There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Beijing (3), A Duck and a Rant: Part 15 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

"Gungo smiley face Harvey Ball"
                                                                                                                               legend seen on a tee-shirt, Beijing*

We walked 2km along Dongchang’an Jie, first retracing our steps of two weeks ago to the Ming Observatory, and then continuing over the Jianguomen flyover in the direction of the Friendship Store. This venerable institution, once open only to foreigners, diplomats and high ranking officials, was created to ease the lives of the Soviet experts sent to assist with China's economic development in the 1950s. In the early days of western contact it was the only place the new western tourist could shop. Not allowed local currency (as in North Korea now) the Friendship Stores were the only places they could spend their Foreign Exchange Certificates. They sold good quality Chinese arts and crafts, western luxuries and uncensored western newspapers while guards on the doors kept out the ordinary people. Foreign Exchange Certificates disappeared in the 1990s, western luxuries became widely available and restrictions on who could use the shops were abolished.

Crossing the Jianguomen flyover
We first visited the Beijing Friendship Store in 2004. In 2007 it was still the best place for Chinese oddities - the particular bamboo trays needed for tea ceremonies for instance - but the Friendship Store concept was beginning to look dated. This time our mission was to find a set of tea tools - our daughter wanted them to go with her tray.

As we should have expected, the Friendship Store is no more. The building was still there, draped with banners bearing names you can find in every major city on earth (except Pyongyang). I cursed Armani and Versace, and Baskin Robbins whose stall is next door and u-bloody-biquitios Mc-sodding-Donalds for their homogenisation of the globe. ‘Our world is a duller, less varied place because of you,’ I thought as I readjusted my Ray-Bans on my nose (and I cursed Ray-Bans too, smug in the knowledge that I bought mine for £2.40 in a Buddhist Temple in Myanmar, so I know they are genuine fakes).

Having failed in our tea tool mission we made the long walk back and found a place near the station that would sell us a coffee - not a drink much liked by the Chinese and not easy to get if you are determined to avoid what our daughter calls with a shudder ‘the Scottish Restaurant’ (though Ronald McD is no sort of Celt I recognise).

Back at our hotel we showered, changed and checked out before returning to Dongchang’an Jie, this time heading west towards the city centre. Walking slowly in the hot sunshine it took us a while to reach Wangfujing, one of Beijing’s main shopping streets.

Dongchang'an Jie - not quite the last bicycle left in Beijing
Much of Wangfujing is pedestrianised, what the Chinese call a ‘walking street’, and we made a gratifying detour round the huge queue at the Jasmine Ice Cream stall – Chinese produced ice cream with an essentially Chinese flavour and nothing to do with Baskin Robbins.
Wangfujung walking street, Beijing
We turned right into a hutong decorated in such a way that, had it been in anywhere else in the world, we would have called it ‘Chinatown’. The Chinese relish playing up to their stereotype sticking Ming gables (largely plastic) and red paper lanterns everywhere. On one side of the street is a jiaozi (dumpling) restaurant, and everyone from out of town has to have their photograph taken with their statue. Lynne saw no reason to be different.
Lynne wants a jiaozi, near Wangfujing, Beijing
Our goal, though, was the restaurant opposite. Having failed on our quest for roast duck at Bianyifang on Lynne's birthday we had decided to herald our departure with a duck lunch at Quanjude, the oldest and perhaps finest duck restaurant in Beijing. After a tricky day’s negotiating it was over roast duck at Quanjude that Henry Kissinger and his Chinese counterparts patched up their differences.
Quanjude Duck Restaurant, Wangfujing, Beijing
The restaurant is expensive, by Chinese standards. Beers were 25 Yuan (£2.50) each; the previous evening our entire dinner (including two of the same beers) came to less than 50, but here we were paying for the ambience and the theatre.

Our duck was wheeled out by a young man in a chef’s hat, surgical mask and latex gloves who set about carving it for us. We had a brief demonstration of how to fold a pancake round spring onion and slices of duck smeared with plum sauce – a task we had failed at before and failed at again. Looking round the room we were gratified to find that other diners – overwhelmingly Chinese – were equally inept.

