Friday, April 24, 2009
Hard sleeper to Pingyao
Another overnight train ride, this time in what's called a "hard sleeper,'' a step down from "soft sleeper,'' but not as bad as it first looked when we stepped on the train in Xian at 11 p.m. Our destination was Pingyao, a small, restored medieval town enclosed by a mile-long, 40-foot-high wall, one of the few in China, besides the wall in Xian, that wasn't destroyed during Communist revolution.
"Hard sleeper'' is a six-person compartment (no door) with three narrow berths on each side. Lucky for us, we got the bottom and middle because once you're at the very top, getting down looked like a major chore!
This time we shared our compartment with a family, so not so bad really. The Chinese really come prepared for these overnight rides. The train puts a themos of hot water in each compartment and everyone brings their own insulated cup, tea, snacks etc.
Pingyao is the "middle of nowhere'' China, more specifically in the Shanxi Province, surrounded by dusty coal-mining areas and broken-down mud brick buildings. The natural surroundings are hardly scenic, but the town inside the walls is amazing. About 40,000 people live here. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Pingyao was an affluent banking center and the banks and wealthy merchants built temples and elaborate courtyard-style mansions, many of which have been turned into small guesthouses like the one above, owned this man, Jackie Deng, who was born here.
The banks - 22 at one time- shut down after the Qing Dynasty defaulted on its loans in the early 1900s. With no money to modernize the town and no interest on the part of the Communists, it was left pretty much frozen in time until restoration began in the late 1980s.
Our guesthouse, the Tian Yuan Kui, is in a 300-year-old wooden and brick building that was originally built and used as a hotel, most likely to house wealthy banking clients. More recently, it was a shoe store until the owners began restoring it in 2000. Now there are 32 rooms tucked into a succession of little courtyards. They have three sizes and three prices- $30, $45 and $60.
We splurged out on the $60 room with a big, new bathroom and shower and a huge "Kang'' bed, a traditional-style Ming Dynasty bed that at one time would have been heated from underneith by a coal fire. The hotel's owners are a local couple, but it seems that about a half-dozen girls, all 18-19, basically run the place. They all speak some English and are very curious to know about everything we are doing, why we came etc. It's a safe bet that none of them have traveled more than 50 miles from here.
This is really small-town China. The old city is only about one square mile. About 40,000 live inside The walls, 20,000 fewer than were here a few years ago. Tourist shops, restaurants, cafes and guesthouses have pretty much taken over the main street and a few of the sidestreets, but people seem to go in pretty much living their lives in spite of it.
The food here is the best we've had in China. There are lots of local specialities including sweet potato balls filled with dates and sweet red bean, a beef dish cooked with potatoes, a pasta called "cat's ears,'' and flat buckwheat noddles rolled and served in a bamboo steamer with a side of tomato sauce.
We ran into this funeral procession while taking a walk. Someone explained to us that there are two kinds of funerals: happy and sad. Happy if the person was over 65; sad if it was a younger person. This was a happy funeral.