Today’s early morning sound was of drumming that eventually picked up pace until there was the sound of a full band playing in the park behind the hotel. Keith was despatched to investigate and came back to report that similar to our previous experience of such recreational areas, the local ‘oldies’ (probably my age if the truth be told) were working out. Apparently fully choreographed dance sequences, opera singers and a rhumba line were in progress in addition to the musicians. All before 7.00 am!!
Our hotel, which had to be visited by the local police to endorse our stay overnight, did not do breakfast. Much to the amusement of the locals we sat outside the steam bun shop along the road and ate fresh steamed buns filled with pork, onion and a dash of chilli and a plate of vegetarian dumplings. I fear we are going native! They were so good we bought some buns to go with the left over dumplings for lunch. What was interesting was that a steam bun cost 1 Yuen (circa 10p) and the dumplings (they do not seem to serve lest than 20 at a go) cost approximately £3 equivalent. However, £3.30 for lunch and dinner did not seem too bad a deal.
It was a long drive to Xian. It poured with rain all day but we were quite comfortable chatting, watching the towns and countryside go past and occasionally dozing. Keith, Wendy and I have taken to having a game of Scrabble on the long drives in the afternoon….. We are going to try to get a Mah Jong set in Xian to take advantage of having Jason, Chinese the guide’s expertise, to get us going with that and be more in keeping with our surroundings. I have a very basic knowledge of the game. The chances of finding a Mah Jong set with English subtitles is a bit slim.
Xian eventually came into view. It is a vast city that has far outgrown its city walls, although it is 14 kilometres to stroll round them! Apart from the Chinese signage it could have been a large city anywhere, including the traffic jam. Penelope crawled along, attracting the usual stares with us inside looking out like caged tigers. Our arrival is always a bit like the circus coming to town.
Our two Australian vegetarian ladies had identified an Indian restaurant that came highly recommended, so several of us took off for a change of spices and textures. It was extremely good and those knives and forks felt wonderfully homely!
Getting there and back was a bit challenging using the local taxis but the incentive of a change of cuisine overcame all. As it was still pouring with rain we had the opportunity to observe the creative approach to rainwear on the journey. We have previously experienced the umbrella on the bike technique, but the weatherproofing in Xian exceeds anything seen previously! Particularly notable was the two person cape for scooter or moped wear. This comes in a range of colours with holes in the front and back for heads to poke out of to see but be covered , while enveloping the legs of both passengers. (Sadly the drive was so terrifying that I did not have a spare hand for photographic pursuits!) Another interesting development, this one particularly for the cyclist, is the umbrella with the extended spokes at the back to prevent uncomfortable dripping down over the rear of both cyclist, passenger (a frequent addition) and back wheel. This was also seen in all shades. Fascinating!
The Cocks crowing woke us early. It was only just light. I had slept well on the padded stone ledge and yet another bean pillow. There is a little cupboard under the bed where a fire can be lit in winter. It must get very cold and I guess lighting a fire is an effective way of not freezing to death even if there is a danger of being cooked from the bottom up as it were!
From the conversation over breakfast it would appear that not everyone had such a good night. Breakfast was good. Soup, bread and pickled cucumber with, of course, the ubiquitous boiled eggs.
What an amazing place the cave village is. So peaceful and representing a way of life that has gone on for generations but, like hilltop villages in Europe, it will not be around in 20 years unless younger people take it on. Apart from the people who ran the home stay, the only other people we saw in the village were very elderly. Having said this, cave dwellings are obviously a way of life in this area as we were to see evidence of them all day.
Having gathered ourselves, we were ferried down the road and boarded the truck ready to be carried off towards the town of Yan’an where the Long March ended and Mao Zedong set up his headquarters. It was in Yan’an that he initiated the practices and political ideology that would eventually be rolled out throughout China.
Our route took us initially along a river valley. There was very little water flowing in the river bed but vast expanses of sand coloured mud. Later we passed large industrial towns where major demolition was taking place and huge high rise residential towers were being built. It looked, I guess, exactly what it was – the eradication of the old to make way for all that is new and progressive. At the moment it looks a rather depressing mess. It must be awful for the people who live there.
Eventually the industrial gave way to the agricultural again with neatly planted fields of maize, beans and occasionally sunflowers. We are too far north for rice.
Arriving in Yan’an, after checking into the hotel, we hurried off to the Peoples Revolution Museum, housed in a huge ‘stalinesque’ looking building with a giant Mao Zedung (their spelling) in front of it. Everything inside was marble which one couldn’t help but contrast with the ideals of the Revolution itself. It was a cavernous place with giant pictorial friezes and bronze statues of heroes of the revolution and a lot of pictures, equipment and official looking documentation associated Yan’an and it’s involvement in paving the way to the modern China. Apart from introductory tracts at the beginning of each section it was all in Chinese. There was of course no mention of the fact that it is said that 80,000 set out on the Long March and only 4,000 arrived in Yan’an.
It was such a contrast to our previous overnight stop. We are being provided with the opportunity to look at the many facets of the country’s culture but handling the contrasts can be tricky…..
We woke up to pouring rain that dripped off the balconies and made puddles around the table and chairs down the centre of the courtyard.
I decided to make the most of the morning by visiting the Taoist Temple just down the road from our accommodation. Pingyao is well endowed with temples of all three varieties – Buddhist, Tao and Confusion. There are also
two churches within the city walls. One of the joys for those over a
certain age on the trip is that the entrance to all temples and buildings of interest are free on the production of your passport in China. So, happily waving my passport, I joined the early morning tourists and one or two ‘worshippers’ (I am not sure if this is the term for Tao followers) as we stepped over the ghost ledges into the temple grounds.
