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.
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.
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.
Photo of the week presents the Great Wall at Jiumenkou 九门口长城 in Liaoning Province. One of the only parts of the Great Wall to be have been built over a river.
The Jiumenkou Great Wall 九门口长城 is a majestic sight, one of only a few parts of the Great Wall 长城to have been built across a river. It stands on the isolated border between the northern provinces of Liaoning辽宁省 and Hebei 河北省 and close to the ancient garrison town of Shanhaiguan 山海关.
For history buffsJiumenkou Great Wall is a must. Don’t be put off by the tourist facilities that have been set up to accommodate Chinese tour groups. Hang around a while and any crowds will disappear. We recommend going for a walk up either side of the valley to explore some fascinating unrestored remnants of the wall and wait for the groups to go; you’ll soon have the place to yourself.
Here is the account of our visit taken from the dairy Margie Keeps:
On our previous day at Shanhaiguan we agreed with a lady taxi driver on 150 yuan for the two sites; the Great Wall at Jiumenkou, and the Great Wall at the edge of the sea.
Jiumenkou Great Wall 九门口长城
Though supposedly only 15 kilometers from Shanhaiguan, it takes us almost 45 minutes to reach the site, along a narrow, winding and climbing road. Above us are the remote and abandoned watchtowers perched dramatically on the jagged mountains.
These lonely towers were once the most important defense positions of the Chinese empire. It was in this area where the marauding northern tribes would try to break through and enter the Middle Kingdom. And it is where the Manchus pored over the wall and into China to overthrow the Ming Dynasty and start the Qing Dynasty.
Now, the watchtowers stand abandoned, their purpose for existing rendered obsolete. However, for the visitor, they are a majestic sight.
When we get to Jiumenkou, we find a parking lot, visitors’ reception area and other bits and bobs. Of course, visiting a ‘bridge’ is never just that in China, of course they have developed the site.
Well, this time I can only say that they have done a great job! The restored bridge section near the river is stunning and beautifully reflected in the clear water of the river.
To the left, there is quite a long stretch of restored wall, winding its way up the forested hillside, up to two or three watchtowers, while on the right we can see a glorious unrestored section; its crumbling walls and fading watchtowers stretching as far as the eye can see.
It`s really interesting to be able to see both versions, restored and un restored, at the same time.
We get our tickets and climb on to the bridge first and walk across it: it’s a curious, angular or pointy structure, with interior courtyards and tunnels as well.
Looking down from the wall, you can see straight into a small farmers’ village, dedicated almost exclusively to apple orchards all around the wall, with many of the apples individually wrapped in brown paper bags. Can you imagine how time consuming that must be?
There are ladies with baskets, hawking apples all over the place. The village of one story white-tile houses looks messy – as they all do- but not poor. The apples must sell well. And what a glorious location: imagine having the Great Wall running past your back garden …..
On the right at the far end the wall is blocked, so you can’t clamber up the unrestored bit. We therefore turn left and start climbing: it’s very steep at times, but the wall is broad And well maintained; unscary.
With each turn, or ascent of a watchtower, the views change and we can make out yet another watchtower, or stretch of wall in the distance! It really is a magnificent sight and we have gorgeous blue skies to go with it as well.
Halfway-up, a peasant lady has actually set up an apple and refreshments stall in her orchard, right by the wall and she is doing a brisk trade, flogging apples and bottles of water over the wall.
Closer to the top I notice a young couple stuffing pieces of handkerchief down the back of their little daughter’s shoes.
The poor thing obviously has blisters, so I offer them some plasters. They then take pictures with me. It’s all quite companionable.
watchtower 3 the restored wall becomes less and less restored and eventually
peters out. A sign tells people to stop, though a couple of Chinese men have
ignored this and climbed up the mountain to very end of the wall anyway; leaving
their rather annoyed companions to wait for them.
We head back and obtain a couple of beers from a little stand down below, which we drink on a shady bench, looking over the bridge and the crumbling wall.
It would be total bliss if it were not for the blaring music and tourists dressing up in emperor and empress costumes and/ or taking selfies. However, the setting is beautiful and nothing can spoil that!
As our driver had predicted we have spent over two hours here, having a very good look around, and are now ready to move on.
There are other things here, such as an aviary with ‘rare foul’, but we don’t want to waste time trying to find it. It time for our next destination: Old Dragon Head, this is where the Great Wall once met the sea.
From Our Diary presents Bullfighting in the Gejia 革家 village of Matang: Guizhou Province
The day we visited Matang was a big day for the village. It was the culmination of the five-day annual bullfighting festival, an event held to commemorate the day that rebel leader Zhang Xiumei met his end at the hands of the Imperial troops in August 1873.
