Shanxi/Shaanxi Adventures: Day 4

*Note on the title: On this day I traveled from PingYao, in Shanxi province, to Xi’An, in Shaanxi province. The naming might seem confusing to U.S. readers, but I’ll remind you that we have a bunch of North/South paired states in the U.S., which might be just as confusing for travelers from elsewhere.

I was tired this morning when leaving PingYao.  I decided to rest and not see any more tourist destinations.  I missed my train by a few minutes, which I assumed would be no big deal, because the train schedule listed another train every hour for the rest of the day.  What I hadn’t reckoned on is that those trains might be sold out.  And, in fact, they were.  So, in a grumpy mood, I booked a train ticket for four hours later.

That is when he approached me.  He had extremely rotten teeth and a completely unselfconscious smile.  I greeted him, as I do everyone who approaches me, with my friendliest smile and a greeting in Chinese.  He is from Chengdu.  He welcomed me to China and strongly recommended that I come to Chengdu.  He said a good many other things, and I didn’t understand any of them, except for a reference to  U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  It made me supremely uncomfortable that this conversation had veered into the politics of the bilateral relationship, and that I only understood snippets of what was being said.  I felt that even polite head-nodding and agreement were likely to have me inadvertantly taking a position that I shouldn’t be taking.  I tried to quickly exit, which was no small feat.

I left the train station with four hours to kill and no desire to revisit the PingYao old city.  I’d made a clear part with her, and didn’t want to have to do so again.  Plus, the taxi ride out and back is a little long and more than a little uncertain.  So I grabbed my luggage and tried to get a taxi to the ShuangLin Temple, which was fairly close to the high speed rail station.  This turned out to be harder than anticipated.  I didn’t want to get a ride from the line of vultures out in front of the train station.  As the only foreigner for many kilometers around, they literally got into arguments with each other over who could take this fare.  It had happened several times before that taxi drivers turn off their meters halfway through the trip, then make up an arbitrary fare upon arrival.  I wanted the comfort of a ride-sharing app, like Didi (China’s Uber) or AliPay or Baidu Maps (China’s Google Maps) or GaoDe.  Unfortunately, this pitted me against my old nemesis, the Chinese taxi driver at the other end of the phone line.  Several called, and again I went through the same dance.  “I’m a foreigner, can you speak slowly? …  I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  … This is embarassing, but I don’t know what you’re saying ….” until they finally just cancel the ride.  After 30 minutes of trying, I finally found a driver willing to take me without a long phone call, and made the 5 or 6-minute trip to the ShuangLin Temple.

The temple itself was a nice experience.  But I was feeling grumpy for having missed my train, tired of being outside in the bitter cold  weather, put out at having to carry my luggage with me, and sore from all the walking.  And I had a caffeine headache from not being able to find any tea or coffee that day.  I decided not to go through the hassle of taking out my camera out to take pictures.   Whether to take pictures turned out to be a more complicated decision than expected.  This temple and its many colorful statues represent centuries of religious art, and they’re really a sight to behold.  I especially appreciated the 3-dimensional nature of many of the displays, with not only 3-dimensional figured on a flat background, but scenes that wrap around on the wall and protrude far out in front of the background plane.  The variety of sculptural styles seen through the ages was impressive.  But every scene bore a sign: No Photos.  I suspect that this really means, “No flash photography”.  The introduction of flashed light could damage the ancient artwork.  Now, I DON’T use flash.  I haven’t done so, apart from portrait lighting, since I took my first photojournalism class at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) 20 years ago.  And there were plenty of other people taking pictures – no one else seemed to heed the signs.  But still, as the only foreigner in a place of religious worship, I didn’t feel right disregarding that particular rule.  Or maybe I was just trying to justify to myself not having to pull my camera out in the freezing cold.

Aside from all the other people taking pictures despite the signs, a drone also hovered over the temple for most of my visit.  Outside of the Beijing area, I haven’t seen any signs prohibiting drones here.  And I’ve seen many of them flying around tourist sites in Harbin, PingYao, and Meng Shan.  Someone is getting fantastic footage in these relatively early days of drone photography.  I predict that drones will become a nuisance as they catch on, and these places will need to regulate their use, as many other places in the world already have (I’m looking at you, U.S. National Park system!).  But for now, I regretted leaving my drone at home.

I was walking along the wall of the temple, trying to kill time, when who should approach me?  The guy from Chengdu.  Not he was pointing me out to other people.  I think he told me that he had followed me from the train station to Shuanglin Temple.  I’m not sure how he got there, but he’s almost certainly better with taxis than I am.  But another  extended, uncomfortable conversation ensued. This timeit  inlcuded the bystanders he’d roped in to take our pictures.  But the bystanders gave me some hope – I could read in their body language that this guy was also making them feel awkward.  With their help, I ended the conversation and walked away this time escaping awkwardness with suitcase-banging trip through the narrow door that leads to the restrooms.

