Header photo for a blog post. Photo of a beautiful Chinese arch lit up at night, with Lunar New Year lanterns lining the streets in the foreground.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 3

I wasn’t certain where one finds breakfast in a place like PingYao, so I asked the guest house hostess.  She pointed me toward the concierge (the guy who had picked me up the day before, whose lack of teeth did nothing to diminish the beauty of his smile).  He dragged me next door to a small, simple restaurant.  It seemed to be a mom and pop affair.  The pop did the cooking, and the mom did the sales and service.  She was a short, round-faced woman who seemed to be perpetually offering people hard boiled eggs.  I paid careful attention to the other customers.  They used the word for “boss” (lao ban, literally old shift leader) instead of the word for “server” (fu wu yuan, literally service person) when referring to her.  I did the same, and she did, indeed, seem to command this space.

I asked about coffee, and the lao ban just grunted at me.  No coffee here.  I ordered a plate of beef baozi and some tea.  The baozi appeared immediately.  The concierge from next door, who was still hanging around and hopefully got a kickback of some kind for bringing guests here, helpfully brought me some vinegar and hot oil to mix together for baozi-dipping.  I had no idea how much vinegar I would see over the next 24 hours.  The baozi were delicious – perfectly steamed dough on the outside, and a mix of beef and spices on the inside.  I learned later in the day that vinegar is a specialty of this area.  It was, indeed, very good vinegar.  And it complemented the baozi perfectly.

When the tea arrived, it was not what I expected.  It was something called ‘you cha’, which might or might not mean ‘oil tea’.  It was liquid, but that’s where the similarity with other teas ended.  It was served in a bowl with a spoon.  And instead of being a transparent liquid, it seemed more akin to a very thin oatmeal or gruel.  There were seeds of some kind floating in it, and it was lightly sweetened.  Whatever it was, it was delicious.  It was the perfect fuel for exploring PingYao.

PingYao is a prime Chinese tourist destination.  It was packed wall to wall with tourists, mostly family groups enjoying the New Year holiday together.  It was clear from observing the crowds that, in the minds of the Chinese people, the pandemic is over.  Most people were still wearing masks, but that might have been as much a sensible protection from the bitter cold as a matter of infection control.  People didn’t seem nervous about taking off their masks to eat at the many walk-up food stalls clustered along the main streets of PingYao.  Cars and bicycles aren’t allowed in the heart of the old city, making it a friendly walking venue.  

The city is packed with gift shops, food stalls, restaurant, karaoke bars, museums, and vinegar shops.  At night, walking down the streets of the old with with red Chinese lanterns hung all around is a magical experience.  I could tell that my fellow Chinese tourists felt the same way by the frequency with which they pulled out their cell phones to snap pictures and record the experience.  Pairs of young women posed for ultra-cute snaps to share on their social media accounts.  The influencer phenomenon, it seems, knows no geographic bounds.

I walked by, and eventually into, a vinegar museum.  These seem to be everywhere in PingYao.  I later stopped into a second and third vinegar shop.  I tried some sweet apple-based vinegars, and was able to easily taste the difference between 5-year-aged vinegar and 10-year-aged vinegar.  I was sad thinking that I wouldn’t be able to safely transport any vinegar home, so I didn’t buy any.  This ended up being a good decision for reasons that will be apparent later.

PingYao is also apparently famous for its beef.  History (or legend)  records that the empress Cixi was traveling in the area centuries ago and really enjoyed some PingYao beef.  There is now a PingYao beef museum lauding the qualities of this famous dish.  The only beef I tried was chwar from a street vendor.  It was pretty decent.

Everywhere I go, people notice my foreignness.  Many people try to alert the people they’re with, and I hear whispers of (wai guo ren, or outside country person) everywhere I go.  Many people eschew the politeness and just openly point, some staring in slack-jawed amazement.   I didn’t understand this very well until I saw a blonde-headed woman walking through a train station.  It was a jarring sight, and my first instinct was also to wonder, “What is she doing here?”  Children tend to shout “wai-guo-ren” pretty frequently.  In all cases, I smile, make eye contact, and use a word of confirmation that means “it is”.  Many people ask to take a picture with me, a request that I always treat like an honor.  I will often ask if they can take a picture with my phone, as well.  I want people to know that I’m as honored to meet them as they are to meet me.  I know that if it’s the first time people are exposed to a foreigner, the way I act will forever color their impressions of the United States.  This is people-to-people diplomacy in the most literal, tangible sense.  I may be off the clock, but I’m never off the job.  

PingYao only increased in beauty with the coming of evening.  I spent long hours just wandering the streets, taking pictures and observing.  I racked up an outrageous step count on my FitBit.  As the evening drew on, I wandered down dark alleys just to see where they go.  At one point, I saw a hulking shape in the darkness ahead of me.  It was the only time I’ve been frightened while traveling solo in China.  The shape turned out to be my own shadow.  Many of the dark alleys, it turns out, contain guest houses like the one in which I stayed.

I only had a few hours ahead of me in PingYao, so I headed back to rest up and download photos.

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