China Day 20: Goodbye Beijing, Goodbye China

So, finally our last day of this amazing 60th birthday holiday! It has been a fantastic holiday and we hope to return to China next year before our visas expire in 2019. We are planning on visiting Shanghai, returning to Beijing, having a cruise on the Yangtze and taking the train from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet and taking a tour there……

Despite having already said our goodbyes last night we breakfasted with Chris and Wendy and Ricky and said goodbye again! We packed for the final time and checked out, leaving our luggage at the hotel, before taking the metro out to the Olympic Sports Center stop. We walked all around the Bird’s Nest, the Beijing National Stadium, which is a stunningly artistic stadium. It was used for the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, and will be used again for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics which will be a first for a stadium.

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We meandered through the huge (what is not huge in China!) Olympic Green past the Water Cube (National Aquatics Center), Torch Square, the National Indoor Stadium where there were youngsters outside being trained and practising speed skating, and then up past the National Convention Center, and the Chinese Ancient Chinese Literature Search Center before nipping down some stairs to the open air area of the Xin’ao Shopping Center.

We had spied a Costa for coffee but were distracted by a couple of groups of older Chinese men and women playing beautiful melodic Chinese music on their Chinese instruments – another unexpected but not to be missed moment on this holiday.

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Coffee done, squatty loo found (am now a seasoned squatty loo user) we rejoined the metro at the Olympic Green stop to go to Nanluoguxiang, to follow the Lonely Planet 2km walking tour through the Hutong. The Hutong is an old-style city alley or lane and is one of the most distinctive features and in Beijing. There are thousands of hutongs in the city, many of which were built during the Yuan (1206-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Nanluoguxiang is one of the top 10 most famous hutongs in old city of Beijing.

This is a very old, impoverished area of Beijing. Many of the residences highlighted in the walking tour info had plaques outside referencing famous residents of past dynasties but now have signs up stating ‘No Visitors’. Sadly the fame gained from being highlighted in Lonely Planet means we can no longer gain access to the courtyards etc. We made it to the Bell and Drum Towers which signified the end of our interesting insight into another part of Beijing.

We walked some more down the interesting and somewhat alternative main street before taking a metro one last time back to our hotel.

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We had lunch and some tasty fruity green teas at the RealBrew Tea cafe before collecting our luggage and getting a taxi to Beijing Airport.

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The Airport too looks new, is hugely spacious and again, as everywhere in China, is spotlessly clean.

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We had to take a shuttle train to the international departure gates and going through passport control and security. Security was slow but extremely thorough and we now await our flight to Hong Kong and then our connecting flight to London which leaves at 00.15 and due back to Heathrow at 6.15 tomorrow.

Distance walked: 19,272 steps / 8.35 miles

 

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China Day 19: Great Wall of China

Another earlyish start as we all met in the lobby at 7.30 to go for breakfast in the hotel before climbing aboard our minibus to go to The Great Wall. It was a 2 hour drive out through Beijing’s morning rush hour, cutting across most of Beijing’s 6 ring roads, to get to the Mutianyu section of the Wall. The Great Wall at Mutianyu is not as crowded as the Badaling or Juyongguan Wall sections which are closer to Beijing so worth the extra journey time.

Mutianyu has a 2.5km/1.5 mile fully restored stretch of the Wall with 23 watchtowers and valley on both sides of the Wall. We took the cable car up to watchtower 14, the alternative being to climb 4000+ steps to get up there. Mr L and I walked from 14 to watchtower 19 up and down steep granite surfaced slopes and many stairs and steps. We then retraced our steps and continued to watchtower 6 where we could have descended via a toboggan or the chairlift – we chose the chairlift. The view from the Wall to the mountains and valley was wonderful especially with all the autumnal colours on the foliage. We were lucky with the weather, dry and hot but still a haze which gives an ethereal tone to most of our Beijing photos.

