About the Photos: these pictures were taken on an old cheap instamatic camera using a very cheap Chinese black and white film. The rain in Pingyao was torrential. That is why everything looks so grainy.
PINGYAO (RE) VISITED
We first visited Pingyao 平遥in the late summer of 2001, on our second attempt. On the 18th of August we found ourselves in Taiyuan太原, looking for a bus to Pingyao. However, it was raining so heavily that we had a drastic change of heart and caught an afternoon train to sunny and warm Chengdu 成都 instead (Same day hard sleeper tickets!).
Precisely one month later, on the 18th of September, we were back for a second try … unfortunately, it was raining just as much!
It’s a long time ago and it’s hard to remember all the details, but we do remember the rain, which was incessant.
We also remember the main street, which was more commercial and tacky than I’d expected, awash with the sound of blaring loudspeakers and crowded with Chinese tour groups, shopping, snacking and posing for photos, dressed- up in period costumes.
As it happened, our visit coincided with the first edition of the Pingyao International Photography Festival!
During this increasingly popular annual event (19 -25 September), which brings together professional and amateur photographers from over 50 countries around the world, the whole of Pingyao is turned into one great, open-air photo gallery, with many exhibits and activities taking place all over town. No wonder we felt a bit crushed!
We trudged down the narrow streets, pushed our way through the crowds, popped into the Rishengchang Financial House Museum and had a little look around.
There were very few visitors inside the actual sights, but it was hard to take pictures because of the rain.
One thing we really enjoyed, but which unfortunately isn’t allowed any more, was climbing the City Tower, the tallest building in the old city, from where there were great views over the gracefully sloping, tiled roofs.
Eventually, we donned our rain capes and set off on a long walk along the City Walls, leaving the crowds behind. The rain kept lashing at us and there was soot and dirt in the air; tangible reminders of Shanxi’s over 3,000 coal mines!
From the height of the Walls we got a good view of the city’s backstreets and alleys, the humble, run-down little houses and messy backyards, the vegetable plots… all covered in coal dust.
We could see people carrying pails down the street, vendors peddling their wares, old men on wobbly bicycles; in short, ordinary people, going about their business.
On the other side of the Wall, we noticed a kind of farmers’ market, with farmers selling vegetables and other produce from the back of hand carts, and several stalls with clothes and household goods.
You won’t find these impromtu markets outside Pingyao’s walls now.
The moat was still filled with water; there was no park, nothing remotely touristy on the other side yet.
We stayed in one of those atmospheric, romantic courtyard hotels; it was authentic alright, but also rather cold and damp!
We remember being given two stamp-sized towels and a tiny bar of soap, by way of toiletries. Fortunately, accommodation options have come a long way since then!
The Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan)
The next day, on the way back to Taiyuan, we stopped at the Qiao Family Compound (Qiao Jia Dayuan), the 18th century home of a wealthy merchants’ family, but perhaps most famous for being the chief location of the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ (大红灯笼高高挂; 1991), directed by Zhang Yimou and starring the gorgeous Gongli.
As this was the first really large mansion we’d visited and as we’d loved the film, we were very taken by the place. Of course, the over 300- room compound is bedecked with romantic red lanterns, but it also houses many interesting exhibits of Ming and Qing furniture, as well as Shanxi opera costumes.
Unfortunately,in recent years, the site has become massively popular with Chinese tour groups, which is probably why it has been dropped from many guide books such as Lonely Planet, or the Rough Guide.
If you have your own transport, the Qiao Family Compound makes a good stopover between Pingyao and Taiyuan. Otherwise, you can get there by bus; you can catch any bus going to Qíxiàn (祁县; ¥25, 1½ hours) from Taiyuan’s Jiànnán bus station and ask to be dropped off at the site.
You can also take a bus from Pingyao (¥15, 45 minutes, every 30 minutes to 6.40pm).
This is the introduction to a series of articles about our 3 visits to Pingyao, the historic city in China’s Shanxi Province.
WHY VISIT PINGYAO?
Pingyao, a World Heritage Site since 1997, is renowned for being one of the best- preserved ancient walled cities in China, as well as its earliest banking centre.
