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…..

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.


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