A bit of info about the Great Wall of China………
The Great Wall stretches from Dandong in the east to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. It is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, built across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. Several walls were being built as early as the 7th century BC which were later joined together and made bigger and stronger and became known as the Great Wall. The Great Wall has been rebuilt, maintained, and enhanced with the majority of the existing wall from the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

The defensive characteristics of the Great Wall were enhanced by the construction of watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations, signaling capabilities through the means of smoke or fire, and the fact that the path of the Great Wall also served as a transportation corridor. Other purposes of the Great Wall have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road, regulation or encouragement of trade and the control of immigration and emigration.

The most recent renovation of the Wall at Mutianyu took place from 1982-1986, at the direction of the Beijing government. The Mutianyu Great Wall Park has been is now a national tourist attraction which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Our journey back to the hotel was reasonable despite travelling through the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic. We only had an hour to shower and change before all meeting up to go for a Peking Duck Banquet meal as our goodbye dinner. Another excellent meal and time to say goodbye to our fellow travellers from the past 20 days.

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Mr L and I, and Bob and Sue, shared a Chinese Uber (organised by Ricky) to take us to the Wang Fujing Night Market……..but there was no night market to be seen so we assume not happening this week because of the Congress meeting and all the associated security issues. Nevertheless, it was interesting to experience a Beijing downtown shopping area before taking the metro back to our hotel for our last sleep in China.

Distance walked: 22,408 steps / 9.66 miles
 

China Day 18: Good Morning Beijing!

We have got the hang of the night train so settled down promptly and slept fairly well until it was lights on in our train carriage at 3.30……in the morning! We were due in to Beijing at 4.15 so had time to wash, use the squatty loo, make a cup of green tea for me and a coffee for Mr L, before disembarking at the scheduled time. We had a short taxi transfer to our hotel, the Chongwenmen Hotel.

We were not able to access our rooms so had to gather in the lobby bar area in the dark as no lights were put on…….we had good wifi though. At 5.30 we all walked up the road to McDonald’s for breakfast – this was the only place open at that time of day. A coffee and Egg McMuffin at 5.30 was a first for me…..it would have been better without the ketchup!

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We then gathered in the lobby at 7.15 to catch the metro out to Tiananmen Square. Once again a heavy army presence and security checks interspersed our journey. Tiananmen Square was indeed closed to public access because of the Congress meeting and had a very heavy security presence. We were able to take photos of the huge Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square, from the opposite side of the road, including the Great Hall of the People where the Congress meeting is being held.

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The next activity for the morning was a visit to the Forbidden City which lies immediately north of Tiananmen Square. Despite the early hours there were tour groups aplenty already gathering for access to the Forbidden City when it opened at 8.30. It is a stunningly fabulous collection of halls, temples, palaces etc, its scale is phenomenal. The Imperial Gardens were splendid and I certainly enjoyed this part of the Forbidden City very much.

The Forbidden City, situated to the north of Tiananmen Square, was home to 24 emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) Dynasties. The construction of the grand palace started in the fourth year of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1406), and ended in 1420. In ancient times, the emperor was said to be a son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The emperors’ residence on earth was built as a replica of the Purple Palace where God was thought to live in Heaven. Such a divine place was forbidden to ordinary people and that is why the Forbidden City is so named. The Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Under an agreement with the new Republic of China government, Puyi remained in the Inner Court, while the Outer Court was given over to public use, until he was evicted after a coup in 1924. The Palace Museum was then established in the Forbidden City in 1925. In 1933, the Japanese invasion of China forced the evacuation of the national treasures in the Forbidden City. Part of the collection was returned at the end of World War II, but the other part was evacuated to Taiwan in 1948 under orders by Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang was losing the Chinese Civil War. This relatively small but high quality collection was kept in storage until 1965, when it again became public, as the core of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, some damage was done to the Forbidden City as the country was swept up in revolutionary zeal. During the Cultural Revolution, however, further destruction was prevented when Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the city. The Forbidden City was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is recognized as one of the most important five palaces in the world (the other four are the Palace of Versailles in France, Buckingham Palace in the UK, the White House in the US, and the Kremlin in Russia).

