The Yellow River is one of China's great waterways, and from its source high on the Tibetan Plateau, it snakes its way through the arid northwestern provinces of Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, and Shaanxi before spilling into the Sea of Japan in Shandong. Like the Yangzi (known in Chinese as Changjiang, meaning Long River), the Yellow River is a literal translation derived from the jaundiced hues of the loess sediment which it collects along its 5,471-km (3,400-mile) course. Long held as one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River valley is overloaded with history, and the six cities and one mountain village covered in this chapter present more historical sites than many a small country. From the incredible Buddhist grottoes at Datong, all the way through to "modern" sights such as the communist base of Yan'an, there is plenty to keep you occupied here for at least a fortnight, all the more so since the opening of excellent new museums at Hohhot, Yinchuan, and Taiyuan.

From Beijing, Datong has always been the traditional gateway to the region, but with the commencement of fast Beijing-Taiyuan trains, this is now a viable start point. From Taiyuan one can visit Pingyao, one of China's best preserved walled cities, and the sacred Buddhist mountain retreat of Wutai Shan, before heading north to Datong. Proceeding west to Hohhot, some relief can be found from the barren dryness of this part of China by making a side-trip out to the grasslands before continuing on to Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. If you have the time, and an interest in communist history, Yan'an makes a good last stop on the loess loop before returning to Beijing (or Xi'an).

Piercing winds and icy air currents from the north keep most travelers away from this region from late November to mid-March. Moving south, summer temperatures can be scorching, but evenings are generally comfortable.

Note: Unless noted otherwise, hours listed in this section are the same every day.