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.