China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Pingyao
Date: Wed, 10 Jun 1998 01:02:35 -0700


20:25 Zhongdu 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 Planet.

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.

  graphical element Lonely Planet China Travel Survival Kit
Second edition, 1995
p. 458

"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 wells?

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 time.

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 effect.

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! 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 Monastery?

~~~ 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.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 19.
trans. Stephen Mitchell

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