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Revolutionize Your Travels

Once an isolated and desolate fortress, this former red capital is now a unique tourist destination with an equally unique backstory

By NewsChina Updated Feb.2

Yaodong, or cave dwellings in Yan'an

Yan’an, located in northern Shaanxi Province, is not an obvious destination for foreign tourists. For Chinese people, however, Yan’an is celebrated as the birthplace of the Communist revolution, serving as the endpoint for the Long March (1934-35) and the revolutionary headquarters of the Communist Party of China between 1935 and 1947.  

When I was invited on a trip to Yan’an, I almost declined the offer, as there were other tourist spots elsewhere in China that I deemed more desirable. It didn’t seem to have the obvious vibrancy of metropolises like Shanghai and the mystery of sacred cities like Lhasa. But I was convinced when I learned of Yan’an’s key role in modern China. But Yan’an has more to offer than red tourism. 

Before the Communists hailed victory in 1949, Yan’an was plagued with barren land, poverty and hunger. Foreign journalists like American writer Edgar Snow had ventured across the incredibly vast lands of the Loess Plateau to share stories with the Western world about the revolution in the post-Long March period. He wrote about the desperate levels of poverty there, describing it as “one of the poorest parts of China” he had ever seen. Today, Yan’an is unrecognizable from the one described by Snow, boasting budding businesses, unique tourist spots and plenty of arable land. 

One of my obsessions when traveling to a new place is finding a location where I can take the best and most iconic snapshots. Iconic of Yan’an is Baota Shan, known in English as Pagoda Hill. We were lucky enough to view it on a crystal-clear day, which afforded us a postcard-perfect view of the city’s landscape. The best vantage point for Pagoda Hill is the nearby Qingliang Hill. From here, you can find the best view of the nine-story pagoda that stands boldly atop a sandy hill and overlooks the southeast part of the city. Encircled by lush green trees that bring a pop of color to the Yan’an vista, the octagonal pagoda is said to symbolize the great importance of this former revolutionary cradle. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Pagoda Hill was designated as one of the first cultural relics to be granted State protection.  After visiting Pagoda Hill, it was time for lunch. My lunches back in the UK usually consist of simple sandwich meal deals grabbed in the rush of a work break from the local convenience store. Lunches in China, however, are much more arousing for the tastebuds and exciting for the memory books. My poor Chinese skills do not always allow me to remember the names of independent-style restaurants, but they do allow me to remember the hospitality and great food of the locals. A short taxi ride away from Pagoda Hill was a restaurant like thousands of others across the country. In keeping with Chinese tradition, its tables were counter-topped with lazy Susan rotating trays packed with a wide-ranging but wacky display of dishes. Although the presentation of the restaurant was something I was used to, what I wasn’t used to was being encouraged to try dishes featuring chicken feet and insects.  

Being around other foreigners in China allows you to avoid being adventurous when eating out sometimes. But this time around, I couldn’t get away with it, as most people on the tour were locals who were determined to get me to try some of the more unusual dishes that they had grown up with. While I couldn’t be convinced to try any fried bugs, one of the senior members of the group successfully convinced me to try the frog dish. Though proud of my adventurousness, it’s safe to say that would be my first and last time trying frog. 

After lunch, we headed to the Yangjialing Revolutionary Site, site of the former offices of the CPC Central Committee. Here, we were shown around the Great Auditorium, the Office Hall and the former residences of Chairman Mao Zedong and other revolutionary leaders such as former premier Zhou Enlai. These residences come in the form of yaodong or cave dwellings that were caved into the side of mountains – characteristic of China’s north and the Loess Plateau region. Though Mao’s yaodong may be of specific interest to most tourists, the section of the site I found most fascinating was the August 1946 meeting venue of Mao and American journalist Anna Louise Strong. Mao’s meeting with Strong, who is best known for her reporting on and support of the Communist movement in China, was when he asserted the now world-famous phrase “all anti-revolutionaries are paper tigers.” What interested me about this particular part of the tour was that it made clear Mao’s early international influence and narratives of people power.  

The theme of people power stayed with us during the next stop on the itinerary: the 
Ansai Folk Waist Drum Base. Waist drum dancers are not only a trademark of Yan’an, they are a trademark of China. The large-scale Ansai waist drum dance has traditionally been performed to mark major Chinese holidays like Spring Festival and to celebrate good harvests. What we learned was that the dance is also a source of income, helping poor locals escape the vicious cycle of poverty. The energetic dance is enriched with clanging cymbals and fast drumbeats, along with the dancers’ striking white and red uniforms and beaming smiles. For me, seeing Chinese cultural heritage in action is always priceless and a moment to cherish forever.  

Before heading back to the hotel for our final night in Yan’an, we made a quick pit stop by the Hukou Waterfall on the border between Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. At first glance, the waterfall doesn’t look so impressive or majestic. In fact, it looks pretty dirty and poses no competition to Niagara Falls. But statistics our tour guide shared with us made up for its lack of beauty. It is said to be the only yellow waterfall in the world, the largest waterfall along the Yellow River and the second-largest waterfall in the whole of China. What made this part of the trip so memorable, however, was when a tour group member said the waterfall’s constant flow of water represents Yan’an’s constant fight against poverty. For me, Yan’an afforded a city break that represented three key themes: heritage preservation, people power and 
waving goodbye to poverty.