The wonderful City Wall spans the entire old city: it’s a 6- kilometre long, 10- metre high, crenellated structure with 72 watch towers, set at fifty- metre intervals. The construction has a brick and stone exterior, with many of the bricks still showing the distinctive stamps of their makers, with rammed earth inside.
Already a thriving merchant city in the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644), Pingyao reached its hey-day during the Qing dynasty (1644 y 1912), when merchants created the first banks in the country.
These so-called piaohao (票号), ‘draft banks’ or ‘remittance shops’, provided remittance services and bank drafts to move money from one city to another, in order to finance trade. In 1823, the Rishengchang, or ‘Sunrise Prosperity’, became the first such draft bank to open its doors in Pingyao.
Later on, it established 43 branches in key cities around China and abroad, in countries like Japan, Singapore, and Russia. As a result, Pingyao became the center of China’s banking industry, with over half of the country’s piaohao -about 22 banking firms in charge of a further network of 404 branches – headquartered inside Pingyao’s City Walls.
The original Rishengchang survived for 108 years, before finally collapsing in 1932.
Since then, the Rishengchang, as well as a number of other piaohao and merchants’ residences have been restored and opened to the public, alongside a whole string of other sights, such as temples, halls and museums.
Moreover, Pingyao makes a great base for excursions to some out-of-the-way places, such as the village of Zhangbi Cun.
Even today, as you stroll the cobblestoned streets of the perfectly preserved old city, you won’t find any high-rises, or ugly white-tiled buildings. Just don’t expect to have the place to yourself: Pingyao is firmly on the – mainly Chinese – tourist track and connected to Beijing by high speed trains! But don’t despair; the tour groups mostly stick to the ‘big sites’ and, as there are so many places to visit, you can easily get away from the crowds.
The best way to enjoy Pingyao is to dive into the back alleys and explore. And make sure to book yourself into one of those atmospheric courtyard hotels that Pingyao does so well.
New and re-done photos of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall near Yushu, Qinghai Province, China; before the 2010 earthquake that destroyed it.
On the 14th of April 2010 in a remote area of China’s remote province of Qinghai, a huge aerthquake struck the town of Yushu and the surrounding areas.
The earthquake resulted in a terrible loss of human life and a vast amount of cultural damage was done to Tibetan monasteries and temples. The greatest cultural loss was the destruction of the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall, the longest in the world and one of the most sacred for the Tibetans.
A mani wall is a wall that has been built up over time using rocks, stones and pebbles that have prayers written on them. The most common mantra is Om Mane Padme Hum, but ather mantras are also written or engraved on the rocks.
Tibetan pilgrims often pay to have the rocks placed on the ever expanding walls. The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani wall, just a few kilometers outside Yushu was, and still is, the longest Mani wall in the world. The wall was re-built after the earthquake.
We were fortunate enough to have visted Yushu in the summer of 2009; eight months before the eathquake.Here are some of our photos that I have re-done and some new ones that I didn’t post the first time. The photos still don’t do justice to mind-blowing exerience of visiting the wall.
Click here to read the original travel article and the subsequent article that we posted after the earthquake.
As previously mentioned above:Mani Walls are rows of piled-up stones, engraved or painted with orations. The size of such Mani Wallscan vary from the humblest pile to a circuit of several hundred meters. Pilgrims walk round these walls of holy stones in a clockwise direction, uttering prayers and twirling prayer wheels.
The Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall was truly enormous; a sign by its side proudly proclaimed that it is 283 metres long, 74 metres wide, 2,5 metres high and consists of 2 billion stones!
What’s more, the Wall, before the earthquake, was still growing, as we witnessed with our own eyes: devout pilgrims contributed new stones everyday, which were hoisted up on to the pile carefully.
The billions of beautifully carved stones carry the Buddhist prayers “Om Mani Padme Hum” or, “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus”, and other orations.
Building the Mani wall
I never really sussed out how the system worked. But it seemed that wealthier pilgrims paid more money for bigger stones or rocks to be placed on top of the Mani wall in order to get more merit (I could be wrong here).
As you can see from this series of photos; a pilgrim, a monk and rock carriers were all involved in the process of heaving the rocks to the top of the wall.
