Tuesday a day in Pingyau

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.

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….