The borders of Henan and Shanxi province are marked by the looming Taihangshan mountains. They curve in a huge S shape from the banks of the Yellow River near Sanmenxia up through Shanxi and Hebei, bending protectively around to the north of Beijing, eventually petering out between Liaoning and Inner Mongolia.
There are few easy passes through these mountains, especially in their southern reaches, and the big, bare mountains have long marked the boundary between east and west in China.
Jincheng, a smoky old coal town lies at the head of one pass, but it is never easy. The distance from Jincheng to the flat broad plains of Henan is barely 50km, but it is through narrow valleys with huge drops and tortuous climbs. The original packhorse road still winds its way up from west of Jaizuo into Shanxi, while a newer quicker road climbs up and over to Luoyang. A third road provides yet one more alternative route through this fascinating area.
The first road provides an illustration of the coal-based economy of the area: a frequently depressing trip past one-man coal mines, backyard steel blast furnaces and a landscape that rarely sees any sunshine for the thick choking smog. Trucks can block the first Jaizuo to Jincheng road for hours if not days, and with the water used liberally to cool the overheated brakes of the big vehicles, the road runs back with an oily, coaly sheen. Children and dogs play out in this polluted hell.
A railway also makes the climb, but there are few passenger trains on this route: most of the traffic is huge trainloads of coal.
All is not lost though, and altitude brings true mountains with clearer air and unusual plants and trees. There are many nature reserves in this no-mans land between Henan and Shanxi, and leopards and macaques are still found in the linear nature reserve that straddles the border, cenred on the village of Zezhou and administered from Jincheng.
Jincheng itself is an unremarkable town, but as always when off the beaten rack, visitors are warmly welcomed by local people.