10 Jun 1998 01:02:35 -0700
Hotel, Pingyao; Shanxi -- China :: TU 09 JUN 98
Other than the natural beauty found in the mountains and mountain
villages, and the palace compounds, parks, monasteries and temples found
in China's more important cities, there just hasn't been much to look
at. As for the religious structures, the Cultural Revolution erased many
of these, or eradicated enough of the contents and defaced the exteriors
so that much of what remains is edifice...edifice in need of a little
scrubbing up. So I wasn't too inspired by the following entry in the Lonely
Shuanglin Monastery, 110 km south-west of Taiyuan is
worth the effort of getting to. It contains exquisite painted clay figureines
and statues dating from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Most
of the present buildings date from the Ming and Qing dynasties, while
the majority of the sculptures are from the Song and Yuan dynasties. There
are something like 2000 figurines in total.
A visit to Shuanglin [Monastery] is probably best done as a return
day-trip from Taiyuan by train. Take a train to Pingyao, then hire
a motorcycle out to the temple. Two good train connections are the
No 375, departing from Taiyuan at 11:07am and arriving in Pingyao
at 1pm, and the No 376, back from Pingyao at 3:59pm.
"Yet another monastery," I thought while researching this trip.
"Probably worth stopping by on my way through, though." Which is what
I'd have planned to do, except some Beijing friends clued me in to Pingyao's
primary attraction. If the fellow who'd written and researched the above
selection from the lp had looked out the No 375's eastern windows he could
hardly have missed the intact fortifications ringing one of China's very
few remaining walled cities.
One of the problems with travelling by guidebook. Unless you
keep your ear close to the ground, and your eyes peeled, you will miss
some of the country's most notable offerings. This is particularly true
of China, sparse of fellow travellers to begin with, and those here seem
uninterested in sharing company let alone travel info.
I also possess several of Nelles Maps' China Series. These are
nice for the number of little red stars denoting points of interest, far
more points than provided by Lonely Planet or any other guidebook, though
the reader is left to do the research on just why the "Cemetery of Martyrs"
is worth a visit. For example Nelles China 2 (Northern China) shows two
stars in proximity to Pingyao: one for Shuanglin Monastery and the other
for "Ancient Wells". On the Pingyao County Tourist Map I can find no references
to old holes in the ground. I'm assuming a spelling error..."Ancient Walls"
makes more sense to me.
So, I wonder how many people have made the day-trip to Shuanglin
Monastery and never noticed the jewel visible from the train? And I wonder
if anyone has come away from Pingyao, disappointed at not finding any
Jay, remember that last day in Beijing when we stumbled into
the antique markets on Liulichang Lu? Where you bought all those souveniers?
Those couple hundred meters of Ming/Qing dynasty buildings, you said,
were what you'd been seeking all along. Something you could work with
photographically. They'd make a return trip to Beijing worthwhile.
Well, Pingyao would leave you gobsmacked.
The wall ringing the city is impressive enough. The grey brick
fortification must rise at least 20 meters above the valley floor and
the North Gate another 20 above that. Flags ripple a rainbow of colour
over the battlements. Clearly visible from the road into Pingyao, I'd
have stumbled into this place even without the benefit of friendly advice.
And that advice still did not prepare me for what I found inside the walls.
The cyclometer still didn't register 100 km for the day, so
I remained pretty fresh and the sun hung high in the late-afternoon sky.
Rather than continue toward the tall buildings a little further south
west, where I'd likely find a hotel, I turned in toward the wall and its
North Gate, rising and rising above. Other than the oriental architectural
flares, like the hipped tile roof and wooden columns, the structure seemed
little different than the medieval european battlements I've seen so many
of. Inside, all that changes.
A pair of high narrow arches admit the pedestrians, bicycles,
scooters and rare truck or car. No evidence of the defensive structures
which must once have protected these doorways. Once through, the two lanes
convene on a single narrow road cutting straight into the city. I thread
my way through the drop-jawed throng, perhaps the most unusual sight to
pass through this gate since 17th century Manchu warriors descended from
the north and established the Qing Dynasty. "Laowai," I hear. Foreigner.
Again and again. Or I watch as people nudge each other, nod in my direction.
I am fortunate, I think, to have found this place. It's not on the traveler's
map or my visage would not be such an attraction.
Drawing to the center of the city where the structures age;
drawing back into time. Bare brick yields to brick overlayed with mud
and plaster, then increasing use of wood, ornately carved. Squared off
rooves and their brick lattice give way to the familiar grey terra-cotta
tile. Glimpses through open doors and gateways into kitchens and courtyards.
