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Pingyao

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Soundtrack: 'All Along The Watchtower' - Bob Dylan / Jimi Hendrix / U2 etc

Let's go with the original Dylan version.  It's very underrated. 

The night train from Beijing stopped in Pingyao shortly before eight the following morning.  Although we were a little late and the conductress had come around to let me know it was the next station, I was caught a little unawares by it.  By the time I got my shoes on and dragged my bag to the door, they were already shutting up and preparing to head out, meaning I had to jump down to the platform rather than use the stairs which had been tucked away. 

Pingyao is a fairly normal not-very-rich city, but the Pingyao that everyone comes to visit is the square mile that sits within thick, high walls lined with turrets.  99% of this area is original buildings, hundreds of years old, or reconstructions and renovations in the same style.  I had imagined this to be bright colours, ornate carvings and looking like an oriental version of The Antiques Roadshow.  In reality, it was a lot of plain-brick buildings falling into disrepair, but the effect on the eyes was still impressive. 

I fended off the persistant invitations to ride in a taxi as they followed me down the street, and walked through the icy early morning in search of my hostel.  I took a wrong turning and had to make a few guesses once I was inside the walled town, but got there in the end.  The day was bitterly cold and the hostel had little or no heating.  This wasn't because it was a bad hostel, as best as I could figure, all hostels and restaurants etc inside the walls were pretty much unheated.  In fact, with it's quaint courtyard, I'm sure the hostel would be a beautiful place to stay during the Summer months.  I switched the air-con in my room onto maximum, but it was always fighting a losing battle and I had to sleep in my clothes each night.  In part, this was because this was a largish three-bed room, in part it was because the hostel was an old wooden building with large, drafty gaps between doors, windows and their frames.

Walking around in the cold need not be an unhealthy thing.  Or, at least, I find it need not be for me.  The body is in work-mode and so recognises that it needs to regulate internal heat and keep the blood flowing.  The problem came when sleeping at night or sitting in the hostel bar during the evenings.  At these times, the body was in rest-mode and expected someone else to keep it warm.  Ten days later, I'm still carrying around a bit of a sore throat and a headache, although the latter is possibly caused by shoulder strain which comes from the stupid number of books I've gathered into my backpack recently. 

After breakfast and some time lying in bed, I headed out for a couple of hours looking around the town.  It was so cold walking around that I couldn't really make myself stay out any longer than that.  Thankfully, the temperature picked up a bit in the days that followed.  Interestingly, outside the south gate I found two old cannons which had been hooked up to a pneumatic machine which allowed you to fire footballs from them at a target.  I didn't realise that you could really do this until I saw someone else doing it two days later when I spied it again from the top of the city walls. 

I headed out again with more purpose the day after.  I was armed with a map of sights and buildings of note which had been given to me by the hostel reception, but many of the places marked on the map didn't seem to be there.  Perhaps they were closed for the Winter? 

The place next door to the hostel which I went to first turned out to be about the best thing I saw in the town.  Extensive grounds of a former administrative centre containing offices, courtyards and some prison facilities.  There were some rudimentarily grim-looking torture devices around the prison bit, but in the current weather I couldn't help but observe the unheated cells with nothing to stop the cold coming through the barred windows and think that this was the most unhumane part of the average inmate's experience.  Make me sit on the spiked rocking horse by all means, but somebody please turn the heating on! 

After a long walk through the streets in search of sights that may or may not have existed, I found myself at a small, old temple.  The entrance was unmarked and the yard surrounding it was used by local farmers and traders as a storage area.  Indeed, the crumbling temple itself was full of rotting corn. 

Further down the street I visited the home of a former banker and a newspaper museum which chronicled the history of national newspapers as they reported on the great Chairman Mao and his party.  In fairness, there were also displays of foreign papers, some of which carried stories which I wouldn't have instinctively expected to see here. 

I ended the day with a long stroll around the Confucious temple and its associated grounds including the still-functioning opera theatre.  On the way back to the hostel, I looked around for a place to eat.  Frankly, my only criteria as I peered through the windows of all the restaurants and cafes I passed was to try to find a place where everyone inside wasn't wearing coats to keep warm.  In the end I gave up and plumped for some small place and ate as quick as I could. 

For my final day touring the town, I walked down to the south gate to get up onto the city walls.  You can walk the full circumference from atop them, a four-mile path which is essentially square in shape and dotted with thirty seven evenly-spaced towers.  The views of the town were very interesting although, as with most of the shots I took in Pingyao, few or none of the photos looked terribly good when I got copied them onto the PC afterwards. 

I wasn't sure what my plans should be next after Pingyao and had I been anywhere else I may have opted to stick around an extra day waiting for confirmation from other people.  But, there was an excellent chance that one more night in that room would have killed me, so on Sunday morning I walked to the train station and back to buy a ticket for a train heading out that night.  Back at the hostel, as I killed time until my departure, I chatted to a Dutch guy who showed me that even an incompetent fool like me can play the opening riff from Metallica's 'Nothing Else Matters' without even knowing how to use my left hand on the fretboard.  Of course, I still cocked it up more often than I got it right, but at least it's something I can use to impress people at parties. 


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China - 2nd visit

Qingdao, Jinan, Qufu, Tai'An, Beijing, Pingao, Handan, Zhengzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, China



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