Carving our duck, Quanjude Duck Restaurant, Wangfujing, Beijing
The questionable structural integrity of the wraps did not detract from our enjoyment and just as we finished the leg and breast meat, along came the soup and the wings and other bits to nibble.

I love duck but a question remains unresolved: for my final meal on earth would I prefer duck in Beijing or confit de canard beside the Dordogne (before, of course, fresh pineapple and coconut ice cream)? Further research will be necessary.

We ate a whole duck between us, which cost £35, extravagant by Chinese standards but cheaper than the bottle of wine which accompanied our wedding anniversary meal at the Yorke Arms in Pately Bridge.
Quanjude Duck Restarant, Beijing
We left Quanjude happy and replete and applied ourselves to the serious business of finding tea tools. And what are tea tools, you ask? They are a collection of nicely polished wooden scoops, prodders and brushes; the Swiss Army Knife of the tea ceremony.

Wangfujing has several of what appear to be department stores, so we wandered into the nearest confident that a Chinese department store would have a tea department. It was not, we discovered a department store, at least not one I would recognise. I might be out of touch, the department store is not my natural environment, but last time I was in one it consisted of departments selling various related items. This store housed a series of individual stalls, each selling one particular brand name, some we knew and others we had never heard of. There were six floors like this - yes, we went up the escalator to the top and checked every single one with a growing feeling of disbelief. As market stalls go they were certainly posh, some were larger than many shops, but market stalls was what they were and clothes were pretty well all that was on offer.

We tried another ‘department store’ and it was the same. Brand names here are everything. For the second time that day I found myself cursing Jimmy Choo, Hugo Boss and their ilk. I am sure there are people in the west who are obsessed with brand names and feel themselves naked without an Armani suit or Gucci handbag, but I doubt there are very many and they include nobody I know (or want to know). The Chinese have a fascination with all things western and the advertising campaigns of Vuitton, Versace and others are attempting to convince (have already convinced?) a gullible section of the newly wealthy that brand names are the pinnacle of western culture. When they eventually see through it, and see through it they will, the Chinese view of western culture will have been damaged beyond repair. If all we have to offer is KFC and Oakley sunglasses, then we truly are culturally bankrupt.

That was the rant.

On a lighter note, the obsession with western culture has led the sweatshops of Guangdong to produce tee-shirts by the million bearing slogans in English, very few of them making any sense. For some choice examples see the top of this, and the preceding three posts (here, here and here).

We eventually found a tea shop giving tastings and actually using tea tools. We inquired, mainly by mime, whether they had any for sale. The assistant looked blank, but fetched a colleague whose slightly more agile mind deduced what these weird foreigners were after. We soon became the proud owners (if only until we passed them on to our daughter) of the cool tools below.
Tea tools
Leaving Wangfujing we continued to the city centre. On the way we encountered, and not for the first time, the 'art exhibition scam'. A couple of personable young people fall into step with you and strike up a conversation. After a while they tell you they are art students and invite you to their end of year exhibition. The idea is that you go to the show and pay high prices for cheap mass produced prints in the belief that you are buying the student’s own work and helping fund their education. We did not fall for it in 2004 when we first visited Beijing and were not going to fall for it this time, though Dan Cruikshank did when he was filming 'Round the World in 80 Treasures'. I don't think the story was in the TV series, but he writes about it in the book.

We rested on a low wall near the portrait of Mao inTiananmen Square. During a ten minute sit we were approached by two different touts trying to sell guided tours to the Great Wall. They each gave us business cards, should we change our minds. They were identical except for the name.
Near the portrait of Mao, outside Tiananmen Square, Beijing
with a bag of tea tools in my hand
We walked to the entrance of the Forbidden City but did not go in - we did that in 2004. The Forbidden City is big and to do it justice requires several hours. After a long, hot walk we lacked the energy.

