The Holy Man of Wutaishan: I thought I was bumping into a sage from China’s mystic past or even a larger than life Gandolf. The wispy beard and the implausibly brushy eyebrows harked back to an age of Chinese ledgends or Tolken’s Middle Earth.
The old monk was causing quite a stir; all the other monks, pilgrims and tourists were making an enormous fuss over him. Everywhere he went, he was stopped, greeted and revered.
Obviously, he must have been important figure in the world of Chinese Buddhism and his presence in Wutaishan shouldn’t have come as any surprise. There are few places more sacred to Chinese Buddhists than the 5 peaks of Wutaishan
The kids loved him too; especially his pointed staff. Some kept trying to touch it’s tip, others tagged on to his orange robe.
We never found out who he actually was, but he was incredibly photogenic and I think he knew it.
He smiled at me and the encouraged me to take some snaps. I must admit, I should have centered the camera better, but I was trying not to get in his way and that of his followers.
Changzi Accident Town 2016: It was one of those moments you will never forget. Our bus entered a tunnel close to the Shanxi city of Changzhi. In front of us was a small van, swerving slightly from side to side. Something was wrong. Was the driver drunk? Did they have a puncture? The traffic coming towards us on the other lane was relentless: lots of those enormous Shanxi coal trucks, fully laden and seemingly heading straight for our bus.
A quick decision
The van in front suddenly stopped dead in its tracks. We were in seats 1 and 2, right at the front. The bus driver had a split second to make a decision. Swerve and risk hitting the oncoming traffic head on, or let the inevitable rear- end collision happen. Luckily, he chose the latter and I am here to tell the story.
As we smashed into the back of the van, the front windows of the bus shattered and my hands, braced for impact, were twisted backwards and I felt a sharp pain. On the oncoming lane, the stream of coal trucks kept passsing us one after the other, their drivers oblivious to what had just happened.
We came to a grinding halt; the van was catapulted several meters in front of our bus by the impact, but fortunately not into the on- coming lane. There was a brief silence and then everyone laughed, relieved. My hands hurt but we were basically okay. We just had to flag down another bus.
After our own experience, I should not have been that surprised to read about another traffic accident in the vicinity of the city of Changzhi; the very same city where we had been involved in that near fatal accident.However, the crash I read about in the international press was truly astonishing.
This time, what happened was far more incredible. Apparently, a heavy goods lorry driver had been misled by his GPS / Satnav and had been directed on to an incredibly torturous and precipitous mountain road, instead of a more accessible and suitable one.
Shenlongwan village 神龙湾
This particular road in the vicinity of the city of Changzhi was built by hand by the villagers from Shenlongwan village 神龙湾 in the 1980s, keen to link their village with the outside world. It is exceedingly narrow, traverses numerous low tunnels and has huge drops into an abyss at every corner. In short, it’s totally unsuited to a huge, articulated lorry.
hammers and chisels
Hewn from the mountainside using hammers and chisels, the road took the villagers 15 years to construct between 1985 and 2000. Their endeavors have been rewarded by a surge in domestic tourists coming to visit the now accessible scenic area. Previously, the only access was via an ancient path of broken steps with vertical drops.
Amazingly, nobody was injured or killed in the incident and the lorry was retrieved and the road cleared again after 3 days of resue efforts. When you see the video footage (see video above), it seems inconceivable that the lorry didn’t plunge down the cliff.
off the beaten track
The dramatic scenery in the video inspired me to investigate a little more and find out about things to see and do around Changzhi. When we passed through, it appeared to be a reasonably ordered and tidy town, but without much charm.
However, digging a little deeper I found some surprises. Changzhi is way off the beaten track, but it makes a good base for some interesting excursions. Apart from the Shenlongwan village 神龙湾 scenic area, there are plenty of other areas worth exploring. The most notable ones are the Taihang Shan mountains 太行山大峡谷 and the Tongtianxia Gorge 通天峡, the Ice Frozen Cave and the Taohuadong. Interesting villages include Hongni Cun and Monkey Village 猕猴寨. We’ll just have to save them for next time!
Why were we passing by Changzhi?
