The train journey to Pingyao from Beijing was without incident. We had booked hard sleepers and would point out at this stage that a hard sleeper on Chinese trains, whilst perfectly adequate for an overnight trip, is exactly what is says it is. It is a sleeper and it is hard. Soft sleepers are one step up in the luxury stakes and we were to find that these are slightly less hard, but only slightly.
Hard sleepers are coaches arranged in open bays of 6 berths – 2 bottom, 2 middle and 2 top - with a corridor on one side with fold down chairs for use in the day time. The top is a nightmare because you have the least headroom (it is more of a crawlspace) and at the head end you have even less room as the roof of the train slopes downwards.
|Hard sleeper on a Chinese train|
So we arrived at Pingyao early in the morning and got a ride to the old town in a motorised scooter type tuk tuk thing. That was an experience in itself as the driver basically ignored all the rules of the road, dodging cars, bicycles, dogs and finally driving the wrong way around a roundabout into the oncoming traffic, before heading through the old city walls. Not through the wall exactly but quite frankly it wouldn't have surprised me if he had.
We were quite relieved to get off the main highway and into the Old Town, and we were soon deposited at the Harmony Guesthouse where we had booked ahead. This was a hostel run by a Chinese husband and wife team. Sara gets a lot of bad press as being pushy and money orientated but we found her to be perfectly pleasant, just running a good business very well.
Our room was lovely – traditionally decorated with a Chinese kang bed (basically a boxed wooden frame set into the wall covered by a equally traditionally thin Chinese mattress). The rooms were set around a small courtyard where we could sit outside and relax by the potted plants and the obligatory goldfish pond.
Paul hit it off with the hostel's driver JerMing. He was about 40 years old with 3 children (this one child policy needs looking into!) and very basic English so Paul could practice his Chinese and JerMing could practice his English. We went on a couple of trips organised by the hostel and he was our driver on both occasions.
Our first trip was to Mian Shan – a mountain about 1 and a half hour's drive away. Joining us were 2 older French ladies, a young French guy and his travelling companion, a young German.
The deal was that we paid for our ride to the mountain and once there we had to pay for the entrance to the mountain (which included riding the buses which ran up and down the mountain all day) and any other extras. JerMing gave us a map and showed us the best sites to visit and we caught a bus all the way to the top of the mountain with the intention of stopping off at various places on the way back down.
The bus trip was an experience in itself and followed a road which had been built onto the side of the mountain. As we were travelling up to the top, you could see where it just appeared to have been bolted onto the side of the cliff. The mountain was sheer rock in places but this hadn't stopped the Chinese building a road, sufficient to carry numerous coaches and buses travelling up and down every day, carrying thousands of passengers, at what felt like breakneck speed at times.
The main attractions of Mian Shan were the temples that had been built into natural caves along these very same cliffs. More recently they have added 2 or 3 large, luxury hotels, to the mountain but we were assured the temples remain quite authentic, atmospheric and are definitely worth visiting.
We hopped off the bus at the top and made our way to the 9 Dragon Waterfall. This entailed following a river path upstream. It was to be on this trip to Mian Shan that we really discovered how the Chinese like to "Disney" their tourist attractions. At the top, we followed the walk along the river, and were greeted by various concrete figures such as deer and rabbits (basically Bambi and Thumper), water buffalo, monkeys, birds and dragons. It all seemed very much out of place. It was already a very scenic place to begin with, a small river flowing through a narrow valley, it really didn't need the added decoration!. China's attitude to an area of outstanding natural beauty appears to be to turn it into a theme park. It is what they do best. It is hard not to feel a little disappointed but if you can overlook the "Disney" touches, you can still see the beauty of the place.
We followed the plan to visit certain sights recommended by JerMing and marked on our map, catching the bus down the hill in between.
We managed this quite well on the first occasion. We all stayed together (like a well behaved school trip) and after walking along the river to the 9 Dragon Waterfall (yes, there were 9 dragons and they were made out of plastic or concrete and painted gold), we walked back and caught the bus to the next stop.
This is where it all went a bit wrong. This time we headed through a narrow gorge along a path which seemed to advertise a plank walk as part of the route. Paul and I found this a little disconcerting but we obediently trudged along with everyone else.
However, when we were faced with what I can only describe as a metal staircase up a steep gorge, through a waterfall. You had a choice – you could either climb a type of rope ladder which went through the waterfall or the metal staircase to the side where the steps had been hammered into the side of the cliff, with nothing to hold onto apart from a huge metal chain on the cliff side. I attempted the staircase, got half way round and froze in terror so had to return.
Apart from the height issue, the waterfall made the steps a little slippery, and I just couldn't complete the last steep bit. I can't believe I even attempted it! Needless to say the French ladies and the two lads managed the climb no problem but Paul and I just headed back down to meet them back at the bottom.
This was where the problems started. We hung around waiting for everyone to come back down and eventually the French lad appeared to say that he and the German lad had got to the top of the path and inadvertently got the lift straight back down without having a look around. They didn't know where the French ladies were but assumed they were on their way back down.
