Pingyao standing still in time

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September 30th 2012
Published: September 30th 2012
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Pingyao, September 8-10

After four days in Beijing it was time to move on. It wasn’t really enough. There is such a lot to see and we saw very little. All the tourist sites are huge. Parks, palaces, squares, buildings, etc. are always built over huge tracts of land. Getting from point A to B and back can often take up the better part of the day, even though everything looks within comfortable walking distance on the map. It's wise to take taxis to get to your destinations because once you get there you will have to do a great deal of walking. If you really want to enjoy the different sites and put some distance between yourself and the other tourists, just one or two kilometres will get you far enough away from the madding crowds to encounter some relative solitude. We did perhaps too much walking because we didn't get to quite a few of the places that I really wanted to see. I would have been happy to stay longer. But seeing we had decided on a meager three weeks, I had been fairly brutal with the itinerary. Beijing was cut down from six or seven days to just four days and Xian was struck off in favor of Pingyao. I spent some time mulling over that one. Xian or Pingyao? We didn’t have time for both.

Everybody says that you absolutely must visit Xian. And I tend to agree. But in the end I opted for Pingyao, not least because I wanted to avoid China’s bigger cities as much as possible. We took our first domestic flight from Beijing to Taiyuan. Pingyao doesn’t have an airport and Taiyuan is about two hours from Pingyao. We’d spoken to the hotel and they sent a car to pick us up (for payment, of course). The journey was uneventful and the scenery not particularly interesting.

We arrived at Pingyao and were greeted by the imposing city walls and impressive main gate into the old city. Leaving behind motorized transport we continued on foot through the main gate and over cobblestoned streets to our guesthouse on a quiet side street not far away. Pingyao is considered one of the best examples of an ancient Chinese walled city. It was once a major financial center. Over the last hundred years the town has fallen into a state of decline and neglect. During the time when many old towns in China were being torn down and new towns were springing up in their place, the people of Pingyao resisted modernization and as a result the town is still as it was hundreds of years ago.

Yes, it’s true, that it is very touristy, with shops running the entire length of the main streets, but the buildings from the Ming and Qing Dynasty are still there and the back streets are just as they always were, relatively free of tourists, offering an interesting window into daily life in small town China. I thought the town, with its red lanterns and massive wall entirely encircling the old town, was wonderfully picturesque. We wandered for hours through its streets.

The guesthouse was built in the traditional Chinese style with rooms opening onto a central courtyard full of greenery and lanterns. The rooms had huge beds on high platforms with curtains to close for added privacy and atmosphere. A Chinese breakfast was served early in the morning in the courtyard. We ate a cold breakfast of pickles, boiled egg, Chinese bread, banana, and of course, we drank tea. Not so interesting but perfectly adequate and quite filling. We are eating entirely with chopsticks. Sometimes we get fancy lacquered ones and the food tends to slide off of the shiny surface so I have some trouble using them but I do quite well with the plain wooden ones.

Pingyao is famous for its beef. It is a deep reddish pink color which I found a bit off putting. We ate it with most of our meals. We had it fried and sliced. I wasn’t crazy about it. They also sold it wrapped in thin rice paper as a snack and that was quite good. We ate a lot of stir fried vegetable dishes and pickled vegetable salads. We saw hardly any western tourists in Pingyao and even the Chinese tourists weren’t quite as numerous as I had expected. It was the weekend so it wasn’t too bad at all. A lot of the Chinese tourists came in groups and sometimes there would be several tour groups in the streets at once and then just as suddenly as they arrived they would all disappear. They didn’t seem to be staying in the old town.

If we felt there were too many people on the main street, we’d just turn off into the back streets. It was really interesting seeing how people live, peering into courtyards, craning our necks to see over walls, sometimes even venturing into yards to get a closer look. I hope we weren’t too intrusive. They didn’t seem to mind. We smiled a lot. We wanted to walk around the city walls and at first went up at the main gate only to discover that it is closed for repairs. We went to a different gate and were able to walk about two kilometers or so from there but it doesn’t seem to be possible to walk the entire wall anymore. By going up on the wrong part of the wall before we had used up our ticket and were supposed to buy another one. I explained in Chinese – keeping it really simple -- that we wanted to walk on the wall before and we couldn’t because we went to a bad place and now we want to walk from here. So we just walked in and he didn’t stop us. He had a sort of stunned look on his face. I'm not sure that he entirely understood me.