Getting back to the high-speed rail station was another adventure, and it went about like you’d expect: me unable to get a taxi, waiting 25 minutes for a bus that ended up not going where I needed to go, and finally finding a taxi driver at the last minute.  By this time I was so relieved to get a ride that I didn’t even care that he turned off the meter and overcharged me.

I sat in the train station for the next few hours, journaling and watching the crowds.  It was easy to see why the few trains I had wanted to book were sold out: the train station was packed.  It seems that many people are returning home after visiting family during the Spring Festival.  Every once in while I’d look up from my computer to find someone, sitting a few rows away, staring at me.  I always smiled and nodded.

When it was finally time to board the train, I thought I’d settle in for 3 hours of rest and enjoying the Chinese countryside.  I was wrong.  When I got onto the train, someone was sitting in my assigned seat.  No problem, I thought.  There are plenty of extra seats on the train.  I’d just occupy one of those.  I was only right for a little while.  As we stopped as successive stations, more and more people got onto the train.  Again and again, I was sitting in someone else’s assigned seat.  Finally, all the seats on the train were taken.  At long last, I had to return to my assigned seat and compel the guy sitting in it to move so I could sit down.  He was surprisingly cool about it.  I’m not sure where he went, but I spent the rest of the journey sitting next to his girlfriend while she took selfies and posted them on social media.  I’m not clear as to whether I showed up in any of the selfies, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Hitting XiAn was shocking – a journey that only lasted three hours but moved me decades into the future to a cosmopolitan city.  It felt like going from Winterset, Iowa to New York City.  I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of the change.  I was still wearing my snow clothes to keep warm and ratty old running shoes dusty with PingYao’s history.  The people around me were wearing fashionable suits and all seemed to be on the way to Martini bars.  Getting a taxi for the 50-minute ride across town to my hotel was easy, and the driver didn’t seem eager to debate me or attempt to teach me Chinese by brute force.  As we drove, I stared out the windows in mild shock.  There didn’t seem to be an inexplicable construction boom on our route – everything here seemed to have been built, established, and decorated with lots of big city lights.  I couldn’t believe the size of the city – in only a few days I’d habituated to (relatively) smaller towns.

When I arrived at the Sofitel, the contrast couldn’t have been greater.  I was upraded to a suite on check-in and walked my dusty sneakers into the warm embrace of big-city luxury.  I put on one of the (4!) robes in my room and sat down to reflect.  It occured to me that this contrast between places is a feature of China.  Like every country, China isn’t one thing: it contains worlds; people whose lives are so disparate and diverse that they can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in the other’s shoes.

For tonight, though, I fired up the food delivery apps and tried to order a pizza (which was terrible) and a beer (which was great).  I have two more days in XiAn, but I’m feeling the need to rest a bit.

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.

Shanxi Adventures: Day 2

On the way to breakfast, I met a young man who insisted on speaking to me in English.  It took a minute to adjust – I kept trying to use Chinese with him.  He repeatedly replied in mechanical, stilted English, “You can just speak your native language.”  He went on to tell me about his time attending high school in Canada.  He especially wanted to tell me about his favorite geology teacher, whose resume he recited to me in exhaustive detail.  He also asked how I was finding the Tai Yuan region’s environment.  When I, thinking that he was referring to the culture or the infrastrucutre, replied with some innocuous pleasantry, he launched into a short diatribe on the mismanagement of mining and coal production.  I’d found China’s lone environmentalist.  I wanted to ask him how Shanxi differed from the rest of the country in that regard, but I refrained.  His life must be hard enough without antagonism from abroad.

The environmentalist wasn’t the only person who wanted to use his English with me.  Everywhere I went, people would smile at me and push their young children forward to show off the English they’d been learning in school.  Not a single child seemed comfortable with this.  But the parents all beamed, happy to have found, in the flesh, an object lesson for their child on the usefulness of their studies.  The parental subtext seemed to be: “What if you come across a foreigner at a tourist destination and need to greet him?  Then you’ll be glad you applied yourself in school!”

Breakfast at Chinese hotels is usually interesting.  This one proved to be no exception.  Chinese people enjoy a range of breakfast options, and the Jinci Hotel seemed eager to cater to them all.  While I would have been happy to have noshed on some jiaozi or suan la tang (hot and sour soup), the attendant who showed me around the breakfast room kept pointing out all the bread options.  Someone must have told her that what foreigners really like for breakfast is bread.  I nodded politely and went off in search of spicy noodles, green tea, and a pair of chopsticks.  Undeterred, she took it on herself to make me some toast.  A few minutes later, she showed up at my table unbidden with two slices of toasted white bread.  I ate one of them, just to be polite.