Luckily, bullfighting in China isn’t as bloody as in Spain: basically, two buffalo are incited to fight each other by crashing their heads together, until one decides he has had enough and runs away. However, the bulls do get injured and sometimes fatally and that is why we decided to make our exit before that actual fighting got underway.
The Matang festival is a pretty big event and loads of buses from Kaili and all the nearby towns and villages had already begun arriving when we got to the arena, a huge sand- pit about 2 kilometres from the village.
People were getting there early to obtain a good place and with 2 hours to go before the first fight, space was already at a premium. Whole clans of Miao and Gejia sat precariously on the high slopes, overlooking the bullfighting arena.
Meanwhile, the owners of the star buffalos were proudly displaying their huge, well-groomed, shiny beasts to impress the onlookers.
I’ve always looked upon water buffalo as quite docile creatures, but having seen some of these monsters and their aggressive manners, I have come to change my mind.
Heavy drinking and gambling is part and parcel of any local minority event and this was no exception: shady- looking types with Al Capone hats and cigarettes dangling from the corners of their mouths stood near the buffalo, waving big wads of hundred Yuan notes.
Many of the punters had that glazed look of one glass (or bottle) of Baijiu (Rice wine) too many. Thieves and pickpockets were also out for a day of rich pickings. However, one unfortunate thief was discovered and pursued by an angry mob who cornered him and gave him a pretty heavy thrashing.
He was spared any further damage by the timely intervention of the truncheon- wielding Military Police, who appeared from nowhere to separate the culprit from his assailants; their truncheons indiscriminately whacking anything in the way.
Though the fighting buffalo were well looked-after and pampered, the Gejia don’t seem to hold their dogs in equally high esteem. When it came to food, it was dog, dog and more dog.
Fried, grilled and most popular in a hot pot, dog meat was everywhere. Live animals, waiting to have their throats slit, huddled pathetically together near the pools of blood from their departed brothers and sisters, aware of the fate that was about to befall them.
Dead dogs lined the road side, under the blaze of blow torches blasting their skin off, and cauldrons full of dog parts bubbled away with the smell of chillies and Sichuan pepper.
Hoards of people gathered around the improvised hot pots, gnawing away contentedly on bits of canine flesh. Not really a place for a dog-loving vegetarian like myself.
Coming and Going
Matang is about an hour from Kaili’s local bus station (not the main bus station). Buses don’t go directly to the village, but drop you at a turn- off from where it is a two- kilometre walk. Any of the regular buses going to Chong’an or Huangping will drop you there. When returning, just get back to the main road and flag down any passing bus.
putting the final touches to a wooden guesthouse near the entrance. Some fancy
toilet buildings were already standing.
This an updated version of the article and photos of Shalu Monastery that we published on the old holachina.com web-site. Since 2009 Shalu Monastery has undergone massive restoration so it may be quite different from when we were there.
Shalu Monastery: August 2007
We visited the monastery of Shalu夏鲁寺 on the second day of our excursion, as a side trip on the way from Gyantse to Shigatse. Shalu was actually off limits to foreigners and we didn’t have it listed on our permit. Our excursion was a spur of the moment decision.
However, our Tibetan driver nonchantly said there would be no problem. And hey this was 2007! Travelling in Tibet hadn’t been so relaxed and open for decades.
The talk among travellers in China in 2007 was that very soon foreigners wouldn’t need permits to travel around Tibet anymore; such was the optimism due to the up and coming Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Little did people know that within a few months, all the good intentions the Chinese authorities had about opening up Tibet would be shattered by the riots in Lhasa and Tibet would be closed to foreigners for quite a while. Even now (2019), Tibet is still nowhere near as open as it was back then in 2007.
Getting to Shalu Monastery
About 20 kilometres before Shigatse, our van turned left off the main road and went onto a bumpy track full of potholes and puddles.
We passed sturdy farmhouses, some of them still under construction, and large fields full of grazing yaks. Wheat was being grown everywhere and the whole area looked quite prosperous.
The original Shalu Monastery was destroyed by an earthquake in 1329, but it was rebuilt by Buton in 1333 under the patronage of the Chinese Mongolian emperor of the Yuan dynasty.
Many Han Chinese artisans and Newari artists from Nepal participated in its reconstruction, giving it its distinctive architectural style, exemplified by the green-tiled arched roof and steep eaves of the central hall, the Shalu Lakhang.
Apart from the architecture and the many large statues of important religious figures, what mostly grabbed our attention were the incredible murals.
Like in Samye, the tall walls that go behind the main altar are covered from top to bottom by amazing paintings, dimly lit by an occasional light bulb.
Apart from the usual, slightly repetitive, Buddha figures, there are many exquisite and exotic scenes of a non-spiritual nature, such as caravans of distinctly Arabic-looking merchants leading camels, slim Indian-looking courtiers at play, or beautiful young ladies.
