Richard, our enterprising Australian, got to hear of a trip that could be organised to a ‘courtyard and then an underground fortress’ that was out of town and asked if anyone was up for it. Of course our hands go up, not having a clue what we were letting ourselves in for.
Muster time was 8.15, so we abandoned thoughts of a lie in (there is nothing planned on our itinerary for our stay here) and set off from the courtyard with 5 others for the trip rendezvous point which proved to be a small accommodation place with a wonderful courtyard and English speaking manager.
We were invited to have breakfast and made an excellent choice in the fried dumplings. These were first class. A good start to the proceedings. Our people carrier waited a walk away but nothing is without drama in China as our route took us past what I think was a funeral. There were a number of pretty major floral tributes all in the most amazingly strong colours – they were huge!!
Anyway, I digress. We found the vehicle and settled down with two other travellers, not from our group, for what was advertised as an hour’s drive to our first venue, the Crane Courtyard of the Wang. Approximately two hours later and mentally and physically exhausted with the meanderings along the road (sometimes right across the other side of the oncoming traffic!) to avoid the potholes, we arrived at our destination. I am not sure what we expected but it certainly wasn’t what we found. The Crane Courtyard of the Wang is a vast complex which was the residence of (I think) one of the counsellors of the Qing Dowager Empress Cixi.
Information varies, but the site is said to have circa 271 courtyards and around 1,000 rooms! The guidebook had indicated that the number of courtyards could be monotonous but we certainly did not find this to be the case. Each courtyard was slightly different and they all had interesting titles. Keith was particularly attracted to The Model Character courtyard and the Quiet Thinking Room.
Some of the buildings are being renovated and in fact when we reached the wall that surrounded all the buildings, which we walked along, we saw that there is another whole complex about 200 yards from where the one we were in and equally as big! It is a bit difficult to decipher some of the information notices, but I think the Wang family are funding the renovation of the whole site with the intention of it being a museum. It will be absolutely incredible when it is finished, but it could take some time…..
There must have hundreds of people living there when it was first built. We wondered how the people communicated with each other – you could lose yourself for days! I can only believe there was an inter courtyard postal service and a very big gong to announce mealtimes!
Some of the courtyards housed artists. We found an elderly gentleman making very fine clay figures and a room of calligraphy panels which were far too long to hang ceiling to floor in our house. In another there were arge Chinese watercolour paintings.
When we had arrived at the site the driver had given us an hour and a half before we moved on and we wondered how we were going to use our time. In the event we had our work cut out to see all we could in the time we had. It was like a less ornate and far less crowded Forbidden City where you could wander much more freely and really get a feel for the way of life for a high official of the Qing Dynasty. It was fascinating.
We left the Crane Courtyard and, after lunch, moved on to the underground fortress. The story goes that the villagers that built the tunnels that made up the fortress were under threat from their enemies so dug out a network of underground tunnels (several kilometres – I think 14 were mentioned) on three different levels. We had to have a guide and the one provided spoke English (usefully!) so we were able to wander the labyrinth with the likelihood of getting out the other end, but equally usefully were able to learn more about how it worked.
Most of the tunnels themselves were not very wide an probably about two metres tall, sometimes less in places, and just over a metre wide. Apparently the intention was that horses could also be housed down there and I can only assume there were wider and taller areas than we saw – unless they had miniature ponies! There were also trapdoors and traps for any enemies who might get in and wells and commander stations. Occasionally we came across niches with seats carved into them ‘for the soldiers to rest’. All very satisfactory under ‘welfare’!
The most weird thing was that we would occasionally emerge into the light – we did so at both the lower and middle level – and found ourselves looking out into a deep gorge. We had emerged on a ledge in the side of a cliff with the village and it’s crops above us!
Anyway, after all that digging effort I got the impression that the enemies did not materialise! C’est la vie!
The village itself now houses few people. In fact their number was probably exceeded by the number of temples!
We returned to Pingyao feeling very satisfied with our outing but somewhat grimy!
The evening beer was very welcome!