Instead we decided to stroll across Tiananmen Square. On our previous visits we merely walked through the underpass and emerged on the square, but now we had to negotiate a security check. There is nothing the Chinese authorities like more than a bit of intrusive security to remind the people who is in charge. [a month later (28/10/13) a car was driven deliberately into the crowd by the entrance to the Forbidden City and burst into flames killing five (three of them the occupants of the car). ‘Security’, I repeat, exists to remind people who is in charge, it rarely makes anyone safer.]
Tiananmen Square, a vast concrete wasteland
Despite some imposing buildings around it, and Mao's mausoleum in the centre (we visited him in 2004, too) Tiananmen Square is largely an ugly expanse of bare concrete. It is a vast space and there is usually an event of some sort going on and a soldier or two prowling round to ensure everybody behaves decorously, but the only thing worth seeing, apart from Mao's mausoleum, is the Qianmen Gate at the southern end.
Qianmen Gate, Tiananmen Square
After seeing that there was not much to do except descend to the adjacent metro station and head back to our hotel to pick up our cases before setting off for the airport and the start of the long journey home.

*Gungbo (not gungo) is the pinyin transliteration for a dish of chicken, chillies and peanuts which might produce a smiley face. Harvey Ball was a commercial artist credited with designing the 'smiley face'. Unlike the others, which are pure gibberish, this tee-shirt has some sort of narrative, or at least stream of consciousness. How aware of the narrative the designer was is another issue.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Pingyao to Taiyuan and the Bullet Train back to Beijing: Part 14 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

"Fumes that Incident the Fancy"
                                                                                  slogan seen on a tee-shirt, Beijing

Taking our leave of Pingyao we set off towards Beijing, driving the 100km to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province, before taking the bullet train to Beijing.

Shanxi and Beijing
The Qiao Family Compound

The Qiao Family Compound is 30km north of Pingyao. The Qiaos made their pile during the Qing dynasty and started building the house in 1756.  As the family grew and prospered the house grew with them until by the end of the century there were 313 rooms arranged round 6 large and 19 smaller courtyards.

It is one of the finest remaining courtyard homes in northern China, but although the Qiao family were benevolent landlords and good employers - at least by the standards of 18th and 19th century China - the family fortunes did not survive Mao’s revolution and the compound is now a state owned museum.

It is a popular day out for locals, particularly on a public holiday. We crossed a forecourt where the basketball courts had been pressed into service to dry the newly harvested corn crop, and joined the crowd.

Drying corn outside the Qiao Family Compound, near Pingyao
The rooms were well laid out with period furniture….

The Qiao Family Compound, near Pingyao
…and glass cases of porcelain and other objects of interest.

Qiao Family Compound, near Pingyao

The courtyards, small and large, were richly decorated.

In one of the courtyards, Qiao Family Compound, Pingyao
In China, like anywhere else, grand houses attract film producers. The house starred in the 2006 television serial Qiao's Grand Courtyard and was the primary location for the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou - best known in the West for House of Flying Daggers and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The film, a ‘veiled allegory against authoritarianism' was briefly banned in China despite the script having been passed by the censors. There is an exhibition of memorabilia from the film.
Garden, Qiao Family Courtyard, near Pingyao
The authorities have yet to grasp the benefit of visitors leaving via the gift shop, but just beyond the gates a variety of stallholders have spotted the gap in the market.
Stalls outside the Qiao Family Courtyard, Pingyao

Shanxi is renowned for its vinegar and between the market and the car park we passed a vinegar factory. The large black jars we have seen in so many shops were here in their hundreds.
Vinegar storage outside the Qiao Family Compound, near Pingyao
A Problematic Journey to Jinci Temple

We continued north towards Taiyuan, with another intended stop at Jinci temple.

While waiting for some traffic lights to change we heard what sounded like a volley of gunfire. As usual in China this turned out to be firecrackers. Setting off a ring of firecrackers round a newly acquired lorry ensures it is free from demons and has the happy side effect of telling the world how well the new owners are doing. That is fair enough, but I am not entirely convinced that igniting hundreds of firecrackers round a truck parked beside a petrol station is a desperately good idea. We were relieved when the lights changed and we could move off before the big fireball arrived.

