Xingcheng Old City 兴城老城 may not be Pingyao but it is definately worth spending a day here if you are passing through Liaoning Province
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.
Xingcheng Old City 兴城老成城 Arrival
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
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.
Xingcheng Old City 兴城老成城 Expoloring the Xincheng
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.
Trying to find Somewhere to Eat
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).
Xingcheng Old City 兴城老成城 Getting to the Old Town
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…….
An Amazing Lunch
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.
Walking the Old Town
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?
Climbing the City Walls
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?
The Real Life Still Goes On
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.
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: 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.)
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice Part one: Lanzhou – Pingliang
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.
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: Getting there
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.
Cizhong 茨中 Yunnan. The Road from Feilai Si near Deqin winds its way to the bottom of the Langcang Valley (Mekong River Valley) in a series of dramatic hairpin bends. On the right the mystical mountain of Meili Xueshan teases and torments the traveller with rare glimpses of its summit and glaciers in a game of hide and seek in the monsoon summer months.
For one second it’s there in all its majestic glory and then the next it’s gone, hidden behind swirling clouds or an impenetrable mist.
As the road reaches the river at the bottom of the valley, the barren rock faces on the left that threatened to come crashing down on our puny vehicle give way to fertile green fields dotted by white villages and prayer flags.
Welcome to one of the most romantic places in China; the tiny village of Cizhong in China’s South West Yunnan province.
While there are many other beautiful villages in the area, Cizhong stands out because of the lovely Catholic church that dominates the centre of the village and its surrounding vineyards.
Zhengding 正定 was known as the town of ´nine buildings, four pagodas, eight great temples and 24 archways’.
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town is just a few hours from Beijing. On our way to Beijing’s colossal West station, the taxi driver asked us where we were going. When I told him, “Shijiazhuang“, his reaction was one of bewilderment: “Why? You could go to Chengde.” “Been there”, I replied. “Beidaihe is also nice”, he continued. “Been there too”, I repeated. “Anywhere but Shijiazhuang“, the driver insisted, “meiyou kekan de dongxi 没有可看的东西” (there is nothing worth seeing), he sentenced. I extolled the virtues of the places we were going to see around Shijiazhuang, such as Zhengding orCangyan Shan, hoping for a more favourable reaction. The driver just waved his hand dismissively, probably thinking stupid “laowai ” (foreigner), and just dropped the subject. It was too late anyway, since we had already bought the tickets.
Welcome to Shijiazhuang and a Health Warning
Shijiazhuang should come with a government health warning and when we alighted at the train station and inhaled the first whiff of some vile eggie sulphuric gas that seemed to be hanging over the city and then looked up at the yellowish sky, I did wonder whether I shouldn’t have taken the taxi driver’s advice.
So what can you do if you find yourself In Shijiazhuang? The first thought that might come to mind is, just catch the next train out. Or you might also like to carry out a scientific experiment and try and see how much pollution your body is able to absorb, before you turn Day-Glo. Alternatively and less drastic, you could get out of the city and explore the interesting sites that lie nearby. And that’s what we did.
In fact, there are a couple of days of interesting sightseeing near Shijiazhuang and, following this brief introduction, it won’t come as a total surprise that you’ll have most of those sites almost to yourself.
Zhending: China’s Unknown Temple Town
The first place to head for is Zhengding, a dusty town whose old quarter is littered with pagodas, temples, mansions and remnants of ancient city walls. Zhengding’s skyline of temples and pagodas is a reminder of what old China must have looked like.
Getting there, it’s an easy 45 minutes to one hour on bus 201 from outside Shijiazhuang’s Train Station, all the way to Zhengding’s chaotic bus station. From there, a bus number one will take you to the enormous Dafo Si, or Big Buddha Temple, which is a fitting starting point for four to five hours of rigorous sightseeing.
“Please speak Mandarin”. “I am speaking Mandarin”.
Zhangjiajie / Wulingyuan / Hunan Province
Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin. From Zhangjijie city 张家界市we boarded the bus for the half hour trip to Zhangjiajie Village 张家界村 and the Wulingyuan Scenic Area 武陵源风景区. We are in Hunan Province 湖南省, in central China, also the birthplace of China’s first communist leader, Mao Zedong毛泽东.
Joining us on the bus was a young Chinese backpacker from Guilin 桂林 (China’s other famous natural scenic area). We soon got talking in standard Mandarin. The ticket seller, a friendly- chubby- bumpkin type chap with a ruddy face, cottened on that the foreigners could speak Chinese and joined in our conversation. He seemed able to understand us, but we and the young backpacker from Guilin were, completely at a loss as to what the conductor was trying to say. His voice high pitched and squeaky, the tones all over the place, was just incomprehensible.