The murals in the side chapels, attributed to Nepali painters, mostly depict large elegant Buddhas in lotus position, demons and many-armed gods, surrounded by floral motifs. Given their shining state, they must have been retouched recently.
Not all the murals were so beneign. Gruesome scenes of animals and humans being flayed or disembowled also lined the walls.
During our exploration, friendly monks unlocked most of the smaller, side and upper storey chapels for us, allowing us to appreciate the treasures inside, such as ancient statues and thankas.
The sight of all these precious objects and paintings, clearly venerated by the monks, gave us a real sense of ancient history and tradition.
The monks lead us into the library which is normally kept firmly under lock and key. The collection of manuscripts and scrolls at Shalu is huge and very important for Tibetan Buddhism. Then, as we came out of the library we bumped into a young German who was staying at the monastery studying Buddhism and learning Tibetan. How on earth did he manage to get a permit to do that in Shalu?
Shalu village is completely traditional as well, it’s a warren of towering white-washed houses, protected by walls and intersected by narrow muddy lanes.
Interestingly, while we were exploring, the Shigatse – Shalu bus, an old battered vehicle, turned up, showing us that this is another excursion you could easily do on your own.
Getting there and Away
We had hired a Car and driver in Lhasa to go to Gyanste and Shigatse. Shalu Village lies somewhere between the two towns. As mentioned above, we saw local buses from Shigastse arrivng in Shalu. The only problem will be permits, and whether under stricter control the authorites will turn a blind eye to foreigners visiting Shalu.
The monks in Shalu told us that they had some guest rooms. However, we just visited on a day trip and stayed in Gyantse and Shigatse.
In Gyantse we stayed at the Jianzang hotel which lies on the main street of the modern part of town (Yingxiong Nanlu) and is certainly one of the nicest places we stayed at in the whole of Tibet, or even China. The hotel is embellished with bright, colourful murals and lovely potted plants and flowers, while rooms are large, clean and comfy. We paid 180 Yuan for a double with bathroom, though there were cheaper rooms and dorms as well. The hotel also has its own rooftop restaurant and staff are very friendly.
You will have no trouble finding several places to eat along the same main street. The Yak bar and restaurant, for which you have to go upstairs, is a pleasant, laid-back place with Tibetan sofas and low tables, specialising in western-style food such as chips, pizzas and burgers. We decided to give the guidebook-recommended Zhuang Yuan a miss after one look at their menu, outraged at the idea of paying nearly 30 Yuan for a portion of chips.
Instead, we walked into a large Chinese restaurant, a few doors away and identified by a green sign, where we had an excellent meal.
We stayed at the Shigatse Post Hotel, a new-ish place (2007) right opposite the posh Shigatse Hotel, down Shanghai Lu. Our double room was painted and furnished in Tibetan style, complete with thankas and white ceremonial scarves, all very bright and clean; good value for 180 Yuan.
Going down Shanghai Lu towards the centre we found plenty of food, though restaurants were mostly of the simple, snack food variety. A ten-minute walk from the hotel will take you to the night market.
Pingliang has become a large prosperous town in the last decade and has expanded enormously. Along with that expansion there are more hotel and eating options than what we have listed here. Kongtong Shan has become a huge domestic tourist spot and has undergone a lot of renovations. Many of the old temples have been rebuilt and some of the authenic atmosphere of a taoist hideaway has disppeared forever. That said it is still a beautiful place. Transport to and from Pingliang has also improved. Especially the bus connections to other major cities such as Lanzhou, Tianshui and Xian. You also don’t need to purchase the Gansu Travel Insurance anymore (Click here.)
Once you get there, Pingliang is a small town which makes an excellent base for a visit to the Taoist Mountain of Kongtong Shan, one of the most sacred in China, which is a mere 15 kms away.
The best approach is to take a taxi to the reservoir (around 20 Yuan); a steep flight of steps will take you up to a road, skirting the reservoir, and on to the first temple. This is a beautiful ancient Taoist structure, guarded by venerable old priests, some of them with the pointy goatee and bun, characteristic of many followers of Tao.
The early morning mist and heavy cloud cover bestowed an eerie atmosphere over Chong’an 重安. The river was motionless and silky smooth like a millpond. The town and the surrounding scenery seemed as if suspended in a landscape painting. Silence reigned.
Then there was a shout, a curse and the haggling began. Chong’an Market was open for business.
The huge market held in Chong’an every five days is one of the best and most colourful in Guizhou. The local Miao 苗族 and Gejia 革家 ethnic groups swamp the small scruffy town in a frenzy of buying and selling that lasts the entire morning and carries on into the early afternoon.