Our bus that crashed had originated inPingyao. Our destination was Jincheng 晋城 , the closest town to Mr Chen’s Castle and the ancient city of Guoyu郭峪古城. Changzhi was where we had to change buses to get to Jincheng.
The Old Photos of Mao during the Cultural Revolution from the Pingyao Newspaper Museum are part of a wider collection of Chinese newspapers in the museum.
Old Photos of Mao and TheNewspaper Museum Pingyao
We stumbled upon the Newspaper Museum (not sure of its official name), close to our favourite little restaurant. The rather shabby museum holds some fascinating clippings, articles, and photos from the last century and the beginning of this one.
Old Photos of Mao and The Cultural Revolution
The highlights are some great photos of Mao and other communist party leaders during the Cultural Revolution. Even in the 1960s one can appreciate the efforts of some sophisticated photoshopping (without photoshop to help) that make the central characters appear more powerful and larger than life.
It’s curious to see the old papers, printed in vertical columns and read from right to left. There are papers in Uygur, Tibetan and Mongolian script and a triumphant cover showing the hand-over of Hong Kong. There are articles about the Cultural Revolution, Mao, Ethnic Minorities, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, as well as foreign news and adverts.
The collection was apparently started by a Chinese farmer who is also an avid newspaper reader and collector who wanted to help his fellow farmers learn about the world.
The earliest newspaper in the collection was Shanghai-published Shenbao in 1872. The shortest lived newspaper featured is Xibao which was the first and final publication (info taken from China.org.cn)
Visit Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺: Pingyao. An amazing temple where in winter you can visit the place without another tourist in sight. That is if you can bear minus 10º.
Shuānglín Sì / 双林寺 Pingyao
Shuānglín Si Temple Pingyao at half past 9 in the morning. When we get out at the Shuanglin Temple (Shuānglín Sì or 双林寺), we’re in for a bit of a shock: though sunny, it’s bitterly cold! Our breath’s coming out in large white clouds and the thermometer has plummeted to minus 10º.
With one of those great Chinese understatements, our driver concedes that it’s yidian leng (a bit chilly)! On the positive side, this means we have the temple almost entirely to ourselves.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site Since 1997
The ancient and venerable temple complex – a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 – is renowned for its over 2,000 painted clay sculptures, made by skillful craftsmen from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (12th to 19th century). Though once painted in vivid colours, many of the sculptures have since faded to red, earthy hues.
From the outside, the temple complex appears rather like a fortress, as it is surrounded by a high compound wall with a gate. Once inside, there are ten halls to explore, set around three courtyards.
The Fantastic Sculptures
The first Hall is guarded by fierce warriors. The sunlight, slanting through the protective bars that surround them, hits their orange clay faces and distorts them into frightening grimaces.
In fact, all the sculptures are arranged behind bars, against backdrops of swirling water or clouds, mountains, gnarled trees, towers, buildings and other decorative elements.
Bring a Torch!
Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult to fully appreciate them in the dusty half-light of the halls. We wish we’d brought a torch!
The sculptural themes focus on representations of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas (divine persons who have attainedEnlightenment, but postpone Nirvana in order to help others reach salvation), Arhats (Buddhists, especially monks or nuns who have achieved enlightenment and at death pass to Nirvana), Warrior Guards, Heavenly Generals, but also some common people.
There is even a statue of the husband and wife who took care of the temple during the Cultural Revolution.
The Arhat Hall (Luohan Ting or 罗汉厅)
One of the halls to look out for is the Arhat Hall (Luohan Ting or 罗汉厅), with its 18 life-like and somewhat sinister Arhats, whose black- glass eyes seem to follow you around the room.
Don’t miss the Bodhisattva Hall (Pusa Ting or 菩萨厅),with the sculpture of a young, attractive, female Bodhisattva, with twenty arms and many more hands, dressed in richly decorated clothing.
Hall of a Thousand Buddhas
Last but not least, the many inhabitants of the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas, one of whom is seated on a coiled dragon, are considered masterpieces of Ming dynasty Buddhist sculpture.
At the back of the last Hall, we climb up onto the compound wall in an attempt to find out where the music we’ve been hearing is coming from.