Not, perhaps, the best place for firecrackers
Pingyao - Tiayuan road
A few kilometres later the traffic ground to a halt. 'Congestion can cause long delays here,' said Jonathan, our guide. Inching slowly forward we reached a junction and the driver swung into the minor road. Most Chinese cities are built on a grid, and often country roads follow the same pattern. The driver’s idea was to take a minor road parallel to the main road, and the plan worked well - until we encountered a road that was closed. Trying to get round that we discovered an area where the grid pattern broke down. Soon we were wandering around the flat, featureless Shanxi countryside and I for one had entirely lost my sense of direction. It was a frustrating journey; harvest time meant either we were held up by large slow moving vehicles or zigzagging round piles of corn dumped in the road.

Piles of corn in the road, somewhere near Taiyuan
Eventually the driver stopped to ask a group of agricultural workers for directions, a request which provoked much discussion and a lot of head scratching. We started to follow their laboriously worked out advice but soon discovered it involved a rough, unsurfaced lane. The driver had a careful look and decided - wisely I thought - not to venture down it.

We resumed what felt to us like aimless wandering. Jonathan had started to look worried, but the driver maintained a confident air – maybe he was bluffing. Lynne and I were beginning to think we might be wandering this featureless agricultural landscape for the rest of our lives.

If you drive for long enough you must eventually encounter a main road. When we did the sign said Taiyuan was only 10km away and Jinci Temple even closer. Maybe the driver had everything under control all along or perhaps he was lucky - the Chinese traditionally regard luck as a character trait, so he took the credit either way. Amazingly we were only 15 minutes behind schedule.

Jinci Temple

Jinci, reputedly the most important temple in Shanxi, was founded in the seventh century. Being in continual use for 1400 years it has seen much building and rebuilding so little or nothing of the original temple remains.

The open area in front of the entrance was used as a theatre, the Ming dynasty Water Mirror Platform (over my left shoulder) being its centrepiece.

Water Mirror Platform, Jinci Temple, Taiyaun

The ‘gift shop’ stood nearby.

'Gift Shop', Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
Chinese architectural styles changed little between the medieval period and the middle of the twentieth century, so all temples have a tendency to look alike, but the Hall of the Goddess Mother, with carved wooden dragons curling round its eight pillars, does stand out. Originally built in the Jin Dynasty* (836 to 947) it was rebuilt between 1023 and 1032 during the rather more durable Song Dynasty (960-1279) and is one of the largest surviving Song buildings in China.

Hall of the Mother Goddess, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
Inside is a statue of the Goddess Mother. She was the mother of Prince Shuyu who founded the Jin Dynasty and was attributed with supernatural powers.

The Mother Goddess, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
 She is attended by a group of Song dynasty female figures in coloured clay, the best of the temple’s collection of over 100 statues.

The Mother Goddess' Song Dynasty handmaidens, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
There is also a large classical garden with some pleasing corners...

Formal Garden, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
…. and a pagoda whose origins I have been unable to find.

Pagoda, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
The Song figures, some ancient Cypresses (which we managed to miss) and The Eternal Spring are the ‘Three Great Things of Jinci Temple.’ The spring, protected by a small pavilion, has been gushing water at a steady 17º since the temple was built, or at least it did until 1998 when one of Shanxi’s many coal mines unwittingly diverted the underground stream that fed the Eternal Spring. Undaunted, the authorities pipe in water to replicate the natural gush. Neither the authorities nor the great mass of Chinese tourists (nor, indeed, Jonathan) see any irony in this. We encountered something very similar at the Crescent Moon Lake in the Gobi desert at Dunhuang.

The Pavilion of the (not very) Eternal Spring, Jinci Temple, Taiyuan
To Taiyuan for Lunch

It was only a short drive to Taiyuan. Founded in 500BC the capital of Shanxi Province is now a huge modern city and home to over 3 million people, although it is virtually unknown outside China. It became infamous in 1900 for the Taiyuan Massacre where 45 foreign Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts, some of them children, were murdered in the mayhem surrounding the Boxer Rebellion.

We left the car within sight of the station. 'The driver is going back to Pingyao now,' Jonathan told us.' 'And you?' we asked as Jonathan showed no sign of getting back in the car. 'After you have had lunch and I've seen you onto the train I'll get the bus back.' This seemed silly so we suggested he go with the driver, but he had his instructions and fully intended to carry them out.

