Pingyao is one of the cities China is most proud of. Its visitor information says that it owns more “AAAA” tourist attractions than any other Chinese city, and it is “one of the 50 most worthful places for a foreigner to enjoy in China” (Pingyao City Leaflet). Surrounded by 14th Century city walls and containing almost 4,000 original Ming and Qing buildings, Pingyao is certainly a treasure trove of architectural history. Almost unique in China for having survived the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) virtually unscathed, Pingyao has been less successful in avoiding the influences of tourism. Its location, in the tourist trail between Beijing and Xi’an, means that its ancient shop fronts now vie for your attention with legions of stalls selling everything from bongo drums to Chinese silk dresses. Nevertheless, we spent a couple of relaxing days there enjoying the relative peace and quiet after Beijing.
We also met up again with the Indian traveller (Anindo) that we had befriended in Beijing. He was from a town outside Mumbai and had studied mechanical engineering before getting a job at Phillips and then ultimately setting up his own business. Apart from being extremely intelligent and with a great sense of humour, we liked him because he seemed to have a genuine love of India and concern for its welfare. He admitted almost apologetically that he refused to pay bribes and paid all his taxes – something for which his friends back home mock him. At 34 years old, he has resisted the temptation to move to the US as so many of his peers have, and said that he wanted to stay and build his business in India. John enjoyed talking to him about some of the observations made in Pavan Varma’s “Being Indian” and Anindo does indeed seem to be a rare breed in his approach to business in India. We couldn’t help thinking that if more of the educated elite shared his values, India could finally unleash its true potential.
Our favourite restaurant in Pingyao was a small café called De Ju Yuan. Full of locals and with the all-important English menu, it was here that Josi had her first ever taste of caramelised fried banana. Before the arrival of the bananas, we were given a bowl of cold water, into which Josi immediately and authoritatively plunged her fingers and started washing them. With a truly horrified look and much finger wagging, the waiter said “no, no, no!” He whisked the bowl away and returned with both a new bowl of water and a plate of sticky caramelised banana. Clearly aware that a demonstration was required, he used chopsticks to pick a piece of sizzling hot banana and plopped it steaming into the water. This had the effect of instantly cooling the burnt sugar into a hard crispy shell, surrounding the soft banana centre. Delicious!
Less appealing was a sign outside a neighbouring restaurant advertising a Chinese dish with the English translation: “Fried Characteristics of Hunan Ass” - not wishing to find out which particular characteristics this ass possessed, we moved on.
From Pingyao we made a day trip to the ancient village of Zhang Bi, famous for its 1,400 year old labyrinth of defensive tunnels. These stretch for about 1.5km and reach a depth of 26 metres. Also nearby is the near perfectly preserved Qing Dynasty courtyard and merchants home – “Wang’s Courtyard”. This comprised an extensive collection of classic Chinese buildings which housed a fine collection of antiques and porcelain.
Back in Pingyao we made preparations for leaving by bus and spent our final day visiting, among other things, the Martial Arts Museum. This fascinated us and John has since resolved to take up Wung Chin when he gets home!
Aboard the bus, we settled down for the 6 hour journey to Xi’an. Train and bus journeys are always good people watching opportunities – and this was no exception. Seemingly endless supplies of chicken feet were consumed, while outside a dusty landscape of construction sites and man-made canals slipped seamlessly past. At one point a truck passed with three tiers of huge pigs crammed into it. They were so tightly packed on top of each other that they seemed a single mass of hooves, snouts and big floppy ears. As the gnawing of chicken feet continued, we tucked into our bag of peanuts and nectarines.