Hoisting the rocks and stones up onto the top of the Mani-wall was done by muscle power alone and not only was the toil unceasing, but it was also back-breaking. You could read the expressions of pain and agony on the faces of the carriers as they struggled with the larger rocks.
The muscle and stamina of these guys puts anyone doing exercise in a gym to shame.
I can’t imagine how they must of felt having to put the wall back together again after its collapse in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
The other fascinating part of a visit to the Seng-ze Gyanak Mani Wall is to observe the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims who come every day to place rocks and circumambulate the wall.
Tibetan pilgrims from all over the Kham region and further afield descend on this huge Mani Wall from dusk to dawn.
Dressed in their finest, they circumambulate the sacred stones in a constantly rising and ebbing flow. The early morning sees a high tide, while the crowds ebb during the afternoon, only to return again in the early evening.
The Awesome Hats
The Hats! We had never seen anything like them before. Huge, pancake-flat, wide-brimmed, and elaborately-embroidered; these stunning hats seemed to be all the rage in and around the Yushu and Serxu areas of Qinghai and Sichuan Tibetan areas.
These photos we taken at the Sang-ze Gyanak Mani-wall.
Elsewhere, we had never laid eyes on them, not even in Lhasa or around Ganzi, Litang or Dege.
The Chapals and Prayer Wheels
The best way to take in the ambience was, and probably still is, to join in with the pilgrims and accompany them on their walk around the Wall.
The more times you circle the Wall, the more fascinating it becomes.
Numerous dark chapels and prayer-wheel halls, lit up by thousands of flickering yak-butter lamps, provided a diversion from the routine.
If anybody reading this has been to Yushu recently, please lets us know what it is like now.
Taiwanese 60s music to survive the lockdown in Madrid
Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉) / Judy Ongg
As I sit in front of my computer writing texts and sorting photos during the coronavirus lockdown in Madrid I find myself drifting off to another time and place listening to this gem by Taiwanese 1960s star Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉).
Weng Qianyu (翁倩玉) was a popular actress in the 60s and used the name Judy Ongg in her films.
Yao Su Yong (Rong) and the Telstars Combo
If after listening to the above album, you, like me, crave more: give this album by Yao Su Yong & The Telstars Combo a go. YaoSu Yong seems to have had many stage names. Her real name was Yao Su Rong 姚蘇蓉.
Many of Yao Su Yong’s songs, which are mostly about love and romance, were banned by the Taiwanese government in the latesixties and early seventies for being morally unhealthy for the country’s youth.
In these times of Coronavirus, travelling around China in the way we used to, has become virtually impossible. Although the situation in China is gradually improving, it’s still far from stable. At any moment, a new outbreak could take everything back to square one and put the country back into lockdown mode. It’s hard to say when we’ll be able to go back and resume our travels. However, that won’t stop us from continuing to post at holachina.com!
Coming next: Datong: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Our next article will be a quick look at China’s coal town, Datong, a rapidly transforming city trying to give itself an image makeover; from soot city to tourist city with varying degrees of aesthetic success.
The best of Guangzhou: still to come
We still have loads of unpublished material, as well as updates and great photos to upload. Maybe this quarantine we are undergoing at the moment in Madrid will enable us to be more productive!
The only other foreigner on the tour was a pale, spotty Brit with his Chinese girlfriend /wife. The evasive gaze in his eyes could do nothing to hide the bitter disappointment on his contorted face, that he was going to have to share this tour with two other foreigners, and worst of all, one them another Brit. Zhenyuan in 2005 was still supposed to be undiscovered. We never uttered a word to each other or exchanged glances during the entire trip.
Travel agencies in Zhenyuan arrange these trips for around 35 Yuan a person (in 2005). This includes transport to the river, an entry fee to the scenic area, plus a one- and- a- half-hour cruise on a tourist boat.
The Inevitable Delay
The trip began with a delay. Usually, delays on Chinese organised tours are caused by some tourists turning up late, or by the travel agency frantically trying to find one or two more people to join the tour last minute.
Our hold up was caused by another frequent reason for delays in China: an over-turned coal truck on a mountainous bend in the road.
