Thursday, 2 August 2012

The walled city of Pingyao

I arrived in Pingyao at around 7:00 am and walked from the station to the city. There were touts in trishaws by the station telling me they could take me to a guesthouse—including the top-rated Harmony Guest House that I was going to try and stay at—for free, but scams by transporters are legion so I declined and took the relatively short and pleasant walk.

View from the train at 6:30 in the morning. Corn fields are a far cry from the Gobi.

I was a little surprised that the town was just waking up and that there weren't more tourists or locals up and about, but other than some Chinese doing morning Tai Chi there wasn't a lot of action.

Morning exercises by the old city walls, under the watchful eye of an old master.

I made it the Harmony and they did indeed have space, so I booked a dorm bed, left my bag in the common area, and had a shower in the shared bathroom before leaving to explore.

The Harmony is on this street, which isn't so bust at 8:00 in the morning.

Shop doors are shuttered and the street sweepers are out.

A little later and things start to pick up.

The busier the main streets get, the further out to the side streets I go.

It's a wonder these old houses haven't been razed for new and expensive buildings.

Old people sell knick-knacks in the street.

Old houses around communal courtyards, with a church spire in the background.

This little guy was riding his toy car around.

Storefront along one of the main streets.

Vendor of funeral flowers and displays along a side street.

This cute little kitty was chained up outside a supermarket.

Tiles are stacked for the roof repairs this building needs.

At around 3:00 pm I returned to the guesthouse and checked in, but I was surprised to be shown to a room not in the main building with the atmospheric courtyard, but to a newer and soulless room off a side alley in a nearby street. It had an attached bathroom, but it was like some 1970's-style building, and not a traditional courtyard house. I had a nap for a few hours, as I hadn't slept the best on the train.

Since I had pretty much seen everything that Pingyao had to offer within its walls, I knew that I wouldn't need more than 2 days even if I took a side-trip the next day, so I asked the front desk about train tickets to Xian. The owner insisted that all trains were full for the next few days, but that she could sell me a bus ticket on a night bus that would even let us sleep for a few extra hours after it arrived in Xian (which sounded rather unlikely). I declined, and when I stopped by the train station later that night I found that there actually were a few soft sleeper berths available, and I booked one of them.

Later that night, when I returned to the Harmony, there were persistent questions about what I was doing the next day and if I wanted to go on a tour with them, just as there were questions when I arrived that morning about whether I wanted the (overpriced) breakfast, and just as I would face the same breakfast questions the next day. They'll take no for an answer, but you'll get asked repeatedly by different staff members, and unless you have booked a tour with them or eaten at their restaurant, you'll find it hard to get travel information from the owner. You really only count to the extent you are buying extra things from them. This is kind of disappointing given that their accommodation prices aren't any lower than other hostels in Pingyao that are nicer. The Yamen Hostel, for example, had a much larger and more relaxed common area, a much more spacious courtyard, and a more relaxed vibe, despite having even cheaper prices.

Streets at night.

In my room was a Dutch guy who had come through Central Asia as well as a Vietnamese French guy who was on a 3-week vacation he had won through a contest given by a Chinese tourist authority.

The Dutch guy gave me some tips on Central Asia, most notably on the ability to get an Afghan visa in Khorog and visit the very safe Afghan Wakhan, where he said he had the ability to meet some people who had never seen a tourist. That's pretty amazing, and even if I didn't have the background knowledge to understand other references to the 'stans (which I knew absolutely nothing about, to be honest), his advice about Afghanistan really stuck in my mind. As did his advice on where to stay in Xian: a newly-opened hostel called the Han Tang Hostel. I booked there and arranged for a pick-up from the train station

The French guy, who was on his first real trip outside France, was a little intimidated and felt a little inferior when he realized that both the Dutch guy and I were on extended trips, but we both felt that this was the absolutely wrong way to look at things, and assured him that there's no reason to feel bad for a reason like that. The important thing is to make the most of your opportunity and enjoy the time you do have.

The next day the Dutch guy took a tour to the family compounds and the French guy and I rented bikes and went to the nearby Shuanglin Temple.

The temple was unremarkable, however, and definitely not worth extending your stay in Pingyao over even if it was a decent way to fill some time. Admission to the temple is 40 yuan.

Incense cauldron at Shuanglin.

Tree with ribbons at the temple.

Incense burns.

Doorway to ivy.

Family visiting the temple.

There was a poor, starving kitten at the temple, mewling pitifully in search of food. I wished I had some. I left the temple and looked for something to buy for the kitten to eat, but there weren't any stores or vendors to buy anything from. I felt horrible that I wasn't able to give the kitten anything, and later that day I bought some single-serving sausages that I could carry around to make sure I would have something to feed a starving animal.

Rustic bridge on the road to the temple.

Back in Pingyao, we had some noodles for lunch at a small street-side restaurant on a random side lane, using the point-at-ingredients style of ordering. I don't usually have lunch when I'm on my own, but this was an interesting change of pace. Even more interesting was when the woman slicing the beef in the front of the shop started to take it to the back of the shop where the noodles were cooking and then dropped some of it on the dirt floor. She just kind of casually picked it up in front of us and dusted it off, then put it with the rest of the meat to add to out soup. The Frenchman and I just loked at each other in surprise then shrugged. Well, it really was an authentic Chinese lunch. And a pretty tasty one at that.

The narrow courtyard of the Harmony Guesthouse, with guestrooms on either side. My room was not in this building.

This is what the streets look like during the day.

View of the busty streets from the tower.

A funeral procession.

I would love to know the symbolism behind the donkey cart full of bicycles.

The altar seems straightforward enough.

As do the musicians, though the plates of food don't translate that well. Maybe both the music and the food are for the benefit of the dead, and not the survivors.

Why do the guys in beige wear veils, and why are they tied to the coffin? And that must also be a really heavy coffin if it takes 32 people to carry it.

In the northern part of the walled city the buildings are more modern.

But just are worn and dilapidated. The living conditions actually seem grimmer in these dwellings, as there are no internal courtyards.

They look abandoned, but people are living in them.

The contrast between the more modern, but ruinous, building on the left (which looks like it could be from India) and the restored Chinese-style building on the right is pretty incredible.

Chinese tourists dress their kids up for tourist pictures. Their parents had them pose for me, too. I'm terrible at people pictures, and awkwardly made a hurried exit after taking this picture, thanking the friendly parents. I probably seemed a bit rude to run away, but there' something about taking pictures of people as though they were a spectacle that makes me uncomfortable.


The main streets probably look even nicer at night.

Things quiet down a little when it gets late.

Classy Chinese restaurant.

I headed to the train station a little later and caught my train with just a little fuss. My ticket was for shortly after midnight, but the conductor didn't want to let me on because she thought I was there on the wrong date. We argued over it for a bit before she pulled out her phone to show me the date, then realized that the date had rolled over, and apologetically let me on the train. There was only one other person in my 4-berth compartment for the trip, so the train was definitely not sold out. I arrived in Xian feeling moderately refreshed—though I definitely didn't get my eight hours.

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