Kaifeng – an ancient Chinese capital

We spent our last few hours in Luoyang walking round the streets of the old town close to our hostel. There were a few shops selling instruments – traditional drums, mandolins and a strange sort of pipe that sounded a bit like a bag pipe but without a bag. The man in the shop let me have a go – I got some notes, but it was really hard work! We made friends with a very sweet little puppy who neglected his kebab to come and play with us and followed us down the street for a while. On one of the stalls I was extremely excited to find one of the shuttlecock things for sale – basically there are four large feathers attached to stacked discs of metal which provide some weight. You have to kick it with the side of your foot and play keepy uppy with your friends. We played for a while in the market place, much to the amusement of the stall holders, who showed us how it was done properly (I was pretty bad – I’ve still not found my sport after all these years). We stopped after Luke set the alarm off on a motorbike! We had an amazing soup from a stall – full of juicy mushrooms and tingly Sichuan peppercorns. It cost mere pence.

That afternoon, we caught the train to Kaifeng. The system for boarding trains is quite interesting. The waiting rooms are large and there are rows of seats facing each other with a space down the middle for queuing. At the end of each of these corridors there is a sign with the train number on. When your train is due to arrive, the sign flashes and everyone queues up to show their tickets and file onto the appropriate platform. It works really efficiently, and means that you can easily see where you need to be for your train. It is great that everything works off the train number, as if it was the city names, we’d have no chance as it would all be in Chinese characters! In the larger cities, there are a few different waiting rooms to cater for the different platforms, but everything is very clear, which means that when we arrive at a new station, we actually feel like we know what we are doing.

On the train to Kaifeng we saw a greater cross section of Chinese society – as well as the Han Chinese population, there are many other ethnic groups; it is a huge country after all! There is quite a large Muslim population in Kaifeng and we saw more Muslim Chinese on this train. One of the reasons we had chosen to go to Kaifeng was because we had heard the night market and the Muslim cuisine there was amazing.

Our hostel was quite distant from the old town centre, so after dropping our bags off, we took a taxi to the night market. It was actually quite similar to the night markets we had seen in other towns, but still really interesting and full of wonderful aromas. There was also a really foul smell that drifted across from some stalls – an acrid, sour stench. We think it was bean curd; I don’t know what they do to it for it to stink like that, and I can’t think why anyone would want to eat it! There were lots of stalls with open air dining areas behind them. These had their ingredients all spread out on tables and menus in Chinese drawn up on boards. The food looked so tempting that we decided to risk it and hovered about near a stall that didn’t stink of bean curd. The owner spotted us and boomed at us in Chinese, established we couldn’t speak a word, and gestured for us to go and sit down, indicating that he would decide what we ate! We duly took our seats at one of the trestle tables, and after a short wait, he returned with a bowl of steaming soup. The broth was thin and very tasty, but contained a large number of very small, whole battered fish. Now, as many of you will now, fish is not my favourite thing! However, I am being very grown up and have eaten fish numerous times on this trip already. Typical that at the night market where I was most excited about the culinary possibilities I end up eating fish! It is pretty difficult to eat wet battered fish with chopsticks, especially when you’re not used to eating fish and even more so when you have to eat them whole, bones and all! But being confronted with so many little lives sacrificed for my meal, I felt it was my duty to give it a good go. I know that most of you would think little of this, but for me it was quite difficult! Whilst crunching through fish bones, we did a bit of sketching, paid over the odds for some melon (that’s what tourists are for), then headed back.

The next day we explored a bit more in the old town. You will probably never have heard of Kaifeng – we hadn’t until we read about it in our guide book – but it was actually the capital of China (then named Bian) in the Song dynasty, from AD 960. From 1013-1127 it was thought to be the largest city in the world, Kiev being the second largest with several thousand fewer people. Its position by banks of the Yellow River meant that it was prone to flooding and the city has been submerged in water many times during its long history. There is a very famous painting, the Qingming Scroll, by a 12th century artist of the Song dynasty, Zhang Zeduan, which is thought to depict life in Kaifeng on a festival day. To the Chinese this painting has the same cultural significance as the Mona Lisa in the Western world. The original is in the Forbidden Palace in Beijing and people flock to see it, though we weren’t aware of it when we were there. I would argue that it is more significant than the Mona Lisa as it gives such a detailed picture of life during the Song dynasty and the Mona Lisa is just one mysterious lady! We had heard there was a model of the scenes depicted in the painting at the Guildhall in Kaifeng, so we went there to investigate.

