Shanxi Province, 500km (310 miles) SW of Beijing, 651km (405 miles) NE of Xi'an

During the 77 years of disunion that followed the collapse of the Tang dynasty, northern China was up for grabs by the various kingdoms that came to be known as the Five Dynasties (907-960). Each laid claim to Taiyuan (then called Jinyang) until the first emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279) stepped in and annihilated the city, going so far as to divert the Fen River so that it would wash away any evidence that Jinyang ever existed. Modern Taiyuan -- the capital of Shanxi Province -- is located on the site of the rebuilt city.

Today things are more tranquil, but not necessarily better for your health. A 1999 report found this sooty industrial city to be the most polluted in the country and city officials, shamed into action, began to take strides toward cleanup. The main thoroughfare, Yingze Dajie, was widened in 2007, and while Taiyuan is still unlikely to win any awards for its living conditions, the new Shanxi Museum makes the city definitely worth a day or two of your time en-route to Wutai Shan or Pingyao.