To prove he was necessary he took us to a huge shiny noodle shop with an unnecessarily complex system involving peering at food behind a glass screen and telling the server what you wanted so she could write it down. I then took this document to the cash desk where I paid and got it stamped before returning to claim my food. I could probably have just about managed without Jonathan - or gone somewhere more normal, but he was a help.

I returned in triumph to our table bearing the spoils only to see Jonathan advancing with two huge bowls of noodle soup. This was a noodle restaurant after all, and everything I had bought was, I now discovered, in addition to the default noodles.

As we set about making some impression on the huge quantity of food Jonathan sat outside on the pavement smoking.

A High Speed Train to Beijing

Lunch over he walked with us to the station. 'You need to go to waiting room 6,' he said which we could see for ourselves as the sign alternated between Chinese and pinyin. 'I can't come in as there are no platform tickets for the bullet trains.' Again we wondered why he had not gone back with the driver. We took our leave and psyched ourselves up for the inevitable security checks the Chinese authorities believe are necessary for train travel.

We had taken eight hours travelling from Beijing to Datong and a further eight to Pingyao. From Pingyao we had driven 100Km back towards Beijing, but even so the scheduled three hours on the bullet train was a statement about how fast the bullet train is - and how slow the regular trains are.

The second class carriage was, if my memory of our trip to Brussels in 1995 serves me well, less comfortable than the Eurostar. The seats were laid out like on an aeroplane even to the extent of fold down tables. There was much more leg room, but the luggage racks were far too small for our two suitcases. After a mimed discussion with the carriage attendant we were allowed to store them in the area set aside for wheelchairs. Had any wheelchair users boarded the train a rethink would have been necessary, but that situation did not arise.

We stopped three times, as we made our way through the flat countryside. Before the first stop the speedometer stayed below 200kph, but afterwards it gradually built up to 300. The ride was smooth and quiet, unlike the regular trains at 60kph.
The Bullet Train near top speed, Taiyuan to Beijing

We arrived on time at Beijing’s western station and had to make our way to our hotel beside the central station - a rush hour metro journey requiring three changes. The last was onto one of the old lines which have neither escalators nor lifts. Lynne was tired and our cases were heavy. I carried one down a flight of concrete steps while Lynne waited at the top with the other. I turned to fetch the other case only to find a middle aged Chinese man putting it down beside me with Lynne just behind him. It was the third act of random kindness visited upon us in the Beijing metro on this trip. 

*China has enjoyed five ‘Jin’ Dynasties. This one is the ‘Later Jin’ from the ‘Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period’ or 10th century as we would call it.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Pingyao, Preserved Ming City: Part 13 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

"London Bruins UCLA that and"
                                                                                                                  slogan seen on a tee-shirt, Pingyao

Wednesday 18/09/13

Our train for Pingyao left early so we checked out of our Datong hotel at 4.30 a.m. blearily clutching our hotel packed breakfasts and regretting that we could not have another go at the haggis.
Again we were in a four-berth soft sleeping compartment for a day-time journey, but boarded so early that we inevitably woke our sleeping room-mates. The two girls gathered their wits and belongings and quickly tidied the compartment so we could store our cases.

The train rattled south through Shanxi Province, eventually swapping the industry of Datong for agricultural countryside, mostly given over to maize.
Shanxi Province

The girls disembarked. We spread ourselves out and bought lunch on trays from a passing attendant: rice, onions, bacon, mushroom and green beans – cheap and simple but well-cooked as we have always found Chinese railway meals to be.
We were met at Pingyao by a young man who said his name was Jonathan, a moniker thrust upon him in a childhood English class.

His driver negotiated the traffic of modern Pingyao until we passed under a Ming gate; beyond, everything was different.  Modern Pingyao, like most Chinese cities, consists of identikit high-rises lining wide streets; old Pingyao has characterful single storey buildings and narrow alleys. It has been restored, repaired and artfully pickled, but at heart, unlike Datong with its freshly rebuilt city wall and brand new 'Ming' gatehouses, it is real. Much of the old centre is, inevitably, pedestrianised and we finished the journey on foot.

