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…..

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.

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