Ancient city of Pingyao
Jerry and I arrived in Pingyao 24 hours after leaving Guangshui! The overnight sleeper was fine and we spent 11 hours on the first train. We travelled hard sleeper. There are 10 compartments within one train carriage. Each compartment has 6 bunks and a small table with a thermos flask. Boiling water is available from a big urn at the end of each carriage. The compartments have no doors so there is no privacy and each bed has a thin sheet covered mattress, a doona and a pillow. The linen is not changed after each person uses it so you get a clean towel to spread over the pillow. We took our own pillow cases!
We shared our compartment – we had a lower and middle bunk – with three young men and a mother travelling with her two small children. The three of them shared a bunk – this semed quite common as many of the other bunks (which were very narrow) had children sharing with parents. I don’t know whether they had to pay extra to share the bed. We were the entertainment for the evening – the mum was fascinated with us. We had the last of our Wuhan cheese on crackers and she helped herself to my plate – just picked the cheese up and examined it! Thankfully it still was wrapped. During the night I felt her rub her hand up and down my light fleece coat and poke my pillow to see our soft it was. I always carry my own little pillow when we travel. Anyway the trip passed very quickly and though neither of us got much sleep we were very pleased to be lying down. The carriage was filthy by the time we arrived – everybody threw and spat everything onto the floor.
We arrived in Shijiazuang in Hebei Province and were planning to buy another train ticket to Taiyuan and then catch a bus to Pingyao. We tried to buy a ticket at the foreigners ticket office in Shijiazuang, they walked away and eventually came back and said ‘no tickets’ and pointed to the main ticket hall. We dragged our bags through the station (it was enormous!) to the ticket office and joined a queue. Again ‘no tickets’ and pointed at another queue – another wait ‘no tickets’! Then they took us across the station again to a waiting hall (which you can’t enter without tickets) and told us to wait and buy a ticket from a small counter at 6.30am. 6.30 am ‘no tickets come 7am” – 7am ‘no tickets!’ I was nearly in tears of frustration by this stage so again they led us to another hall and told us to wait. 15 minutes later we were led to the platform and left there. Eventually we found the sign for Tiayuan, the train came in and we boarded without tickets. On the train I tried to buy tickets -‘no tickets’! It is illegal to be on board without tickets so I eventually found somebody to sell me a ticket. They were in a small booth in the hard seat section – the cheapest seats. These carriages were crammed full – people were sitting on laps, and they were crammed into the corridors and between the carriages. It was like rush our on the tubes in London but this trip was a minimum of 5 hours! Anyway the only tickets they would sell me were the most expensive soft seat sleeper tickets. We had no choice but to pay the price asked and by that stage didn’t care anyway! We had a very comfortable trip though – there was nobody else in our compartment (these are 4 bunk compartments with doors that lock) so we were able to close the door and enjoy the trip without an audience. This area had western toilets – the hard sleepers only squat toilets, but neither of them were particularly clean. At least your luggage was safe in soft sleeper – we chained it to the luggage racks in hard sleeper.
The scenery in Shanxi Province was dismal – very poor villages and the rail track was lined with tiny coal mines and brick works. The villages looked destitute and were grimed with coal dust. In China thousands of workers lose their lives in accidents in illegal coal mines in this province. Over two thousand have already died this year alone (and that’s reported deaths) – most of them in illegally operated mines. All the windows in the houses were broken and there was not a lot of rural fields – just big piles of coal everywhere. At one time many people here lived in caves and you could still see these abandoned homes everywhere.
We arrived in Tuayuan and still had 2 hours to travel before we reached Pingyao. We foolishly tried the trian queues again – ‘no tickets!!!!!’ yet the locals seemed to buying tickets for the train we wanted. We gave up and headed to the bus station. It all seemed too easy as they sold us two tickets and put us on the bus. Three quarters of an hour later we were still on the bus and it hadn’t moved! The bus driver and a passenger were having a punch up on the footpath and everybody was yelling at each other on the top of their voices…. Eventually the bus left and 2 hours later we were dumped on the outskirts of Pingyao city where a motorcycle taxi took us the couple of kilometres to the ancient city and dumped us in the garden of the hotel he thought we should stay in – despite the fact that we already had booked one somewhere else. We asked directions from a young english speaking girl and headed off across the city to our hotel. The city is amazing, totally surrounded by a completly intact 6 kilometre city wall. Upon arriving at the hotel we were told that our room had been already rented out and that we would have to go elsewhere or pay a more expensive price to stay there. I refused and could see the paper with our name and arrival date on it so insisted they found us a room. They took our money and then tried to take us to another hotel – I was angry (and tired!) by this stage and insisted they found us a room in their hotel. Eventually we were given the best room in the hotel for 2 nights – it was 4 times the price – and we moved into a smaller room after 2 nights. The hotel is situated in one of the old traditional courtyard houses and is very pretty. We are sleeping now in a small room with the largest bed we have ever seen – it is a brick platform winter bed – once the whole family would have slept on their thin mattresses together on top of the bed in the colder months. The bed platform was warmed with a fire which was lit under it to heat the bricks. During the day the mattresses were stored in cupboards which lined the edges of it and a table was set up on it. The bed is really the room! During the summer months the families would move to another house within the courtyard and sleep on wooden beds.
