Monday a break fast of dumplings, the Wang Courtyard and ancient tunnels

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!

Sunday – the Hanging Temple and Pingyau

With bags packed ready for the next stage of our journey we set off for the Hanging Temple which if is translated literally means ‘Temple Hanging in the Void’. It’s buildings sit on large wooden pegs set in the rock, high above the valley. Visiting the the temple itself is definitely not for those of a vertiginous disposition! However Keith was not willing to stay at ground level and did amazingly well.

Once you reach the building entrance there are narrow stairs and planks to get you between the six halls dedicated to Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. This would all be very well, but add to the mix that on one side you look out onto the valley below and add hundreds of other tourists – you find yourself shuffling along the narrow passageways with no way of moving on if you do feel a bit wobbly! In fact it was difficult to decide if you would suffer more from claustrophobia than vertigo in some places.

It is certainly an incredible location hanging as it does on the cliff face. Apparently it got moved further and further up the cliff because of flooding in the valley that kept washing the temple away. However it is an interesting approach to resolving the situation! It seemed to me you would do better to move to a new location altogether but no, some people are just determined.

From the Hanging Temple it was quite a long drive to Pingyau, a very attractive walled town – original this time. The truck had to be parked outside the city wall so we walked in to be greeted with the smell of meat and vegetables being barbecued in front of the restaurants that lined the street. Our accommodation is in a small wooden balconied courtyard behind the Split Noodle restaurant. It is delightful.

The rooms are interesting quite small – perhaps 12 or 14 foot square. Two thirds of the room is taken up by a raised wooden platform that forms the bed. There is a step to get you up to it and a curtain to close it off. The pillows are interesting – they seem to be stuffed with peas!

The room has a wooden ceiling and a Chinese lantern provides the light. It is very hot and humid here so the air conditioning was an unexpected bonus.

We are here for three nights. It looks an interesting place to explore….

Saturday and the Yungang Grottoes

Following another ‘interesting’ breakfast (and I think they will get more interesting as we travel west!) we took off for the Yungang caves, about an hour away. Dated circa 360 and 400 AD, these are a series of ancient caves carved out of the sandstone cliffs containing Buddha’s of all sizes – from miniature to giant. It is said that forty thousand craftsmen worked to dig out the grottoes and carve out their contents. Originally the the caves would have had wooden frontages but most of these have now gone, although there is still one remaining that was redone in the 1600’s. This provides a useful insight into how it must have looked.

Many of the Buddha’s have been damaged due to exposure to the elements but there are enough left to give a real sense of the place when it was created. The caves were originally highly decorated around the Buddha statue area and there is still some evidence of this where interior murals can be seen that have not been exposed to the weather.

In contrast, there is an extremely modern museum housing artifacts found on the sight with some very up to date display methods including holograms and laser displays.

We returned to Datong and after something of a siesta some of us set out to find the highlights of the walled city. Datong is a coal mining town which, if the amount of rebuilding is anything to go by, is very prosperous. As in the older residential areas of Beijing there is a lot of demolition going on with the new builds looking far too expensive for those who have lost their homes to make way for the new ones to buy. The replacements of the more ancient municipal buildings are extremely well done with roof carvings and wall paintings skilfully replicated.

The 2nd August is The Valentines Day equivalent in China and there were a number of young men walking around with flowers. We came across a very upmarket restaurant where the glitterati of Datong were obviously taking their girlfriends. The girls had obviously made a lot of effort and were very well turned out. The chaps less so. Funny that.

We eventually found the main building of the town and also the main shopping thoroughfare which was bustling with early evening shoppers.

By the time that food was considered necessary we had reached quite a remote part if the City, near the opposite wall to the one we had entered. There were certainly no pictures on the menus and no- one spoke English. Peter opted to choose the food by wandering round the other diners tables and pointing…. Unfortunately he had not got his glasses on and it was getting dark.

We ended up with a sort of fried garlic bread, tofu with cucumber, rabbit heads and deep fried chickens feet. I will draw a delicate veil over proceedings at this point. Perhaps I should just add that plastic gloves were provided rather than chopsticks to eat the meal.

Friday on the road

Not too much to report today as it took 7 hours to get to Datong.

The breakfast offering before we left was pickled vegetables – a little early for me for the exotica – so I fell back on the hard boiled egg option. I am not sure how long they think it takes to boil an egg but the eggs give the impression that they may have been boiling for some time – may be days!

