Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Walled City of Pingyao

When we started planning our trip to China, one objective was to find a few places off the path that most Westerners take there.  Tianjin and Shenyang proved to be pretty good choices in that regard, but Pingyao was the most remarkable. 

Even getting here was a challenge.  We were able to book second-class tickets on a fast train most of the way there from Beijing, to the provincial capital city of Taiyuan.  Second-class on a fast train means 5 seats to a row instead of the 4 in first-class, but we always managed to get the group of 2 seats and found them plenty comfortable.  But getting 4 stops on a local train the rest of the way from Taiyuan to Pingyao was tricky, as you can only buy coach seats for that leg of the journey from a station nearby, not from Beijing.  A travel agent in Beijing came up with a solution:  she found us "seats" in a sleeper car!  They cost $16 for the two of us for that last 60 miles, 3 or 4 times what coach seats would have cost but still a bargain.

On the first leg of the trip we passed some cities with abandoned factories alongside the track, looking just like some scenes we've passed by train in the Northeastern part of the U.S.  As we got closer to Pingyao it was overwhelmingly agricultural, as we were in the fertile valley of the Yellow River.  We were surprised how green it was for late October.

Our first view of Pingyao did not exactly charm.  But after pulling the suitcases a kilometer we came to a barrier that was supposed to stop motor traffic.  As you can see, it didn't stop us or the traffic, but it did lead us on through the walls of Pingyao.

Pingyao has had a protective wall of some sort since about 800 BC.  In the late 1300s the new Ming government rebuilt the walls as they are today, about 6 km in circumference.  Most of the city inside the walls is much as it has been for centuries.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage city.

Our lodging for three nights in this magical city was the exquisite Cheng Family Folk Hotel, built in the late 1700s.   It cost less than $100 -- and that's the total for three nights!

After checking in we checked out the town, and the night lights made it all the more magical.

The next morning we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast of steamed buns, various stir-fried vegetables, two hard-boiled eggs and a bowl of congee, a thin corn meal porridge.  Our first destination was that city wall.  We stepped outside the wall through the North Gate to buy our three-day pass to the wall and various museums in town, then reentered and hiked up.  It provided an interesting perspective on this ancient town, from 30 to 40 feet above it all. 

 One of the first things we noticed is that the city is laid out in perfectly north-south and east-west streets and alleys. Many of the houses are actually "compounds," courtyards surrounded by buildings of various sizes. Later when we were on the ground we peered into a few of these, such as the last picture in this series.

Shortly after taking this next shot of hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of ears of corn drying on a rooftop, we decided to descend from the wall to have lunch.  To our annoyance, we later discovered that we had used our one "ticket" to walk atop the wall, even though the pass we had purchased was good for three days.  We wandered down side streets past one house with its cooking coal out front, another with gates that led to -- who knew?  We visited a small church we had seen earlier from the wall, a Confucian Temple our guidebook claimed was the oldest in China, and finally Nan Jie, South Street, the heart of "downtown" Pingyao.

After our fried dumpling and stir-fry lunch we visited yet another temple, this time with some world-class "chinglish."  It also had a section filled with graphic illustrations of punishments awaiting the wicked.  We'll show you two of the milder ones and let you imagine what some others looked like if these are the nice ones.  Before we left, we did come across the Kitchen God and the Kitchen God's Wife.  No wonder they come across as gods -- look at all the little people who made them look good!  You never hear about them!

As fascinating as the walls and gates and streets of this ancient city are, it is actually an historically significant place as well.  Situated in the Yellow River valley with the Silk Road to the west and ancient routes to Mongolia and Russia to the north, it was a major trading city a few hundred years ago.  In the mid-1800s the first bank in China was founded here, Rishengchang, a fact that attracted the attention of the NY Times not long ago:

We visited the Rishengchang Museum, and we must say it was a tad different than other banks we know.  The only "computer" in the Accounting Room was an abacus, and the building to Louise's left was a guest house for customers who had travelled one or more nights to do their banking.  Behind Louise is a room that was used to wine and dine the customers over their banking deals.  But perhaps your bank offers these services?  We'd like to know if that's the case!

Our last day was a short one as we had a noon-time train to catch, so we just visited the municipal offices, including this jail cell with some fairly stiff "pillows," and a mock trial being put on for the tourists.  Perhaps the judge was going to sentence someone to a punishment device that reminded us of the stocks that pilgrims used in old New England.

After climbing one more tower for a look over this remarkable city, it was time to board a train and head south on an overnight train to Xi'an, except that we headed north instead.  Pingyao is a small place, and is only allocated a few sleeper berths per night on the one train that makes the overnight trip, tickets we had no hope of getting.  So our travel agent in Beijing had arranged for us to take a sleeper car north back to the major city of Taiyuan, from which she had booked those precious sleeper berths for us back past Pingyao and on to Xi'an.  As you can see, our compartment has four berths, as do virtually all of the first class sleepers in China (the second class ones have six!) but we had no compartment-mates on the way to Taiyuan.  On the overnight trip from Taiyuan to Xi'an we did have two companions who never spoke to us.  Then again, they were strangers to each other and never spoke to each other either, even though they had no language barrier.

But we're getting ahead of our story.  We had a 5 hour layover in Taiyuan, and we discovered that we could store our rolling suitcases at the station for $1.50 each.  We found a map of the city that showed a park about one inch away.  It was actually 2 km on our pedometers when we got there, but it was a very nice park and a photo of another map inside the park helped us navigate our way around.  We hiked past a statue, presumably from a children's fable, of the harvesting of a giant radish, then rested our feet by taking an electric "speedboat" that piddled around the lake at walking speed. 

We headed back to a restaurant across from the train station where we fueled up on Chinese-American comfort food -- fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn and vegetable soup.  Louise put aside a little something for dessert, an Ambien pill, just in case all our walking hadn't tired us out enough for the upcoming challenge of the sleeper car.  We did indeed wake up the next morning 400 miles away in Xi'an.  We'll tell you how we did and how our adventure continued in our next blog entry.