Pingyao... walled city

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Sunday, April 3, 2005

April 3rd
The soft sleeper option proved to be worth the extra as we arrived in Pingyao rested and ready to explore, but first we had to find some accomodation. We eventually found a guest house in the centre of the old city adjacent to the ancient bell tower. Our room looked out onto an attractive private courtyard filled with large urns and decked with red cloth and tassle lanterns. The windows were covered by a 'maze' pattern wooden latticework and the traditional style double bed (with space underneath to light a fire) was raised on a platform behind a carved wooden screen and a set of voile curtains which seperated it from the rest of the room...VERY NICE!(if a little expensive at 130RMB per night).

We spent the remainder of the day just wandering around the labarynth of back streets and alleyways that make up the old city within the walls and generally soaking up the atmosphere and basking in the great weather which arrived with us.

The crenelated city walls are about 10 metres high and made from rammed earth faced with brick and each one stretches for 1500 metres with watch towers at regular intervals along their length each wall has a main gate complete with large guard tower. The whole thing is in a good state of repair and its is very easy to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the early 19th century as all the buildings inside the walls are single storey traditional looking affairs with wooden carved window surrounds and ceramic tile roofs.
Once night falls the atmosphere changes from the husstle and bussle of daytime activity to a quieter more tranquil one. There is no street lighting and motor vehicles are banned from the old city which helps to add to the great atmosphere. At night the only light comes from shops and restaurants decked with red lanterns and small 'christmas' style lights. We immediately 'connected' with Pingyao and it became our joint favourite place so far, alongside Bolshoe Galoustne in Siberia.
(If your planning to visit Pingyao then do so soon as it won't be long before it loses it's original charm and atmosphere and becomes an overun tourist attraction, there are already signs of this happening, we were lucky in that we visited just outside the main tourist season, which meant it was quiet with very few western tourists present.)

April 4th
Again we have been blessed with hot and sunny weather, so we decided to make the most of it and walk the full length of the wall, it took us around 2 hours and during this time we saw no one else. The view from the top of the wall meant we could see into the many small courtyards of the houses not visible from ground level. Children waved to us and shouted "hello, what's your name?" and "where are you from?" in broken English. The main gate guard towers and fortifications emphasised how important a place Pingyao used to be, it was a main financial city during the Imperial era.
After the wall we wandered around town again exploring the backstreets and saw children playing they were facinated by us and kept shouting all the english phrases they knew. Rounding the next corner we came across a donkey cart with a large cylinder on the back and what looked like an exhaust pipe.(jet powered donkey cart?)

As I tried to photo the scene the owner rushed out and tried to charge us for the privilage. As soon as the owner approached we realised what the cart and cylinder was used for....sewage removal. He stank of and was liberally covered in... er...excrement!The donkey had better teeth than he did and smelled more fragrant!.

To see the main attractions of Pingyao you buy an all in one ticket for 120RMB and each destination punches your ticket which is valid for 3 days. We saw the confucian school /study centre and temple which housed a photographic collection including some magnificent prints of Ansell Adams work (US landscape photographer). The two other sights we saw where the first bank in the world to issue cheques which had attractive courtyards and the old offices of the workforce, this however was spoilt by the chinese habit of having wax dummies posed in very unlifelike situations, but the building and original banking artefacts and contemporary photos of the time made up for this. Another short walk took us to the old government building and courthouse where the local 'magistrate' would settle civil disagreements and hear all manor of criminal charges. The complex included the jail cells (inc stocks and manacles)all of which were used upto the 1960's. We left through the condemned prisoners gate and execution coutrtyard.

Again we found ourselves just wandering the streets where we saw cows tethered and street hawkers pulling hand carts filled with all manner of goods.... they would call out as they passed each courtyard or gated entrance to attract business.

April 5th
Having spent 3 days in Pingyao we decided (reluctantly) it was time to move Xian and the 'Teracotta Army'. Due to Pingyao's 'out of the way' location and limited ticket booking facilities this meant having to stop overnight in Taiyuan a larger city and rail hub.
The train ride that afternoon proved to be a very amusing journey. We caught a rickety 'local line' train for the 3 hour trip to Taiyuan and it wasn't until we had loaded all our bags and sat down that we realised everyone in the carriage was looking at us! They peered through the gaps between seats, stood up, nudged oneanother and giggled like little school girls. Even people from the next carriage came through to look at the 'foreigners'.It was just simple curiosity...this reached it's height when after an hour I stood up to go to the toilet and the whole carriage (around 40 people) stood up to watch me walk down the aisle!(and I am not exaggerating). On returning to the carriage I saw Jane stood with a police officer, his note book open. Now we're in trouble....wrong papers, wrong train perhaps? NO ...he had heard foreigners were on the train and all he wanted was to practice his English and swap email adresses!

We arrived in Taiyuan around 10pm and searched for a cheap hotel room to slump in until our early morning train to Xian. Well we found one alright, but it was a subterranian prison cell, smelling of damp and cigarette smoke. The bathroom was unuseable, well by us anyway. Previous guests had used it and had left plenty of 'evidence' to prove it!. We dumped our bags and had a quick meal in a restaurant next to amsterdam style 'shop windows' full of women and sex toys. (Surprising concidering the severe punishments meted out to convicted prostitutes in China, well officially anyway.) On returning we managed to weave our way past the prostitutes and their drunken clients on the steps of our 'hotel'. The night (thankfully) passed quickly and we were at the station for our train to Xian. We decided to try the 'hard sleeper' class of carriage for our 8 hour trip.

Pingyao had been great, Taiyuan had been 'interesting' but we were ready for what we expected to be one of the highlights of our trip to China....The Teracotta Army.
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