Shaanxi Province, 371km (230 miles) N of Xi'an

For 10 years between 1937 and 1947, the dusty, desolate town of Yan'an in Shaanxi Province (spelled with two a's to distinguish it from its neighbor, Shanxi) was the site from which the Chinese Communist Party consolidated power and spread revolution. It was here that Mao seized leadership of the party and formulated the theories that came to be known as "Mao Zedong Thought." As the Japanese took control of the eastern part of the country, intellectuals from all over China moved to impoverished Yan'an, eager to make their contribution and share in the collective experiment. Among them were the writer Ding Ling (who was chastised by Mao for her essay on International Women's Day -- "Thoughts on March 8" -- which pointed out gender inequities in Yan'an) and the Shanghai starlet Jiang Qing, who became Mao's third wife and, later, a key player in the Cultural Revolution. This part of northern Shaanxi was also the location of Chen Kaige's affecting 1984 film Yellow Earth, about the impact on villagers of a young Communist soldier who goes into the countryside to collect folk songs.

Like Mao's birthplace of Shao Shan, Yan'an was a place of pilgrimage during the 1960s, and today is a major point for Chinese making Red Tours, or visiting revolutionary sites, but quite what The Great Helmsman would make of the town's somewhat sleazy feel after dark is an interesting question! Nevertheless, the appeal of this part of Shaanxi is its very austerity -- the cave dwellings, the dry terraced hills, and the yellow loess that covers it all. The "revolutionary sites" that have become such a part of the founding myth of the PRC will also draw anyone with an interest in modern Chinese history, and, coming from Xi'an or Beijing, Yan'an feels refreshingly undiscovered by foreign travelers.