june  2007

Back Home

, datong and beijing
Day 24 through 3o

Day 24 through 26 "Old town of Pingyao, Yungang Grottoes and the Hanging Monastery near Datong"
The next morning we arrive in Pingyao very early.

Pingyao was the financial center of China in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  Among the more than 20 financial institutions within the city at that time was the Rishengchang  Exchange considered to be the first bank in China.  It is now a museum among many within the old city walls.  The inner city within the walls has been preserved as it looked hundreds of years ago, no modern buildings, no modern streets.  Motorized vehicles larger than golf carts are supposedly forbidden inside the walls, though we did see a car once.


 The wall around the city is the earliest and largest intact city wall in China, at 40 feet high it is made of rammed earth covered with bricks with a moat around the outside.  It is said to be in the shape of a turtle.  The gates on the south and north representing the head and tail and the four gates on the east and west sides as the four legs.  There are many museums and old style buildings and once you get away from the "main drag" the city takes on a dry, dusty, barren look where the alleys and homes are packed earth without much ornamentation. 
We arrive to the old city by golf cart just as the city is waking up.  We are staying in a hotel/guesthouse that was once a residence and is of the style of residence that the wealthy lived in at that time.  It is a lovely guesthouse and the rooms are complete with Kangs, large brick platform beds that could be heated from below in winter.  Though these are no longer connected to a stove or heating unit, they do take up most of the room.  There are courtyards throughout and furniture representative of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. 


We spent a full day wandering the streets of the old town, trying to see as many of the museums and temples as we could.  We started with Puma taking us on a tour of the bank, an escort service (security guards for the money) and the government buildings, housing the courts and prison.  The prison had on display many torture devices and photos of acts of torture from the past.  We also were able to watch a skit re-enacting a court case.  Its is done rather tongue in cheek and the Chinese tourists in the audience were laughing quite often.  Bill and I took off on our own visiting the City God Temple, the Confucius Temple, a few additional financial houses, another security service, a couple of residences turned into museums, the Grand Theater, the Qingxu Temple, the Tianjixiang Museum and the Southern Gate of the wall, in addition to the Ming and Qing streets where shops and restaurants line both sides.


While touring a Financial Museum we learned that in order to work for this house, one had to meet certain physical requirements.  They wanted employees with attributes considered attractive in that time.  To make sure an applicant met these requirements he had to try on a steel hat and shoes.  If your head was too big or your feet too long you would not be hired.  It appears Bill passed the test.


There was a lot to see and we enjoyed the town.  The temples alone could take a full day.  There are a lot of photos of the many temples and museums that we visited that day on the photo pages from the tab at the top of the page.
  This town seemed to represent what I thought I would see more of while in China.   China is full of very large cities, factories, towering apartment buildings, coal processing plants and not many smaller nods to the past like the old town center of Pingyao.  Not many people live inside the walls, most live in towering apartments and work in the surrounding city.  At least the area is being preserved even if only for tourists like us.   There are other temples outside of the walls of the old town that are significant but we didn't have time to visit them as we were off the next day on our way to Datong.

We traveled to Datong via chartered bus with a couple of stops along the way.  The terrain was dryer and rolling hillside villages and farmland were mixed in with the many larger towns and cities.  We stopped along side one village full of earth packed homes, some freestanding and some built into the hillsides with doorways and windows decorated with colorful papers.  As soon as we stopped villagers began running toward us.  Women and children selling small souvenirs.  We had a few moments to take some pictures and most of us bought a few things.  Then it was back on the bus to the Hanging Monastery. 


About 40 miles outside of Datong is Xuankong Si the Hanging Monastery near Hunyuan.  The Temple hangs more than 150 feet above the ground on the west cliff of Jinxia Gorge.  It was built in 491 using a series of crossbeams inserted into the rock face of the cliff and has survived more than 1400 years.  This is one of the few Temples in China to include sculptures encompassing Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all together.  There are 40 halls and cabinets, which contain about 80 sculptures made of copper, iron, terracotta, and stone.  The Monastery is an impressive sight and even more impressive when you are walking through it and standing on the balconies overlooking the Gorge.


Next to the entrance to the Monastery is a cliff side stairway leading up to a reservoir.  The stairs curve around the cliff and at one point you walk through a dragons mouth.  I had had enough climbing and hanging off cliffs and chose to stay down and wait while Bill made the climb for the view and well, because it was there.  While waiting for Bill I was approached by a couple of young Chinese men tourists wanting pictures with me (blonde hair attraction), they spent a few moments moving me around for the proper lighting and clicking away with their cell phones.  It was very weird and I was ready for Bill to come rescue me.
Click on the photo tab at the top of the page for some pictures of his climb as well as many more from inside the Hanging Monastery.