The school and the Slaughter House
Turns out, there is a primary school right behind the temple and all the little kids are made to run around the schoolyard before class. Frozen as we are, we could do with a bit of running ourselves! And then there were the poor pigs; off to the slaughter house, just outside this spiritual and peaceful place.
Shanxi Museum Taiyuan: These days, Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province once dubiously famous for being China’s ‘coal capital’, is a largely modern city, home to one of the most outstanding museums in the country.
Shanxi Museum Taiyuan
The Shanxi Museum (Chinese: 山西博物院; pinyin: Shanxi Bówùyuàn),is housed in a handsome modern building, shaped like an inverted pyramid, or a ‘Ding’; an ancient cooking vessel, symbol of harvests and auspiciousness. Inside, the four-storey museum is spacious and light.
The marvelous exhibits are creatively presented in themed galleries that run around a big, open, central space, enabling you to look all the way up to the glass cupola that tops the building.
Each gallery is entered through a hall, beautifully decorated with artwork evocative of its contents, such as a relief of bronze warriors or a giant bull.
The museum houses some 200,000 cultural relics, dedicated to Chinese History and Arts, with a special emphasis on the Jin Dynasty, famous for its high quality green celadon porcelain wares, such as jars whose designs incorporated animal, as well as Buddhist figures.
Among its most important artefacts are those related to Sima Jinlong’s tomb (CE 484), such as a large number of figurines, or a famous tomb plaque. Other artefacts related to Sima Jinlong can be found in the Datong Museum.
During our visit, we marvel at the sophistication of the bronzes in the gallery called ‘The Splendour of Bronze Vessels’, dating from way before Christ.
There are cute, greenish slugs with inquisitive faces, sturdy, homely pigs and elegant geese; many with a lid in their back for storing things, while others were used as oil lamps or lanterns.
The Pottery section
The Pottery section with its chubby, humorous warriors, its grumpy Silk Road camels and temperamental, high-stepping horses, its nimble acrobats and elegant courtiers is always one of our favourites, and the Shanxi one is no exception.
The Relics of Buddhism
‘The Relics of Buddhism’ gallery is an absolute delight: the collection of serene Buddha statues and engraved and carved stelae is displayed inside (mock) rock caves, illuminated by a soft, yellowish light, pretty much as they must once have looked inside the Yungang or Longmen caves.
Even the fire hydrants are discreetly tucked behind fake rock panels depicting lines of miniature Buddhas; which makes us smile.
The interesting section devoted to the powerful, wealthy ‘Shanxi Merchants’ also contains a gorgeous display of colourful Shadow Puppets on sticks, representing undulating dragons, musicians on horseback or oxcarts, as well as twirling acrobats.
The popular Shanxi Opera is also well-represented with carved brick tiles and figurines representing scenes from popular operas, as well as interactive displays.
Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy
Going around ‘Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy’, we are particularly taken by a mysterious scroll painting of gold on black in which groups of monks gather at a night time meeting, some flying in on mythical beasts, others creeping closer among the rocks.
Even the water colours, which we thought we might skip, turn out to be enchanting, with delicate, fan-shaped paintings of birds, fruit, water lilies and other flowers.
Jade and Porcelain
Due to lack of time and exhaustion, we move fairly quickly through the Jade and Porcelain sections, though we make an exception for the characteristic Shanxi yellow and green glazed roof tiles and ornaments, which decorate so many Chinese temples and halls.
Museum / Taiyuan Practicalities:
Since March 2008, admission to the museum is free with a valid ID. You will definitely need 4 to 5 hours to do the place justice.
It’s a great way to get an overview of Shanxi culture and history, either before embarking on a tour of the many, surrounding sights, or afterwards, as a way of making sense of everything you’ve seen.
The museum is located on the west bank of the Fenhe River, some distance away from the centre of town, in a green area that has been developed for rest and relaxation.
The circular building next door which looks like a UFO actually houses a popular Geological Museum.
Places to Eat:
Taiyuan’s food street, Shipin Jie, is a great place to try out all kinds of popular street snacks, such as squid or sausage kebabs, noodles, toffee apples or ice creams. There are plenty of sit down restaurants too, housed in fake Ming buildings, as well as terraces where you can enjoy a cold draft beer.