This morning’s adventure was a trip to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha statue.  It has an ancient body, and a head that was rebuilt from 2206-2008.  It only opened as a tourist destination after the reconstruction of the head.  Security to get into the statue was structurally robust, but procedurally deficient.  Everyone goes through the same metal detector, and everyone sets off the detector.  This is pretty common in China – airports seem to be the only place where metal detectors are used for their intended purpose.  The guards looked me up and down, then asked me one question: whether I was carrying any cigarette lighters.  I considered this for a minute – I had brought a few cigars and a lighter on my trip on the off chance that I’ll be able to smoke them.  But then I looked around – it was 15 degrees below zero.  There was snow on the ground.  It was so cold that my camera buttons froze and stopped working.  The chances of me even getting the lighter out, much less using it for a nefarious purpose, were as low as the temperature.  I’m not sure what they were hoping to prevent; there were many people smoking at all parts of the outdoor exhibit.  So I lied.  The guard grunted and pointed me through the security check.

Any tourist destination with a religous theme will be riddled with irony.  In China, trebly so.  While a site that venerates an ancient religion, a visit to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha isn’t a calming trip away from civilization.  It’s a nice hike up a gorge to see the statue.  But it’s not a serious athletic challenge.  Of course, the presence of an oxygen bar halfway up this low-elevation hike might hint otherwise.  The walk is decorated with plastic animals and plastic flowers.  Poppy, energetic music plays from speakers on the walk up and down from seeing the Buddha statue.  While there are two people dressed as monks at the base of the statue who periodically ring a giant singing bowl and facilitate worship at the base of the statue, they are also selling electric candles for use in your home worship.  You can pay them with WeChat using a convenient QR code.  QR codes for donations also show up on donation boxes in the less-visited temples off the beaten path.  One of the many gift shops, next to the Virtual Reality lounge, was selling wire-framed machine guns.  Despite all this, there were a decent number of actual worshippers coming to venerate the Buddha.  Several of them, after bowing down, came to ask me if they could take pictures with me, too.  

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind the reader that I, like the Buddha Siddhartha, make no claims at divinity.  Every taxi driver I’ve met in China will agree with you.  They universally despise me.  Case in point: the unlucky driver who answered the call to take me from the Giant Buddha to the Tai Yuan train station.  Like every taxi driver, he called me to talk about the ride before picking me up.  You must understand, my Chinese language skills are impressive – if you don’t speak Chinese.  If you do, then they’re somewhere on a range between bewilderingly incomprehsible babble and an outright offense to this beautiful language.  No matter where you find me on that scale, one thing is certain: every taxi driver I try to hire would like to have an ent-length conversation about the ride before picking me up.  Often I won’t answer the phone, but that just makes them more angry.  When they call, I select from a few of my most-used phrases: “This is embarassing, but my Chinese is bad.  Please speak slowly,” or, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  Can you speak more simply?”  Usually, the response is a torrent of words, possibly an attempt to expose me to every Chinese word at once.  Probably for my improvement.  But I don’t improve.  I haven’t learned any new words from a taxi driver yet.  Talking with one driver on the phone, I said, “The more words you say, the less I understand.  Keep it simple: Are you coming or not coming?”  His response might have been the entire text of ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’.  Or just a version of his family’s history, ending with the reason that he’s on the way to pick up a *bad word* foreigner in a taxi.  My most successful conversations usually end up with me hanging up the phone on the driver.  Often when they see me and realize that I’m a foreigner (wai guo ren, or outside country person), a small light of realization flickers in their eyes, and I get a grunt of absolution.  Either way, I finally connected with my driver after a painful (for both of us) series of communication missteps.  The dropoff happened without any hassle, and I was back into the TaiYuan train station for my trip to PingYao.

It was comforting to be back on the train, navigating a station that was no longer new.  The Swiss have got nothing on China: the Chinese system of high speed rail is impressive.  The trains are fast and comfortable, and ticket prices are cheap.  You can get almost anywhere in the country by rail.  Every train I’ve taken has run on time, to the minute.  Tickets cost about three or four times the cost of most in-town taxi fares.  First class tickets are only a little more expensive than coach.  I settled down for a nice ride.