Eventually, out of desperation, I asked the conductor if he would switch to Mandarin (普通话), and not speak Kouyin (口音 local dialect). To which the conductor indignantly answered ” I am speaking mandarin”. The young Guilin backpacker added that he also didn’t understand Continue reading ““Please speak Mandarin” “I am speaking Mandarin””
CITS (China’s official travel agency’s description of an L Train 临客)
“L – Temporary Train In Chinese: LinKe (临客) L trains operate only during the peak travel season, such as the Chinese Spring Festival and the National Holiday. These trains are not listed in the official fixed train schedule. It is not advised to take L-trains if you have other options as they are known to be relatively slow and regularly subject to delays”.
“46 hours”. I doubted my Chinese at that moment, but the ticket seller repeated the departure and arrival times, there was no mistake. Bagging next day hard sleeper tickets from Beijing to Chengdu can be a taxing experience at the best of times, but in early August, you’ve got about as much chance as winning the lottery. Unless … unless, of course, you are willing to take the slow train 临客 , or L Train as it is known in China!
We got two middle berths, which are the best, as during the day you can escape the crowded lower berths, where everyone sits, and they have more space than the often claustrophobic upper berths.
Pandemonium broke out when the gates were opened at Beijing West Station 北京西站 to allow the passengers on. Those without reservation ran frantically, pushing and shoving the old and weak out of the way, to grab one of those precious seats. It was a simple case of survival of the fittest; get a seat or stand for 46 hours.
With a reservation in our hands, we took a more leisurely stroll to the train. Unfortunately, we found a family, consisting of two adults and 5 unruly children (not sure how that is possible in one-child China), occupying the 4 other berths above and below us.
Luzhi 甪直 is an Authentic Canal Town (more or less): I say more or less because even the least touristy Jiangnan towns have many tourists trappings such as hawkers and tacky souvenirs. However, Luzhi is still pretty authentic on a week day out of season.
I love Jiangnan Towns
I have a nostalgic hankering for Jiangnan towns (Jiangnan 江南 means south of the Yangtse River).
There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.
Old Jiangnan River Towns before Mass tourism
In 1990, the Jiangnan towns provided a glimpse into old world China. Back then, local residents still occupied the ancient buildings that lined the canals, and it was possible to stroll the waterfronts and savor a community ambience that had probably existed for centuries.
The onslaught of mass domestic tourism in the 2000’s and the crass commercialism that comes with it has unfortunately put an abrupt end to that picturesque way of life (picturesque for the western traveler at least).
Even until the late 199os, mega cities such as Suzhou, still pocessed a warren of ancient streets where time seemed to have stood still. From the kitchens of beautiful white-washed houses with their decorated doorways and stunning courtyards, smells of garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil wafted out. People lived and worked on the canals as had their ancestors. I can remember spending hours on the bridges watching the river traffic and river markets.
In modern daySuzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. Now,plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. in and around the surrounding small historic towns, much of what was local, has been given over to tourism and converted the towns into theme parks and places to buy souvenirs.
Many Jiangnan towns have undergone seismic changes. Local residents have been evicted from their houses and moved to housing complexes on the outskirts or even further afield. A new breed of entrepreneurs has filled their places setting up shops, restaurants, discos or hotels.
Jiangnan River towns and Tourism
You only have to visit pretty but touristy towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen to understand what I am talking about. Improvements in transport and the proximity of the historic towns to huge population centers such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou make many of the Jiangnan towns weekend playgrounds for city dwellers.
Flowers of War (金陵十三钗) & City of Life and Death 南京! 南京: Two Films One Story
Two films, one story
Zhang Yimou’s new film on the massacre in Nanjing, Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), is the second major Chinese production to hit international cinemas on this topic in the last few years, the other being Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (南京 南京). Having now seen both, I’ll try to compare and contrast them.
Both films are set during the early days of the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanjing (南京) in 1937; Nanjing which was then the capital of the Republic of China. It was during this period that the Japanese committed the atrocities that were to become known as the “The Rape of Nanjing”. It is estimated that over 300,000 people were killed and thousands of women raped.
City of Life and Death(南京! 南京!) by Lu Chuan
Filmed in black and white, Lu Chuan’s film conveys all the horrors and brutality of the destruction of Nanjing and its people under the Japanese occupation. Grey scene after scene, tense, gripping, and harrowing scene after scene, the spectator is left numb by the cruelty meted out by the Japanese army. The scene where the Japanese machine guns kill off the Chinese prisoners of war is horrific; yet, it represents the true events that took place on December 18, 1937, on the banks of the Yangtze River.
Lu Chuan was heavily criticized in China
Nonetheless, in spite of the gruesomeness of his film, Lu Chuan was heavily criticized in China for showing the human face of (some of) the Japanese. At the end of the film, the young Japanese soldier Kadokawa is overwhelmed and tortured by shame and remorse for what his fellow countrymen have been doing in Nanjing. Apparently, Kadokawa’s show of feeling contradicted the Chinese Government’s official version that each and every Japanese soldier in Nanjing was nothing less than an unrepentant and murderous rapist. Lu Chuan, apparently, even received death threats for having shown this side of the conflict. However, despite this one slight tilt towards showing some kind of Japanese humanism in Nanjing, I must admit that the Japanese still come out of this film looking pretty bad, for want of saying anything stronger.