Arriving in Datong we settled into the hotel and most of the group got together for dinner with Puma across the street.  The restaurant was called "Good Day Son Rice Store" and they made noodle dishes rather than rice.  After dinner we walked down the street where a market was set up.  There was what remained of earlier produce and many stalls cooking food.  Some were actual stores and others were just vendors with carts or set up on the ground.  After wandering around awhile, we bought some beer and went back to the hotel.

Before moving on to Beijing the next afternoon, we spent the morning visiting the nearby Yungang Grottoes.  This almost mile long series of caves was started in 453 and took fifty years to complete.  
The 53 grottoes in the Yungang Grottos complex include 1,000 niches with about 51,000 statues ranging in size from less than an inch to the tallest Buddha at 56 feet.  Many of the caves are very intricate and colorful.

click on these pictures to see a larger version.

An impressive four-story wooden facade with glazed tile top is the entrance to caves 5 and 6.  The wooden structure itself was re-built in 1651AD.  Also of note is the carvings of flying celestials resembling angels throughout some of the caves.  We had a local guide for the tour and though the area was a bit crowded with Chinese tourists it was well worth the trip.


Back in Datong, Bill and I grabbed a snack along the market street and everyone got ready for the afternoon train to Beijing.  We were booked in a Soft Sleeper Class once again for the six hour train ride through the countryside.  There were a lot of tunnels and some beautiful scenery along the way.  

Day 27 through 30 "Beijing, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Home"

We paired up in taxi's from the train station to the hotel, got checked in and met Puma back in the lobby for dinner at a nearby restaurant.  After dinner we did a bit of exploring in the neighborhood and headed back to the hotel, a busy day was ahead of us.

We were off early to the bus stop for a day packed with sight seeing around Beijing.  Puma led us to Tiananmen Square after getting off the bus.  Before entering the square he stopped on a corner in sight of Mao's mausoleum (which was closed that day) to allow any questions about the 1989 events that made Tiananmen Square known by everyone.  He asked that we speak openly but only here on the corner and once we entered the Square not to speak of it again.  He gave a rather simplistic explanation for the governments behavior, neither condemning nor making excuses simply asking that we not pass judgment upon an entire people.  Then we were across the street exploring the statues and monuments.  Tiananmen Square is just that, a large open square-the largest in the world, flanked by some important buildings and home to some monuments.  Mao's mausoleum, the Great Hall of the People, Monument to the Peoples Hero's and the National Museum of China are all found here.
There were guys with camera's and backpacks carrying printers that would take your picture with Mao's portrait and print it right there for you.  They seemed to be doing a bustling business.  We never did find out how much they were selling for.  But we did take our picture with Mao's portrait.  I think its required.


Just north of Tiananmen Square is The Palace Museum or Forbidden City.  It is the worlds largest palace complex covering over 183 acres.  Right now many of the buildings within the palace are being restored for the expected tourist onslaught as a result of the 2008 Olympics, being held in Beijing.  So there were many building that we could not enter and some were completely covered with scaffolding.
It was also extremely crowded.  In come cases there were so many people it was difficult to enter the Halls and see the items on display.  What we could see displayed were paintings, furniture, ceramics and many jade and bronze items.
 The palace is said to have 9,999 rooms and it does seem to go on and on.  It is impressive and difficult to express the massive size and opulence in photos.

  The Starbucks was still there but I have heard it has since moved out.  It was a very small shop with no sign next to a gift shop in a building once used by court officials during the Qing Dynasty.  We enjoyed the imperial garden right inside the far northern gate.  It was the only place within the Palace that we saw gardens and trees and was very pretty.  Though exiting proved a bit difficult through the crowds of people.  There are more pictures of the interior on the photo page.


Bill and I walked on north past Jingshan Park toward the Drum Tower and the Hutongs.  The neighborhood changed along here and after walking a bit we found ourselves in a rather upscale area of little shops and cafe's.  It seemed the kind of area put together for tourists and we did see more Caucasians here.  We walked on past  Beihai Park, home to the White Dagoba, a Tibetan style Buddhist tower.  We could see the Dagoba in the distance on Jade Island in the middle of the parks lake.  Walking on we came to the Drum Tower, an imposing and drab building.  Just around the corner from the drum tower are the Hutong neighborhoods. 


