Qikou is a small town about 6 hours' bus ride from Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province. From the 17th century to the 1940s, it was the wealthiest town on the Yellow River. Qikou harbor is halfway along the Yellow River, and oil giant Mobil once had its China branch office there. Former Chinese financial tycoon Kung Hsiang-hsi also had a business in Qikou. It began to decline in the 1940s, but is still site of the largest country fair on the Shanxi-Shaanxi border.
|A doufu seller on the banks of the Yellow River at dawn. |
The Yellow River Hotel commands a magnificent view of the Yellow River and the Loess Plateau from the watchtower on its top story. It is the best-known and most comfortable hotel in town. Hotelier Chen Youfu explains that this hotel was once the biggest store in Qikou, and that its owner used the watch tower to observe and decide a purchase price on produce arriving at the dock. The hotel is a five-story cave dwelling complex, 40 caves of which are hotel rooms. It also has a 33-room annex and courtyard. Chen bought the complex years ago at a low price, with the aim of improving his family's living standard. He had no idea its patronage would include such notable guests as the Chinese vice premier, as well as large numbers of overseas visitors from America, France, Italy and Japan. Films are frequently shot there, and it is a favorite spot for students of fine arts and photographers.
Chen lives here with his wife, and parents-in-law. Their three children all study at boarding school and only come home on school vacations. As the Shanxi provincial government is prioritizing conservation of old township dwellings, the value of Chen's hotel has considerably appreciated. Encouraged by the popularity of his hotel, Chen equipped his hotel with more modern facilities in 2003. It now offers showers, flush toilets, heating and innerspring mattress.
The Chen family was formerly a wealthy and influential clan in the area whose fortunes declined over recent generations. Chen Youfu's great grandfather made his living selling family plots of land for cultivation. His grandfather was a shepherd. During the land reform of the 1940s, the Chen family, along with other local rural dwellers, was allocated housing and land for farming. During the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), all the gold and silver in his cousin's house was looted and antique furniture and old paintings and photos burned. As the town elders passed away, one by one, young people lost interest in the history of their hometown. Now only the old shops and paving stones speak of its past.
To the west of Qikou Town is the Qiushui River. An hour's walk along the mountain path through two mountains takes you to the most complete and well preserved cave dwellings in Lijiashan Village in the mountain valley.
Lijiashan is on a mountain slope. It comprises nine layers of cave dwellings that rise
from the very bottom of the valley to the top of the cliff. More than 800 villagers live there. Qikou's prosperity had considerable impact on this small village, many of whose residents went there to work as apprentices and later opened their own businesses. According to local records, about 132 of Qikou's shops were run by Lijiashan villagers. Local custom dictated that women could not serve in such shops, so the wives and children of these merchants stayed in luxurious family mansions built for them in the village. The most well known residences in Lijiashan Village are the East and West Mansions.
|Old residences in Lijiashan Village. |
|As most young and middle-aged residents have gone to find work in the city, those remaining are largely elders and children. |
Built in 1866, East Mansion comprises two levels of cave dwelling facing west. Its gate is the most ornately decorated in the village. On top of the column is carved an angel riding a kylin (Chinese unicorn) through a cloud. A kylin is a mythical animal in Chinese folklore that is believed to bring male descendents to a family. Despite the passage of nearly 150 years, the carvings on the gate are as clear and vivid as ever. The owner of East Mansion has long since moved to town, and its gate is locked.
The West Mansion, whose most notable feature is its livestock shed, gained eminence later than the East Mansion. Its residents grew wealthy from camel caravans for the transport of commodities. Li Quansheng and his cousin Li Haiping are the present owners of this mansion. The Li fortunes went into decline during the mid-19th century after a family member besmirched the family's business reputation. The Lis, in common with the majority of villagers, now rely on date growing for their livelihood.
Since implementation of the reform and opening policy in 1980, many villagers went to big cities in search of work, but Li Quansheng has never had any desire to leave his home village. He enjoys singing and playing folk instruments; his wife Yang Yanmei is also a good singer who has won an excellency award at the provincial farmers' singing contest. The couple's singing and playing at weddings and funerals in the village earn them 1,000 to 2,000 yuan each year. This they supplement by letting out rooms in the mansion to fine art school students that come here on sketching excursions. After adding these sources of income to that from sales of dates, they generally earn around 5,000 yuan a year.
Since 2003, however, Li Quansheng, in common with many parents with children about to graduate from senior high school, has felt the financial pinch. His second son, who has been studying at the best middle school in the county, wants to go on to college, which demands of Li Quansheng a still greater income. In slack seasons, he is obliged to earn extra cash by working as chef in the county.
|Delicious locally made cakes. |
As most young people in the village work and live elsewhere, Li Quansheng's second son has no interest in staying in Lijiashan. He dreams of going to college, graduating and finding a good job in the city.
