Shanxi Adventures: Day 1

Solo travel in China has been fascinating.  I’m not too far out of Beijing but I’m far enough that I’m meeting many people who appear never to have seen a foreigner before.

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, so most Chinese people are recovering from late-night celebrations with their families.  Because of this, I despaired of finding a taxi for the long cross-town trek to Fengtai train station, especially at 5:30 am.  Even the ride-sharing services, at all other times ubiquitous, were not guaranteed.  Enter Mr. Wang.  I texted him the night before, on New Year’s Eve.  He checked with his network of drivers – none of them was willing to be away from their families early on New Year’s day.  So he agreed to drive me personally.  In the morning, he explained that his son is a public servant, a government official (probably at the city level), so his son wasn’t able to join his wife (a housecleaner) and him (an independent driver) for New Year’s Eve.  They ate a nice, small, quiet meal and went to bed early.  In the morning he was ready to drive me on the eerily-empty streets of Beijing.

Arriving at the train station was new to me.  I didn’t know the protocols.  And the checkin procedure relies on a Chinese identity card, a shenfenzheng, that I don’t have.  Luckily, the guards seemed familiar enough with a foreign passport, and getting into the station (and later getting onto the train pokatform) wasn’t a problem.  The train station felt like a more casual version of an airport. I tried to use the first class lounge, but it’s apparently only bookable through corporate buyers.  No matter – the wait wasn’t even long enough to sit down.

For this trip, I decided to travel heavy, bringing my full DSLR kit instead of my small, light Fuji XE-4 camera.  Shooting in the train station, I realized just how out-of-practice I am.  But all the skills come back easily enough, like a language that you haven’t spoken in a while.

I boarded the train and sat in my first-class seat.  It was remarkable how smooth the takeoff and ride were – this is a high-speed train.  It’s part of the network of high speed trains in which China has been investing so heavily for the past 15 years or so.  I rolled through the countryside, trying to observe what I could while simultaneously recording the third Harry Potter book for the little boys.  The countryside, though I’ve never seen it, looked familiar. It was filled with signs of progress (a big field of solar panels) mixed with rural poverty, small manufacturing, and geographic contours that somehow communicate their very ancient nature at a glance.

The trip was over before I knew it, and it was clear getting off the train that I wasn’t in Kansas any more.  I needed even better language skills to get around, and many people I came into contact with seemed like they aren’t used to seeing foreigners.

The hotel I selected is a once-opulent affair.  Apparently built many decades ago (and not improved or maintained since), it’s a conference site nestled at the foot of the hills.  It looks as if its main purpose is to impress provincial-level  government and party officials, who no doubt use it for important meetings.  I chose it for its proximity to the Jinci historic area, and I was not disappointed.  Though there are limousine-length golf carts constantly loitering around the front door and eager to satisfy the transportation whims of guests, the historic area is an easy (and rather pretty) walk front the hotel’s front door.

I skipped the walk at the insistence of a golf cart-limo driver, and he dropped me off at a side entrance to Jinci Temple ‘scenic area’.

At this point, it might be worth mentioning that solo travel also affords me the freedom to indulge my whims, and to see this place on my own terms.  I only share this to explain my lack of understanding about the things around me.  For example, there are guides every few feet at the entrance to the scenic area who were haraunging visitors.  Several of them argued with each other about whether it was worth pitching me.  I moved on before they could settle that dispute.

I decided that, instead of listening to an audio tour, engaging a guide, and reading all the signs (or at least the ones that are translated into English), I would just walk around and let my visual sense enjoy the scenery.  I’d like to walk away with pictures this time instead an an exhaustive (and soon-forgotten) grasp of the finer points of local history.

Jinci Temple park was lovely, and the Duke’s Art Gallery (castle?) was especially impressive.  After entering the old city/museum, I wandered, climbed lots of stairs, photographed, and generally enjoyed myself.  At the end of the day, I stopped in a coffee shop at the museum for a cup of coffee and to process pictures.  The staff, after making me swear that I wouldn’t share it with anyone, was kind enough to give me the Wi-Fi password.

After picking my way back across the vast museum/city and scenic park as the temperature went down with the setting sun, decided to stay at the hotel for dinner.  That was an interesting experience – at first I thought I’d made a mistake.  Dinner was served in a corner of a large conference hall, and the sheer size of the room made for weird ambiance.  Then I looked at the menu, where they featured very expensive delicacies, including the famous bird’s nest soup and the infamous shark fin soup.  I worried that I might be in for a 3,000 RMB dinner full of things that don’t please my palette or my ethics.  Luckily, I found many items on the menu that looked appetizing to my taste buds, my wallet, and my ethical sensibilities.  I put together an order of 5 small items.  The server told me that it was going to be too much food.  She took one of the items off of my order.  I shrugged, said OK, and waited for dinner.  She was right – it would have been far too much food.  And when I got the bill, it was only 30 RMB ($4.42 in USD).  For a delicious, restaurant-quality meal!  I’ve seen this trend elsewhere – restaurants in China tend to price everyday, normal food very low.  Even though it might be delicious or a regional speciality (like the razor-cut noodles I ordered in Shanxi, or Beijing’s JianBing), Chinese people just assume that it’s common food and price it lower than other, less common dishes.

Though I’d decided to eat in, I also wanted to see the city of Tai Yuan at night.  After taking a taxi way into the city and walking around a bit, I met a family of guys heading into a karaoke bar.  They were already half-drunk and in a very celebratory mood.  They invited me to join them, and I decided that I probably wouldn’t get another chance like this.  I accepted, and had a blast singing with them.  It was great language practice and even better diplomacy.  The father, the dominant figure in the group, told me with increasing volume how proud he is of his country.  The background on this phone was a picture of him as a much younger (and much thinner) man, kneeling in fatigues.

Getting home was a challenge – one driver picked me up, drove for a while, stopped, saw where I was going, and loudly complained at me until I got out of the car angrily.  When I finally did get a driver who was willing to make the 20-minute trek to the hotel, we found the large front gate locked and the guard on duty sleeping in the guard house.  An unhappy and bleary guard opened the gate for me, but the driver had already left.  I made the rest of the walk across the expansive hotel grounds in the freezing cold.

5 thoughts on “Shanxi Adventures: Day 1”

  1. Thanks, guys! Eric, tipping isn’t done in China. I assume the employer just pays full wages to servers. It’s really nice.

  2. We just read your first day of solo China travels! Your sharing and descriptions are wonderful. We felt as if we were sharing the adventures. Thanks for sharing. Can’t wait to read Day 2

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