 These are the old homes of the working class merchants.  Courtyard residences would be connected with narrow alleyways between.  Usually there was a shared bathroom area and sometimes a shared cooking area centered around the community well.  Most Hutongs in Beijing are being torn down to make way for high rise apartments.  Very few people live this way in modern China.  There are an abundance of rickshaws and their drivers in the area that will give you a tour but we chose just to walk around and look on our own.  It was a bit like touring the slums.  Not particularly pleasant.
We decided to get in some souvenir shopping as the next day would be busy and our flight out is early on the following day.  We took a taxi over to the Silk Market with the plan to find some silk robes to bring home.  I had heard that they were aggressive sales people in the silk market but I had no idea!  The sales girls would grab you as you walked by and if you stopped to look they would haggle down to pennies to get you to buy.  A couple of interesting things happened in the silk market.  Bill was looking at some cargo pants and the sales girl grabbed a tape measure because she insisted he couldn't be a 32 waist.  She kept saying he was very thin, 32 was too fat.  When she measured him at a 25 inch waist we knew something wasn't right.  Turns out they have a completely different "inch" in China and you had to be specific about AMERICAN INCH.
The other interesting thing was when I decided to buy my dad a really nice heavy weight silk robe.  I had already purchased some other robes for the ladies so I had an idea of where I wanted to end the bartering.  After deciding on a size and finding one I liked, the sales girl wanted to make a really good deal with me "because we are friends now", umm hmmm.  She was going to cut the price down to 1200 yuan (about $160 US).  Since I had paid about ten times less at a different vendors stall earlier I told her I wouldn't pay more than 150 yuan.  She was appalled and started hollering about the 100% pure silk, blah blah blah.  They had one on display exactly the same marked 315.000 or 315 yuan so bargaining for half that wasn't out of the question.  She then tried to convince me that was 315 US dollars.  So, I simply told her I was sorry I had apparently made a mistake and would go back to the other vendor and get something different.  This is when she GRABBED MY ARM AND SHOVED ME IN THE CORNER.  She got in my face and said "I don't want to have to hit you, because that would not be nice and that would be disrespectful".  Holy crap, I thought she was going to beat me up.  I jerked away and got Bill's attention and said we needed to get out of here.  We started to walk away and all of a sudden she was yelling "OK. OK YOUR PRICE".  She seemed to be attempting a switch and I talked about it loudly and she just gave up, gave me the robe, exclaiming softly how we are friends and I should be happy to come back and shop there again. SMILE . SMILE . SMILE.  ok, sure.
Shopping was so exhausting and practically dangerous!  Sure hope Dad likes that robe!
We had dinner at a sidewalk table at a restaurant near the hotel where we got a lot of food, beer and watermelon for dessert for about  $2.00.  Yeah, total for the meal.

It was our last full day of the trip and we would be walking the Great Wall.  The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is about an hour Northeast of Beijing.  Since it is farther than the Badaling section and not as easily accessible from  the road it is less crowded.  We took a chartered bus and planned to spend four or five hours hiking around.  It was a beautiful clear day, not too hot but warming up as the day wore on.  We walked the gauntlet of vendor stalls to the beginning of the cable car ride up to the wall.  You can hike up the trail to the wall but we chose to do our hiking on top.

The cable car that showed up to pick Bill and I up had a sign that said it was the car Bill Clinton rode in June of 1998.  The cable car lets you out at Tower 14 and you can go right and hike to Tower 1 or left and hike to Tower 20.  Although the hike to the left is shorter it is much steeper so, as everyone went to the right, of course, Bill and I took the steeper route to the left. 

We walked the distance to Tower 20 at the top of a set of very steep steps and then turned around to go as far as we could the other way while we still had some time.  There were very few people when we got to the wall and although as the day wore on more people showed up it was certainly never crowded and we often had an easy time of getting pictures without a bunch of other people in them.  The photo tab at the top of this page will take you to a lot more pictures of the wall and our walk.  But here we are at the end of the line at Tower Twenty.


As time was running out and we were to meet everyone at the cafe below, we made our way to the toboggan sled ride to the bottom.  It was a fun ride even if I did have a slow person in front of me that made me keep my speed in check.  Probably frustrated Bill more than me as I was perfectly happy to tool along slowly rather than fly down and perhaps off the side of the mountain.  We had time for a beer at the cafe with Puma, Ken, Jolyn, Dick and Mary while we waited for the others to make their way down.


We had a little time to get cleaned up before going out to the Kung Fu Show.  Everyone met in the lobby and we were off by bus across town with Puma in the lead.  It was an elaborate performance, almost opera like in that it followed a story of a young boys life becoming a monk and studying the teachings of Kung Fu.  As a young man he becomes disillusioned with this spiritual path and leaves for a time in search of love, but comes back and goes on to become the master and begin the teaching of another young boy.  All this with a lot of lights, costumes, music and of course Kung Fu.  It was a very enjoyable evening.
Directly after the show the group went to a restaurant for a traditional Peking Duck dinner.  This was our farewell dinner and Puma treated us to some 'traditional' Chinese liquor.   It was some strong stuff and we all toasted our China experience with small liqueur glasses.  Some of the group were going on to Tibet, some were spending more time in Beijing but Bill and I would be headed home by noon the next day.

We completed our packing that night and met Puma in the hotel lobby early the next morning where he had a taxi waiting to take us to the airport.  We said our goodbyes assuring Puma we would be back one day to see Tibet and perhaps a trip through Mongolia.  This part of the world still has many new adventures to offer.