Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues

Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues…

As mentioned in the previous Trans-Siberian post, the scale of construction in China is absolutely mind-blowing. On the route from Beijing to Datong it felt like we were never out of view of a construction site. As we arrived in Datong, a fairly big city in itself, it seemed like a whole new city was being built in and around it with vast cranes and concrete monstrosities populating every angle of the skyline.

The most bizarre construction project in Datong however, is the rebuilding of the old city. A huge swath of the population has been forcibly relocated, and the buildings levelled, in order to rebuild a bigger and better version of the old city, which was not all that long ago destroyed to build the new city. Apparently this is part of a larger new-old trend in China, whereby all the ancient cities and towns that were ripped down during the Cultural Revolution, are now being rebuilt to get in on the exponentially burgeoning tourist trade. Large parts of the new-old town were pretty much up and running, but we didn’t actually have the time to see it. A few people we spoke to surprisingly mentioned that it’s been tastefully done and is actually quite a magnificent site – so maybe there is hope for Chinese tourism yet.

On the subject of Chinese tourism, CITS is the Chinese International Travel Service – something akin to a national tourist information bureau that also sells tours. Sounds helpful, but in fact, in most places in China they are an absolute joke and are just as likely to rip you off as any other dodgy two-bit outfit. Despite this, we’d seen from a few online blogs that the CITS in Datong was run by the helpful and charming Mr Gao, who arranged good quality, reasonably priced tours out to the local wonders (in China, making your own way to tourist attractions often ranges from extremely difficult to impossible, so unfortunately organised tours often seem the only way to go).

As we walked towards the station exit into the raging throng of rabid ticket touts, travel agents, and taxi drivers, stood at the front of the lot, calmly smiling at us, was a slick middle aged man who spoke excellent English as he handed us his business card: Mr Gao – CITS. This was a stroke of luck, we were only coming to Datong to see the surrounding tourist sights and we’d worried about finding the CITS office.  “Just the man we’re looking for” I said ,“I’ve read all about you”. Mr Gao smiled, and didn’t seem at all surprised by this. He must get this all the time – this is ‘what he does’. We told him we wanted to go and see then Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes the next day, so he escorted us around the block to his office. Dubiously, his office was the empty conference room of a seedy looking hotel, down a grubby alley – but due to his trustworthy face, we acquiesced and arranged the trip for the next day.

Next challenge was to find the hotel we’d booked. We managed to battle our way through the mob of obscenely aggressive taxi drivers and get to the bus station. Luckily I had the address of the hotel written in Chinese in an email on my phone, so the plan was to show it to each bus driver to see if they went there (genius, I know). Just as we stepped on the first bus to awkwardly shine my shiny screen in the unwitting drivers face, my thumb accidently caught the screen, deleting the email and presenting said bus driver with an email about discount underpants or some such nonsense. Using a combination of intuition and stupidity, we took a punt on the bus anyway, staring intently out of the window at this alien land, looking for some sign of our hotel. About 500m down the road, the bus chuntered to a stop. It had broken down and was pissing oil all over the road. Brilliant. We lugged our rucksacks off, and went for plan B – wander around aimlessly.

Looking around we quickly realised there was no way the hotel would have a roman script sign anyway, so we needed to retrieve the email with the address. After a bit (lot) of a struggle we found some fabled internet, and with it, the address. It still took another 45 minutes of bumbling around pathetically showing people the address before some lovely young kids managed to guide us to the place – essential an empty, dingy, motel with an air of mould and lots of weird 70’s furniture. We dumped the bags, and headed out for some well needed grub.

Wandering around, doing our upmost to avoid being killed on the insanely chaotic roads, we came to a couple of realisations. The first one is that Datong is a shithole. It’s crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted, massive, concrete, grey and garish. Not that I wouldn’t recommend going there, because shitholes can be seriously interesting places to wander around. The second realisation was that we are really weird. I mean, seriously outrageously peculiar. As we wander around with our rucksacks like lost beetles –  Amy with her massive eyes and super pale skin, and me with my immense height of 5’11” and a scraggly semi-ginger beard – heads turn, jaws drop, fingers point, and gasps and laughs can barely be suppressed. Apart from the new-old town, Datong is not a tourist town other than a one day stop-over for the surrounding sights (most people don’t even stay the night, or stay one night next to the train station). Deep in the city centre where we were, it felt like westerners were anything but a common sight.

