Xingcheng Old City 兴城老城
Shanhaiguan 山海关 10/09/2016: Margie’s Diary
We get up ready and packed, and march to the train station with our bags, feeling quite fit and ready. Shanhaiguan 山海关 has really grown on me; 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 isn’t anything like the hard-seaters of old. In fact, seats are padded and covered in blue cloth, with little white head rests. We’re on a two seater, while across the aisle there’s a three seater. Most of the passengers are sprawled over the seats and most are asleep.
I try to use my time well by writing in my diary in order to catch up.
The train stops in a number of places in one of them, a group of extremely noisy old-age pensioners get on. This must be the Chinese version of the Imerso (the Spanish discount travel agency for oldies). The oldies 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 our Chinese friend living in Spain, Anny – sends me to the fifth floor to inspect a couple of rooms.
The floor Fuwuyuan 服务员 (the person responsible of cleaning the rooms on a particular floor) is waiting for me – there is evidence of a lot of cleaning being done (dirty laundry everywhere- as well as an enourmous hoover) and the place looks clean.
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, ..It’s obvious that Adam went for the small one ….pity.
Anyway it’s hot and steamy so we clean ourselves up and then go out. We are looking for a bite to eat and then visit the old city for sightseeing.
Adam quite likes the look of the main drag, says it reminds of the China of old. The clothes shops – displaying the uniquely Chinese fashions of a provincial town in the 1970s- blaring music, bridal boutiques show garish green and purple dresses, complete with feathers and artificial flowers and such; and there are street stalls everywhere, selling anything from grilled squid kebabs to jeans to 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) and that was about all.
We decided to postpone lunch until we got to the Old Town (an excellent decision). We did however, spy 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 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 city. Adam tries to ask several people, but they don’t seemed to understand his Chinese. Even a couple of white coated pharmasists – who we took to be more or less intelligent – cannot understand “Gucheng” or “Laocheng” Chinese for old city.
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 were a few attractive folk inspired clothes shops, one of them called grandma’s, and a lot of men were pounding ‘nougat’ with huge hammers and shouting and calling out; much in the same way to what we had seen in Xian’s Muslim quarter.
There are also a couple of handsome carved stone ‘Pailou 牌楼’ ( Stone Archways) across the street, but we are more pre-occupied with finding somewhere to eat at that 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. The beer is also very cold.
We 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, so we have to 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. It is the oldest in northeast China. It’s true that it is well maintained and the gardens are lovely, with little stone bridges and old trees and so on, but the halls are mostly empty.
We peek into another old residence / museum, but it seems an entirely re-built 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 and a large peaceful garden complete with rockery.
The general and his wife apparently lived here after his retirement and dedicated themselves to study 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 favor of women’s education and set up a kind of collage 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 and practically in the countryside is the City God Temple, a ramshackle affair where meet a young girl studying to be a nun who badgers us during our visit to help pronounce 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 not anything 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. It is from here where you can really appreciate the abandonment. There are crumbling old houses that are still inhabited, right next to other that have caved in- with bushes and trees growing through what was once the roof or 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 melancholy place, a poor place, though not without charm and certainly potential. All these plots of land inside a walled city- surely they must be prime property? How long before a new-old city will rise on this spot and attract tourists from all over China.
For the time being, the bits of the town we like the best are around the city gates, where some of the real life goes on. Towards dusk vendors start setting up stalls, selling fruit and veg, or preparing food, kebabs and grilled meats were 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 just be worth coming here just to stuff your face on fish and seafood. The town has a huge 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 enter from the main entrance to 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’s restaurant cooks some pretty good seafood and spicy dishes. Opposite the hotel is an excellent Muslim restaurant (pictures above and below) that we tried on our last evening: they serve up great veggie dumplings, fantastic eggplants and an unusual soup of sea snail 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 station at Huludaobei 葫芦岛北站 (40 minutes away in a taxi). It is a brand new station in the middle of nowhere. The train leaves on time at 10.50 and we arrive 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.