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.