Yanan isn’t most people’s idea of an ideal holiday destination. A dusty, drab corner of Shaanxi province, it would be as easily forgettable as dozens of other identikit lower tier Chinese cities if it wasn’t for its historical significance as the end point of the Long March. The fabled military retreat, which also signified Mao Zedong’s rise to power in the Communist Party, reached Yanan in October 1935 and it was here that Mao plotted and strategised with the Party’s senior officers to repel Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT). As such, Yanan was at the heart of the Government’s push to develop ‘red tourism’, focusing on sites that played a significant role in the founding of the ‘new China’.
While the drive for red tourism was at its most fervent in the run up to the Party’s 90th anniversary in 2011, it still continues today and Yanan remains its focal point. Hordes of tourists pour in annually to what local authorities have dubbed ‘the holy land of the Chinese revolution’, donning Lei Feng-style hats, singing revolutionary songs and posting pictures to their Weixin accounts of themselves posing beside Mao’s cave dwelling bed. Or better yet, taking up arms against the Nationalists.
For while historical sites of varying significance are scattered around Yanan (from Yangjialing caves to ‘the site where Chairman Mao planted vegetables’), the local authorities have realised that the key to really drawing in the crowds in modern China is pyrotechnics. Lots of them. Therefore, a short drive from the historically important but rather dull Zaoyuan site (where the CCP Secretariat lived in traditional Shaanxi cave-like dwellings from 1943-1947)lies the battle reenactment park, the Defence of Yanan (entry 150RMB).
Three times a day here (11am, 4pm and 8pm) a large grandstand fills with tourists who watch the reenactment of a battle between Communist and Nationalist forces. Beginning with a tranquil Shaanxi village full of traditionally-dressed locals minding their own business, the show features horse-riding soldiers, fake tanks and even a bombing run from a model aircraft, all taking place among a shower of explosions, gunfire sound effects and Communist pride. It’s a bizarre, and at times unintentionally hilarious piece of living propaganda.
Incredibly, it’s one that you can also take part in, with a full range of period costumes available for those who wish to get involved. Perhaps even more remarkably, we discover that once you pay the 50RMB extra fee to participate, you can choose which side to be on. ‘It’s fairly even,’ says one assistant when we ask what the ratio of Communist to Nationalist take-up is. ‘If you act with the Kuomintang, you get to ride on motorbikes and things, but if you’re with the Communists there’s more running involved,’ she adds, which seems somehow appropriate.
On our visit, having opted to fight for the KMT (‘they have the best costumes,’ advises one recruit), we’re driven in a replica army jeep daubed with KMT insignia to a holding area to the side of the main battle site. Here, extras sit around playing cards and sleeping, waiting for the grandstand to fill and the show to begin. ‘We get to choose which side we want to be on when we sign up,’ says one soldier, who shrugs off any suggestions of divided loyalties about fighting for the KMT. ‘We get 1,500RMB each month as a motorbike driver, which is more than those on foot get. It’s hard work – we perform all the time, even in the rain. There’s always a crowd here to watch.’
After the peace-loving villagers have sung some folk songs and extolled the virtues of working the fields, the KMT rolls into town for the first time, with female tourists toting replica guns sat in motorbike sidecars while the male participants march on foot. The crowd boos in true pantomime style as we enter and take over the village. We’re subsequently marshalled through a series of staged advances and retreats, with (despite what we were told prior to battle) plenty of running involved, not to mention hurling ourselves behind sand bags as live explosions go off all around (and at times alarmingly close to) us.
We don’t want to spoil the ending by telling you which side wins of course, but the battle concludes in a hail of explosions before celebratory singing and dancing breaks out. There’s a definite adrenalin rush for those taking part in the battle scenes and as the crowds drift away, punters are rewarded with the chance to have their photo taken with a Chairman Mao lookalike, who sits chain smoking in an old army tent outside.
The real Mao, of course, was a famously big smoker and in Yanan cigarettes are offered up as a tribute to the Great Helmsman by red pilgrims, littering the imitation bed in a cave at Zaoyuan where he lived during the 1930s. A number of sites dotted around the city offer you the chance to experience similar sleeping conditions for yourself, with the Yangjialing Cave Hotel chief among them. Proudly declaring itself to be the biggest cave hotel in the world, the complex consists of 268 barrel-roofed rooms done up in the traditional Shaanxi style. The ‘cave’ label is slightly misleading, as the hotel’s rooms are built on the side of, rather than into, one of the mountains at Yangjialing, but the rock hard kang-like beds certainly feel authentic enough.
The Yangjialing area beside the hotel forms one of the main sites of pilgrimage for red tourists together with the leafier Zaoyuan. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘attractions’ are limited to the caves where Mao and other important CCP members stayed during their time in the city. Despite some interesting history, the sites are generally quite dry (especially once you’ve fought in the Defence of Yanan), enlivened only by visitors occasionally being led in stirring renditions of traditional propaganda songs by their Communist uniform-wearing guides.
Fortunately, a journey to Yanan doesn’t have to consist entirely of visiting drab Party monuments, with the city also serving as a good jump-off point for excursions to the spectacular Hukou Falls. The largest waterfall on the Yellow River at over 20 metres high, the Hukou (literally ‘mouth of the flask’) Falls cut through the Jinxia Canyon on the border between Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. A straightforward day trip from Yanan, the site’s 91RMB entrance fee allows you to get right up next to the rushing water, which can reach up to 50 metres wide during the flood season, as well as to splash about in some of the adjacent pools and smaller falls.
The road to the falls from Yanan is almost as picturesque, taking in winding mountain roads across orchard-covered peaks, at times revealing breathtaking views across the surrounding countryside. The journey and the waterfall make for a refreshing change of pace after a day or two in the city and though the area surrounding the falls is scarred by some typically tacky Chinese tourist stalls, they’re thankfully kept at a reasonable distance from the river itself, allowing visitors to take in its natural beauty largely untroubled by hawkers. Indeed, in some ways the Yellow River part of a trip to Yanan is perhaps more rewarding than the red, but either way the city makes for a uniquely memorable weekend away.
How to get there
China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) offers return flights from Shanghai to Yanan from around 1,700RMB. Alternatively, you can fly to nearby Xian from as little as 600RMB with Spring Airlines (www.china-sss.com) and take a three-hour train to Yanan from 50RMB/one way.
Most of the revolutionary sites are located at Yangjialing and Zaoyuan, so it’s a good idea to find accommodation close to one of these and then take a taxi to the other. These are available cheaply, though this being a lower-tier city you should expect to share your journey with a number of other customers along the way. You can also hire a taxi for the day to take you to Hukou and back (from 400RMB) – either flag one down in the street and negotiate a price, or ask at your hotel.
Where to stay
The Yangjialing Cave Hotel (Yangjialing Shiyao Binguan, 0911 2330 821,www.yjlc.com), a short walk from the Yangjialing Revolutionary Site, offers standard rooms from 328RMB/night, though these prices can usually be negotiated at off-peak times. For something a little more comfortable, the Yanan Zaoyuan Hotel (Fengqing Jie, 0911 8601 666) has rooms from 400RMB/night.