We had time after our fairly rapid visit to the Forbidden City to visit Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park is an imperial park covering 57 acres immediately north of the Forbidden City. The focal point is the artificial hill, Jingshan, built from the earth dug out to form the moat around the Forbidden City. It is a well used park and there were Chinese people line dancing to their music as we had previously seen in the park in Lijiang.

We climbed the steps to the pagoda on top of Jingshan and saw the Buddha and had a good aerial view over Beijing, albeit somewhat hazy.

We took the bus back to the hotel with Ricky and the group and checked into our rooms. This is the best hotel of the trip – good room, good bathroom, excellent shower and white reasonably fluffy towels. We rested for a couple of hours before showering and heading off to The Temple of Heaven Park in the southern part of Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is China’s largest existing complex of ancient sacrificial buildings and is three times the area of the Forbidden City. It was built in 1420 for emperors to worship Heaven. The principle buildings include the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests, Imperial Vault of Heaven and Circular Mound Altar. It was in 1918 that the temple was turned into a park and for the first time open to the public; it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

We arrived after 16.00 so could only get tickets for the park and not any of the buildings, which was a bit of a shame. However, the park was lovely and we could see the outside of many of the buildings. We really enjoyed our walk with dusk falling and changing the light over the park. We also came upon a man sitting in a garden pagoda playing his guitar and singing, not busking or anything, and his music was amazingly soothing and engaging, almost hypnotic, very special.

We successfully found our way back to the hotel navigating the Chinese metro before meeting the group in the hotel lobby at 19.30 for another excellent Chinese banquet meal.

A long busy day which started very early, and so far really liking Beijing.

Distance walked: 29,013 steps / 12.51 miles

 

 

China Day 17: Datong – Grottoes and a Monastery

We woke to a grey rainy and cold Datong with the view from the hotel showing not very spectacular urban sprawl.

Datong is the second largest city in Shanxi province and is the northernmost city. The urban area is surrounded on three sides by mountains with Datong bordering Inner Mongolia to the northwest. Datong is an old fashioned coal mining city, and still sits on significant reserves of coal. Consequently, it has developed a reputation as one of China’s most polluted cities. The Datong Coal Mining Group is based in Datong and is China’s third largest such enterprise.

We were only in Datong for one day and had an all day tour to visit the Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Monastery. We did get coffee and toast at breakfast before settling into our minibus for a 40 minute journey to the Yungang Caves. We had to hang around for an hour when we got there to wait for the English speaking guide who took us round using audio guides. Jason, the guide, was very good and it was worth the wait and the 17CN¥ (£1.94) we each had to pay……personally, I think that it should have been pre-booked and included in the G Adventure costs.

The reception area and park leading up to the caves is fairly new having been built in 2008 after the Chinese government moved the inhabitants of the village on the site elsewhere so this whole area in front of the caves could be developed. This is possible in China because all land is state owned so they can make people move elsewhere if this is deemed the best thing to do.

The Yungang Grottoes are an ancient Buddhist temple consisting of 252 caves and 51,000 statues and are an example of rock-cut architecture and one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China. The site is located about 16 km west of the city of Datong, in the valley of the Shi Li river at the base of the Wuzhou Shan mountains. The construction of the caves was started under the auspices of the monk Tan Yao in AD 453 and took 50 years to complete. Some 40,000 people, including Buddhists from Sri Lanka, contributed to the huge project. They are an extraordinary sample of art that combines forms of traditional Chinese art with foreign influence, especially Greek and Indian. The smallest sculpture is only 2 centimeters high to the tallest which is a Buddha of 17 metres high. The Buddha in each one represents an emperor from the Northern Wei dynasty. The Buddha in cave 18 represents Emperor Taiwu, who was once a great patron of Buddhism, but later came to favor Taoism. In December 2001, UNESCO passed a decision to list Yungang Grottoes on the World Cultural Heritage List.

We were only able to visit a few of the caves as many are unsafe or not possible to access. Time and weathering has also impacted on the sandstone carvings in some areas, but in others the carvings and colours remain almost perfect. Sadly we were not able to take photos in some of these more spectacular caves.