The main Ming/Qing Street, Pingyao
We checked into the Tianyuankui Guesthouse on the main street. Reception doubled as a rustic looking bar and restaurant while behind a maze of alleys led to the guestrooms. A padlock secured our room while from inside it was closed by the sort of a metal hook you would find on a garden gate. We had a long thin room with dark wood panelling and a raised area at one end serving as a huge bed, a modern version of a traditional Chinese kang. Traditional as the room was, a flat screen television sat almost unobtrusively on a chest and a door led through to a modern bathroom.
Kang, Tianyuankui Guesthouse, Pingyao

Our arrival, we discovered, clashed with the mid-Autumn holiday when the whole of China has a few days away, and a walk in the street suggested that half the population had come to Pingyao. It was also time for the annual photography festival so the streets were not only packed with Chinese tourists but also with people from all over the world staggering around under the weight of enormous cameras - or at least enormous lenses.

The streets of Pingyao full of autumn holidaymakers and photographers
We walked up and down the main street to the walls at either end. The streets were packed with gift shops and restaurants. Pingyao is proud of its cuisine which features a number of local specialties and there seemed to be a standard type of menu board, though the dishes varied as did the English translations*. I am not sure I fancied a 'bald wet bowl' but it sounded better than 'mobil oil aubergine' - presumably with a WD40 dipping sauce. For connoisseurs of Chinglish this was a good place to be.

Menu board, Pingyao (click to enlarge)
It was a warm afternoon so we stopped for a beer, a rather unchinese thing to do. Restaurants serve food and drink at any time of day but just dropping in for a drink is deemed a little eccentric. There were, though, few people eating at five o'clock and they seemed glad of our custom.

We had not been seated long when music - a self-parody of Disney-style Chinese music - announced the arrival of a troop of a dozen or more teenage girls dressed in pyjamas, carrying fans and walking with the half shuffle, half mince that I assume would have been the gait of women with bound feet. They were, perhaps, the emperor's concubines out for an evening constitutional.

Here come the girls, Pingyao
We had almost finished our beer when another tune heralded the arrival of their male counterparts, armed with fake swords and walking with a martial swagger, they formed the guard party for a couple of important mandarins. As we were to learn, this goes on all day, the city authorities’ contribution to the holiday feel.
There go the boys, Pingyao
We usually avoid having dinner in our hotel, but this seemed a place to break that rule. The restaurant was open to the street and packed with Chinese holiday makers and there was one free table. We grabbed it - it could be the only free table in town.

The English translation on the menu did not make choices easy, but we ended up with our standby of chicken, chillies and peanuts and a local specialty of vegetables in a hot and sour sauce.

Returning to our room, Tianyuankui Guesthouse, Pingyao
 Thursday 19/09/13

We slept well on the giant kang. Arriving for breakfast next morning we were immediately issued knives and forks and offered slices of sweet flaccid bread, indeterminate jam, a scrape of something yellow and industrial, and a glass of black, unsweetened Nescafé. As so often in the past we politely requested it be taken away. Our request was greeted with the usual surprise bordering on amazement but they soon produced some noodles, boiled egg, tofu, soya beans and a 'special pancake' consisting of  jam layered between circles of pastry - a local variation on the traditional Autumn moon cake.

Another Ming Gatehouse, Pingyao
Jonathan arrived and we started our tour by walking to the gatehouse and climbing onto the town wall. At the risk of sounding blasé, when you have seen one Ming gatehouse you have seen them all. A crowd had gathered outside for the opening of the photography festival. A man in cowboy boots and Stetson occupied the stage, a guitar slung round his neck. He had his back to us but spoke English with an American accent and sang so off-key even the inmates of a Vietnamese karaoke bar might have winced.

Regrettable Country and Western singer opening the Pingyao Photography Festival
We walked along the wall and Lynne posed with the night-watchmen who once kept the streets of Pingyao safe at night.

