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.
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.
Taijitu太极图 near Yunlong 云龙, Yunnan Province, is a freak of nature. It looks remarkably like the famous Taoist Yin-Yang symbol when seen from high above. Viewed from ground level you would never know it was there.
The climb up to the view point is made along a steep winding road. If you can find a vehicle to take you there it is Yuan well spent. You don’t get any real inkling as to what is below until you suddenly arrive at the scenic viewing area. From this point, the whole Yin -Yang shape just suddenly appears before you. It’s quite magical.
A rain sodden trip to see local markets in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 Yunnan Province
Menghai 勐海 xishuangbanna 西双版纳 yunnan Province云南省
Our attempts to reach the Sunday market at Menghun 勐混 were thwarted by the monsoon: due to heavy rain the new highway between Jinghong 景洪 and Menghai 勐海 had collapsed and no buses were running that Sunday morning.
When we eventually headed to Menghai 勐海 a few days later the buses were running again, but only on the old road, turning the normally smooth 45- minute journey into a four- hour crawl .
The most chaotic scenes occurred at the exit of Jinghong, as lorries, buses, tractors and private cars leaving the city fought with those vehicles trying to enter the city to either get on or leave the old road.
The chaos was such that there were kilometres of traffic jams in each direction and not one person of authority was there to put some order to the mayhem.
With so many vehicles stuck with nowhere to go, local entrepreneurs ran between the traffic, selling anything from boiled eggs to grilled meats and soft drinks.
Overturned lorries and their spilt loads only further aggravated an already desperate situation.
In the evening as we settled into our clean but rundown hotel in Menghai we watched the well-organized and meticulously planned Olympic games taking place in Beijing on T.V and wondered if we were really in the same country.
Our first destination from Menghai 勐海 was Gelanghe, a Dai 傣族 and Akha / Yaozu 瑶族 settlement, some 30 kilometres southeast. We took the lazy and wrong option and hired a car and driver for 200 Yuan to take us to Gelanghe.
The road starts climbing into the jungle clad hills only a few kilometres outside Menghai affording stunning views of the valley below.
Unfortunately due to torrential rains the road had become a quagmire. Our van slid and skidded its way up and up. Twice we had to release it from the mud with stones and planks of wood until the van eventually succumbed to the inevitable and got completely bogged down.
We now became the spectacle. The passing Akha / Yaozu 瑶族, who we had gone to see, stopped to gawp, comment and laugh at our predicament until a tractor, the only type of vehicle able to navigate the road, and its friendly driver pulled us out of the bog and turned our van round.
Defeated we headed back.
To compensate for the aborted trip to Gelanghe, we visited the Bajiao Ting (The Octagonal Temple) at Jingzhen 20 kms from Menghai and the Manlei Buddhist Temple at Mengzhe, a few kilometres further along the road.
Although both temples are pleasant, they are reconstructions of originals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
The Jingzhen Octagonal Temple Bajiaoting 景真八角亭，had some pleasant Dai style Buddhist murals that depicted gentle rural Scenes.
Don’t miss Menghai’s morning Market just behind the Main road near the post office.
It has a real buzz and you might catch a few Akha, Dai and Lahu dressed in their finest.
Unlike the Menghun market 勐混 市场, the Menghai market 勐海市场 is a market for locals and people from the countryside around. The market gets underway at the crack of dawn and is heaving by 9.00 a.m. By midday it has fizzled out.
It should be a brisk 45 minute to 1 hour zip along a new highway from Jinghong 景洪 to Menghai 勐海. That is if the monsoon rains haven’t washed the highway away.
Buses run continually throughout the day from both Jinghong’s bus stations. From Menghai’s bus station there are regular buses to Jinghong, Menghun 勐混, for the Sunday market.
There are inconvenient buses for Xiding and its Thursday market (see article). If you are heading to the Burmense border there are buses to Daluo. For the route to Ruili there are plenty of buses to Menglian and Langcang.
This was our plan but the rains made the trip a travel nightmare. Eventually we had to back-tract and head to Menglun and Laos. Outside the wet season this westward journey would make a great trip.
We stayed at the post office hotel. A clean double cost 80 yuan. Staff were extremely friendly.
Food was a bit limited in Menghai to say the least. Simple restaurants can be found along the main street and some noodle stalls set up at night near the main square.
Taken straight from our diary. Part One of our visit to Xingcheng Old City 兴城老成城.
Part two will be about Xingcheng Beach兴城海滨浴场 and Juhua Dao.