We had lunch at the grottoes site before getting back in our minibus for the 2 hour drive to The Hanging Monastery. A slightly hair raising journey at times with the Chinese propensity to drive on the wrong side of the road and overtake on bends and brows of hills……overall though, driving here feels much safer than our previous experiences in Thailand and India!

The Hanging Monastery hangs 50 metres above the ground on the cliff side of Mount Heng (Heng Shan), one of China’s Five Sacred Taoist Mountains. It was built 1,500 years ago, in the Northern Wei Dynasty(386–557). The Hanging Monastery appears to be on stilts, half way up the mountain, but it was actually created by abseiling from the top of the cliff, and building it downwards. When the monastery was built the pillars weren’t there but were added later because many people wouldn’t dare to climb up to the monastery, worrying it would fall. The structure is kept in place with oak crossbeams fitted into holes chiselled into the cliffs which means the main supportive structure is hidden inside the bedrock. The body of the building hangs from the middle of the cliff under the prominent summit, protecting the temple from rain erosion and sunlight. On December 2010, it was listed in ‘Time’ magazine as the world’s top ten most odd dangerous buildings.

The Hanging Monastery consists of two pavilions, a bridge, and 40 halls. It is 32 metres long in total. The South Pavilion is three-story, 8 metres long and 4 metres wide. This pavilion holds the biggest hall and the tallest sculptures of the temple. The North Pavilion is also three-story, 4 metres in width, but 7 metres in length. Inside this pavilion a typical hall on the third floor holds statues of the three Chinese traditional religious founders: Confucius, Lao-Tzeon, and Sakyamuni. The Long Bridge, connecting the two pavilions, is about 10 metres long. The most outstanding feature of the Hanging Monastery is the side-by-side sculptures of Lao-Tzu, Confucius, and Sakyamuni – the founders of the three main religions of China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, respectively. Due to its relatively remote location, the Hanging Monastery served as sort of travel lodge, a rest stop for travellers. Because religion was prevalent at that time, and people were reluctant to stop at places that worshipped a different religion, the Hanging Monastery enshrined China’s three major religions so that more travellers could stay there. The Hanging Monastery is the only monastery in China enshrining three religions – Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.

I have to say I noticed very little of the the wonders of The Hanging Monastery and was keen to get out and down as quickly as possible but there was a one way system so the only way out to was to go all the way up to the top before being able to start the climb back down on very steep precarious staircases. An amazing site and feat of building but I have no desire to go back! With big thanks to Mr L for helping me get through the ordeal.

Once back at the hotel we had time to freshen up before going out as a group for a Chinese banquet meal at a local Chinese restaurant that was packed with locals by the time we finished our meal – once again us Westerners were a focus of their attention! We have all had frequent interactions for photo opportunities and for Chinese to practice saying ‘hello’……..

We were then back to Datong Railway Station at 20.30 to endure security checks before boarding our night train to Beijing. We went through the normal ID check, baggage security and personal security checks and then had to do it all again before going to the waiting area for the Beijing train. There was a great deal of shouting and gesticulating and several of us had to open our main luggage and had nail scissors confiscated. The security team were finally ‘happy’ to let us pass through and await the train. Boarding was at 21.30 and the train departed on time at 21.59. Next stop Beijing…….

Distance walked: 16,112 steps / 6.95 miles

 

China Day 16: Goodbye Pingyao, Hello Datong

Once again bags needed to be packed up for the move on to our next destination. However, we had a calligraphy lesson first and some free time before our 14.00 departure from the hotel.

We had an (apparently) renowned art teacher, Mr Liu Qiang, from the Pingyao College who had trained under a famous Beijing artist come to the Honghu Hotel at 9.00 to give us our calligraphy lesson. He firstly showed us the 8 strokes that are used in combination to make up all Chinese characters. We were then given paper, brushes and ink to practice these brush strokes. The ink is made from ground up coal mixed with peach syrup! I did get praise for some of my attempts…….Mr L watched but didn’t join in………he took the photos.

