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Tune in to the Song Capital

The Henan city with an iron will that has survived natural disasters offers tasty treats as well as imperial and Jewish history

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

Touring the cities that lie around the Yellow River allows you to get in touch with the very roots of Chinese civilization. The locals will confirm that and almost every conversation will eventually come to a point where you will hear “Well, after all, it is the cradle of all Han Chinese!” 

Kaifeng, in Henan Province, is no different. One of the eight ancient capitals, Kaifeng, which means “opening the border,” boasts a history of more than 4,100 years and was capital for seven dynasties. As capital of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), it was considered one of the earliest metropolises in the world when it was the largest and most prosperous city in China, with over 400,000 people living inside and outside the city walls. With a bit of imagination, a trip to Kaifeng can be inspiring and meaningful, if you take into account all the grandiose city elements that the city had throughout the dynasties and then the looming threat of the unstoppable Yellow River right next door. Local Henanese are known nationwide as good hagglers, business makers and an unfortunate stereotype, cheats. However, all of these mold perfectly well into one entrepreneurial spirit.  

Kaifeng was my first stop when visiting Henan, and I could really feel the buzz of the city and the vigor of the people. Central Kaifeng is bustling all day and night, with morning hour rush chased away by the afternoon city explorers and evening food vendors flooding the backstreets and feeding hungry urbanites. The food is plentiful, varied, and, to my surprise, unusually vegetarian friendly. The local specialty of soup baozi (which is a distant cousin of Shanghai’s scalding hot soup-filled xiaolongbao) comes with vegetarian options and restaurants generally have plenty of dishes to serve the visiting herbivores. When asked about that, the owner of one restaurant just shrugs his shoulders: “I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s anything special. We just have dishes without meat.” As any vegetarian visiting China will know, we often seem to be missing out of the most delicious local bits, be it specialty dumplings or flatbreads with stuffing, only because those come with meat filling. Well, that is not the case in Kaifeng. For the first time, I was able to enjoy a basket of soup dumplings, with an egg, leek, and glass noodle stuffing - a hearty portion of a local delicacy that I would normally have to pass on.  

Both locals and visitors gather around the Drum Tower (Gulou) area, where the main street brings a more sanitized (and not always as charming) options for snacks and milk tea with a bustling night food market. Wander into the back alleys and you will find more vendors selling everything from skewers boiled in spicy soup to dumplings, barbecue meat and my personal winner - potstickers. While I planned an evening to explore the back-alley food vendors, the weather in Kaifeng decided to turn on everyone and the strong winds sent all the sellers running. However, the restaurants nearby saved the day and even the heavy rain didn’t ruin a good eating trip.  

Iron Pagoda
After a day of stuffing yourself with local delicacies, a walk around town is just right. During my time in Kaifeng, the central streets were fenced off by a green construction wall so places you could normally choose for a stroll around the city center Baogong Lake did not live up to their potential. At the end of the small lake across a causeway lies the modern but ancient-looking Memorial Temple of Lord Bao, a famous justice of the Song Dynasty who was known for fairness. The temple contains exhibitions, including instruments of torture used in punishments. Travel in the autumn, and you’ll see the annual chrysanthemum festival with displays all around the lake. 

Wanting to see some of the older structures of the city, I called a taxi to go to the Iron Pagoda. By some accounts, the pagoda was built in 1049 on a hill, but due to constant flooding by the Yellow River and the city getting regularly buried under a layer of mud, the 51.7 meter structure now stands at ground level. The pagoda is not made from iron but is named so because of its brown tiles. It is said to have withstood 38 earthquakes and six floods. The pagoda is situated in a huge green park, which is a pleasant walk unless you are visiting in summer, which can be rather hot. The Iron Pagoda’s main attraction is that you can climb to the highest 13th story. Unfortunately, the inside of the narrow and steep stairway is not only decorated with Buddhist statues, but also with names and dates scratched on the interior bricks. The climb takes about 15-20 minutes, but the views over all four sides of the city that open up through the narrow windows are a great way to take in the scenery.  

Besides the Iron Pagoda, Kaifeng has other imperial sights, although many are reconstructed, including stroll-friendly imperial streets and the inner city gate, or the Buddhist Daxiangguo Temple. The wacky Millennium City Park, close the downtown, is a modern recreation of the scene in one of China’s most famous scroll paintings, titled “Along the river during the Qingming Festival,” painted in the Song Dynasty. The park aims to give a flavor of the city during a festival, where merchants and people crowded the banks of the boat-filled river. The modern theme park contains a recreation of the famous arched bridge of the painting, folk performances which can verge on the surreal - like a machine gun-toting Punch and Judy show, and the ubiquitous souvenir stores.  

Steering away from the usual attractions, Kaifeng still occupies a unique spot in history, due to its Jewish history. The first Jews settled in the city over 1,000 years ago and the community is unique in the world. Today, the community numbers fewer than 100, but if you are interested in their unique history, you can look up the contacts of one of the community members (phone number and email available publicly on Wikipedia). Upon calling Esther Guo, who loves to share the local Jewish history with visitors, I found she was unavailable at the time, but we definitely decided to meet up in the future.  

Kaifeng also used to have a synagogue, but that was destroyed in the 1860s.  

With delicious street food and a couple of unique pieces of history, Kaifeng is surely worth two or three days. And from there, it is only a short trip to the Yellow River, which is a must-see for anyone touring China. 

The narrow stairs leading up to the top of the Iron Pagoda