Eventually, after a lot of loitering, and with the help of other drivers, enough spilt coal was removed for our bus and other traffic to pass. We left to the hapless truck driver to fend for himself. I have always wondered what becomes of these poor fellows, abandoned by all and sundry in the middle of nowhere with an overturned lorry.
The scenery is lovely, and yes, very similar to Guilin and Yangshuo, though not quite as spectacular in our humble opinion. During entire the trip this was the hottest topic among the Chinese tourists: Yanshuo scenery or Wuyang River Scenery; which was the most beautiful.
A few came down on the side of the Wuyang River, while most remained coy. I suspect everybody was trying to be polite in order to please our overly-keen local guide.
The boat trip
The trip takes place mainly on a huge reservoir surrounded by sugar candy Karst Mountains and weirdly shaped rocks jutting straight out of the water.
Cascading waterfalls and local fishermen in sampans casting their nets add to the sense of rural tranquillity. A pleasant surprise was that even in August 2005 there was still only one boat a day with capacity for about 30 people.
It being a Chinese tour, there was the obligatory guide, a friendly, bubbly, local chap who explained in great detail why every nook and cranny along the river had been given a poetical name. Even Adam was baffled by the lyrical expressions he was using.
When the Chinese tourists got bored of his explanations and had taken their obligitory ‘I’ve been there’ snaps, they went downstairs to watch T.V, smoke, play cards and (WAN’R 玩儿 ) to have fun.
On disembarking from the boat you have to run the gauntlet past a gaggle of overly-pushy and entrepreneurial fishermen who have set up small benches and oil spitting woks. For the hungry; you can try the spicy fried fish, fried river prawns or the potato and vegetable kebabs. I must admit, everything is extremely tasty and cheap; but negotiate the price first or see what the Chinese tourists are paying.
Getting to the Wuyang River Scenic Area
Getting there: there are tour agencies in the center of Zhenyuan who organise the river trips. I suppose you could take private transport to the scenic area and rent a sampan. However, we found the Chinese tour quite fun (barring the sulky Brit). See Zhenyuan for accommodation and food.
The pretty and interesting town of Zhenyuan 镇远 lies in the far east of Guizhou 贵州, not too far from the Hunanese 湖南 border and can be easily reached by train from the railhead town of Huaihua 怀化 in that province, or by bus from Kaili 凯里 and Taijiang 台江 in Guizhou贵州.
Apart from being pretty, Zhenyuan 镇远 is close to some remarkable scenery and is also home to many of Guizhou’s Miao minority 苗族, even though in town very few people wear traditional costume and are mostly indistinguishable from the Han majority.
For the traveller it is worth spending a few days in Zhenyuan to soak up the relaxed small town atmosphere, unwind in a riverside teahouse, snoop around the ancient back alleys, and visit a some of the scenic spots in and around the town.
There is good cheap accommodation and enough bars and terraces by the river to make the evenings a pleasurable experience. We spent four nights there in 2005 and found it hard to tear ourselves away.
What to See
Qinglong Dong 青龙洞is the name of Zhenyuan’s main monument, a cave and temple complex on the other side of the Wuyang river 舞阳河 facing the town and reached by crossing an attractive bridge.
Qinlong Dong 青龙洞 dates from the 16th century and has a series of separate halls dedicated to the 3 most important religions and beliefs in China, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Unfortunately, the halls are mostly empty, as all the statues were smashed up during the Cultural Revolution文化革命.
However, the best bit about Qinglong Dong are the views. Exploring the halls, covered walkways and cut-out niches that ramble up and down the cliff face, you get fantastic vistas over the town and the aquamarine Wuyang River with its romantic sampans.
Near the exit there is another surprise: a marvellously carved and painted guildhall with a stage for performances. The far end of the Hall houses a slightly dusty exhibition on traditional architecture with wooden models and black and white photos.
Nearby, just past the exit, we found a lovely teahouse/restaurant with stone tables outside on the waterfront, sheltered by the willow trees. It’s an excellent place to watch the afternoon float by. We definitely rate it as one of the most relaxing we have found in China.
The Town itself
There are two Zhenyuans: there is the usual new white- tile modern area near the train and bus stations and then there is the older section on the other side of the river, romantically enclosed by a bend in the river.