 

We were then given sheets to paint our brush strokes on outlined markings to create Chinese characters – a bit like a Chinese paint by numbers……again I got the occasional ‘good’ and some help to ensure each brush stroke is completed in one go as a single stroke, with characters completed in a left to right direction and top to bottom. I don’t think my overall effort looks too shabby.

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It was good fun, difficult to do correctly and smoothly, but very interesting. We were told there are 10,000 characters in the Chinese language with most people only knowing between 2,000-4,000.

Our art teacher explained that as an artist you have to be good at 3 things: calligraphy; art; poetry. Every piece of Chinese art also includes Chinese characters which provide a poetic explanation of the drawing. He brought some of his art pieces with him – hand painted fans and also wall-hangings. They all involve considerable work but were for sale at what seems very reasonable prices: fans were 150CN¥ (£17); wall-hangings 250CN¥ (£28). Mr L bought me a wall-hanging we particularly liked as another birthday present 🙂. We asked our artist to inscribe my name in Chinese characters onto the painting which he did on the left upper corner. I then posed for photos with him and the painting.

 

Time then for a final walk in the rain, with the usual acrid coal smell in the air, down to West Street for a coffee at Joe’l, to purchase a small bottle of Shanxi Aged Vinegar (the other thing Pingyao is famous for as well as their beef and noodles), and a final lunch with several of the group at A Mai’s restaurant.  We had a friendly little kitten join us…….

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Taxis took us to a different Pingyao station than the one we arrived at, this time to catch a train to Datong, a journey of 6 hours and 20 minutes. The usual security checks had all been completed and we were waiting for our train in the waiting area when a large number of security staff appeared and insisted that all passengers have their ID, tickets and baggage rechecked………..this took a while even with Chinese efficiency! The reason why is that our train goes on to Beijing after Datong and tomorrow is the first day of the week long Congress where Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected to serve a second term as President until 2022. Our expectation is that Beijing will be crawling with police, security, army etc. and it is now highly unlikely we will be able to visit Tiananem Square which is a real shame. Ricky says there shouldn’t be any problem with visiting The Forbidden City though – fingers crossed 🤞

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) starts on Wednesday 18th October. It takes place every 5 years and is held at the Great Hall of the People on the west side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It is attended by delegations representing the Chinese mainland’s 31 provincial regions, departments of the CPC Central Committee, central government organs, enterprises controlled by the central government, central financial system, the People’s Liberation Army, the Armed Police, and CPC members of Taiwan origin. More than 2,200 delegates, chosen from over 89 million CPC members across the nation, attend the twice-a-decade congress. The CPC national congress will unveil new leadership and set a blueprint for national development for the next 5 years and beyond.

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Our train journey was long but uneventful. Interestingly, we had hard sleepers for our 6+ hours journey so we could laze, sit, doze to while away the time……I read a book, Mr L dozed a bit and then did his best to ‘annoy’ me by interrupting my reading with his sharing of gems of Mr L wisdom – bless him! Overall, not too bad a journey.

We are now in the Hongqi Hotel just for one night as tomorrow we are back on a night train to Beijing. The hotel was only 5 minutes walk from the station and is much more western than previous hotels we have stayed in. The only downside is that all rooms are smoking rooms so an unpleasant aroma of stale smoke greeted us as we entered our room…….just the way it is I guess.

Distance walked: 9,434 steps / 4.07 miles

China Day 15: Pingyao

We all met for breakfast and a Pingyao orientation at 8.00 this morning. Ricky had told us that the hotel would provide a western breakfast as well as the Chinese breakfast. However, the only concession to a western breakfast was a pile of white sliced bread – no butter or jams or honey to put on the bread though! Mr L tucked in to his Chinese breakfast with enjoyable gusto, I was less keen but did partake of some mashed up fried egg and Pingyao beef with a cup of green tea.

