Just outside of the center of Kaifeng, there’s an unusual neighborhood of old one-story, brick courtyard homes, trees and labyrinthine streets that just barely fit the taxi we rode in that afternoon. It’s a marvel, because most of these neighborhoods have been consumed by the high-rise reality of China’s real estate. Even my friend from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province that sits just one hour East of Kaifeng, lamented the loss of his own boyhood courtyard home, surrounded by trees — just like the ones we pass by.
But we’re not here to visit traditional Chinese homes. This maze of architecture that once was is a visual preamble to our final destination — one even more unusual than the surrounding homes.
Our taxi halts at a dead-end street, engulfed in the silence of the early-afternoon siesta common in China. There is a ticket window at the end of this street, with paint cracked and peeling from the wooden boards framing its tired facade, and a tired ticket collector napping behind the bars separating his tiny office from the outside. A sign hanging next to the bars reads the admission price – 5 RMB, a pittance in a China that routinely charges 10 times that (and more) for many tourist sites.
After we rouse the ticket collector, pay, and pass through the turnstile, we discover something 10 times more valuable than our entrance fee — a stumpy gray Northern Song-era pagoda covered in tiles displaying one of 10 finely carved Buddhist images. In my years of travel across China, it was the most memorable pagoda I had ever seen.
Po Pagoda’s (繁塔, Chinese Wikipedia) delicate tiles — featuring Buddhas and important Buddhist figures including Sanzang, the monk of Journey to the West who is said to have introduced Buddhism to China — decorate the entire pagoda, including the walls of the interior. Once painted, the tiles have grayed over the years, though a few colored pieces exist, and restored tiles are on display.
Po Pagoda has a curiously stunted appearance — and that wasn’t by design. Its Northern Song builders originally erected nine stories worth of Buddhist veneration. But during the early Ming Dynasty, officials lopped off the top, leaving only three stories behind, and then — as though a consolation prize for the destruction — capped it off with a smaller, antenna-like tower.
Scholars also praise its unusual shape. The pagoda has a four-sided interior, like Tang dynasty pagodas, surrounded by the octagonal exterior typical of Northern Song pagodas. Any way you look at it, Po Pagoda is an impressive sight.
A staircase inside, next to the Buddhist altar at the entrance, leads to the third floor and a panoramic view of the traditional neighborhood surrounding the pagoda. You can also see more of the same tiles on the inner walls, as well as large steeles carved with Buddhist sutras.
But mostly, what you’ll find at Po Pagoda is silence. The pagoda does not attract hordes of large tour groups, instead quietly entertaining mostly independent travelers willing to navigate the serpentine streets just outside of central Kaifeng. Perhaps that’s what the original builders would have hoped for — to provide a peaceful, meditative place for visitors today and — let’s hope — tomorrow.
When to visit
Po Pagoda doesn’t provide much shelter from the elements, so it is best visited in the Spring, Summer or Autumn. Since Kaifeng is on the dry loess plains, don’t expect much rain, but Spring and Autumn can bring the occasional dust storm. If coming in the Summer, be sure to arm yourself with a good sun parasol (available in UV-protective versions in Chinese supermarkets).
By Plane: Your best bet is Xinzheng Airport in Zhengzhou, just an hour out of Kaifeng. You can either take a taxi ( ~100 RMB) or take the airport bus (every hour, on the hour, 15 RMB) to Jinshui Road (金水路 — also the first stop for the bus). Whether you take the bus or taxi, make sure you get to the Deyi Bus Station on Jinshui Road (郑州德亿大酒店站) — they have frequent (and comfortable) buses to Kaifeng from 6am to 10:30pm, fare is 7 RMB per person and the trip takes 75 minutes.
By Train: There are frequent trains between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, but less so from major cities (such as Beijing or Xi’an) to Kaifeng — and the trains that do go from major cities can be slow. If you can’t get a direct train to Kaifeng, no worries — go into Zhengzhou first. You then have the option of buying a train ticket to Kaifeng, or going to the Deyi Bus Station mentioned above (which may be more comfortable, without the hassle of buying train tickets).
Where to stay
There are nice budget options in Kaifeng or Zhengzhou. If you’re starved for ancient Chinese architecture and culture, go for Kaifeng. One possibility is the Kaifeng Guest House, located in the center of the city (rooms 175 RMB or less).
If Zhengzhou is your base to explore other places, consider the dated, but enormously hospitable (and helpful) Wuhua Hotel on Weiwu Road (rooms ~ 172 RMB, more or less). Their sumptuous breakfast buffet alone is worth it.
Find these and more by booking — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.