Brick and tile. Plaster and paint. Where coal fires burn, black smudges
spread. Living quarters confined and necessarily efficient. The ubiquitous
thermos bottles hold boiled water in reserve, for tea, for cooking, for
washing. Teacups on small tables. Pots and pans and dishes stacked on
open shelves. Chopsticks fan out like a flower arrangement from a vase.
A cleaver lies on a cupped-out chopping block.
The smooth dirt courtyard, swept tidy. The raised dust settles
on sill and step, on the disused bicycle in the corner, on upturned wheel-barrow
and storage box lid. The inescapable dust settles everywhere, but remains
only where no hand bothers to sweep it away like the wooden frames of
window panes. And even where broom and bristle travel a remnant clings.
The inescapable dust.
The throng congeals ahead, road obstructed. I follow a few who
turn onto another road, more an unpaved, muddy alley. It weaves and meanders,
a residential side-street, then emerges abruptly onto another busy, narrow
alley. I turn right, hoping for the West Gate.
I am in the thick of it now. Forced to dismount from time to
Shops. Six hundred meters of shops on this one lane. Dry goods,
antiques, souveniers, food, Chinese herbs, tea, hardware, calligraphy,
art, restaurants. And in front of the shops, street hawkers and their
trinkets and fast food. Other hawkers stay mobile, selling from baskets
in hand, or mounted on wheels. Activity. Unintelligible chatter.
There are thousands of tourists here, and I am the only laowai.
The only visitor who knows the commercial value of this place.
Ming Land. Disney would gussey this world up. A good scrubbing.
A fresh coat of paint. Bury the obtrusive power lines. Straighten and
symmetry. Bar the cars and trucks and scooters and their unnerving electric
horns (I'd be with him on that one.) Then dress everyone authentically
in brilliant sheen and colour. Have theme songs written, and "I walked
the wall at Pingyao," t-shirts printed. In a Saturday morning cartoon,
a young Qing emperor could learn simple lessons of right, wrong and right
consumerism. Millions would be made.
There is value in escaping the eye of Lonely Planet Publications
and Michael Eisner. Fortunately, the world is not so small.
Seven hundred years ago, people lived here as they do now. Without
a script. Not a living museum, simply alive with a past flowing into present.
There were shops then, as there are now, where the locals, and travelling
businessmen and tourists shopped. In the best of times the streets would
thrive well into the night. There would be laughter and eating, chatter
and drinking, barter and trading, just as there will be tonight.
I come back that night. Night always settles on a different
world. Streets illuminated by whatever light escapes the buildings. The
length of one street lined with bright red lanterns. The gates and towers
outlined with strings of coloured lights flickering in the blackness.
In the daylight people and the outlines of buildings catch the eye. At
night, the shop interiors glowing, I am drawn to what the shopkeepers
would like me to see. But I am not here to shop, except for some sweet
cakes and a drink. I sit on a stoop, nibbling, sipping, watching the scene.
I am more anonymous in the darkness, without the odd contraption
of bicycle and trailer. Still, the locals single me out. Parents cajole
their wide-eyed children, "Say, 'Hello'." I grimace, make faces, to no
A hawker tries to sell me whatever's in the basket on the back
of his bicycle. "No thanks," I wave my hand negatively. But he's persistent.
So am I. "Pudong," I say. "Don't understand." I don't know what you're
trying to sell me. He smiles, gives in, then reaches into the basket and
pulls out one of the vegetable-filled bread disks I see everywhere, and
grew tired of long ago. He gives it to me, obviously without expectation
of payment. I take a bite. It's better than the memories: warm and soft,
lightly onion flavoured. I smile back. "Hao," good, I tell him. He points
to the sign flying from the back of the bicycle. I understand, "Next time
you see these characters, you wont be able to say 'pudong'." I laugh.
His grin widens before he turns away, rolling his bicycle down the lane,
changing out the name of whatever these bread things are called.
Uncharacteristically, the other shop-owners and restaurateurs
all but ignore me. How can this be? In Beijing's antique markets they
spot a laowai immediately, they smell us coming. "Hello! Hello!" "Fine
picture; very old; famous artist!" And in the restaurant districts parallel
to Wangfujing, "Hello! Cold Beer!" But always and everywhere, "Hello!
Here, in Pingyao, only those with wheels for hire call after
me. "Hello! Won't you ride my tricycle!" I wonder what it costs to Shuanglin
~~~ Responses gratefully received ~~~
Throw away holiness and wisdom,
and people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice,
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit,
and there won't be any thieves.
If these three aren't enough,
just stay at the center of the circle
and let all things take their course.