Xingcheng Old City 兴城老城
Shanhaiguan 山海关 10/09/2016: Margie’s Diary
We get up, all ready and packed, and march to the train station with our bags, feeling quite fit and ready for action. Shanhaiguan 山海关 has really grown on us; I can even appreciate the beauty of the park to my left, with its secluded pavilions and stone seats and tables. Pity we never got to drink a cold beer at any of them.
We wait for our train, together with quite a few other people, and get on. A man exchanges seats with me, so Adam and I can sit on a two-seater together; the train is not full anyway.
This is called hard-seat 硬座, but it isn’t anything like the hard-seaters of old. In fact, the seats are padded and covered in a blue material, with little white head rests. Most of the passengers are sprawled over the seats and fast asleep.
I try to
use my time well by writing in my diary in order to catch up.
The train stops at a number of places and, at one of these, a group of extremely noisy old-age pensioners get on. They seem to be part of some package tour and are obviously having a whale of a time! They don’t stop chattering and joking and going around offering each other sweets and snacks.
All too soon, after 1½ hours, we are at Xingcheng兴城. We exit the train station and find ourselves on a dusty road, not quite sure how far we are from the centre and /or our intended hotel. So we hail a cab, which is cheap.
The Jin Zhong zi Binguan 金钟子宾馆 looks somewhat aged from the outside, making me a bit weary. After Shanhaiguan, I would really appreciate somewhere clean ….. The receptionist, a very efficient young lady with glasses and a bun who reminds us of a Chinese friend of ours in Spain, sends me to the fifth floor to inspect a couple of rooms.
The floor fuwuyuan 服务员 (the person responsible for cleaning the rooms on a particular floor) is waiting for me. There is evidence of plenty of cleaning being done here: piles of dirty laundry everywhere, cleaning materials, as well as an enormous hoover lying around, fresh bed linen on a cart and so on.
We can either have a clean , tidy but small room for 198 Yuan, or a humongous suite of uncomfortable wooden furniture and a glass-fronted bathroom with a real tub for 298 Yuan …. needless to say Adam goes for the small one ….pity.
Anyway, it’s hot and steamy so we clean up and head out. We are looking for a bite to eat before visiting the old city.
Adam quite likes the look of the main drag, says it reminds him of the China of old. The clothes shops, displaying the uniquely Chinese fashions of a provincial town in the 1970s, the blaring music, the bridal boutiques with their garish green and purple dresses, adorned with feathers and artificial flowers and so on. Then, there are street stalls everywhere, selling anything from grilled squid kebabs to jeans, tools or fruit.
We tried to find something to eat in the Happy Family Mall 大家庭 but to no avail as the food court mentioned in our guide book had ceased to exist. In a second Happy Family Mall a bit further along the road there were some Baobing 刨冰 counters (shaved ice with fruit and syrups), but that was about all.
We decided to postpone lunch until we got to the Old Town, which proved to be an excellent decision. Moreover, we also spied a train ticket booking office in the second Mall where it was easy to book high- speed trains back to Beijing 北京. Xingcheng 兴城 has its own high-speed railway station about 40 kilometers away at Huludaobei 葫芦岛北站 (See coming and going).
We keep heading straight as the receptionist had told us, but somehow miss the signpost indicating the entrance to the Old Town. Adam tries to ask several people, but they don’t seem to understand his Chinese. Even a couple of white- coated pharmasists – who we took to be more or less educated – cannot understand “Gucheng” or “Laocheng”; the Chinese for Old Town.
When we eventually get there, we can see that the main drag has already been spruced up for tourism, with many of the shops selling the typical tacky souvenirs that are ubiquitous at Chinese tourist sites.
However, there are a few attractive folk- inspired clothes shops, one of them called ‘Grandma’s’, with brightly coloured, flowery, padded jackets and such. Moreover, there are a lot of men pounding ‘nougat’ with huge hammers, whilst shouting and calling out to potential customers. They remind us of the nougat sellers in Xian’s Muslim quarter.
There are also a couple of handsome carved ‘Pailou 牌楼’ (stone archways) across the street, but we are more preoccupied with finding somewhere to eat at this very moment…….
We quickly spy a clean looking and attractive restaurant that has a few people in it. It proves to be an excellent choice and we enjoy some of the freshest and tastiest prawns and squid on this trip.
Other customers are wolfing down seafood dumplings; another of the restaurant’s specialties. Judging by the photos on the wall this place is either quite famous, or part of a larger chain. Added bonus: the beer is very cold.
We’ve really enjoyed the food and beer, but have lingered a bit too long. It’s about 15.20 and most sites, for which we have bought the expensive through ticket, close at 17.30. We’d better get a move on!