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Orientation walk completed, we all then split up and went our separate ways. Mr L and I planned to walk along the 6.5km of the city wall but couldn’t find the way up onto the wall at the East Gate so ended up walking from the East Gate to the South Gate along the outer perimeter at the foot of the wall. On our left was a huge park which we managed to get into by climbing through a gate.

We explored the edge of the park and its fountains before coming back across to the South Gate where we then able to get onto the top of the wall. We walked as far as the West Gate, a distance of 2km, but the next part to the North Gate was closed for repairs – thankfully, as I had had enough of walking up there!

We had coffee breaks at Joe’l Specialty Coffee on West Street, and lunch at Chummy Coffee at the bottom of South Street.

We spent the day exploring the streets and going into the museums and temples. There is a single entry fee of 130CN¥ (£14.83) for access to all of the ancient city sites – Mr L had spotted in the Lonely Planet guide that entry is free for people aged 60 and over…….Ricky checked this out and yes, we were eligible for free entry by having a bar code sticker stuck on the back of our passports. So it is worth being 60!

We visited Ping Yao Er Lang Temple, the City God Temple, the Confucius Temple, the Rischenchang Draft Bank and various other ancient sites – nothing is in English so not always clear what we were looking at – Mr L and I were ‘templed’ out by the end of the afternoon.

Pingyao is a very authentic working town and although the West Street and South Street are very touristy, most of the other roads and alleys off are definitely not. This is not a wealthy place and the people living within the walled city live in very basic simple accommodation. Heating is provided by coal, huge lumps of which could be seen in people’s yards, on the pavement, or wherever it was convenient to dump it.

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The air quality is dreadful with a permanent haze which I suspect is smog and there is a strong smell of coal in the air…..and it’s still cold. Mr L and I have both bought ourselves scarves and have worn our gilets plus coats to keep warm today.  Mr L has replaced his comrade cap with his woolly hat!

All the photos I have taken seem to have a haze effect caused by the poor air quality. Researching Shanxi indicates that the province, since the 2000s, has been considered to be one of the most polluted areas in China. The pollution, caused in part by heavy coal mining, has increased health problems in the province.

A bit of background on Shanxi………Shanxi is a province in the North China region and lies east of the Shaanxi province where we were when visiting Xi’an – confusing that you can have provinces called Shaanxi and Shanxi adjacent to each other! The name Shanxi means ‘West of the Mountains’, a reference to the province’s location west of the Taihang Mountains.

There are countless military-related industries in Shanxi due to its geographic location and history as the former base of the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army. Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre, one of China’s three satellite launch centres, is located in the middle of Shanxi with China’s largest stockpile of nuclear missiles. Compared to the provinces in east China, Shanxi is less developed for many reasons. Its geographic location limits its participation in international trade, which involves mostly the eastern coastal provinces. Important crops in Shanxi include wheat, maize, millet, legumes, and potatoes; however the local climate and dwindling water resources limit agriculture in Shanxi. Shanxi possesses 260 billion metric tons of known coal deposits, about a third of China’s total. Consequently, Shanxi is a leading producer of coal in China and has more coal companies than any other province. Shanxi also contains about 500 million tonnes of bauxite (aluminium ore, the world’s main source of aluminium) deposits, about a third of total Chinese bauxite reserves. Industry in Shanxi is centred around heavy industries such as coal and chemical production, power generation, and metal refining. Shanxi has received criticism for bad working conditions in coal mining and other heavy industries. Thousands of workers have died every year in those industries and cases of child labour abuse were discovered recently.

Shanxi cuisine is most well known for its extensive use of vinegar as a condiment, as well as for a huge variety of noodle dishes, particularly knife-cut noodles which are served with a range of sauces. Pingyao is particularly famous for its unique salt beef.

Mr L and I opted to eat later than the others (18.30 was when they all met – a bit early) and had dinner at the Lonely Plant and TripAdvisor recommended De Ju Yuan Guesthouse restaurant. We had the local specialties of mountain noodles, Pingyao beef and potatoes and a stir fried vegetables with wild mushrooms – an excellent meal.

