Thursday, 2 June 2011

Taiyuan and Pingyao

Entrance to Chongshan Temple, Taiyuan
For a city that was a regional capital 2500 years ago Taiyuan has very little to see. This municipality of over 4.3m people has lost its charm under the thick smog that blights so many coal cities in Shanxi province. While it has a smattering of interesting temples scattered around town, an impressive evening skyline and a supposedly excellent museum (although somehow I managed to visit on the only day it was closed), I found it interesting for a wholly different reason...

For a city of so many inhabitants, only a few hours' train ride from Beijing, I was surprised to see the incredulous reactions towards a Westerner. People stopped what they were doing to stare or point or ask for photos. At one point a mother pushed her embarrassed teenage daughter over to me to be photographed by the rest of her family. To be fair this didn't just happen in Taiyuan but I struggle to comprehend how a city of this size sees so few Westerners. Put it into perspective: excluding Greater London, there are no cities in the UK with a population of over 1m... there are over 160 in China and that number is growing. I left Taiyuan feeling a little uncomfortable... mostly because I knew that if I even scratched my balls in public there'd be a 360 degree photo flicker-book of the event from nearby Chinese cameras.


Gate tower, Pingyao 
Temple courtyard

Pingyao is a mere hamlet of around 500,000 people. The modern town is nothing special but the real highlight is the beautiful old town, surrounded by impressive Ming dynasty walls. Pingyao was also the site of China's first bank, the Rishengchang, and at its peak in the later years of the Qing dynasty had over half of the country's financial institutions operating within its walls. Plenty of shrines to wealth here, and some interesting residences of bodyguards who would accompany the crates of silver as they trundled to the far reaches of the realm. Often these bodyguards would be Kung Fu masters trying to earn a bit of cash in hand. A dangerous but lucrative job

Ming & Qing buildings, taken from the city walls

Bodyguard training area

I decided to extend my stay and hop on a tour of the nearby attractions: Zhangbi underground castle and the hilariously-named Wang Courtyard.

The former is essentially a series of tunnels under the village of Zhangbi Cun, designed to protect the occupants in the event of an attack. Several kilometres of underground passages run over three levels with secret exits, soldiers' sleeping quarters, spyholes and ambush points. Architectural features of the above-ground temple complex were positioned in order to align with the Chinese constellations. If you're interested these are based on the position of the moon in a single month (the "28 Mansions") rather than the 12 positions of Sun in a year for the Greco-Roman constellations. Russell Grant would shit himself...

The Wang Family Courtyard was an impressive complex of residences, gardens, temples and schools, built for one of the region's most powerful families. The size of the grounds is impressive but once you've seen one courtyard you've seen them all.

On the way back from the tour our taxi driver pointed at the side of the dusty dual carriageway.

"Look, Tibetan ladies. They want to sell us something."

We pulled over. Two ladies wearing traditional Tibetan clothing were standing over a selection of jewellery. I hate how most organised tours end the day [or in the case of Egyptian tours, spend most of the day] in the local jade/alabaster/carpet/silk shop with slick-haired salesmen plying nonplussed tourists with tea in order that they might offload their shoddy wares at massively inflated prices. I was loath to get out of the car. That is, until one of the ladies pulled a hunting crossbow and a semi-automatic pistol out of a sack. Our driver assured us they were for sale - and not, as I had firstly presumed, for forcing us to buy bracelets at gunpoint - and proceeded to try out the pistol (a bargain at 800 RNB, about £80 - and that was their initial price, before bartering). Not really something I could get back through customs though. China's has 56 recognised ethnic groups, with the Han Chinese forming over 90% of the population. In an effort to keep social harmony the government allows some minority groups to carry weapons - although I think pistols are pushing it a bit.

Courtyard gardens

Wang's Courtyard complex

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