Pingyao is beautifully preserved and how it managed to escape the various uprisings and wars without being damaged is amazing. Thankfully Unesco placed the city on it’s world heritage listing in the late 1990’s and it will now remain as well preserved for evermore. The houses are made of grey bricks with very intricately carved roof supports which are colourfully painted. We were surprised to see the ends of all the small wooden roof beams painted with the bue, black and white ‘eye’ symbol that was everywhere in Turkey. The roofs are all tiled with the rounded roof tiles which are filled with earth for insulation. The tops of the roofs are edged with dragons and even the chimneys all have little miniature houses on top of them. The windows and doors are all made of patterned panels of wooden lattice. Years ago these panels were lined with calligraphy pictures on rice paper or plain white paper covered in red papercuts. Now of course all the hotels have them covered in white glass, though they are still set with papercuts. The ceilings inside were also lined with paper. The area behind the house fronts are very large and are a maze of peaceful courtyards, scattered with clay pots full of goldfish and azalea and rose bushes in pots.
There are many museums in the city and a lot of the tourists are upset that the only way you can enter them is with a 3 day ticket – 120 yuan each – and most people are only here for 1 day. It is impossible to see them all in one day, particularly if you wish to walk around the city walls. The 6 kilometre walk only has one exit – 4 and half kilometres after the beginning so it takes about an hour and half to get to there or 2 hours to complete the walk.The wall is made of rammed earth and is covered with grey bricks. Every 50 metres there is a watch tower. The wall is surrounded by a moat which is currently empty of water as they are building gardens around it. The city has four entrances through the walls and each one is adorned with wooden towers, intricately carved and covered with detailed paintings. The main city streets are also covered with wooden entrance gates. We have been able to take our time exploring the museums and temples without any rush because we have spent four full days here. The city is full of Chinese tourists between 10.30 and 3.30, charging around on golf buggies (the local taxis) but after they all leave it is a real pleasure to walk around the cobbled streets. The only tourists left then are the Westerners and there are not a lot of them. After dark the city comes alive with the glow of red lanterns. It is then very peaceful then as the centre of the city is closed to cars – other then the taxi buggies – which are only used by the Chinese tourists (who never walk when they can be driven). Most of the Chinese tourists seem to come on daytrips.
We have thorougly enjoyed exploring the museums and narrow streets. A lot of the streets behind the main roads are still dirt. The first banks in China began in Pingyao – the traders needed somewhere to store their money on the Silk Route. It also has many Armed Escort Agencies. The silver was pulled by hand on wooden carts which were surrounded by armed guards. They carried an assortment of very nasty weapons! The largest museum was the Government office – it was courtyard after courtyard of houses and temples. We were very impressed with how well everything is being maintained, though not as impressed with a lot of the staff who are being openly rude to foreigners. We have lived here long enough to know when they are swearing at us and ultimately it will not do their tourist industry any good. They are probably as rude to the local Chinese tourists as well.
I guess this city has been an introduction to Chinese tourist sites as we have been warned against pick pockets – it appears thay are prevalent – and have been hounded by touts selling souveniers and fake antiques as we walk down the streets. However we are very plaesed that we came here as we know that this is one of the largest areas of ‘old China’ in China. Even our dirty old Guangshui has some houses like these but not streets of them as are here. We have not been able to find much in the way of street food so have had to eat in local cafes. We are now a little wary of street food however as we’ve had some bad news from Australia. Renee was admitted to hospital upon her return to Australia and tests have shown that she has typhoid fever, despite having the vaccination before coming to China. We are pretty certain that the few days Jerry and I were both violently ill in Guangshui after eating a meal (with Renee) at the street market have resulted in Renee’s illness. She became ill a week later – the incubation period for typhoid is 1 week. Jerry and I shall see a doctor in Beijing for a checkup. We leave for Beijing this evening, again with a hard sleeper for 11 hours. This time we paid the hotel 30 yuan a ticket commission to purchase them for us – we will do this all the time in future. We have not met a tourist yet who has successfully been able to purchase train tickets – they have all had the ‘no ticket’ chant as well!
We had a meal (Pingyao beef – good old corned beef – very tender!) last night with a group of people travelling on an Intrepid tour and they have recommended the company highly. They were 3 Australian teachers our ages (teaching in Java and on Christmas Island) and have really enjoyed their tour of China with Intrepid. We start our tour with the company on Saturday. We also met a 70 year old British man who has been packpacking around the world for the last 7 years and intends to die on the road. He seemed very fit but he told us he has serious heart problems. You really meet some inspiring people when you travel.