Oh my god…real China…not the new fake version. Lets not be silly here…there are still lots of new shiny and plastic things…but the place has some real about it. The city walls are weathered, with bricks missing, the walls are not gun barrel straight but curve with the natural landscape, the buildings are old and while the street surface is newly repaved the rest of the place is relatively like it once may have been. Some of the buildings have been renovated but most have not. The renovated buildings now contain the trinket shops, bars and restaurants but just a street back and the world gets very real.
Pingyao has many tourist buildings, temples and sights contained within the city walls and have sensibly made the decision to include them all in a one off entry price which is valid for three days. You can (mostly) walk the 6.5 kilometre lap around the city walls but get stuck at one section due to renovation and have to backtrack to the south gate. This added quite a bit extra onto our hike in the sun but amazingly a cold beer fixed all of this once we stopped. Part of the town is commercialised and hugely overpriced while two doors down you will find a place that is authentic and very cheap.
We went to some temples etc around the city and hit some restaurants along the way before heading off on an organised tour run by the hostel to the Mianshan Mountain area. This too is an area that is incredibly real and authentic…immediately followed by the now ubiquitous Chinese sideshow. An hour or so drive out of town you reach one of the most naturally stunning areas that has simultaneously had added to it trashy statues and theme park style attractions. Stunning natural waterfalls and pools in the river have had statues of dogs squirting water from their mouths…large ponds have inflatable boats etc for kids to crash into each other while being overlooked by two large shiny dragons that have inexplicably been perched atop the waterfall.
The Mianshan Mountain area contains dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples, many built more than 1,000 years ago… alas they sit atop steep staircases. So to visit and admire the sights you will walk a lot and climb some serious stairs. Intermittently there are chair lifts, elevators and cable cars to help you out but if you want to see things there is no way to avoid the climbing and hiking. I used the services of these aids every chance I got paying a small price to avoid obscene exertion…my wife on the other hand…wanted to walk the stairs. The main instance involved me sitting in a cable car and waving while Jill and others in the group did a 40 minute stair climb up a mountain (about 2000 stairs).
Having climbed to the top of some of these peaks and walking along the ridge between peaks (the whole area stretches for about 12 kilometres) you often find yourselves high on the mountain with temples perched ever further up with ridiculous stair climbs still to do. Stairs bolted to the sides of cliffs, poking out of walls above rivers with chains to hang onto so as to avoid falling in. Needless to say Jill has become the stair queen while I chant what is quickly turning into my regular theme “I f$*#en hate stairs”.
Mianshan is stunningly beautiful but offensively themeparked. The old temples are lovely but you really have to work the stairs to get to them, the nature is fantastic but has been partially spoilt by the Chinese need to make things new and shiny. Concrete water buffalos, frogs, rabbits, deer, dragons and crocodiles were all part of what you will find while traversing a pretty mountain stream cascading over natural waterfalls.
For all the plastic China that is here…Pingyao is one of the most authentic Chinese towns that we have come across. There has been renovation (as there must be) and some of it has been in keeping with that which once was..while other bits has been to the taste of the Chinese tourist. We have been told that every Chinese town reinvents itself every 8-10 years so everything will change. The preservation of the historical elements will hopefully be done in keeping with the original…otherwise China runs the risk of turning itself into a Disney style theme park within a generation.