The older section itself is also divided into two quarters: first, there is the slightly revamped main street with its old Qing dynasty 清朝architecture and eave roofs, where you can find a couple of hotels, restaurants and shops.
The buildings all have wooden fronts and pillars flanking the doorways. Then there is the even older section, running up the hill, and this is where you’ll find cobbled streets, stone houses, patios and steep narrow alleyways full of grubby children and roaming livestock.
Curiously, the river front is lined by tall, narrow, white-washed houses, some of them with stepped façades, just like in Dutch or Belgian architecture. It is here that most of Zhenyuan’s inhabitants seem to while away their days, sitting on the quay or the bridge, fishing.
Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] is a common Cantonese slang term and ethnic slur for Westerners.
The rumour spread like wildfire around the gweilo* hangout cafes in Dali: Ruili 瑞丽 was now open to foreigners. Margie and I looked at a map and thought:’ why not give it a go?’
China in 1990 was a very different place. Many areas still remained firmly shut to Western visitors, which is why the opening of any of these previously closed off areas caused an immediate stir in the small backpackers’ community. Travellers trying to ‘out-travel’ each other would excitedly head for these newly opened areas, chasing adventures and cool anecdotes to share in the next gweilo café they’d find themselves in.
Deciding to go to Ruili 瑞丽 was one thing. Actually getting there quite another: in those days Ruili was a two day bus ride away from Xiguan 下关 / Dali City大理, with the bus overnighting in Baoshan 保山.
It is difficult to remember everything from the long trip down to Ruili 瑞丽, but I remember the incredibly polluted river running out of Xiguan 下关 and passing through several rural markets. And I’ll never forget the incredulous faces of the receptionists at the Baoshan transport hotel保山交通宾馆 when two foreigners joined the other Chinese passengers for the overnight check in.
Descending rapidly after Baoshan 保山, the road then crosses the Nujiang 怒江 / Salween River and you can begin to smell and feel the sweltering heat of sub-tropical South East Asia.
I remember a strange incident at a check point just before crossing the Nujiang River: Military Police, obviously looking for drugs or other illegal goods, boarded the bus and almost took it apart; nuts, bolts and all. They then dragged a passenger, a young soldier, off the bus and gave him a vicious beating, before dumping him back on the bus. At one point, I feared he would never be seen again.
Arriving in Ruili 瑞丽
We eventually arrived in Ruili at 12.00 midnight on the second day and no sooner had we got off the bus than we noticed there was something different about this town. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the whole place was buzzing: bars, restaurants and dodgy ‘massage parlors’ were all doing a brisk trade. The streets were filled with Chinese, Burmese and ethnic minorities milling around the open shops and street markets where hawkers were still touting their wares. Welcome to Ruili, 1991.
All this nocturnal activity was in stark contrast to the rest of China: in 1990 /91, even in Beijing 北京 and Shanghai 上海, such nightlife as there was, mostly packed up before 20.30. Ruili seemed to be on another planet altogether!
We checked into a brand new hotel, only to find it was so new that there was no running water and only the reception area was connected to the electricity mains. The following day, we escaped at the break of dawn and managed to track down the modest Ruili Binguan 瑞丽宾馆, where we bagged a cheap dorm room and where, to our immense surprise, we bumped into Glen and Lisa, an American couple we had met in Lijiang 丽江 a few weeks earlier. In fact, it turned out that the 4 of us were the only gweilos in town.
What to do or see in Ruili?
That was precisely the question. As Ruili wasn’t mentioned in any guide book (we were using Lonely Planet China, version 2) we set about trying to find the sights. Luckily, Glen and Lisa, who had taught English in Taiwan, could speak some Chinese,. After questioning the bewildered locals as to what we should see, we soon discovered that the actual sights were somewhat underwhelming.
A pagoda here, a huge banyan tree there, and the Burmese border crossing were about all the tips we could get from anyone.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting thing about Ruili was the incredible mix of people on its streets, the colourful markets and, why not, the sleazy, seedy ambience that hinted at clandestine wheeling and dealings.