Places to Stay:
Taiyuan is not that big on the tourist circuit, which is why it’s usually quite easy to find a decent, reasonably priced, mid-range hotel on one of the booking sites. We stayed at the Jinli Dalou on Wuyi Jie near the railway station. Nice staff, comfortable rooms, 138 yuan.
Other Places to Visit:
Close to Taiyuan city, the Jinci Temple or Yuci Ancient City – famous for being the backdrop to many Chinese films and series – make for easy and enjoyable day trips.
Moreover, as an important transportation hub, Taiyuan also has excellent connections, either by train or bus, to Qikou, Pingyao or Wutai Shan.
The Miniature Opera Dolls of Pingyao 平遥: Qingxu Guan /情绪观and its amazing collection of Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人)
The miniature opera dolls (Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人)are unique not only in Pingyao but also all of China. On our last stop of an exhausting day of sightseeing around Pingyao, we stopped at the Qingxu Temple, an ancient Taoist Temple, now doubling up as a museum with a fascinating collection of plaster and wooden statues.
The latter were apparently carved from willow trees, as far back as the Song dynasty.
The faces of the seated figures are incredibly serene, and their beards and pleated robes seem to flow.
Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人 / Miniature Opera Dolls)
However, no matter how stunning and remarkable the Song dynasty statues were, nothing had prepared us for the icing on the cake that the Qingxu Temple holds: the Shage Xiren (纱阁戏人), or miniature opera dolls.
This is a series of display cases with ‘Shage Xiren’ dolls, showing scenes from popular Jin operas晋剧, created by the famous artist Xu Liting (许立廷) between 1905 and 1906.
The details in the faces, headdresses and costumes –made of delicate materials such as paper, clay, silk or wood pulp- are astonishing! You’ll fall in love with them like us! However … all is not well with the dolls!
Restoring the Unrestorable?
We were sad to see such authentic and valuable pieces of history and culture left rather forlorn and abandoned in their flimsy and rustic casings and somewhat exposed to the elements.
And here is the contradiction: for the visitor, it’s a pleasure to be able to get so close to such jewels, and in such a laid- back and hassle-free ambience as well, but it doesn’t bode all that well for the future conservation of the dolls.
And therein lays the conundrum. Many of the dolls are falling apart. Limbs and robes are falling off at an alarming rate, leaving researchers scrambling to figure out what to do about it. And they are trying!
Help for the miniature dolls maybe on its way
A number of articles have highlighted the case of the Shage Xiren (Miniature Opera Dolls). Here are the links to two of them.
If you are a restoration buff you’ll love this article, which reads a bit like a forensics report. Even for a layman like me, it was a fascinating piece.
The biggest problem seems to be that the creator of the dolls, Xu Liting (许立廷), only made them for a short period of time during the tumultuous twilight years of the Qing Dynasty, 1905 – 1906.
Furthermore, Xu never left any written record of the materials he used to create the dolls, nor did he pass on his skill to any apprentice. Restorers are now scratching their heads about how best to save these incredible dolls.
Given the recent interest and new developents in restoration technologies, we can only hope that a solution will be found soon. Meanwhile, if you are visiting Pingyao anytime soon, try to see the dolls in the Qingxu temple.
I know that the through ticket (tongpiao) has a rather daunting list of sights, not all of which are equally worthwhile, but the Qingxu Temple with its delightful miniature opera dolls is a must!
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 平遥 2001
PINGYAO (RE) VISITED
Pingyao 2001 First Visit: 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.
Pingyao 2001 First Visit: Local Tourists
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!
Pingyao 2001 First Visit: First Year of the Pingyao Annual Photo Competiton
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!
Pingyao 2001 First Visit: Great Views from the Wall
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.
Pingyao an Introduction 平遥
WHY VISIT PINGYAO?
Pingyao an Introduction: 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.
Pingyao an Introduction: The City Walls
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.
Pingyao an Introduction: The Banks
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.
Pingyao an Introduction: International 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.
Pingyao an Introduction: What to See around Pingyao
Moreover, Pingyao makes a great base for excursions to some out-of-the-way places, such as the village of Zhangbi Cun.Wang jia Mansions and Qikou. Not to mention the nearby temples just outside the city.
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.