Confucius temple 文庙
We soon realize there isn’t that much of rush, as the sites aren’t great. We decide to do the Confucius temple first, which claims to be the oldest in northeast China. It’s true that it is well maintained and the gardens are lovely, with little stone bridges and gnarled old trees, but the halls are mostly empty.
We peek into another old residence / museum, but it seems an entirely re-built, largely modern construction, so we don’t linger.
General Gao’s House 将军府
More interesting is the handsome residence of General Gao Rulian, which dates from the 1920s. It has some beautiful brick carving, spacious and luxuriously furnished rooms that combine sleeping, sitting and studying areas, as well as a large peaceful garden complete with a rockery.
The general and his wife apparently lived here after his retirement and dedicated themselves to studying and cultivating their inner life. I think I could get into that if I had such a lovely, spacious house!
The general must have been an enlightened chap, because he was in favour of women’s education and set up a kind of college for them!
On the way out, we admire the exquisitely carved brick screen that stands in front of the entrance.
In the far corner of the old city, practically in the countryside, is the City God Temple. It’s a rather ramshackle construction where we meet a young girl studying to be a nun, who badgers us into helping her with the pronunciation of English phonetic sounds. And that is about it for sights.
The old town is very dilapidated, scruffy and semi-abandoned, apart from the aforementioned parts that have been rather tackily done up. All a little bit underwhelming and certainly nothing to rival Pingyao. What on earth was Lonely Planet thinking?
We climb up onto the restored city wall and walk round almost the entire old city. From here you can really appreciate the abandonment. There are crumbling old houses that are still inhabited, right next to others that have caved in, some with bushes and trees growing through what was once the roof, others that have completely collapsed.
Whole pieces of land have reverted to nature or been turned into vegetable plots. We see a couple of men herding sheep and goats…. Xingcheng Old Town is a sad and desolate place, a poor place, though not without a certain melancholy charm and potential. All these plots of land inside a walled city, surely they must be prime property? How long before a new-Old Town will rise on this spot and attract tourists from all over China?
For the time being, the bits of the town we like best are around the city gates, where some of the real life still goes on. Towards dusk, vendors start setting up stalls, selling fruit and veg, or preparing food; kebabs and grilled meats among the most popular.
Around the gates there are also some real businesses, such as funeral parlous, bike shops or bird cage sellers.
The Jin Zhong Zi Binguan 金钟子: a good option; friendly staff, comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant. What more could you ask for?
Food is good in Xingcheng 兴城. It might be worth coming here just to sample the fish and seafood. The town has a large fishing fleet and fresh sea produce is everywhere.
There are three good areas:
The old Town 老城 has one or two very good, atmospheric restaurants and lots of stalls at night outside the city gates. Unfortunately, we didn’t take down the name of the one we ate in. It is on the main street, as you come in through the main entrance, on your the left, before the first crossroad.
A second option is by the beach, where seafood restaurants with buckets of live food line the street. Huge portions of fresh prawns go for about 100 yuan.
The third option is in or around the Jin Zhong Zi 金钟子 Binguan. The hotel restaurant cooks up some pretty good seafood and spicy dishes. Opposite the hotel there is an excellent Muslim restaurant (pictures above and below), which we tried on our last evening. They serve up great veggie dumplings, fantastic eggplants and an unusual soup of sea snails and Chinese turnips.
They also serve my favourite vegetable; snowpeas 荷兰豆.
Getting there and away
We arrived in Xingcheng 兴城 from Shanhaiguan 山海关 on a slow train that took less than two hours. The train takes a pretty rural route, stopping at a number of places along the way.
We returned to Beijing 北京 from the new high- speed railway station at Huludaobei 葫芦岛北站 (40 minutes away by taxi). It is a brand new station in the middle of nowhere. The train left at 10.50 on the dot and we arrived in Beijing sometime after 14.00.
We bought our tickets to Beijing 北京 from a ticket office in the Happy Family Shopping mall. Very easy and very convenient.
The one thing you notice when you visit Juhua Island 菊花岛, 9 kilometers off the Liaoning Coast near the walled town of Xingcheng 兴城, are the fishing nets.
They are everywhere; and it seems that the entire population of Juhua Dao 菊花岛 dediate their time to fixing them.
Walking around the island You’ll find yourself tripping over the nets and any photo you take, the nets will find a way of appearing in your photo. Here are just a few of the ones we took.
In the coming weeks we’ll be adding some more photos of the island’s other attraction. The political slogans painted on the walls of the fishermen’s houses like the ones you see at the back of the photo above.