Initially the road out was busy with steep, tree covered hills on either side. Mostly the traffic moved easily although we did have one traffic jam due to roadworks, the universal cause of traffic hold ups. Eventually we emerged onto a flat plain where there were large fields of sweet corn.

The motorways seem mainly two lanes each way although they were much wider in and around Beijing. Out of town the two lane highways have tolls. Unlike the UK, food at the service stations seems very good. Loos are quite clean in the outer, hand washing area, although the taps do not always work and Mr Dyson is missing a marketing trick! The toilets themselves are mainly of the squatting variety – with all the hazards that usually accompany this mode of approach.

Perhaps in the absence of other observations a comment on our transport might be timely. The truck is reasonably comfortable despite the lack of air conditioning. With all available windows open it is quite cool once you are moving. Like all trucks, the cab is separate from the body – so we are separated from the crew while travelling. Communication is by walkie-talkie telephone.

The layout of the seating is mixed – some seats facing the front, some sideways and there are two sets around tables. There is accommodation for 20 people but we are only 11 so it is quite roomy. I think it could be a bit squashed if it were full.

Datong, where we are staying for two nights, is a large town that used to have a walled old quarter. In what we are beginning to learn is the Chinese style, deciding to smarten up the old area they knocked everything down and have started to rebuild it to look like the old town but it will be new! It now sports a pristine, approximately 20 foot thick, high city wall, complete with watch towers, entrance and exit arches and look out points.

The supper was roast lamb with interesting side dishes.

No pictures today.

Thursday – leaving Beijing and the Wall of China

It was a leisurely morning prior to packing the bags, getting the truck off the forecourt and setting off for the first time.

It was quite exciting entering Penelope – our vehicle and constant companion for the next three months. After initial briefing on the truck and it’s features, or lack of them – there is no air conditioning, no loo and no seat belts – we were told of our initial allocated tasks. Keith (and his vertigo) is the roof monitor and is required to go on top of the bus to stow rubbish and get down camping equipment and I, with a couple of others, are responsible for keeping the truck interior clean for this sector of the journey. (On my texting this news to my sister the quickest reply ever came back saying ‘Oh dear’. I am not certain what she was implying ……!)

Roles rotate so who knows what is to come.

The next issue was getting the truck off the forecourt of the hotel. No mean task with very little room to manoeuvre and a narrow busy street to turn into! Simon, one of our two man crew and driver, was amazing but it caused some consternation to all who watched this enormous vehicle effectively do a three point turn in a road little more than one car’s width! However, the impossible happened and we were off into the Beijing traffic.

As we travelled along it became clear that Penelope attracts more than just the passing glance. On several occasions we saw car passengers on one occasion a driver take photographs as we passed. Scary!

One of the things we saw as we travelled towards the outskirts of the city was the birds nest arena that was built for the Olympic Games. In daylight it appeared as a sort of cats cradle of concrete, but Ken our keen photographer, went to the stadium one evening and took photographs when it was all lit up and it took on a whole new persona. It was magical in his pictures. Not so in daylight.

Leaving the city behind us, a 3 hour drive took us to our overnight accommodation at Jinshanling a small village at the base of the hill leading up to the Wall. After checking in we took the cable car (another challenge for Keith and his vertigo) over the valley and up to the Wall. How amazing life is. I walked for five days on the Wall of China about twenty years ago on a charity walk for a local hospice. That was a very special experience and I never expected to pass this way again – and here I am. Older but probably no wiser and certainly less agile! As we walked along, constantly going up and down with the contours of the hills, I realised that I would find it difficult now to keep it going for any length of time.

What an incredible structure it is. Stretching off into the distance in the sunlight softened by the heat haze (this term has now taken the place of the steam of the city in my vocabulary!) the Wall meanders towards the horizon in both directions. The two to three kilometres we covered was all restored. They have obviously seen the tourist attraction this wonder provides and have restored more of it than when I walked it. This section now has its side walls in place and the various gates and watch towers are more or less rebuilt. My memory is of walking on unrestored sections with no side walls and where the width had eroded to about 18 inches. If my memory serves me correctly I believe it was built to accommodate 6 horses riding abreast…..
It is also said that the bones of all those who died building the Wall were used to good effect as they became part of it. Waste not want not, I suppose.

We had the Wall almost to ourselves as it was early evening. There were a few Chinese, the occasional intrepid drinks seller and at one point a management programme taking place – complete with flip charts!! I know my friend Chris Howe gets involved in this sort of training on the Wall of China which I have always thought very impressive. Thinking about it I guess it takes team building on the basis of the shared experience to a whole new level! Perched up on the top of the world (that is how it feels) you cannot help but share a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience and see things differently.