So we had a short walk on the walls, in the late afternoon, when the sun was low and everything was a golden color. The path around the top of the wall is wide – enough for a carriage or two -- and in good repair. Apart from us there was nobody up there at all. So if you think that Pingyao is too touristy and crowded, you can always get lost in the backstreets or take a stroll on the ancient walls, and you can leave the crowds behind.

After two days we flew from Taiyuan to overnight in Chongqing. We were on our way to Lijiang but had to change flight somewhere. Previously we were going to spend about a week in Sichuan but that had been scratched off the list right at the beginning of the itinerary purges. So I was just going to stay in Chengdu for the night but I eventually decided to drop it completely and go to Chongqing to eat dinner with a friend instead.

We arrived at the airport in Chongqing, a town of over 30 million people. They all seem to live in apartment buildings of 30+ floors. Chongqing is known as a megacity. I really didn’t see much of it. I took a 50 minute taxi ride through the city from the airport. It seemed to be entirely wall to wall towering apartment blocks. I thought it was quite frightening. The taxi driver was not impressed by my attempts at conversation in Chinese. He didn’t talk for the entire journey. He was enclosed in a sort of metal protective cage. Chongqing didn’t seem so friendly. The taxi behind ours at the airport had nearly run Micha over while he was putting his bag in the trunk.

We took a room in a big restaurant and entertainment complex overlooking the river. I figured we were just there for the night so we wouldn’t have time for much else. The hotel was four stars, quite reasonably priced with very nice, big rooms. We did have a view of the river but the next day it was pouring with rain so although we knew it was there, we couldn’t really see it. There were quite a few things for purchase in the room. It wasn’t so obvious at first glance what was for sale and what was free. There were two lots of water bottles in the room, the slightly smaller ones were complimentary and the others were for sale. There was tea next to the electric kettle and then there was a nice tea set with tea for sale. In the bathroom they were selling face wash cloths and condoms. They were also selling some sort of toy that seemed quite sophisticated whatever it was, I couldn’t work it out.

We met our friend, Deyi for a hotpot meal, something that I wanted to try in China. We got to the restaurant a little late – it was after eight. In China people eat at six or seven and finish up by about nine. By ten only the wait staff is there, cleaning up and setting tables for the following day. The restaurant was packed when we walked in. There was a lot of noise and the steam from the hot pots gave the room something of a sauna-like atmosphere. I started to feel extremely hot, my hair was already sticking to my neck and I hadn’t even had any of the hot stuff yet.

The waitress kicked off the meal by placing a large lump of chili oil into the soup. We had a lot of sliced meats, green vegetables and mushrooms. The vegetables and mushrooms were left in the pot to cook and flavor the soup and the sliced meats and “other things” were dipped in for short periods and eaten straight away. Deyi said we should order some internal organs. We weren’t enthusiastic. I think it’s called offal. Stomach of something was ordered. Grayish squares of rubbery consistency covered with little nodules arrived. Deyi got stuck into them with relish and I tried one too. I dipped my square in the soup for a few minutes and upon sampling it found it to be chewy and rubbery with no discernible flavor. So I cooked it for a longer time but it tasted the same.

I didn’t really enjoy the hotpot because I found the soup to be a bit tasteless. Maybe my taste buds were out of order following intense chili exposure. There was also a sort of peppercorn that when you bite on it numbs your mouth. It is not unpleasant, the numbing sensation gives mouth some relief from the burning chili. Before we knew it, it was nearing ten and we were the only customers left in the restaurant. The waitress wrapped up the leftovers for Deyi to take home and we wrapped up the evening with a walk by the river in front of our hotel. The night air was warm and pleasant. Across the river was the impressive science museum which was also visible from our room.

The next morning Deyi came to the hotel with a few suggestions to see Chongqing before our early afternoon flight. It was raining heavily and visibility was very poor, so we decided to stay around the hotel. We spent a few hours together walking around the complex and looked at the souvenirs. The souvenirs were exactly the same as they had been everywhere else and I still hadn’t seen anything that I wanted to buy. The Chinese souvenirs are geared to Chinese tourists. They are mostly interested in the famous food of the province they are visiting. I saw a brisk trade in moon cakes, soy sauce, alcohol, dried fruit and meat, vinegar, among other things.

