The next morning we arrived in Pingyao. We got a rickety tuk tuk type taxi to the old town, both feeling a bit jaded from a lack of sleep. Pingyao has a lovely, virtually intact old town, thought to be the best preserved in China. It is bounded by city walls and is packed full of old courtyard residences and historic buildings. The roofs are decorated with stone dragons and there are little faces at the end of each line of roof tiles. You can buy a three day ticket which gives you entry to all the historic sites within the city walls, which is a real bargain. There were a lot of Chinese tourists and the main thoroughfares were lined with stalls selling bags, antiques, jade and ocarinas.
Harmony Guesthouse was at the quieter end of one of the main streets, an old courtyard family residence, this time with the middle section open to sky. Our room was on the ground floor towards the back of the courtyard and had a massive kang bed inside. Most of the old houses would have had kang beds. They are large stone platforms which can be heated from underneath in winter, and the mattresses are laid over the top. We were excited to have the luxury of an ensuite bathroom, but unfortunately it smelt of rotten eggs – you can’t have it all, can you?! We spent a while faffing and getting our bearings, so despite having bought our three day tickets, we didn’t use them that day.
In the living room/bar area, the family were hooked on a Chinese drama series on TV. It was very melodramatic! It was a historical drama, with people in traditional old costume; lots of intrigue and double crossing was going on. One character seemed to spend the whole time sobbing. From what I could understand, a girl had ‘died’ in childbirth, but her son seemed to be valuable to another woman. The girl had been kept in a bed for a few days and then put in a coffin for burial. Just before the coffin was lowered, the sobbing girl threw a cup of water on her face and she miraculously sat up! Shock, horror! I get the idea that it’s a bit like Chinese Eastenders; the same amount of anguish, but not quite so drab. Apparently it’s on for two hours, five days a week! After we had torn ourselves away from the television, we wandered about the streets, soaking up the ancient city atmosphere.
The following day we visited the Confucian temple. It was calmer inside and not as ornate as the Buddhist temples we had visited. Confucius was a philosopher and Confucianism has played a great role in Chinese history. If you have ever been to a Chinese restaurant and seen ornaments of a wise looking old man in flowing robes with a long white beard, that is probably Confucius. He was alive at a time of great turmoil in Chinese history, and his teachings were intended to help bring peace to a nation constantly at war. The basic principle is that if everyone upholds their responsibilities to one another, the world will be a happier place. It encourages altruism (rén), being righteous and having an inclination to do good things (yí), having a sense of propriety (li) and having a good sense of moral judgement (zhi). So from what I understand, it isn’t a religion as such, more a way of life. There are gods that people worship as well, the main one being the Tian which is like the source of all things, but the philosophy can also be separate from this. I think there is also a strong belief in the power of one’s ancestors and sacrifices would be made to honour them.
After the Confucian temple, we used our tickets to go for a walk around the city walls. Luke stopped straight away to get his drawing fix but I continued, peering nosily down into people’s courtyards and watching dogs steal kebab sticks from the bins. However, I had only gone a short distance when I reached a barrier – the wall was closed for repair. There was an exit point for the Confucian temple, so I walked down that way, thinking I’d be able to get back on a little further along. However, it turned out I couldn’t – once you left the wall, you were not allowed back on. I was going to duck under the barrier (much to the horror of a Chinese couple who could see that I’d only made a mistake), but a man in a nearby office comes and tells me I can’t go back in. Where are all the rule breakers?! I stomped off back to the original gate to argue my case and jabbered and mimed at the man, who looked a bit taken aback and let me through the barrier just to get me out of the way I think! So I walked round in the other direction, feeling mollified. There were fantastic views of the old town, it was interesting to see how it was all laid out and just how many dragons there were prickling the rooftops! The walls were crenelated and every so often there would be towers for defence. I met two young men walking in the same direction, who wanted to take a photo of me with them (because I was looking so glamorous of course). This happens quite a lot, and so I decided to engage them in conversation rather than just have my photo taken by strangers. We had a funny, stilted conversation in broken English, where I could hear them testing out what they were going to say to me in whispers to each other before they actually said it. When we exited the wall, they were keen to make sure I didn’t get lost looking for Luke, so gave me their map, which was very sweet – although it was actually just a straight line, which even I could cope with! Somehow they must have sensed my ineptitude.
