, umbrella, or stool, as weapons.

    Bodhidarma, the founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, was an Indian monk who visited the Shaolin Temple. He invented a system of exercises for the monks who were often seated in meditation. It was from these exercises that Shaolin Boxing developed.

    Kung Fu Film Industry
    The Chinese and Hong Kong film industry entertains its audience with stylized versions of kung fu in movie plots that typically hinge on themes of vengeance and retribution. Famous actors have included Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li and a host of lesser known B-movie actors and actresses. Hallmark films include Drunken Master 2 (Jackie Chan), Enter the Dragon (Bruce Lee) and the Once Upon a Time in China series (Jet Li). The martial arts employed in cinema are very different from the real thing – an impressive martial arts actor does not necessarily make a good martial artist. Movements are choreographed and stunts are practiced repeatedly to give the impression of a real fight, without the dangers inherent in real combat.


    • 50 miles (80 km) W of Zhengzhou
    • from Luoyang or Zhengzhou

    Just outside the town of Gongyi a historic collection of Song-era imperial tombs and a group of Buddhist grotto art can be found. The seven surviving tombs of Song emperors are marked by burial mounds and statuary. Scattered over a vast area southeast of town, the tombs can be seen from buses shuttling between Luoyang and Zhengzhou. About 5 miles (8 km) north of Gongyi, the Buddhist Grottoes (shiku) have some carvings from the Northern Wei period.

    Buddhist Grottoes

    • 8am–6pm daily

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