I am sorry to say that I didn’t like Chinese food that much. I tried. I went with open mind. I didn’t eat any critters. The strangest thing I ate was stomach and that wasn’t so strange. I didn’t eat any unidentified meat. I, for the most part, went easy on the chili but had no trouble eating spicy stuff. I don’t do too well with fried food and even though a lot of Chinese food is fried, I didn’t eat too much. I ate breakfast and I ate dinner and usually didn't eat anything else. Although I wasn’t hungry, I was sort of desiring something else, maybe I wanted Western-style Chinese food. Something like my sweet and sour chicken – yummy.

We ate a lot of vegetable dishes. Vegetable dishes were my no fail order. They were practically always good and tasty. It usually looked like the vegetable it was. Although sometimes eggplant would momentarily masquerade as something else – “That’s funny, I don’t remember ordering donkey’s penis”. Meat was mostly best avoided. It was tough, had lots of bone and grizzle and lots of other suspicious parts. Sometimes it was only bone, no identifiable meat was attached to the bones, just a plate of bones, with a few vegetables mixed in. One memorable chicken dish had all sorts of bones that I don’t remember chickens having. Maybe it wasn’t chicken. It seemed to have rather a lot of knuckles. I always asked what the meat was and whatever they said, I never recognized the word. I would get them to repeat it several times and then go back to the hotel and ask them to translate. They would never be able to tell me what it was either.

So we mostly avoided meat, or at least we didn’t eat too many bones. I am also not a big noodle or soup eater. Soup is a part of every meal. It mostly was a fairly uninteresting plain broth. Maybe I was supposed to enhance the flavor with some of the bones from my meal. Breakfast is often a big bowl of soup with noodles. I can eat that sort of thing in the morning but I usually start off with something more familiar, something that I very rarely eat at home, but eat almost religiously on the road: egg and toast. In the evening we would eat Chinese. We didn’t have to but the Western options were not terribly appealing, and creature of habit that I am, I must have gotten used to my two or three vegetable dishes and plain rice. I cannot say for sure, but I think my downfall, as far as Chinese food goes, is that I am not terribly fond of five-spice powder. Actually, I don’t know why I didn’t like Chinese food, something in it, some spice or flavoring, just didn’t agree with me.

On the plus side, apart from Beijing market, I did not see any strange critters in my food. I saw them on menus sometimes but I didn’t actually see them with my own eyes. Bullfrog was frequently on the menu. I have been told that the bullfrog is usually served whole and looks just like the bullfrog it is. I also heard about water rats but I never saw them. No cats or dogs either. This may not be the time to discuss this, but Chinese people really love their dogs. They spoil and groom them and often carry them about in their arms. In Hong Kong, we saw a sort of dog wheelchair for an elderly dog.

I had been looking forward to eating dim sums. But jiaozis and baozis are more of a breakfast food and I didn’t see them at dinner time. Plus they seemed to have a lot of dough and not much filling. I made up for this oversight in Hong Kong. I ate dim sums exclusively for breakfast for the two days we were there. They had thin dough and a lot of filling. I would have eaten them for lunch and dinner too but found that after breakfast I would be pretty much dim summed out for the day.

In actual fact, I would have tried a much bigger variety of food than I did if I could have. While on holiday, I eat sensible portions, don’t eat if I’m not hungry and rarely over eat. I eat like I should always eat (and pretty much do for most of the time). I usually lose a kilo or two while away. Then when I get back I go on a food binge for a week. I put on that kilo or two in the wink of an eye and act like I have been deprived of all nourishment for an extended period of time. I followed this pattern this time too. I am thankfully now entering the second week since my return home and my love affair with the refrigerator is slowly winding down.

It’s raining outside, not pouring but definitely raining. The first rain of the year. I love it. Our first week in China saw mostly sunny skies and mild weather but the rest of the trip was wet and overcast, sometimes misty. But I like that sort of weather. It’s not the best for holiday photographs but it’s not usually cold, just nice and cool and I can walk so much further and jump so much higher. Not really any jumping involved but I have higher energy and strength levels and I can just walk and walk all day. So we did a lot of walking in beautiful Yunnan, our next stop after Chongqing.

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