October 15th mostly involved travel to Ping Yao. October 16th was all Ping Yao.
Ping Yao is in Shanxi province, west of Beijing, and part of the Chinese rust belt which produces the huge dust and pollution clouds that float all the way over the Pacific to our neck of the woods. Shanxi lives up to the reputation. For the first twenty miles out of Taiyuan there is a brown haze that clings to the bottom 100 feet of airspace. A smoky "ick" fills the rest. There are coal-burning smokestacks all across the horizon. We saw something that looked like nuclear towers too. About 40 miles out, you actually start seeing some clouds.
Ping Yao is a UNESCO heritage site, meaning that (like Lijiang) it's required to maintain a certain degree of authenticity. A newer city has been built around it, but the area within the ancient city walls remains mostly the same in appearance as a hundred years ago, except that the functionality of structures has changed (e.g., what once was a Ming era family home might now be a hostel). Ping Yao is the site of the first bank in China, and was the financial capitol of China in the 19th and 20th centuries until Shanghai replaced it.
The most prominent feature in Ping Yao is the complete city wall, one of only three left in all of China (Xian & Nanjing being the others). Most city walls were destroyed either during the warlord era of the early 1900's or after the communists gained power (Mao didn't like people being able to hide behind city walls). There are 40,000 people living within the wall's 6km circumference.
On first glance, Ping Yao can be a rather depressing place... dirty, poor, and collapsing. On further examination, however, it does have a good deal of charm and a people whose spirit seems to be unaffected by any deficiencies in their surroundings.
We had a little trouble finding our Hostel, spending 20 minutes or so walking around an inner city area that ended up being a big outdoor museum of the original government center. Nope, no hostel here. Turns out that the hostel was about... oh... 20 feet to the east of where we entered. Swift.
We stayed at the Yamen Hostel, which was originally built in 1591 as a place to host the Emperor on an impending visit to Ping Yao. The Emperor never showed up. However, minus the western toilets, water heaters, a small hotel lobby, and other amenities, the courtyard residence is still maintained to look pretty much as it would have then (although I'm sure it's had a couple facelifts). It also has the traditional interiors with big (and hard) Chinese beds.
On the first night in town we picked a direction and walked, eventually trekking outside the walls, and wandering aimlessly through a little section of the new city which was packed to capacity, just like any other chinese city, with hundreds of bicycles and various vendors catering to the after-work rush.
A little after dusk we found our way back to the old city and stopped at a local place for dinner. I doubt they had too many western customers before as they were very excited to be hosting us (seeing dollar signs maybe). We tried two of the local specialties, Ping Yao Beef and Wantouze noodle (pictured). The noodle was great. The Ping Yao Beef? Not bad... Cody's comment was that it tasted like spam... possibly a function of how it was prepared.
The next morning we picked a different direction, without any agenda except to find a way to the top of the wall. We could have asked but it's not like we were dealing with miles, just blocks, right? About an hour later, while still looking, we bumbed into an old fellow walking alone by the wall who spoke good English and asked us if we wanted a guide. It seemed like a random encounter, but lookign back, I would not be surprised if he had been following us since we left the hostel.
He quickly whipped out a bundle of hand-written notes from westerners praising his skills as a guide and offered to show us around for 250 yuan. I offered to give him 100. He came down to 150... but I wasn't budging. We parted ways but after that he did his best to stay just out of site and "coincidentally" show up every 15 minutes or so, say "hi" and see if we had reconsidered.
After that we changed track and started visiting Ping Yao's numerous museums, demoting the Wall to an afternoon quest. There are roughly twenty UNESCO world heritage museums in Ping Yao. A single admission ticket (good for two days) allows you into all of them. We started walking the streets and hitting each one we saw.
Remember that Ping Yao was the banking center of China for some time. In addition to being fine examples of old school Chinese architecture, most of the museums were former banks, businesses, and martial arts/bodyguard centers. Why the focus on martial arts and bodyguards? As the financial capital of the country, a good deal of the country's business went on here, and before guns there was only one way to protect that money... hire a lot of really tough chinese ass-kickers to watch over it. Banking and ass-kicking went hand in hand before the time when any slouch could blow a hole in someone.
Around 10am or so, Cody and I lost track of Don. It was bound to happen as the four of us frequently had to track him down during the city tour in Beijing, an easily predictable pitfall of traveling in a group... and not having cell phones. While we were trying to find him our tour guide 'suitor' showed up yet again, aware that we were one short and mentioning how he had been looking for him too. :p After he dragged along behind us through a couple more museums that were next on our the list before we lost Don, he finally relented, accepting 100 yuan for the assignment. We gave up on Don and headed out on "Mr. Zhang's Mystery Tour" of Ping Yao.
