Walking in the stone fortress of Xiangyu, Shanxi province

A panoramic view of Xiangyu castle in Shanxi province

A panoramic view of Xiangyu castle in Shanxi province

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

Xiangyu castle in southern Shanxi province

Xiangyu castle in southern Shanxi province

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

View of Xiangyu castle second wall layer in southern Shanxi province

View of Xiangyu castle second wall layer in southern Shanxi province

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.


Abandoned houses behind one of Xiangyu castle's watchtowers in Shanxi province

Abandoned houses behind one of Xiangyu castle’s watchtowers in Shanxi province

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

Inside the Xiangyu fortress in Shanxi province

Inside the Xiangyu fortress in Shanxi province

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

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There are 19 comments

    1. Gaetan Green

      This stone fortress was absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, the watchtowers and most of the (abandoned) buildings were locked. I wished I could have gone inside, but it sure was an incredible experience to walk through this virtually empty castle with no tourists but me.

      1. archecotech

        Have you found to be the case in other areas of China as well? I’ve never seen some of these places you are visiting. It’s giving me a new perspective which I like.

      2. Gaetan

        I mainly travel in southwest China, because it’s closer to Guangzhou where my base is. Most of the places I write about here in this blog are going to become tourist attractions in the near future.
        Domestic travel is increasing rapidly and local governments invest money to renovate and embellish places of interest to attract Chinese tourists. However, local governments plan to attract tourists is not always successful.

    1. Gaetan Green

      In this case, it’s an article on the China National Geographic in which they feature amazing places all across China. Some of them are pretty remote, but the castles of southern Shanxi are easy to get to.

    1. Gaetan Green

      China by car must quite the adventure. I’ve never done that, but once you’ve got your international driving licence and found a car, the next step is to learn some basic Chinese and buy a good road atlas of China (available at most bookshops). They are building roads so fast that some have not been mapped yet and sometimes there are roads on the map that are still under construction. Contact me with more specific questions. Happy travel planning.

      1. Marta

        Just one thing: you can’t drive in China with an international driving license! You need to take a test and obtain a Chinese driving license!

      2. Marta

        Maybe they took the driving exam! if you have a driving license from another country you just need to have it translated and take a computer test that can be done in English! I got my Chinese driving license last March but I didn’t drive yet, too scary haha.

      3. Gaetan Green

        Driving in China is definitely not on my list of things to do … When I was in Chongqing a taxi driver asked me why I was not driving by myself in the city. I said it was to scary to me. And he replied :”You should not be scared. All the bad drivers are already dead.” I think he was serious 😉

    1. Gaetan Green

      Thank you! I don’t know whether my journey is magical, but I do have a good time trying to get lost and escaping the crowds and pollution of China’s cities. Happy travels to you too.

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