Not leaving the Shire

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, November 30, 2006

If I had thought the journey to Wutai Shan was bad, I would take it in an instant over the nightmare of getting here. You know when the day starts with having to jump a 10ft security fence (with full backpack, of course) to make the bus, it's not going to be a fun day. The 2 hours in an unheated bus, then 4 hours on a different bus with people chain smoking all the while on a journey that was only supposed to take 2.5 hours weren't good, nor was being dropped off 6km from the proper bus station. The final 2 hours of being squashed into a minibus designed for 12 but carrying 20 (again, most chain smoking) just topped it off. All this not having had anything to drink since 9 the previous evening, and not having had anything to eat since 4 that day, I wasn't in the best state when I finally reached Pingyao, and subsequently had an awful sore throat for two days afterward.
Fortunately, Pingyao was worth the hardship. A bit of an oddity, the town has somehow been spared the relentless modernisation that seems to have been plaguing China and is about 90% original Ming or Qing construction. Not so ornate as the temples in Beijing, but an actual proper city still surrounded by the original walls, it is fascinating just to walk about the streets. It feels like stepping back in time, or at least it would if the local authorities would do the decent thing and close the city to traffic and get rid of the annoying golf-cart tours that obviously have nothing better to do in winter than chase after backpackers who aren't ever likely to actually take the tour. The streets were in a state of chaos, being ripped up and re-paved (though with some effort to retain some consistancy with the original streets and surrounding buildings), but this did have the fringe benefit of making certain parts of the town off limits to motor vehicles, however hard they tried to drive over the barriers. And they did try. 
There were quite a few 'museum' buildings open to wander around, mostly old banking houses. Pingyao was the site of the first bank in China, operated by a wealthy merchant, and several others nearby followed suit, making it once the centre of finance for the country. The old local government complex also made for an interesting hours' exploration, as did a few of teh more unusual temples in town. There was so much of interest within the walls; not only the museums, but simply walking the streets could occupy days. For a place so (comparatively) small and with streets all perpendicularly aligned, it was surprisingly easy to get lost. In fact, when we were forced to seek food outside the walls one evening because of the lack of power (roadworks), it came as a bit of a shock to get back to the typical neon, noise and traffic of a chinese town. I felt quite insulated from it all inside.
A large part of that was due to the rather fantastic Yamen hostel. One of the most comfortable, relaxed places I've stayed, with lovely cosy sofas and a good restaurant (even serving dog - it tastes a bit like corned beef, prepared Pingyao style; that is, raw). It was a bit of a struggle to ever leave that place to explore town, and having such a good group of people there was a bonus. There were even a couple of familiar faces, people I had met briefly in Beijing, which is always good. The staff were so friendly and helpful as well. It makes a difference to be greeted with a smile, and they were always on hand to suggest something to do. We even got to make dumplings one night, although a lot of them did fall apart when cooked. It's not as easy as it looks! I realised it was time to leave Pingyao when I spent a full day without leaving the hostel; I was getting far too comfortable there.   
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