Earlier this summer, I managed to leave China’s southwest and travel to the north beyond the Yangze (长江) and the Yellow River (黄河) to Shanxi (山西) province. Do not confuse Shanxi (山西) with Shaanxi (陕西). Shaanxi (transliterated with two ‘a’) is home to Xi’an and the famous terracotta army, while Shanxi (with only one ‘a’) is part of China’s coal belt.
If the north of the province is famous for the Buddhist grottoes of Yungang (云冈石窟) in Datong (大同) and the ancient walled town of Pingyao (平遥), the southern part of Shanxi is unknown to foreign travellers, yet the region of the Qinhe River (沁河) basin concentrates most of China’s civilian castles, most of which were built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Standing on the riverbank
West of Jincheng (晋城) a city three hours north of Zhengzhou (郑州) in nearby Henan province, clusters of concrete buildings that we may call towns have developed around factories that process coal-bed methane extracted in the region. A few low mountain chains that run from the north form valley where most of the castles of the region are located.
While driving passed the greyness of industrial towns and through this semi-hilly landscape, nothing really prepared me for the grandeur of grandeur of Xiangyu castle (相峪堡).
The construction of Xiangyu castle on a gentle slop that dominates a large pond which used to be a tributary of the Qinhe River (沁河) owes much to the financial contribution of two locals, the Sun brothers, Sun Juxiang (孙居相) and Sun Dingxiang (孙鼎相), also known in Chinese history as Ming court ministers.
Coincidentally, the Xiangyu castle was completed during the 7th year of Chongzhen (崇祯) reign (1628-1644) before the Ming dynasty collapsed when the Mandchu vanquished the Great Wall (长城) and took Beijing founding the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing (清朝).
Stepping into the fortress
A three-span bridge brings visitors and the few locals who still live within the walls of the fortress in front of an imposing stone gate that throne in the middle massive defence wall. The gate obviously acted as a watchtower and with the sheer size of the wall, Xiangyu appears as an impregnable stone fortress.
One access the castle via a short flight of steep stairs. On the right side of Xiangyu castle a long building acts as a second inner-wall. I imagine that behind in each window, soldiers were hiding, ready to shoot at the assailants who were brave enough (or crazy enough) to think they could take the town over.
On the left side, when walking along the wall, I notice steep stone stairs which lead to a series of holes or narrow windows overlooking the river and were the soldiers could hide and shot at the enemy (臧宾洞).
There are three more watchtower in the southern part of the wall and a gate which leads to a temple dedicated to the Jade Emperor (玉皇阁), unfortunately, all of them were closed and I could not get a point of view on the structure.
Except for the presence of a few villagers that I saw entering through the gate, the castle appeared void of life, much like many of the European castles which throne in a solemn silence on top of hill.
The impressive gate looks like it was renovated recently. On the right-hand side of the stairs, three black stone tablets which indicate in to visitors that they are entering a historical relic protected at the national level were put there in 2013.
Beyond the walls and the gates, inside the village itself, small courtyards have been abandoned and are crumbling away while, in other parts of the fortress, there are obvious traces of renovation work. Here and there inside the fortress, I saw signs that indicated the nature of the building that was in front of me. There were in the fortress of Xiangyu a small hospital, a school and a college, a mill, a ‘house of officials’ and, of course, an ancestral temple dedicated to the Sun brothers.
China is obviously trying to promote and renovate its national historical heritage to travellers. However, it seems that despite these attempts to attract tourists, visitors have stayed away from Xiangyu.
There is an interesting atmosphere in the part of Xiangyu that are crumbling away. The vision of windows and doors that have been condemned with bricks and of the empty streets of this stone fortress is eerie. With most villagers gone and no tourists to be seen, walking in the midst of this Ming-era castle was an unforgettable experience.
How to get there
Xiangyu castle is located about a 45 minute drive from Jincheng (晋城) in southern Shanxi province. The closest main city is Zhengzhou (郑州) in nearby Henan province (3 hours by bus) which is connected to the rest of the country via the high-speed train network.
There are no public transportation from Jincheng to Xiangyu castle and you will have to hire a driver for the day. Any taxi driver will agree to drive you to Xiangyu and show other castles on the way back.
See more pictures of Shanxi Castles in the photo gallery