Tag Archives: pingyao

Pingyao and Mianshan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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”.

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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.

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Wutaishan and TaiYuan


Yet again another horror transit…our bus broke down so they put 9 of us (+luggage) and a driver into a 9 seater van for the 4 hr ride up the mountains. This was at least manageable as one of the group was about 6-7 so could be managed. Inexplicably we stopped on the top of one of the mountains, in the rain, behind a large bus and were told we would be switching busses for the last bit…ok…the big bus wasn’t ours though…all of a sudden a little 7 seater pulled up and we were all expected to pile in… somehow.

The Chinese raced to the bus and took their seats while Jill and I attempted to put our luggage behind the back seat. A small day bag might have fitted but our backpacks and their suitcase were not going to fit. My bag and their bag made it in and Jill’s bag was to join us in the cabin…somehow. As we moved around to the door we saw that all seats were taken…where do we fit…this one Chinese woman suggested that Jill and I cram into the back seat with the two existing people already there…a few “what the f…is this” from me and the world slightly rearranged with Jill and one of the smaller Chinese women in the back with the other two.

Jill’s bag at my feet and me on the crash seat. As we descended the hill I heard Jill squeal and turned to find the back door had flown open and she was clutching on to my backpack…while her day bag somersaulted and skidded down the mountain. Now is probably a good time to mention that our day bags contain all of our electronics and vital items…Jill’s had the laptop, kindle, telephone and her glasses in it…as it skidded and tumbled down the concrete at 30-40 km/hr.

About 5 minutes later my bag was randomly being transferred to the car that happened to be behind us…another few “what the f…” from me, the it was on my lap inside the cabin with Jill’s bag… Jill had checked that the laptop still worked and was not relinquishing the day bag from her grasp. Half an hour later we were delivered at the location where we checked into a relatively ordinary place and hid from the cold and the rain.

The room had 6 foot doorway entrances…I found this out as my head ploughed into the door frame…followed by some fairly predictable words given the transit we had endured. Right next door to our hotel was a place where they were singing Chinese opera on the street and blasting it over speakers for the whole neighbourhood to enjoy. This was going strong when we arrived and continued until 11 pm…and started again at 9am.

The next morning we woke to find the rain had stopped…as had my case of the darks with the world…and we could actually see that this place was stunning. Blue skies, gorgeous tree filled green mountains. Mount Wutai is one of the 4 sacred Chinese Buddhist holy mountains (the others being Mt Emei, Mt Putuo and Mt Jiuhua). Wutaishan is actually the name for the area of 5 peaks with plateaus on each peak. Jill tells me that this place is snowed in about 7 months of the year and the owner reckons winter is about minus 30 centigrade…so we were lucky with our timing.

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It is an area of great natural beauty but being of religious significance it has also been overrun by the building of over 360 temples during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 ad). Thankfully only 47 of these still exist but the place is still thick with temples, caves, pagodas, monks etc…based on the construction going on…the 600 temples that one was, are being replaced as we speak…modern China.

We hit the pavement and started walking up the hill past the temples etc that we had seen from the sardine can…through the mist of the rain… and the red mist over my eyes the previous night. This place is beautiful. Jill went off with her camera, as she does, loving the green hills with temples everywhere you look. Throw in the odd stupa and she was in her element. After going up the hill we headed back down and found the lake with the waterfall and koi and I was happy. Add to this the fact that by the time we got back the opera had packed up and left from outside our room and all was good with the world again.

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The temple that Jill REALLY wanted to see was the one that involved climbing over 1000 stairs to the top of the mountain. We did this…but via the chair lift…not the stairs. Just as well cos it was pretty lame once you got there and you would feel robbed if you had hiked the stairs. Effort vs Reward.

That evening we had a great night with no bleeding eardrums from the squealing opera singers, a food recommendation from the owner and generally some peace and quiet. The next day after a haircut and breakfast (totalling less than $5 for both) I headed back to the lake and sat in the shade and breeze feeding steamed bun to the koi. I have decided I really like fish. While I sat by the lake feeding fish Jill climbed the hill next to the lake to see yet another temple.

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The final thing that needs mentioning for this place was the pooch in the hostel. This dog looked deformed with a depressed brow and protruding skull cap…but was 100% self sufficient. They had attached pull handles on the doors so the dog could take itself in and out of everywhere it wanted. It had learned to open a normal door and it basically had free run of the place. It was a well natured mutt but with a very odd look about it.

We bussed it out in a much more civilised manner (despite the fact that my seat was broken and kept slowly reclining to the point of being horizontal if I or the bloke behind me would let it). But that was the only real issue the rest went the way it should with no dramas. We got off in Taiyuan only to find that the entire city is being renovated…and I mean the entire city. We decided that the wide streets, metros, parks, gardens etc are on a schedule and are rolled out in one big hit…and it was the turn of Taiyuan when we were there. We stopped to break the journey to Pingyao and to check out the Museum which was supposed to be pretty good.

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The museum was OK but without being startling and the city as a rule might have been OK but the construction at present has made the place quite poor. The one bit that saved the place was the night food market. It was made especially for the tourist and was priced accordingly…but the range of food was startling and we wandered the streets munching on a range of the fare on offer at the stalls.