From the train window, I saw stepped farming. It seemed an attempt to turn the foothills nestled next to a small mountain range into productive land.  All seemed to be fallow, with no sign of crops apart from neatly plowed patterns in the soil.  The small steppes were occasionally riven by what looked like dry river gorges or wide runoff channels.  These, too, were plowed at the bottom.  Snow and small clusters of concrete houses dotted the jagged steppes and the bottoms of the gorges.  Many of the concrete slab houses had solar panels on top, and all of them had traditional New Year’s decorations.  I wondered if the residents use WeChat and AliPay.  From everything I’ve seen so far, they probably do.  

Arriving at PingYao, I saw the same thing I see all over China: endless rows of massive apartment building under construction.  The number of new units being added at any given time must be massive.  I asked a taxi driver where all the people will come from to live in these houses.  As expected, I didn’t understand his answer.

Old town PingYao is fabulous.  Upon arrival, I decided that it’s probably my favorite place in China, and maybe in the world.  My major metric for place-attraction is ambiance, and PingYao has so much ambiance that the word ‘PingYao’ should henceforth be substituted for the word ‘ambiance’ in all future usage.  The entrance gate to which my taxi driver delivered me had a police station and a ticket booth.  It cost 125 RMB to enter the old city, and this seemed to be on the honor system.  So I did what everyone else walking through the gate was doing: I walked by, between the ticket booth and the police station.  

A driver from the guest house met me inside the old city wall, and drove me just around the corner to the hotel.  The place he stopped didn’t seem like a guest house – I couldn’t tell from the outside that the building was even occupied.  But when he opened the door and ushered me in, I stepped into a world of ancient oriental delight.  This is the place that every ancient-Chinese-themed place in the world aspires to be.  Large fish chased each other around a massive fish tank in a corner, right by a table whose design practically announceed that old Chinese men were to use it when drinking tea.  The guest house hostess ushered me out a back door and toward me room, and into a courtyard whose beauty literally took my breath away.  It was nigh on evening, and red Chinese lanterns lit the courtyard, creating a beautiful sense of PingYao.  

All of the guest rooms open to the courtyard, with only large windows and wooden screens creating a small amount of privacy for the guests.  What the rooms lack in modern convenience (nowhere to put clothes, no hotel bathrobes, etc.) it made up for in PingYao, with ancient-looking furniture.  The large bed, which took up most of the room’s square footage, aspired to be a slab of concrete or a hardwood floor.  My Chinese teacher warned me about the use of ‘kongs’ (or traditional hard sleeping surfaces) in this type of guesthouse.  She cautioned me to be sure to reserve a room with a bed and not a kong.  I tried, but I think I failed at this.  No matter: when you’re tired enough, you can sleep anywhere.  And I was tired.

(If you’ve read this far, I have a special message for you: “Hi, Mom and Dad!” If you’re anyone else, please leave a short comment just so I know you’re out there and interested.)

YeXian Pagoda hike

A friend invited me to join her on a hike and I said yes! We traveled with about 20 fellow international school parents to hike the mountains near the YeXian pagoda in Miyun District, Beijing. In Beijing, one can travel quite a long time and still be within Beijing’s borders! Since we can’t really travel outside of Beijing right now, I’m thankful we can head up into the hills (or into the city) to explore!

About 1.5 hours from home, we arrived at the visitor’s entrance gate to the mountain/site. Near the entrance, there were religious/cultural statues, beautiful gates, and temples. I’m not sure what religions were represented, possibly Hinduism. There was an altar for those who wanted to burn incense and pray. We trekked up the steps of the mountain, chatting most of the way. Some rested on the switchbacks while others continued hiking to the top. When we got to the pagoda, I chose to hike all the way to the top where there were a few more architectural pieces–a few more pagodas, arches, and a big marble bridge at the tippy top. The uppermost walkway was a recreated Great Wall, which made us chuckle! After having lunch and time to explore the top of the mountain, we gathered up, strapped on protective gear (helmets + elbow/knee pads) and go-carted (gravity powered) down! It was quite a fun and bumpy ride down!

Beijing’s Forbidden City

Finally, after living in Beijing for several months, we made our way to Beijing’s signature tourist attraction: the Forbidden City.

We decided to take a tour with Beijing Postcards, a history-focused company that offers tours and other experiences based on original research into Beijing’s history.

Getting to the Forbidden City presented obstacles typical of being in a new country with limited language skills and `experience. For some reason, I was able to hail a ride in Chinese using Lisa’s phone, but I wasn’t able to call a car using my phone. When we finally got there, we were late for our tour.

Despite all the difficulties, it was magnificent to see one of Beijing’s signature pieces of history, and to learn from a tour guide who both loves his job and is currently engaged in unearthing China’s fascinating history. We’ll definitely be back to the Forbidden City!

(Click on any picture below to launch the slideshow view and enjoy the photos!)