On this trip we will visit the valley where a Tang Dynasty ruler* and his followers created an inter-connected series of cave dwellings after fleeing from a coup. This hike is suitable for children (no pushchairs, though) – it’s quite easy (not tough enough to count as a hike, even), and the cave dwellings are sure to spark the imagination.
We’ll add on a visit to Yongning Town on the way back to the city. The old part of Yongning Town surrounds a large tower, and the streets nearby the tower usually host stalls and sellers of snacks, bric-a-brac, and other small-town supplies. There’s also a Catholic church nearby the tower, and if it’s open to visitors we’ll take a look.
*Regarding the name 'Tang Dynasty Caves': that it was a Tang Dynasty ruler is under debate; no one seems to know for sure!
The Tang Caves
Nobody is certain exactly who it was that established the cave dwellings, only that they were made during the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) and inhabited for approximately 200 years. The cave dwellings were carved from the sandstone cliff and are extensive and well-designed, connected by tunnels and stairways, and featuring heated “kang” beds, temples and meeting rooms, and animal shelters on the lower levels. Most of the rooms are three to four cubic meters in size, and some are high up on the cliff face.
It was hard for the cave-dwellers to survive on the produce of the valley, and they would often raid the nearby villages for food (and sometimes women). This annoyed the villagers, and after a while it became known that the hidden valley was inhabited by rebels and bandits. By this time, the Tang Dynasty had fallen to the Khitans who established the Liao Dynasty (907-1125AD). The valley was besieged by the army of the Liao, and all of the inhabitants (approximately 1,000) were killed.
Local legend has it that the caves were built in the body of a dragon, and that a curious rock on one of the paths is a meteorite fallen from the sky. In the 1960s some of the caves at the foot of the valley were used to store weapons and ammunition. In 1976 the caves were damaged by an earthquake. As a result, some of outer rooms are visible in cross-section.
After visiting the caves we'll have a late lunch at a countryside restaurant, and then head on to Yongning Town.
Yongning Town was built during the Ming Dynasty, in 1431, with the surrounding area mentioned in Ming Dynasty records in 1380.
By 1469, Yongning had become an important military post, with its commander in charge of more than 8,000 officers and troops.
Yongning was also well-known as a trading hub, and for the farmland on the surrounding plain.
It is also the site of a large Catholic church, which is still there, a little south of the town center. Built in the 1700s, it was destroyed by the Boxers in 1900 and rebuilt again in 1903. The church is built in the ‘Gothic Revival’ architectural style, which is quite a contrast to the rest of the town.
It’s said that Yongning town had peaked by the late 1800s, and with the end of the Qing Dynasty it lost much of its previous importance. The town’s cultural relics were more or less ruined during the Cultural Revolution. In the 2000s, the government started a project to restore parts of the town to its Ming Dynasty appearance, with the focus on Gongchen Street (the old market precinct) and Sipai Tower in the center of the town.
As well as the Ming Dynasty architecture and the Catholic church, Yongning is famous as a producer of tofu, with merchants cutting fresh blocks at the weekend market.
We'll drive to Yongning after lunch, and we'll have 30-45 minutes of free time to look about the market street and surrounding lanes.
What we'll see at Yongning
- The broad pedestrian street that leads up to the Sipai Tower. This is Gongchen Street, the old market precinct of Yongning. Sipai Tower is the center of the old town.
- The pedestrian street is lined by shops and vendors, selling snacks, farm supplies, and other knicknacks.
- We can get a look at the Catholic church, a short walk south from Sipai Tower. Sometimes the church is open, and if it is we can take a peek inside.