Of Hénán’s ancient capitals, none has more resolutely repelled China’s construction offensive than the walled bastion of Kāifēng. You may have to squint a bit here and there, and learn to sift fake overlays from genuine historical sights, but Kāifēng still juggles up a riveting display of age-old charm, magnificent market food, relics from its long-vanished apogee and colourful chrysanthemums (the city flower).
Erstwhile prosperous capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960 to 1126), Kāifēng was established south of the Yellow River, albeit not far enough to escape the river’s capricious wrath. After centuries of flooding, the city of the Northern Song largely lies buried 8m to 9m below ground. Between 1194 and 1938 the city was flooded 368 times, an average of once every two years.
It’s not Píngyáo – the city is hardly knee-deep in history, and white-tile buildings blight the low skyline – but enough survives above ground level to hint at past glories and reward ambitious exploration. One reason you won’t see soaring skyscrapers here is because buildings requiring deep foundations are prohibited, for fear of destroying the city below.
Dynasties aside, Kāifēng was also the first city in China where Jewish merchants settled when they arrived, via India along the Silk Road, during the Song dynasty. A small Christian community also lives in Kāifēng alongside a much larger local Muslim Hui community.