Among the more exotic of Ruili’s various dodgy businesses were the wet markets (live animal markets), where the usual suspects blamed for causing the current Coronavirus outbreak and the previous SARS epidemic could be found in cages, waiting for the wok: cats, bats, rats and pangolins to name just a few.
Ruili in 1991 played host to jacks of all trades: Burmese Muslim merchants, jade traders, rich Chinese buyers with pretty young girls on their arm, hookers, pimps, drug dealers and addicts… and… beating them all for novelty:Kachin rebels (景颇族; Jǐngpō zú; in Chinese; members of an ethnic tribe struggling for an independent Kachin state) on rest and recreation after fighting the Burmese Junta. It was a kaleidoscope of peoples definitely worth coming all that way to see.
We found ourselves being wined and dined by rich Chinese jade dealers who seemed to think it gave them status to have Westerners at their table when negotiating with their Burmese counterparts. The whole thing was surreal and rather ridiculous.
After all, why invite people you don’t know to a slap- up meal? They couldn’t even speak to us; they just pointed at the food and urged us to eat! In hindsight, having a cheap Burmese meal with a few cold beers in the marvelous Sweet Café would have been much more fun. But that was the kind of thing that went on in Ruili in 1991.
The Burmese Connection Sweet Café
As I mentioned before, by far the most interesting people we met were the Kachin rebel commanders, back from fighting the Burmese military Junta. They used to hang out in the Sweet Café, a real Asian hole in the wall, but with more character than any posh banquet hall.
Some of the commanders were women, and they all spoke pretty reasonable English. They were a great source of entertainment with their stories of heroic exploits whilst fighting the Burmese army.
After its clientele, the next best thing about the Sweet Café was definitely its breakfast: milk tea, fried eggs, great fruit juices, and even Mohinga, a delicious Burmese spicy noodle soup with catfish and herbs, the perfect cure for a vicious hangover. Nowhere in China could beat the Sweet Café when it came to a tasty breakfast!
Burmese and other foreign produced products were ubiquitous in the street markets; including the infamous and totally politically incorrect Darkie toothpaste that had been renamed Darlie two years previously. Obviously, what was being sold had passed its sell by date.
And speaking of border, the border between China and Burma / Myanmar must have been pretty porous at the time, as the rebels explained that they often came to Ruili when they needed a bit of a rest. It seemed that the Chinese were turning a blind eye to their comings and goings. Actually, the Chinese authorities were turning a blind eye to almost anything happening in Ruili. But that was Ruili in 1991.
Of course, these laissez faire policies didn’t quite apply to Westerners. Some travelers told us they’d managed to sneak across the river to the town of Musé in Burma, only to get arrested and deported back to China, where they were made to write a self-criticism for having violated the laws of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously, this anecdote and the written self-criticism were worth their weight in gold, as the ultimate proof of ‘travel cool’.
And needless to say, if you did anything like this today, you’d be sent to prison. But that was then. China and Ruili in 1991 were not what they are today.
Back then, the Chinese authorities hadn’t really worked out what to do with mischievous foreigners. It was almost as if the PSB (Chinese Internal Security) and travellers were involved in playing a good humoured game of cat and mouse with travellers pushing the boundaries between those areas that were actually open and those that were still off limits, and the PSB trying to interpret the continuously changing directives from Beijing.
On our return to Baoshan we spent two hours trying to convince the local head of the PSB, who incidentally spoke impeccable English, to let us travel on by bus from Baoshan to Jinhong景洪 in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 so as not to have to backtrack all the way to Xiaguan下关 and Kunming昆明. We studied the map together and he agreed it would be much shorter to travel direct from Baoshan 保山. However, his only answer was: “this area is closed to foreigners”. And that was the end of the matter.
All in all we spent three days in Ruili, exploring the border area near the bridge that linked the town to Muse on the Burmese side, taking a day trip to the sleepy, non-eventful towns of Wanding 畹町 and Mangshi, playing Chinese chess with the locals, and cycling out to the nearby景颇族; Jǐngpō zú ( or Kachin); villages where we were made to feel very welcome.
Our only regret is that the town of Tenchong 腾冲 had also just opened, but we didn’t know. At that time, Tenchong still preserved its historic architecture, which apparently has now vanished under the sledgehammer. A pity.