The Night-watchmen, Pingyao city walls
Hearing a cheer from outside we looked down to see the country and western singer had been replaced by a small Chinese man. Yan Weiwen is, Jonathan informed us, especially popular here being from nearby Taiyuan, but is well known throughout China. Unlike his American predecessor, Yan could sing; he had a huge voice for a small man and a rich operatic tone. We paused to listen – he is on You Tube, too, but he was better live.
Yan Weiwen, Pingyao Photography Festival
Further along we met the city's governor.

The city governor gets down to work, Pingyao
Over the wall, in an area where houses had been demolished, people were fossicking among the debris. Newly conscious of the gem for which they are responsible, the authorities have decided to give their old town some breathing space. I tentatively approve though I am concerned that the Chinese authorities do not always give proper consideration to the people they displace. Pingyao is a World Heritage Site so UNESCO oversight should avoid the overzealous reconstruction we saw at Datong, and I would like to think it also safeguards those outside the walls whose homes and businesses have been demolished.

Cleared area outside the walls, Pingyao
Looking the other way we saw the roofs of the old town, the wide eaves designed to keep dripping rain from wooden walls.

Looking over old Pingyao
We descended to the Confucian temple. The contribution of Confucius to Chinese society was philosophical rather than religious so encountering such temples always feels slightly odd. Most, like Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, have a secular purpose with a religious overlay but Pingyao’s is a standard Chinese temple. 'The Han Chinese' a Muslim Uigher once told us, 'don't have religion, they only have superstition.' That might be harsh, but looking at this temple you could see his point. There was advice concerning the throwing of coins as offerings…..

Instructions for being lucky, Confucian Temple, Pingyao

…. and petitions for luck written on red or gold paper padlocked to the railings and incense burners.

Petitions for good luck, Confucian Temple, Pingyao
One courtyard was doubling as a gallery for the photography festival. Mainly landscapes, there was an impressive series on the Yellow River, some pictures of the Mongolian grasslands and even some Indian temples.

Photo gallery, Pingyao Confucian Temple
These seemed more in tune with Confucian ideas, as did the old school house, though Lynne claims to have used such desks in the 1950s.
The Old Schoolroom, Confucian Temple, Pingyao
Across the road is the Taoist Temple of the City God. Religious Taoism, which is only distantly related to Philosophical Taoism, is largely an updating of Chinese traditional religions and fortune telling. Offerings to ensure luck are entirely at home here.

They do a fine line in incense burners, both of the usual design....

Traditional style incense burner, Temple of the City God, Pingyao
And some which might be unique.

More unusual incense burner, Temple of the City God, Pingyao
In one hall a group of actors were making a petition to the gods. 'In times of drought,' Jonathan said, 'the priests must plead for rain.' He ushered us forward into the small crowd, 'Stand on the left,' he added 'to get the best view.'

We took his advice, though how this gave us the ‘best view’ was unclear. When a large youth stood in front of us to take photographs - it was once true that the Chinese were short of stature, but this particular big lump was hardly unique - we moved to the right. The actors finished, bowed to the crowd and, as they made their way off stage, their pleading took effect and hidden sprinklers suddenly dropped a medium sized rain shower on the spectators. Hilarity ensued. Had we been standing where Jonathan had suggested we would have stayed dry, but we had moved.

'Priests' petition the gods for rain. Temple of the City God, Pingyao
Money was and remains the true 'City God' and our next stop should have been at China's first bank, but there was a queue and Jonathan suggested we change the order.

The museum of the Tongxinggong Escort Agency was a short walk along the pedestrianised streets. Bollards exclude cars, but not bicycles and motorbikes and several were making their way through the crowd - though not always with the passengers facing the right way.

Not all passengers face he right way, Pingyao
Pingyao was once the banking capital of China. Banking involves moving money, which in nineteenth century China meant shifting pillow shaped ingots of precious metal across the country.

Money, or replicas of it, Tongxinggong Escort Agency, Pingyao

Clearly transporting bullion opens up possibilities for banditry and in response martial arts expert Wang Zhengqing set up the Tongxinggong Escort Agency in 1849. The escorts, an elite quasi-religious community, survived until Pingyao ceased to be a banking centre in 1913. Their old headquarters has exhibits of money (or at least replicas), their weapons....

Fearsome weapons. Tonxinggong Escort Agency, Pingyao
...... and the distinctive one-wheeled carts they used to move the treasure.