We were very weary after a day of walking hither and thither, up and down steps etc, so home to bed for a reasonably early night.

Distance walked: 27,984 steps / 12.08 miles

 

China Day 14: Goodbye Xi’an, Hello Pingyao

It has been cold here in Xi’an and not forecast to be any warmer in Pingyao. Temperatures have been 12c and we have no heating in the hotel. The Chinese government does not allow the hotel to turn on its heating until 15th November. However, the hotel kindly gave us all an extra duvet to keep warm overnight, so all was good.

The weather this morning was still grey and very wet. Breakfast in the hotel was uninspiring and predominantly Chinese food so we went to a Korean bakery and coffee shop Mr L had found the day before. An americano coffee and a delicious jam filled ring doughnut was a good, albeit not very healthy, breakfast.

Time then to head off and hunt out the Great Mosque. We found the sign to the mosque off the main Muslim market street. The Great Mosque is old, extensive and full of character, it is the largest mosque in China. The majority of the mosque was built during the early Ming dynasty; it now houses more than twenty buildings in its five courtyards, and covers 12,000 square metres. In 1956, the mosque was declared a Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the Shaanxi Province Level, and was later promoted to a Major Historical and Cultural Site Protected at the National Level in 1988. The mosque is still used as a place of worship by Chinese Muslims.

Sadly we didn’t have time to get to the city wall as we had to be back and ready to leave at 11.30. We all piled into four taxis to take us to Xi’an North railway station – this station is very different to the Xi’an South station we had arrived at from the night train. It is huge, very huge, and very modern.

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Arriving at any of China’s transport terminals always involves showing ID i.e. passports for us, ID cards for the Chinese, to match the named ticket with the ID and then having airport style baggage and personal security checks. Once we were all checked in we had time to grab a snack lunch – McDonalds did the job as chips were on most people’s wish list. At 13.40 we boarded the bullet train to take us to Pingyao, a journey of 3 hours travelling at speeds of 249km/hr (155 mph). We then transferred to taxis to bring us to our hotel for the next 2 nights. The Honghu Hotel is something else – very old buildings around a central courtyard with rooms off in a building to one side. Our room is like an ancient boudoir with an okay bathroom and towels……..and we have heating, thank the Lord!

We met in the courtyard at 19.00 and Ricky took us off down a quiet dark street into the busier part of town. We ate at the A Mai Restaurant on West Street where we had a banquet meal which included their local delicacies of Pingyao beef which reminds me of salt beef and is very nice, and also noodles which were excellent. Even Mr L liked the noodles and he is not normally a noodle lover. Ricky kindly avoided ordering other delicacies such as the spiced donkey meat or the cold pig’s head with garlic! The food plus a local beer was 44CN¥ (£5.00) each – the cheapest meal yet.

Mr L and I then had a brief wander down West Street and then down the length of South Street before retracing our steps back to our hotel.

Pingyao is a county in central Shanxi province in China, approximately 715km (444 miles) southwest of Beijing. Pingyao’s old town is generally considered the best ancient walled city in China, and is on many lists of the best walled cities in the world. The old walled city is 2.6 sq.km (1 sq. mile), inhabited by around 50,000 residents, is mostly off-limits to cars, and constructed of cobbled streets and buildings almost entirely from the Ming and Qing dynasties. In 1997, Pingyao Ancient City was included as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

From the 19th century to the early 20th century, the Ancient City of Pingyao was a financial centre for the whole of China. There were over twenty draft banks’ headquarters located at Pingyao Ancient City and it was called ‘the Wall Street of ancient China’. One of these banks, the Rishengchang was established in the Qing Dynasty (1823) and is the first and largest draft bank in China. At its peak period, it controlled almost half of the economy of China and its branches were distributed widely around the whole country, and even in some western and southeastern countries. Rishengchang is regarded as the precedent of modern Chinese banks. Today, Pingyao’s economy is largely agricultural and the region is famed for its beef. Other products from the region include grains, cotton, and lacquerware.

Distance walked: 17,483steps / 7.66 miles