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The Land of Coal and Cabbage

by Ellen Barth   - Mar 11, 2015


Yúlín (榆林) in Shaanxi Province (Shǎnxī Shěng; 陕西省) is a city propped up by two main goods: coal and cabbage. Wander through its streets of preserved antiquity and you'll surely see a wealth of both, likely stacked in an old courtyard (coal) or piled up and for sale on a sheet of tarpaulin (cabbage). But go to Yulin - a place by and large ignored by tourists - and you'll find that it has much more to offer. 


I went to Yulin with two other expat friends, with the motivation to see a new side of China, one a little less metropolitan and a little more down to earth. So we hopped on a train in Xi'an and headed north. One train and several beers later, we arrive.





My first impressions are of desert and flatness. Into the distance, everything, even the sky, is the color of sand. The traditional homes are long structures, usually no more than one story, that are built into the gentle rise of the low hills. Seen from above, it looks like an elaborate maze. 


The city center is a shiny penny in comparison. We walk through a traditional gate that has recently been slapped with a fresh coat of blue and red paint and into quaint streets of alcohol sellers and tea shops. It's clear that this is a city of two minds. To one side is an imposing and modern structure with a blue glass facade, to the other, a salesman demonstrates a vegetable slicer like an outdoor infomercial. We pass a cinema on one street, and a circular door leading to a rock garden on another. Turning a corner, we're confronted by a gaggle of young school children who excitedly descend upon us yelling, “Hello!” 




Things move at a slow pace. A worker naps in his cart, arm flung over his eyes to keep out the sun. Old men in black cotton outfits and communist­era hats chat near a butcher's shop. 


Shaanxi Province gave birth to some of China's first dynasties, and evidence of this is littered across the city. The city wall is crumbling in some places, but mostly intact, and houses are flanked by red paper couplets. First thing on our list is Zhenbei Tower (Pinyin: Zhènběi Tái; simplified Chinese: 镇北台; Traditional Chinese: 鎮北臺). Located 7 km (4.3 mi) outside of town, this is one of the oldest surviving watchtowers of the Great Wall. Having been to the Great Wall - meaning Beijing's Great Wall - already, I wasn't sure how impressed I would be. 






In general, China has a policy of polishing their antiquities, as though being old is impressive only as long as it looks new, and Zhenbei Tower is a prime example of this. A forbidding three­story structure, it is extremely well maintained. The low parapets with their sharp edges could have been built yesterday. But around it, what could be mistaken for nothing more than heaps of yellow dirt, are remains of the real Great Wall. Here is something that hasn't been spiffed up for your viewing pleasure, and it is wonderful. Stretching away like an artery, this shallow hill is purely, fascinatingly old. It has been worn by the years, and for maybe the first time, I am able to get a sense of how many hundreds of years that has been.




Unchecked and free to go wherever our hearts take us, we romp around the land beside tower. In the dust, we find bits of pottery or the odd bone. Are they also from a time long passed? Probably not, but we'd like to think so.


Night begins to fall, and on a whim we decide to take in another of Yulin's gems - its pagoda (Língxiāo Tǎ; 凌霄塔). A keeper lets us in; we're the only visitors. The walls are scrawled with names, hearts, and other teenage messages. As the light outside fades, we are left with only the lights of our cell phones to guide us up the winding stairs, and as we get to the top, we see that a shockingly green spotlight has been turned on the pagoda. It's as if on the way up we have somehow been transported to Oz.








The next day brings us to Red Stone Gorge (Hóngshí Xiá; 红石峡). Buddhist inscriptions of varying styles are carved into the face of the rocks. We dip into the grottoes, finding a sleeping Bodhisattva statue here and sticks of burning incense there, and always hearing the soft babble of water outside. Each grotto is unique and special in its own way, but in one we see the faint ghost of red paint. We can't read the text, but someone, some time ago, decided to write a message on the walls of this sacred place. It is also clear that some of the inscriptions are not ruined from weather alone. As is the case in the rest of Yulin, history here is layered. 










Our last night in Yulin, we end up in a bar. In getting there, we've broken a travel commandment and allowed our taxi driver to decide for us. He takes us to a bar located, it seems, in someone's carpeted basement. There is the smallest of dance floors and one lone strobe light. The taxi driver stays for a drink. It's us, the driver, and three Chinese businessmen in suits; otherwise, the place is empty. We could easily be scammed, be forced to pay ten times what a local would be charged, but that doesn't happen. Instead, we dance with one of the more jovial businessmen. His dance, a vertical movement of the forearms, is later dubbed “The Fence”. Our trip to Yulin is deemed a success. 


With its dusty air and cabbage covered streets, Yulin might not be the ideal destination for every traveler, but for me it remains the place where yesterday lives alongside today.


About Writer

006.jpgEllen Barth fell in love with China during her first Mandarin lesson when she was sixteen years old. American by birth but currently residing in Germany, Ellen spent a year studying and working in Xi'an, and received a degree in Asian Languages and Literatures in 2008. Since her first trip to China in 2004, she has traveled across Asia and Europe in order to appease her ever-itchy feet.

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