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Henan Province...The Heart Of China





     China continues to be one of the hottest destinations for North Americans, with most travelers choosing the Big-Three triangular route of Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, home of the world famous   terracotta warriors.


      Henan Province, smack in the middle of  the country and the Big Three, wants to turn that tourist triangle into a square, or at the very least, a side trip.


       “We are the cradle of the entire Chinese nation,” said our guide, David.  “If you drop a shovel anywhere in Henan Province, you will find a piece of history.”


          Well, maybe.  But more than 200 emperors who reigned over 20 dynasties did establish their capitals in Henan, the Silk Road began here, this is the birthplace of Chinese Buddhism, and for Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan fans---welcome to the Kung Fu capital of the world!


           We spent a week with David in Henan Province.  These were some of the highlights:


                                             ZHENGZHOU---THE CAPITAL


            Our first stop was the capital of Henan Province and national capital of all of China during the Shang Dynasty.  Parts of the city wall built 3,600 years ago still remain.  Despite its jawbreaker name, the city is pronounced simply “Jen-Jo,” like some cool celebrity nickname.  Its Confucius Temple is one of the oldest in China.  Situated on the southern bank of the Yellow River, “Jen-Jo” has a population in excess of 10-million and is one of 13 emerging megacities in China.  Henan Province’s population is a whopping 100-million.  If it were a country, it would be the 12th most populous in the world, surpassing nations like The Philippines and Japan.


                                                   LONGMEN GROTTOES


             Perhaps Henan’s No. 1 tourist attraction and certainly its most spectacular sight. This large complex of carved Buddha statues on the side of a mountain took more than 400 years to construct, beginning with the Wei Dynasty (386-534).  There are more than 200 caves and niches, 70 pagodas, and over 100,000 Buddha statues ranging from miniature to giant carvings.  There are also 20 calligraphic gems in the grottoes representing the finest calligraphy of the Wei Dynasty.  The statue of the sole female emperor in Chinese history, Wu Zetian, is in the center of the grottoes and is not easy to miss, standing about 18 meters high.  Her outsized ear alone is almost 2 meters.  A minimum half-day is required to view the Longmen Grottoes.


                                           YUNTAI MOUNTAIN


               Fantastic views and waterfalls---including China’s tallest with a fall of over 1,000 feet---are in this mountain range famous for its oddly-shaped peaks, no two alike.  The mountains are surrounded by clouds year-long, hence the name Yuntai (Cloud Terrace).  There are more than a thousand-step, cliff-side paths tourists can climb to Zhuyu Peak, 1,308 meters above sea level.  There are also a number of stone bridges over cascading waterfalls.  “You can see a waterfall every five paces,” said David, once again getting carried away.  Nonetheless, Yuntai Mountain should be visited as spectacular sights await you every step of the way.  And there are paths for both the hard-adventure type and people like me.




              Situated in the middle reaches of the Yellow River, Luoyang is often referred to as the core of Chinese civilization as it served as the capital city of 13 ancient dynasties.  Its old walled city is worth the visit itself.  Once you pass the 1,400-year-old city gate, you’ll feel as though you’re strolling through one of those dynasties.  Ancient ruins and architecture, artisans doing what they used to do, winding narrow streets, shopkeepers wearing emperor robes…one might even see a chariot or two zip by.  Luoyang also has another permanent “emperor”---the peony.  The flower is almost revered here and it seems to bloom everywhere year round.  A Peony Festival each April attracts tourists from throughout China and the world.




              A medium-size city by Chinese standards (5 million), Kaifeng is among the 24 historical cultural cities in China.  It goes back to the Shang Dynasty, and no one even knows when this dynasty began, since it was the first one recorded.  The mid 16th Century would be a good guess.  Lion dancing and stilt walkers were supposedly all the rage back then, and you can see plenty of them today at Kaifeng’s city park.  Throughout the park, you’ll also see fire-eaters, acrobats, hatchet and sword performers and an outdoor stadium where wars on horseback are re-enacted.  Once you pass the Iron Tower, a 13-storied octagonal tower billed as the first iron tower in the world (according to David), you can enjoy a gourmet meal on Imperial Street.  Instead of a peony, Kaifeng hails the chrysanthemum, a thousand varieties of them, for which it holds its own yearly festival.


                                                    KUNG FU


            The mere mention of the name Shaolin Temple to any young boy in China, or anyone connected to the martial arts, says it all, for it is the very soul of martial arts.  Located in the jungle near the Yuntai Mountains, the temple is world famous as the center of Kung Fu, but the “academy” stretches for miles and involves thousands of students.  The masters, or teachers, are Shaolin warrior monks. Students from all over China and the world come here for short or long-term stays.  It looks more like a vast university spread in the hills, with training and performances going on just about everywhere you look.  “This is where Kung Fu was born,” David said.  “Jackie Chan even trained here.”


             (Postscript: I later learned that Kung Fu existed long before the Shaolin Monastery, although Shaolin is still regarded worldwide as the mecca for Kung Fu.  I also learned that the Shaolin Monastery was actually founded by a wandering Buddhist monk from India. As for Jackie Chan, I’ll give David the benefit of the doubt).



                                    (Dominick A. Merle is a Montreal travel writer and co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn. Email:dmerle@videotron.ca)  

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