The Guildhall was a gorgeous building, and had been beautifully restored. It was built in the Qing dynasty in 1776 with money from three provinces (Shanxi, Shaanxi and Gansu) and acted as a meeting place for business men from these areas to trade with one another. The stonework was full of detail and the wooden carvings around the archways and the eaves were exceptional and freshly painted in vivid colours, edged with gold. The set up was similar to a temple, with rooms set around a courtyard and a main hall at the end. Indeed, there was a temple there as well. Hung along the walls in one area were birds in cages with strange voices – I think they were mynah birds. I felt sorry for them as their cages were so small, but hopefully they got some interest in their lives from watching the visitors. In a side hall, there was a long cabinet containing the 3d reproduction of the Qingming Scroll. It was wonderful! These sorts of things really bring out the child in you. It was delightful to be able to peep into the tiny windows and see the little people taking tea, or look down a street and see tradesmen selling wares and men pulling water from a well. The attention to detail was extraordinary. The boats had been painstakingly made, the bridges and curve of the river gave it depth and every little person seemed to have a purpose, so that you could easily envisage what it would be like to be down on the streets in the hustle and bustle of 12th century Kaifeng. I LOVE LITTLE MODELS! I only wish I could have shrunk myself down to a height of 1cm and joined in the fun.

In the main hall they had more models! These were of Kaifeng as it is today, and of Kaifeng earlier in its history. I couldn’t read the information, but I presume the older model would have been of Kaifeng around the time the Guildhall was built in the 18th century. They weren’t quite as exciting, as there were no tiny people, but it still gave you a fascinating overview of the city and you were able to see what had been preserved and what had changed. It also allowed me to see what an amazing city we were in and how much we were going to miss by only spending one day there! I dragged Luke away from his drawing, anxious to make the most of our time.

We planned to visit one of the parks in the centre of town, and were making our way there, when we were stopped by a cycle rickshaw driver in mediaeval dress. He spoke very good English and told us his English name was Jason; it was given to him by some Australian tourists a few years ago. He said he was in the 2011 edition of the Lonely Planet China guide and that he could give us a tour of Kaifeng around the edge of the park and tell us about it history. He did a very good sales pitch and as we only had a couple of hours left in the city, we thought it would be an excellent opportunity to get more of the flavour of the place. We hopped into the rickshaw and commenced our tour. As we went around the perimeter of the park, he talked about what we could see. There were two lakes in the park – one was named after a good general and people swam in that lake; the other was named after a bad general and no one swam in that lake as it was ‘dirty’. In reality they were probably as dirty as each other, but the point is that you wouldn’t want to swim in the lake associated with the bad general, as it would be a bit like swimming in a pool of sin! Apparently the houses of both generals were flooded, hence why the lakes are named after them. The bad general got away with his bad deeds as his daughter was a concubine of the king; the good general came off quite badly I think.

It was fun weaving though the traffic and listening to Jason chatter away. I didn’t quite catch all he said, but it was definitely money well spent! Every so often we would stop in the traffic and passers-by would stare at us; they couldn’t believe that a rickshaw driver could speak English, as Jason proudly pointed out. He hadn’t been to college, he had learnt English all off his own back, which was very enterprising of him – he certainly has a niche market! So if you’re ever in Kaifeng, look him up! Remember – the 2011 edition of the Lonely Planet guide! He even helped us hail a taxi after the tour was over so we could collect our bags and get to the train station on time. I think he must have told the driver we were in a hurry, as he drove really fast – swerving in and out the lines of traffic and sometimes taking small side streets or driving on the pavement to jump two cars ahead! No one seemed to mind though; people are very relaxed about bad driving habits here! Needless to say, we arrived very early for our train.

It was jam-packed at the station. We had to squeeze through the throngs with our huge rucksacks to find a place to stand. Yet again, we killed time by sketching, which as usual drew the crowds around us and broke down a few barriers. It is definitely a good conversation starter! After about an hour of waiting (I told you we were early!), we boarded our night train to Shanghai. We were only going to have one day there before flying to Japan, but plan to spend a bit longer there on our return to China in January.

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2 thoughts on “Kaifeng – an ancient Chinese capital

  1. You should rename this blog “let her eat fish”! 🙂

    I know we’ve been requesting photos but honestly the description of you and Luke in the market gives us the best pictures!

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