The Hanging Temple, or Hanging Monastery, is a temple built into a cliff about 250ft above the ground, near Mount Heng in Hunyuan County, around 40 miles from Datong. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is one of the only existing temples with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – a section of the temple is dedicated to each. It’s quite a sight, and when you’re up there, feeling the whole building creak and sway, looking at the old dried out oak beams, you do wonder how it might fair under a visit from health and safety. The almost incomprehensible age and location of this magnificent building was genuinely humbling, and was still a special experience despite the occasional tour group.

The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near Datong. They are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and are often said to be the most impressive of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China (the others are Longmen and Magao). The stone carvings were undertaken in the 5th and 6th centuries and all together the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. Of the grottoes, only about 20 are well preserved and there are just a few main super-spectacular ones. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with the hanging temple, the photos don’t even begin to do this place justice. I’ve never seen carvings on anything like this scale, and the shear enormity of some statues coupled with the amazing intricacies of the wall carvings really is awe inspiring – and this is in the modern age – imagine the feeling someone would have felt seeing these caves before the age of modern building technology. You could be forgiven for believing that these caves were created by an almighty being (although perhaps not if you were Buddhist).

Another interesting fact about Datong is that it’s the coal capital of China, supplying something crazy like 1/3 of China’s coal (as I type, that figure sounds ludicrous, but it’s what I remember been told by a tour guide, and after a quick flick through Google, I could neither confirm or deny the fact, so I’m sticking with it). Apparently locals are pretty proud of this unconfirmed fact, but I’m not quite sure why. The air is thick with coal dust and after only a few hours on a windy day I was regularly ejecting bits of black gunk into tissues from my hooter. All buildings and cars are dusty and dirty, and the roads outside of the city are completely rammed with almost nothing but coal trucks, with trails of black soot covering the road and floating off into the air. It’s an ominous sight.

That night we boarded the sleeper train to Pingyao. The train network in China is totally outstanding. Fast, comfortable, cheap and punctual. Apart from the odd cultural niggle it is an absolute joy to use, but I’ll write about the Chinese trains in more detail another time.

We arrived in Pingyao around 6am in a bleary eyed stupor, and stumbled into a moto-rickshaw where we were miraculously stuffed in with all our bags and about 3 other people. We hurtled off towards the old town, a mass of flailing limbs and luggage straps flapping in the dusty air. Not having had time to put my contact lenses in, the whole experience was literally a blur to me.

About 450 miles from Beijing, Pingyao old town is undoubtedly a spectacular sight, and unlike the current new-old fad, Pingyao is genuinely ancient. During the Qing Dynasty, Pingyao was a financial centre of China, but its history dates back 2,700 years, and is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the known world. It is still inhabited by 50,000 residents and is renowned for its well-preserved ancient city wall, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lonely planet guide describes it “what you thought all of China would look like but doesn’t”, which is quite apt. Genuine Qing era it is, genuine Chinese life it ain’t. Although many people still live and work in the old town, the largest part of the town caters primarily to tourists. It’s to be expected really, and I’d imagine there isn’t a well preserved ancient town in the world that isn’t now primarily a tourist attraction. Also, the integrity of the town has been kept surprisingly well, with no neon lights or rampant, garish advertising plastered on every surface. The nicest thing we did there was to rent bicycles and pootle around all the little alleys and narrow passageways. Outside of the tourist area it’s possible to catch a glimpse of real Chinese life, which apart from the odd mobile phone and satellite dish, seemed like scenes unchanged from 600 years ago.

Other than a few museums and the city walls (you need a rather expensive ticket which lets you in to everything, there’s no individual tickets – we gave it a miss) there is little to do in Pingyao other than stroll around buying tourist tat. Once we escaped the expensive tourist restaurants, we found a few good, cheap little noodle shacks, selling strange local food that was decent enough, but nothing to write home about. One evening we went out for a couple of beers with two Italian law undergraduates, Francesco and Thomaso, who were having a month’s break in China before exams. Two genuine and funny blokes, who unfortunately ended up eating what they said was one of the worse meals of their life in Pingyao, although being Italian, it may just be that they are spoiled when it comes to food.

Our hostel had a comments wall, which, as one might deduce, is where people scribble notes about their stay and stick it to the wall. We noticed that something mentioned with regularity amongst the scribbles was Mian Shan. There was no mention of it in the guidebooks, but it was apparently a holy mountain, and one visionary wall scribbler even declared “it should be one of the wonders of the world!” Something with such rave reviews, and a chance to see something off the beaten track, not in the guidebook seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

There was a 4 person minimum to arrange the trip, but luckily there was a couple from the US, Xavier and Kristin (who we’d briefly met in Datong), who were also looking to go to the mythical Mian Shan, and so, the next day we departed.