The village has seen dramatic changes over the past two decades. Running water is in every household, so there is no longer need to walk for half an hour to the mountain valley for drinking water. In 2002, villagers pooled funds to build a Li ancestral clan hall where they offer sacrifices to their ancestors.
Qikou Town faces the Yellow River to its west and Wohu Mountain to its east. The main street runs parallel to the Yellow River and the Qiushui River; 13 lanes connect with it at right angles. Many shops stand along the streets, normally 5 or 6 meters above the river bank, and have enclosing walls for safety. Most of the families in Qikou live in the typical architectural style most typical of the Loess Plateau: cave dwellings with courtyards before them. On steeper slopes are up to six layers of cave dwellings -- a spectacular sight.
Qikou got its name from it close proximity to Datong Qi (Qi means a sand-piled shoal), second largest in the Yellow River region after the well-known Hukou Qi. Centuries ago, when transportation in the area was still backward, the Yellow River constituted the main commodity transportation route between northwest and North China. Datong Qi became the end of the water route and starting point for land transportation -- an advantageous position that attracted many merchants eager to establish their businesses in Qikou and make their fortunes. During the Kangxi and Qianlong reigns of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Qikou was the commercial center and commodity transfer harbor, where dozens, sometimes hundreds of boats, berthed every day. Cereals, oils, salt, furs, medicines and many other products came to Qikou on water routes from northwest China, before being transported to other parts of the country by horse and camel. Meanwhile, silk, tea, cigarettes and liquor were transported from central China to the northwest. It is said that over two thousand dockers worked in the harbor at that time, and that thousands of horses and camels carried commodities on the transportation route that brought prosperity to Qikou merchants.
During its heyday, more than 380 shops did good business in Qikou. The 2.5-kilometer-long "L" shaped main street was divided into three sections. The front and middle streets by the Qiushui River were crowded with restaurants, taverns silk stores and groceries. Larger shops were on the Back Street facing the Yellow River.
Qikou's prosperity, however, ended with the War of Resistance Against Japanese Invaders that started in 1938, when the Japanese army invaded Qikou and destroyed the local economy. Most merchants escaped never to return. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the flood-prone Yellow River ravaged Qikou's streets and shop. The old town went further downhill with the rapid development of railroads and highways that superseded the old Yellow River transportation route. Although Qikou Town has now faded from recent memory, it has nevertheless retained its original outlook.
Qikou Town is situated in the Luliang Prefecture of Shanxi Province, 230 kilometers from Taiyuan, capital city of Shanxi Province, and 48 kilometers from Lishi City, capital of Luliang Prefecture. There are buses leaving Qikou to Taiyuan at 5:35 every morning that come back from Taiyuan at 12:30. The bus ride takes six hours and tickets are 40 yuan. Tourists may also choose to go from Taiyuan and stop at Lishi City. There are coaches from Taiyuan to Lishi every half hour until 4:00 pm and the journey, at 40 yuan a ticket, takes about 4 hours. You can then travel by coach or taxi from Lishi to Qikou. It takes about 2 hours, and coach tickets are 8 yuan. Those driving their own cars may choose the Taiyuan-Linfen Expressway or National Highway 307, and head north from the western suburbs of Lishi City.
Yellow River Hotel: Prices of beds and dinner vary according to demand.
Old Town Hotel: Heatable adobe beds, no indoor toilet -- 5 yuan/night.
Yellow River Home: Mainly receives students, closed in winter.
Changxing Hostel: Standard room and heatable adobe rooms, 30 yuan/night.
Other Surrounding Scenic Spots:
Xiwan Village: Xiwan Residence is a most attractive spot in Qikou Town. It was built during the Ming Dynasty in fortress style and was home to the wealthy Chen clan. There are over 30 family courtyards in the village that are connected by 5 north-south alleys, each with a stone arch at its entrance. As each courtyard in each alley is connected by a secret path, it is possible to make a tour of the village from any one courtyard. This design was not only for communication, but also defense purposes at times of siege.
Black Dragon Temple: The preserved Black Dragon Temple is a quadrangle. It was built by local merchants desiring an appropriate place in which to pray for good fortune and a safe journey for their merchandise. Visitors are generally particularly impressed with the Music Tower in the temple, and how its special acoustics allow performances presented here to be heard miles away, without loudspeakers.
Folk Customs and Products: Qikou Town receives guests all year round, but autumn is the best season for traveling there. The Red Date Festival is held in mid September, and includes folk operas, dramas and dance performances. Wooden rowing boats and speed boats take tourists for tours on the Yellow River or drifting to Datong Qi. The best souvenirs of Qikou are its red dates and Yellow River pebbles.