Zhang proceeded to take us through some pretty obscure parts of town. We stumbled through many seemingly abandoned residences (not really, they just looked that way), climbed onto roofs and walls, walked through several construction sites (every street had a residence being converted into a hotel), some people's kitchens, etc. It was weird. Zhang seemed to have the run of the town as no one objected to his trampling through their homes and businesses with two westerners in tow.
One stop was an elementary school where we had a translated conversation with one of the teachers. He talked about the big Communist Party Congress that started in Beijing on the 15th and which is held only once every five years. The talk was of President Hu sweeping out corrupt officials. I didn't say it, but that's pretty much how every Communist Congress goes. The Congresses are the best chance for a Chinese leader to publicly remake his team, and peaceful resignations are not how they do things in the Communist Party. Mao used to call folks Capitalist Roaders and throw them in prison, now you call them corrupt, put them up for a mock trial, and then throw them into prison. Same difference. Being Hu's first Congress as supreme leader, no doubt "change was in the air".
We also talked about the United States and received the standard comments you'll receive from Chinese natives... the USA is a great country!!! We think having multiple parties and democracy is the way to go!!! We hate George Bush!!!
Later, Zhang took us to a tiny local place to be stared at while we ate some great noodles. ;) Four yuan each (50 cents).
After the mystery tour, Zhang took quickly took us through a couple of the temples and standard tourist sites we hadn't been to yet. This was interesting because he was able to tell us what was original and what had been rebuilt. A good deal of the statuary, structures, etc, in Ping Yao had been destroyed or damaged during Mao's Cultural Revolution. A lot of rebuilding/restoring has gone on and continues to go on. For example, at one point Zhang stopped to show us some traditional lions outside the doorway of one place and told us how they had buried them in the ground to protect them from Red Guards. Fascinating stuff.
Eventually, he dropped us off back at the hostel. His job was not over yet though. In my experience throughout China, a business relationship like the one between us and Zhang always results in an obligation on their part to continue helping (often far beyond what I would consider reasonable, as I had seen before, and would witness later in Yangshuo). It's a natural friendliness and a point of honor, I think. With native Chinese, I've never ran into the attitude... "it's five o'clock, job done, see ya"... or "sorry, I don't do windows". We continued to run into Zhang in the evening, he continued to offer suggestions and even arranged our transportation out of Ping Yao the next morning, showing up bright and early at the hostel. Maybe he made a little cut of everything, maybe not, but the numbers we're talking about here are insignificant by our standards.
One more interesting thing about Zhang was that he's Catholic. There is a Catholic church in old Ping Yao (see pictures). It was burned down in the 80's but has been rebuilt. According to Zhang, there are 2,000 Catholics and 20,000 Protestants in Ping Yao (old and new cities). He says that there has been some difficulty with being Catholic in Ping Yao, but declined to elaborate. I do know that every couple of months you'll find a news item about a group of Catholics being rounded up and... who knows. I think the key distinction with any religion here is to not place anybody/anything above the state. Hence, if you recognize the Pope as a higher authority than the state, you're going to have problems.
Once at the hostel, we rejoined Donald and started out for the wall again (this time knowing where the stairs were that went to the top). We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the wall all the way around the old city, spying down its streets and alleys, and peeking at the city outside the walls. It was a pretty nice walk and for the whole 6km we only ran into a half-dozen or so other tourists.
A couple items of interest seen from the wall, many of which you can see in the photos... Seemingly every household in Ping Yao runs on coal and has a stack of it somewhere nearby. The relatively well to do folk & hotels in Ping Yao have solar powered water heaters on their roofs. There is a prison and police station in old Ping Yao. The wall's sunny side frontage streets are a popular place to process beans... they lay them out so people can drive over them, crushing the outer pods and chaff, then they use a little air power to separate the beans from the chaff. Chinese guys like to pee against the wall. There's an ice cream stand on the wall... of course. Cards and mahjong... everywhere.
Later that night we had a couple beers while talking to some shop girls Don met earlier. After we tired of playing 'dodge the boss' the three of us settled for dinner at a place that wasn't all that special, but good enough. Again we ran into Zhang who hooked us up for some full body massages for 30 yuan. My massage was pretty good but the ambiance was a little... primitive. Hehe. Cody and Don didn't seem to appreciate theirs... they said I had the 'cute one'.
The next morning... off for Hangzhou.
P.S. Although the rooms were nice enough for the money, they were a little dark and cold as I hadn't figured out the heater on the first night. On the first morning while trying to adjust, I grabbed my beard trimmer but didn't check that the attachment was on... it wasn't. Zzzzzt.. there went a third of my mustache. The only thing to do at that point was shave the whole beard off. This really sucked as beards attract a lot of attention over here. Anyhow, for the rest of the trip I went beardless for the first time in probably 10+ years, which you'll notice in pictures from here on. It's grown back now though. :D