I wandered off to the other end of town to meet Luke, and having some time to kill, I used my ticket to visit another temple along the way, a Taoist temple this time, another important Chinese philosophy. Taosim teaches people to go on a path of discovery to find a way of living life in harmony with the universe. It uses pairs of opposites to create imagery that can help guide a good way of living. This is where the yin yang symbol comes from. It was a lovely grey stone courtyard affair, which contrasted beautifully with the hundreds of red ribbons that were tied everywhere. Walking through the streets earlier, and from my vantage point on the wall, I had seen quite a few groups of people playing mah jong, a traditional Chinese game played with pieces that look a little like dominoes. On my way out of the temple, I was distracted by mah jong sets and found myself buying one, but not before I had haggled the price down to a more respectable level. I felt quite proud of my tenacity, haggling not being my forte – but I knew his original price was extortionate and so I felt justified.
On our last day in Pingyao, I vowed to get the most out of my city ticket! Luke had a contented day of sitting and drawing on the street, whilst I went on a whistle stop tour of the nearby museums – four in total. First was Rishicheng, the first draft bank in China, and the start of modern savings and loan systems. There was very little information in English, but it was still interesting to have a poke a round and make up my own stories. The bank even had a kitchen and bedrooms for guests. The museum next door was very similar, also on a banking theme. The other two were an old family residence and a martial arts museum. The martial arts museum information was entirely in Chinese, so I just used my imagination whilst inspecting the weaponry and killed time photographing a heavily pregnant cat that was curled up next to a rack of mean looking equipment. All these buildings were based on the old courtyard style. The bedrooms were along the sides, with servant quarters and the kitchen further back. The large central hall was for entertaining. The bedrooms were my favourites – the kang beds all had stoves right next to them because the heating system all joined up, so you could easily just roll to one side and make a cup of tea in the morning! All in all, I felt I had got a pretty good idea of what the old towns used to be like, but we probably could have got more out of the experience if we had taken a guide for a couple of hours. Chinese museums are often not very well geared towards foreign tourists – when there is information in English, it tends to be quite mundane and self-explanatory – for example, they like to tell you the dimensions of something when it is right in front of you, rather than explain the history behind it or what it is used for.
After my whirlwind tour of the museums, I went back to find Luke. He’d found a friend – a young Chinese girl was drawing with him. Apparently she’d spent a long time watching him draw, then left and came back with her sketch book and sat down next to him. She was an art student and her pictures were very accurate. We had seen several groups of students drawing in Pingyao; I think the old town charm must make it very popular for art groups. Pingyao is probably to the Chinese what Cotswold villages are to the English. However, all the students we saw seemed to draw in the same way – I think they are taught a certain method and that’s what they do. Black outlines, flattish, and with good attention to detail, but not much individual style.
We had a taxi booked for half seven so we could catch our night train to Xi’an. Before we left, we went to a café for some dinner and treated ourselves to some chocolate cake and ice cream. We missed cake! Once at the station, we started to draw to pass the time, and ended up with quite a crowd around us. One man asked if we would draw him. He was a taxi driver and very funny. He spoke about five different languages – I’m not sure how good he was at them all (though his English was excellent), but his accents were great. He would say, ‘I am sorry but your train is delayed,’ in each language with a hilarious expression on his face. The best one was German, with really pursed lips and a stern frown. I think he’d make a good stand-up comedian. The picture I drew of him was really bad because I was laughing so much and he wouldn’t stay still. We had shared our taxi with a nice Chinese girl, and she asked if I would draw her. Luckily this time it turned out quite a good likeness, so she was pleased.
After boarding the train, I was pleased to discover I had the lower bunk, so I slept really well. Perhaps here is a good time to note some little things we have noted about differences in culture. In China it is perfectly acceptable to hawk up some phlegm and spit it in the street. And when I say hawk up, I mean REALLY grollich noisily (remember that word from before?). People do it inside as well, but without the spitting, so as you’re snuggling up to sleep on your bunk, it may well be to a chorus of coughing and retching. At first it’s pretty disgusting, but you soon get used to it! I think with so much pollution in the big cities people must produce a lot more phlegm! Soon I will probably be grolliching with the best of them. It is also a country of noisy eaters. I think when you eat so many noodles, there is no point in having table manners – you just slurp away!