The following is my best attempt to describe Mian Shan: A-spectacular-ancient-holy-mountain-natural-beauty- hotel-theme park-dinosaur-water park-hotel-temple-megaplex. If that sounds strange, it is. It’s history goes back over 2,500 years, but it’s basically a huge mountain that was originally covered in various temples, including China’s oldest Taoist temple, and is now a mixture of ancient temples, temple reproductions, hotels, restaurants, gorge walks, picnic spots and swimming parks. The scenery is truly breath taking, as are some of the old temples, some of which appear to be defying gravity stuck to the cliffside. The tacky restaurants, hotels, and big green shuttle buses that spend all day zooming up and down the mountain do take a bit of the shine off things though. And whoever decided what this magnificent mountain needed alongside its riverside paths, was shitloads of massive concrete dinosaurs, I have no idea. Despite (or maybe because of) it’s unparalleled weirdness, we had a brilliant time at Mian Shan, and as long as you have no illusions about what you’re going to see, it’s something we’d heartily recommend . Also, we did have very good company. Xavier and Kristen have been doing a blog about their round the world trip, well worth a read, at bmorenomadic.wordpress.com

As this place is purely a Chinese tourist destination (we were the only westerners out of hundreds of people) we were a real added bonus for a lot of people, and Amy was particularly fascinating for them. At one point there was a queue of tourists lining up to have their picture taken with her, and once or twice even I was deemed interesting enough to deserve some paparazzi action. As an interesting aside, we think the reason Amy was so popular in China is that a lot of Chinese have a thing about pale skin, they think it’s beautiful, and scarily, nearly all cosmetics from soap to moisturiser to sun cream, claim to have added whitening in them. They would often point to Amy’s skin and give a beaming smile with the thumbs up.

That evening, we geared up and headed for the train station. Having bought our tickets to Xi’an a couple of days earlier, we weren’t anticipating any problems. However, as you might have gathered, there was a problem. Quite a big one. We weren’t allowed on the train.

We thought we were half an hour early for our train, but it turned out that we were in fact about 23.5 hours late. The train was at 20 past midnight, or 00:20. When we were buying the ticket we explained many times what day we wanted the ticket for, and were assured again and again that although the date on the ticket was the 18th the ticket was correct because 00:20 is still really that same day. Bear in mind that both buying the ticket, and finding out our tickets were wrong, involved conversations between people who couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language. We did have a little phrasebook which we could point to word in, and without that we would have been at the very source of shit creek. After much palaver and protestation on our part, we conceded that things get lost in translation and asked to buy another ticket. Typically there was only one bunk bed available, so off I trotted for my first experience of the ‘Hard Seat’.

‘Hard Seats’ are the cheapest tickets (other than no seat) and are in fairly ordinary seated carriages – fine for shortish journeys in the daytime, not so ideal for long night journeys. What’s uncomfortable about them is not so much the seats, but the sheer density of people. In the hard seats at night people sit/lie/balance anywhere they can. 5 sit on 3 seats, people lie under tables and seats and even in the isles. It’s seriously packed. If you are brave enough to run the gauntlet to the toilet, someone will be pretending to be asleep in your seat when you get back, and you have to awkwardly shift them.

This was all quite an alarming experience at the time, and luckily for me I had a guardian angel in the form of a young teenage girl who I think took a little bit of a fancy to me. We’d chatted a few words on the platform, then when she saw me on the train struggling to find my seat, she showed me how empty seats don’t exist, and if you have a ticket with a seat, you simply have to politely drag people out of your seat. As you would expect, I was serious novelty on this train, and people all around were staring in wonder and trying their best few words of English on me. Everyone was friendly enough, but it was a daunting experience. During all this I saw the young girl using a translation app on her phone and writing a note. Eventually she handed it to me… “Don’t worry, we are all very friendly here, welcome to China J”. As we would see time and time again throughout our time there, China’s salvation lies in the young ones.

In a strange display of hospitality, a young bloke and his aged father force fed me sunflower seeds for almost the entire 8 hour trip. The old man seemed to get very anxious when I stopped shelling and eating, even for a moment. I manage to get about an hour or two’s respite when they dozed off in the early hours of the morning. After a long, sleepless, seedy night, we arrived in Xian.

Datong to Pingyao, China
14/04/2013 – 18/04/2013

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