Sparky Travels

November 28, 2009

Pingyao

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 4:35 am

My train to Pingyao was scheduled to leave at 11:30am on the 25th of November but it was delayed by an hour and a half during which I was standing in a queue which was like a can of sardines, if the sardines were alive and jostling for position with bags, sacks and rucksacks. The journey was uneventful with the usual attempts at communication with my bunk-mates which usually end with lots of pointing and nodding. Two of the people in my cabin were also getting off at Pingyao so I managed to alight at the correct station. I’d asked for a pickup from my hostel but had received no reply and this time there was no-one waiting. The hostel was only a couple of kilometres away from the station so I trooped off to find it.

Once I entered the old city walls I was sure I’d find my way easily but given the lack of light, signs and multitude of confusing lanes and alleyways I took a slightly circuitous route. Not ideal in -10C with icy roads. I found the hostel and checked in to my dorm (actually a twin room all to myself) and grabbed some local Pingyao beef & rice at the restaurant.

City gate

City gate

The next day I got up with plans to look round the city. Over breakfast another guest (Ukrainian-Swiss) asked if I wanted to join him on a tour of the city with the owner of the hostel (Mr Deng). Mr Deng’s tours are mentioned in Lonely Planet and after talking to him the previous evening I gathered he was a good guide so I agreed. We split the cost 50/50 so it was 75RM each. It took about 4.5 hours and turned out to be well worth it. Unlike most Chinese guides Mr Deng was more interested in telling us cultural, social and religious history of the sights rather than just reeling off dates and dimensions.

So, why am in Ping-whateveritis you may ask? Well, I’d been recommended it by a couple I met in Chengdu. They seemed like like-minded people so I added to a list of possibilities. Its also halfway-ish between Xi’an and Beijing and forms a nice quiet interlude between those big tourist cities. Like Xi’an, Pingyao is surrounded by an impressive city wall and although Pingyao’s 6km long wall is smaller it is still original and well preserved, or as original as a city wall can get in China. The smaller size also makes the old city a much more pleasant size and it has been none of the modern buildings that spoil Xi’an’s ambience somewhat. It reminds me a bit of Hoi An in Vietnam with its lanterned old streets, UNESCO status and clever system of 1 ticket to view all the sights.


The main sights we saw were:

Rishengchang Exchange House - The first bank in China, started as a pigment shop before an enterprising manager realised that saving people the risk of transporting their silver through bandit lands could make them money.

Temple of the City God - Its recreation of Hell, with people being cut in two, boiled and all manner of other punishments is a vivid deterrent. Pingyao is set up in traditional ways with its Eastern side representing the sky and the West representing the ground. The Temple of the City God is thus situated in the East of the city. There are also temples for the Gods Of Wealth (important given Pingyao’s banking history) and the Kitchen God!

County Government Office - In the same position in the West of the city is the County Government Office which represents justice from the people rather than from the Gods. Some of the torture instruments on show here were pretty barbaric and it was interesting to find out that the lowest banking staff could easily make double of the magistrates wage. Bribery abounded here apparently.

City Walls - We walked round the City Walls which gave a unique view into the courtyards of the city and were a respite from the busy streets below.

After the tour and some green tea to warm up I headed to the train station to buy my onward ticket to Beijing. Unfortunately my departure day being a Friday there were no sleeper tickets left or seats so I had to make do with a standing ticket in the hope that I could find a spare seat or upgrade on the train.

My Ukrainian-Swiss tour-partner had the same plan as me for the 27th so we were able to split the cost of this as well. This was a trip to the Wang (snigger) Family Courtyard and Zhangbi Underground Castle. Neither of these are accessible by public transport so we had to hire a car and driver and a guide for the underground castle. Mr Deng arranged it all and roped some ‘friends’ in to reduce the price.

Wang Family Courtyard is more like a castle or fortified village than a family home. It has apparently got 123 courtyards and it certainly felt like we’d seen around that number. The place has a weird ghostly feeling and is like a rabbit warren at times. I’m sure its been used as a set on many films and it certainly felt like it was waiting for a use.

Zhangbi underground castle is an underground complex in the hills near Pingyao. It only recently opened to tourists. It is believed to be 1400 years old and little else is known about its history. It was believed to have been built as an underground frotress to defend against an invasion that never took place The currently excavated complex is 1.5km is size over three levels but the whole thing is thought to be over 4 times that size. It was quite an interesting walk but it already has a lot of ‘restoration’ work going on and theres not that much to see. The entrance was below a temple and the whole complex is built underneath a village, Zhangbi Cun. The village is laid out like the yingyang symbol of Taoism and it was intriguing to be shown about by the guide who was brought up there. We saw the usual collection of temples and got to see rural village people going about their day to day lives.

After a day of sights we headed back to Pingyao and went for a massage before heading out for dinner in a local restaurant. The Ukrainian-Swiss guy paid for dinner which was very kind of him since I benefitted from his fluent Chinese more than he did from my wise cracks and dumb questions as we touristed.

While I waited for train o’clock I sat with the hostel staff and watched Chinese tv while eating some potato dumpling stodge that they were having for dinner. Though the shower at the hostel was a trickle and my room was a bit cold, the staff made the stay one of the best I’ve had in China. The manageress even wrote a request for an upgrade in Chinese that I could show to the conductor to ease my journey.

I boarded the train at 9:50pm and my carriage was absolutely rammed. I found the conductor who passed me off to a girl who spoke english. She took me down the train to a carriage that was less full and found me a seat that was free. My upgrade cost me nothing. Even so, it was a long 12 hours with The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to keep me company. I managed to doze for at most an hour but felt surprisingly fresh, if a little stiff when we arrived at 10:30am on the 28th at Beijing West Train Station. I could have done with a massage now.

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