After celebrating Sarah’s birthday with a cake, card and singing Happy Birthday to You at one of the watch towers (much to the amazement of a passing Chinese family), we continued our stroll with some taking the opportunity to walk back to the hotel at the first available opportunity to get down, while a few others of us opted to extend the experience by another kilometre to the next exit point. It was a lovely evening with a refreshing cool breeze. Excellent!

Descending the exit point steps and passing a stylised statue of the dreaded Genghis Khan on his horse and a large freeze depicting his entry into China we left the wall behind and walked down the road. It was not long until we reached a road side shop where cold beers and a drink provided a jolly self congratulatory refreshment.

It was more or less time for supper when we got back to the hotel so we marched off to the neon lit dining room and shared yet another interesting selection of food. Our two vegetarians, Wendy and Sarah (of the birthday fame) did not do quite so well as they ended up with just broccoli and rice as their chosen pea dish proved to be garnished with meat. It was a good job that they had a slap up Italian meal the night before in Beijing just in case things proved tricky on the road……. Thank goodness for the cake!

Wednesday – the Forbidden City

Up early for our first joint outing. We were off to the Forbidden City. It was still raining when we left and my heart sank at the thought of putting my mac on over bare arms in the steamy atmosphere. In the event the storm had cooled things down and the humidity was a lot less.

We arrived at Tiananmen Square in drizzle and heavy greyness. Mao Tse Tung’s picture still looks out over the Square from the Gate of Heavenly Peace (!?) the outer building of the Forbidden City. Today the Square is edged with flowers and full of Chinese families keen to be photographed on such an iconic spot with only the military presence indicating any evidence of the location’s sinister history. It was a bit surreal in the murky light.

In the ‘heyday’ of the Forbidden City there was a walled passageway that stretched out into what is now the Square.

Apparently Mao considered knocking the Forbidden City down but was persuaded not to. Maybe someone had the foresight to realise what a money spinner it would turn out to be in the future! So much for idealism!

The palace complex that is the Forbidden City is said to be the largest in the world. Everything is giant sized. My particular memory from my previous visit was the size of the gold studded doors and time has not made them any smaller. They are huge!

As we passed through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we entered what is a comparatively small courtyard before passing through the Gate of Supreme Harmony which leads into a much larger area complete with streams and marble bridges. All around the place are the big copper and brass vats which in past times formed the palace’s fire defences. Full of water they were covered with blankets during the winter and when it was very cold a fire was lit underneath them to prevent them freezing over.

As an aside, walking around in the heat it is very difficult to visualise the fact that Beijing gets extremely cold in winter. The lake area where we were staying apparently ices over to the extent that people ice skate over them and the moat around the Forbidden City (which is huge) freezes.

With our Chinese guide to explain the buildings, the palace protocols and answer questions we toured the site. The names of the big gates, palaces and halls fascinate me – the various Halls of Harmony (Supreme, Middle and Preserving), the Complete Palace of Peace and Longevity, the Gate of a Heavenly Purity and the Thousand Year Pavilion. It is all so exotic,

I am currently reading the life story of the Empress a Dowager Cixi and it was really interesting to visit the Forbidden City against the background of her life. Cixi started life as a concubine and quite a long way down the pecking order, but then produced the only son of her particular Emporer which lead to her being effectively the power behind the Chinese throne for more or less the rest of her life. An amazing woman who never came out of the two royal buildings – the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace – she could neither read nor write well but she is accredited with putting in place the basis for modern China. She certainly had a lot of ups and downs and looked to be something of a Queen Victoria figure – who reigned at a similar time.

We saw the Emperor’s royal suites and Cixi’s rooms, various offices, the gardens and the harem where all the concubines lived. Apparently the concubines all had a number and the Emperor turned the tablet over with the number of the concubine he wanted that night and the young lady concerned was delivered naked ( for fear of assassination!), foot bound and gift wrapped In a gold cloth. Lovely!

A very interesting three hours later we emerged through the north exit gate and took the bendy bus back to the hotel. What a contrast!

We lunched at a very tiny cafe across the road from the hotel. I had dumplings and Keith had soup. We both had more than we could eat and with water it cost for us both the equivalent of £3.50! Dinner proved equally cost effective with a veritable banquet of dishes (including Peking duck and drinks) for £8.40.

Tomorrow we set off on the truck….