When I found out there was a lift up to the top, I wanted to go up to the top and see the view. So off I went with the French lad who also headed up to find the French ladies. When we got out of the lift at the top, I wandered off to try and reach the summit up a steep winding stone staircase and he wandered off in the opposite direction. Halfway up the stone staircaseI bumped into the French lad coming down (I don't know how he got up there). He hadn't found the French ladies so he headed back down to the bottom to join the others. I reached the top of the staircase (the views were indeed amazing) and then headed straight back down to take the lift back down to join the others.
By the time I got there, the French lad still hadn't returned, we only had one French lady but Paul and the German lad were there. The other French lady had apparently gone on ahead on the bus to the next stop (which was lunch).
The second French lady was getting a bit irate, so when the next bus arrived she trundled in a bit of a strop and a few minutes later, the French lad returned. It was a bit like a comedy errors – the only constant had been Paul who just sat there smoking , watching various people come and go, with a slightly bemused look on his face. We had to wait quite a long time for the next bus but we eventually caught up with the two French ladies and made a pact to stick together from now on!
We ate lunch (noodles) and then set off up a hill to see one of the temples built into the mountainside. It was a strenuous walk up and included climbing over 100 steps but it was a lovely temple and worth the hike.
The next stop on the bus was another temple – this was a larger temple is built into a huge, natural cave on the side of the mountain, with a walkway around the inside of the cave which led outside and around the sheer cliff of the mountain. You needed to walk up (or ride an elevator) from the level where the bus drops you off. I rode the elevator (Paul walked). I summoned up the courage to walk around the inside of the upper cave but couldn't set foot on the wooden walkway around the outside which had a sheer drop to the bottom of the mountain. It was just too terrifying to contemplate. The temple however was beautiful -the smell of incense intense, the bells hanging far up above the cave on the cliffside gently sounding in the light breeze, the colours of the flags and carpets which decorated the temple were vivid, and watching people praying or making small offerings all added to the atmosphere of the place - so different from the churches of Russia - really very tranquil.
Despite best attempts to make the rest of Mian Shan fairly tacky, the visit to this temple was really worthwhile. It maintained some of its integrity and was untainted by the attempts to "theme park" the rest of the mountain. The views across the mountains were exactly what you expect when you come to China and for that alone we really enjoyed this day out.
The company was also great – I got to practice my French with one of the French ladies who couldn't speak very much English. The other French lady spoke really good English, having lived in the UK for a couple of years, and she was really interesting – she mirrored our attitude to travel in that while she enjoyed visiting various tourist attractions she found that the best way to get a feel for a place is to stop for a while and just watch. She was retired and spent most of her time travelling as much as she could. Her ambition is to visit Antarctica next year so she was going to be saving lots of money for that trip!
The lads seemed to be on a whistle stop tour of China – they had spent the last three nights on overnight trains, saving on accommodation, and sightseeing during the day. It exhausted me just thinking about travelling like that! I sincerely believe that this is something you can only consider doing when you are under the age of 25!
On the way back, Paul chatted to JerMing, who pointed out various other sights on the way back such as the cave dwellings along the road, and the Wang Family Courtyard (basically an old Chinese stately home).
We were quite exhausted once we got back to the hostel. All our companions were leaving Pingyao that night whereas we just wanted to eat dinner and collapse in our room.
The next day we went on the trip to the Wang Family Courtyard and to the Zhangbi Underground Castle. The Courtyard is effectively the old family home of a wealthy local family and is a huge complex of courtyards, offices and temples, set over acres of land, and surrounded by a wall. It had actually been restored quite sympathetically by Chinese standards. It was fairly interesting, but you've seen one courtyard, you've basically seen them all. We spent a couple of hours traipsing around before heading to the Zhangbi village for lunch.
After lunch we went with an English speaking guide into the underground castle. It was never actually used for its intended purpose against possible attack from Tang dynasty invaders and I have no idea when it was built but it is an impressive array of underground tunnels on three levels. You need a guide to prevent getting lost (which is very easy) and it is very claustrophobic (particularly if you are 6'6" but even in places if you are 5'7"). There are miles and miles of tunnels but you only visit a very small section which includes lookouts, sleeping quarters and even stables.
The entrance fee to the castle includes a tour of the village above the tunnels which is still inhabited today – some of the buildings are over 800 years old. That part of the tour was also really interesting and included explanations of the layout and design of the village in accordance with various feng shui principles, and basic Chinese superstitions.
The last couple of days in Pingyao were spent just wandering around the streets visiting some of the sites and museums, some of which are completely lost on us because there is zero information in English. We also walked around the city walls which is 7km hike but we ended up doing half again because we had left it a little late in the day and they closed one of the exits. We had visions of having to spend a night on the wall in the freezing cold but luckily we found an exit gate and wandered back to the hostel through the streets as it began to get dark.
We spent longer in Pingyao than we planned because it was a lovely place to relax and watch the world go by, and it was also refreshing to be out of a big city, although the pollution still reaches Pingyao as industry stretches all the way from Beijing to Xi'an as we were to find out on the bus trip to Xi'an – our first bus trip in China (yikes!).