For those not in the know, every courtyard doorway has a wooden or stone step at its threshold which are put there to prevent ghosts getting in. Some of these can be as much as a foot high. This temple particular temple helpfully provided an additional box either side of the ‘ghost’ panels labelled ‘for the elderly’ to assist us in safely negotiating the hurdle.
The rain was something of a deterrent to the faint hearts so it was not too busy and I was able to wander around and take photographs without umbrellas or brightly plastic macs in them.
My temple visit completed it was time to leave Pingyao (said to be the best preserved walled city in China) behind and get back onto Penelope and take to the road again.
This is when we found that the truck has several leaks. Not bad but just drips. One was dripping inside one of the baggage compartments so all the bags had to be consolidated to one area and the cleaning bucket was placed under another – held in place by some interesting macrame knots tied in Barry’s sweatband ….
Other drips were avoided by people rearranging their seating and we were ready to leave.
It continued to rain all day. The area we are in is quite industrial, mostly coal mining and we continued to see evidence of the coal trucks we have passed in most of our travels of late. There are fertile valleys with quite High hills on either side of the wide flatland.
Eventually we stopped at a temple – this time of ‘The Dragon’. Not sure which deity was covered by this one! What was interesting was the two art classes taking place in an upper area of the temple. Both had local people as the subjects.
We moved on from there to Shanxi-Li Mountain Village in Qikou, Linxian County. It is an amazing place. We had to abandon the truck at the bottom of the hill as it would not have been possible to get up the hair pin bends! We were hurtled up in a battered people carrier by a man who obviously wanted to display his prowess at hill climbing and hair pin bends!
The Shanxi-Li village is very special. It is almost caught up in a time warp. Built into the hill, most of the houses have brick frontages with the back carved into the hill. They are built courtyard style and there are stone paths between the courtyards. The land around the courtyards are terraced and filled with produce. Someone has worked really hard at establishing the amount of planting – tomatoes, beans, aubergines, potatoes, coriander and cucumber were all in evidence. We saw a number of elderly people who moved slowly along the paths steadied by sticks or hoes. All had amazing smiles in weathered brown faces. Cocks crowed and there were a few chickens about but other than that there was total peace.
We wandered the paths and just enjoyed the moment. After our meanderings we met up for a beer in the courtyard. Talk was of travel and home. Someone found some gin and another had some tonic. Murmured conversation while we waited for dinner to cook.
It is a lovely place. The earth loos leave something to be desired but otherwise it is a magical spot.
Our meal was obviously sourced from the surrounding hillside and delicious. Cooked by the lady of the courtyard. Two young children played with the white fluffy dog and ginger kitten, who otherwise tumbled with each other in the dusty ground.
And so another day ends.
It dawned grey but much cooler which was nice because we wanted to wander the streets of Pingyau, the town where are staying. The main thoroughfares are lined with shops and restaurants all jauntily adorned with red lanterns. Many of the restaurants open on to large, often very attractive
courtyards at the rear.
Our accommodation is in a courtyard just behind the Split Noodle restaurant on The Cheng Huang Temple Street. The restaurant has a large Chinese following and it is often filled with noisy Chinese enjoying what seems to be one of their favourite pastimes – eating. This seems to occur at all times of the day!
We picked up our breakfast, a stuffed pancake being cooked and served by a smiley couple operating at the entrance to a side street just along from where we are staying. Munching happily, we wandered along watching people setting up their wares along the side of the road on the steps to the shops. We stopped for a drink at a cafe just before a group of musicians started up some very discordant music. This subsequently turned out to be a prelude to the funeral we were to see later in the day. I think it was equally hard on the ears of the local people as we saw passers by with fingers in their ears, ear phones on and rushing past to avoid the noise. It was grim and made for a less than restful coffee stop!
Moving on we chose not to walk towards the south gate on the top of the wall but instead walked inside the city wall from the west gate to the north gate. This was obviously a local residential area with much narrower streets running at right angles to the wall. The traffic comprised mainly of mopeds or bicycles often towing trailers, cycle rickshaws and golf buggies ferrying Chinese tourists to and from the wall. There are a lot of stray dogs. These all look the same and very unlike the posh, pampered varieties that are carried along the main streets or sit on guard outside shops.
We eventually returned to base for a rest and then set out again to find the ATM, when it started to rain. As we hurried back again having been rejected by the ATM, umbrellas suddenly appeared for sale on the stalls and there was lots of activity as goods were covered with a variety of protective materials. At that point the music experienced earlier could be heard coming towards us as a funeral procession came into view. It was quite a parade with a number of trucks and vans carrying similar large wreaths to those we saw yesterday, then several cars, then the musicians, then mourners on foot and then an elaborate bier on the top of long red poles carried ceremonially along on the shoulders of a large number of men jogging at a fair pace. It was quite a sight.
It rained for some time, stopping only after we set out for the street food market outside the wall in our wet weather gear. Undaunted, if a little hot, we continued to the market stopping off for a beer with chums from the ‘naughty boy’ section of our fellow travellers on the way.
We eventually found our way to the street food and had some very cheap but tasty dishes.
This is our last night in Pingyao. Tomorrow it’s a a ‘home stay’. On enquiring whether we needed to take our towels we were told not to bother as there are no showers……. I guess it’s down to the wipes then.