This was the China that its billion peasants dreamed of: agriculture freed from predatory landowners, health and education for the masses, democracy and a united people led by Mao Tse-tung. For the years before the final push towards Peking in 1949, Yan'an was the socialist capital, controlling vast swathes of northern China and providing Mao time enough to consolidate his control and formulate his own brand of Marxism. If the People's Republic of China - celebrating its 50th anniversary this October - can be said to have been born anywhere, it is Yan'an.
When I got there earlier this year, clambering off the train, people stared at me without embarrassment, obviously wondering if I had missed my stop seven hours ago, back in Xian. As I stood awkwardly arched on the bus into town, Yan'an suddenly felt less than I had expected. Naive thoughts of sandy yellow caves, clear skies sheltering that famed Pagoda, even a special "socialist" feeling were all rapidly dispelled by mud, drizzle and a town which didn't much care about history any more. The bus passed at least two disused factory compounds as we followed an empty river. The grey clouds just didn't seem able to let enough light through.
I started my one rainy day in Yan'an with breakfast: a stew of roughly sliced noodles in Ma Jun's small restaurant just down the road. I occupied one of the three tables and heaped chilli into the bowl while an old character slumped, sleeping I guessed, on table number two. Like many in modern China, Jun's husband had been laid off from a state factory, and while he pursued an undefined trade in Xian she had also taken up business.
The Chinese have coined a phrase to describe this all too universal experience - they call it to xia-hai, to fall into the sea from the safety of life in the state sector. Many learn to swim, others tread water, some simply sink. Jun was friendly, if a little bemused, as she explained things in the clearest Mandarin she could manage. The Yan'an tourist trade had died and with it the town. Her children's school had started demanding $12-a-term fees, while the restaurant business was unrewarding since everyone had plunged into this particular part of the ocean at the same time. The loss of political status had meant that the provincial government was apathetic to Yan'an's fate and Peking had long stopped relocating industry into the area. Coal-mining was one of the few options left, and you could smell it.
After breakfast I headed towards the surrounding hills, walking through the main town, across the near-empty river on some planks, through a small informal shantytown, and then up a cliff path. The town sits at the juncture of two river valleys, yet there is no greenery. From the streets the surrounding valley sides, filled with house facades, seemed to promise something more in touch with the Yan'an of the propaganda pictures. The ancient cave- dwellings cut into the mud-rock now have wooden house-fronts, fenced-off yards and often flat grassed roofs. Hatted chimneys emerge occasionally.
Thoughts of primitive purity, however, were short-lived. The gullies between the houses act as latrines for dogs and children. At the bottom of one of the paths I stopped to watch locals drawing water from an improvised well. I turned down the offer of a cup of tea from one of them as politely as possible, and wandered off.
After a number of barking dogs put me off more trekking, I turned back down to the Revolutionary Museum, a grand building full of Long March photos, maps with
criss-crossing arrow lines and the odd gun, soldier's uniform and pair of Maoist spectacles. I wandered around, casually trailing a group of young Party cadres, dominated by a guy in a cheap Godfather suit. The guide accompanying them parroted an official commentary, not even broken when she pointed out famous faces among the pictures. I recognised a short Deng Xiaoping but the others passed me by. Apart from us, the museum was empty. I bought some old postcards of Mao and his cohorts for a few pennies and stepped out into the rain.
Yanan must have been a glorious place in the days of the Chairman. Thousands of blue-suited followers would flock into the museum, take pictures of themselves in front of the giant statue of the Great Helmsman, and boast proudly of their pilgrimage at their work-unit back home. Most of China's Mao statues have now been quietly taken down - no fits of Eastern European statue-vandalism here - but this one remains, dismally grey, as though it stopped signifying anything much so long ago that it is hardly worth the effort to remove it.
Near the museum a group of low-lying buildings make up what is left of the Revolutionary HQ, the place where Mao, Chou En lai and other hallowed figures lived and worked. It resembles a little African mission compound, with simple living quarters surrounding a central meeting hall. Mao wrote many of his key essays here, and much of what he wrote was later cobbled together to form the infamous "Little Red Book".
Mention that you've actually been to Yanan to any Chinese under 30 and you'll be met by a mildly incredulous gaze. Everything it represents is foreign to modern China. It couldn't have been more quickly forgotten if it had been simply airbrushed out of the history books. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping began engineering market reforms, the Communist Party has looked to economic growth and sound management to gather support. For 20 years this quiet revolution has delivered the goods - stock markets, bankruptcies and McDonald's.
Had Yanan simply been left out of all this? I couldn't be sure. In the afternoon I went to take a closer look at the Ming dynasty Pagoda on the east bank of the river. Sitting above the sluggish mess of a town, I wondered if a propaganda department had existed in Peking, specially dedicated to reinventing this backwater as worthy of the ideological Eden that the photos portray.
But in contrast to those dreams of the 1940s, present-day Yanan is still groping, unexpectantly, for modernity. It was unfortunately the epicentre of the wrong revolution - but one day in the future, when coal finally gives way to manufacturing, when Mao tourism revives ironically and when the prosperity creeps in from the coast, it'll be Deng Xiaoping's revolution that saves Yanan and not Mao's. Whether the People's Republic of China will survive another 50 years to witness those events is quite another matter.
ON THE TRAIL OF MAO AND SHANGRI-LA
For the south-west of China, it is slightly quicker to fly via Hong Kong. For Yan'an, fly to Peking. Return fares from London to Peking can drop below pounds 400 with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) or Air China (tel: 0171-630 0919). Return fares to Hong Kong are slightly more expensive.
Getting to Kunming or Yan'an depends on time and money. Train travel can take several days (comfortable berths are best booked in advance through local travel agents). Internal flights are frequent and safer than in the past, but not as cheap as trains.
Visas are required and are available from Chinese embassies. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after the expiry date of your visa. Embassy of the People's Republic of China (tel: 0891 880808; calls cost 50p per minute).