One-wheeled cart for carrying money, Tongxinggong Escort Agency, Pingyao
By the time we left Tongxinggong it was lunchtime. We visited a restaurant that, according to Jonathan, was famous for its dumplings, and indeed dumpling production was in full swing. We were, as so often happens, parked in the window of the old wooden building. There were many tourists but few westerners, and if you have captured a couple you want to show them off.

Dumpling production line, Pingyao
We were treated to the local specialties, Pingyao beef, kaolao noodles and dumplings. The region prides itself on its unique dishes, but although all were pleasant, we found none of them particularly exciting. Pingyao beef, served with fried bread, is remarkably similar to corned beef. Kaolao are wide-bore 2cm tall buckwheat noodles stuck together to resemble some blanched internal organ and flooded with vegetable broth – minestrone in all but name. The dumplings - stuffed with sweet corn and pork - were good, but they were only dumplings.

Lunch in Pingyao
After lunch we got into the Rishengchang without queuing. The bank was the first in China and led the way so successfully that during the Qing dynasty over 400 finance houses opened in Pingyao.

Front office, Rishengchang, Pingyao
After the anti-foreigner Boxer Uprising of 1898/1900 the Empress Cixi was required to pay a substantial indemnity to the 'Eight Allied Forces' (the European powers plus the USA and Japan). She raised the money in Pingyao but the royal court first defaulted on the loan and then, in 1912, the Emperor abdicated. There was no way back for Pingyao and banking in China fell into the hands of foreigners and became concentrated in Shanghai and Hong Kong, where it remains to this day.

Meeting room, Rishengchang, Pingyao
The Rishengchang gives a an account of nineteenth century Chinese banking, the front office, the meeting rooms for the more well-to-do and the dwellings of the bankers, who 'lived over the shop'.

Courtyard, Rishengchang, Pingyao
The driver was not booked for an hour or so, giving us the opportunity to shop for traditional Autumn Holiday moon cakes ....
Moon Cakes, Pingyao
 ....and take a short but welcome break before driving the five kilometres to Shuanglin Si. Like the Yungang Grottoes, the Buddhist monastery was founded, during the northern Wei dynasty (sixth century), but most of current buildings are Ming or later. It looks like a fortress from the outside with high walls and a forbidding gate.

Forbidding gate, Shuanglin Si

Inside is the usual arrangement of incense burners and halls. The architecture here is considered less interesting than the statues, but I like these solid old wooden buildings.
Old wooden hall, Shuanglin Si

Some of the 1600 statues are terracotta others wooden. There are gods….

Many armed god, Shuanglin Si
 …and muscular guardians, many of them behind bars, presumably for their protection…..

Muscular guardians, Shuanglin Si
…but they were fierce enough for us to wonder.

Scary 'protector' Shaunglin Si
Students from the local art school were busy on their own statues.  Lynne was particularly taken by the tableaux of the sufferings to be endured in Hell. It was a tit for tat arrangement, if you had stabbed somebody in life you would be stabbed repeatedly in the afterlife, if you had strangled somebody then you would be strangled and so on.

Typical Pingyao restaurant
In the evening we would have been happy to eat at the hotel again, but the restaurant was full and we had to take to the streets. Pingyao was heaving, but we eventually found a vacant table in a long thin restaurant, rather like eating in an alleyway. It was basic but the food was good. We had black fungus with tofu and chilli, morning glory and kaolao with lamb, which was better than the lunchtime version. The woman in charge kept coming over to stare at us and when we left she gave us a big smile and complimented us on our chopstick technique. We sat beneath one of the local menu boards and again enjoyed the creative translations*. ‘Woodles’, we understood, but even with the benefit of a picture we have no idea what 'Date and seabnekth orm soup with yam' was about.

Your guess is as good as mine

Well fed at a very reasonable price we wandered up and down the streets, still packed with shoppers and bought some presents to take home.

* I very conscious that the people responsible for these translations have better English than I have Chinese. I am, therefore, not mocking them but sympathising with the problems of explaining particularly local dishes in a language not designed for that explanation.