Back to part 2.
Once it was daylight, we saw we were passing through a mixed agricultural and industrial area. Corn dominated.
Around 7am we arrived at Pingyao. From here on out, we had no reservations for transportation or lodging. At the little train station, there were a bunch of taxis, which in Pingyao are mostly either open electric golf-cart-like vehicles or three wheeled things kind of like modified motorcycles. We found one and asked him to take us to a hotel in Gucheng (the Old Town), haggling for the price until he agreed to ¥2 per person. It was not a long ride, but it was really cold in the open car.
Once we passed inside the city wall, we could see why there were very few full-sized cars as taxis. The streets are very narrow and mostly dedicated to pedestrians, bicycles, and scooters along with the taxis. There are barriers preventing any wheeled vehicles from proceeding, and if you’re on a bike you have to pick it up to get past.
We paid the driver and looked at the first hotel, then three others. Actually they’re called guest houses, and are not really like a standard hotel. There are a bunch of them around the old part of town, just as there were in Lijiang.
We settled on the second place, which for no reason I could tell, was called the Catholic Guesthouse in English (the Chinese is 永庆斋客栈 Yongqingzhai Kezhan, which has nothing to do with religion as far as I can tell, something like Perpetual Festival Guesthouse), and they agreed to let us stay for a ridiculously low price.
We got two rooms like this one for two nights for a total of ¥100 (a little less than US$15). Right, that is ¥25 per night per room.
It had a Western style toilet which was a bit old and stained, but worked just fine. What we didn’t check was the hot water. Apparently they claimed hot water was available 24 hours.
These guest houses all feature at least one courtyard, and are basically repurposed old buildings.
So we checked in (and they never had me fill out the government’s foreigner temporary residence form), dropped off our bags, had a quick breakfast there, and went out to take care of our first order of business.
We rented four bicycles for the day, and rode off to the train station to arrange for the next leg of our journey.
This is us discovering that there were no seats available for any trains to Datong on the 8th. Well, there’s always buses, right? We asked direction to the bus station, and rode there to see if we would have better luck.
As it happens, bus tickets can only be purchased on the day of travel, so we checked out the schedule and prices, and headed back towards the Old Town.
We passed through what you might call Auto Row, where a bunch of new and used vehicle sales and repair shops were located.
This type of vehicle seems to be the area’s equivalent of the American pickup truck: the farmer’s general purpose work and delivery machine. We saw them all over the place, sometimes loaded with truly amazing cargoes. There are also electric versions, including many outfitted as taxis.
Aside from its Old Town, Pingyao is famous for a type of preserved beef, so we rode to the factory store for the most famous brand, but all the staff were on their lunch break and the store was closed. While we stood around discussing what to do, one of the sellers came and let us in for a look. My companions bought a couple of boxes for gifts, and I agreed to take one bag myself.
Then it was back to town to drop off the boxes at our rooms.
This is the outside of the West Gate.
Then we rode around town to get a feel for where things were, and to find lunch. Just down Nan Dajie (South Street) from the Catholic Guesthouse is Shilou, sometimes called the Bell Tower, though the Chinese just means City Tower.
Pretty soon, one of the themes for the Pingyao portion of the trip made its first appearance.
There are lots of cats in this town. It seemed that about half of the shops had one or more hanging around somewhere, even curled up in the display cases.
For lunch, we wanted to try out some of the local specialties, so we picked a restaurant and ordered some.
On the far side are some fried balls (“poms” on the menu) filled with figs and red beans, sweet and gooey and tasty, if a bit greasy. And watch out for the seeds! Then there is a noodle dish that was pretty good, and a soup with tofu and fatty pork (bacon, essentially).
After lunch, while my companions were busy haggling at a jewelry stall, I rode the short distance to the South Gate.
This was the city’s main gate in its heyday. I think the area just inside it here was where the guards were garrisoned. During the middle of the 19th Century, Pingyao was the banking center of China, with several large nationwide banks headquartered here, and that great wealth made the city a showpiece of Chinese culture at the time. However, once the imperial situation started changing around the turn of the 20th Century, the banks didn’t adapt, and within twenty years, had all failed, reducing the city to a quaint backwater. And fortunately for us today, leaving it untouched by modernization. With the troubled banking situation in the US right now, it makes me wonder...
After the jewelry shopping was done (at least for the moment), we continued our ride, and came across something not listed in the guidebook.
This Christian church near the East Gate is still in use.
Along the inside of the eastern wall, you can see that behind the brick facing is a pile of dirt.
And you can see another of the wide variety of vehicle designs in use. And speaking of vehicle designs...
These larger three-wheeled things are very common as well. You can’t see it from this angle, but the engine is between the two seats, and it uses a belt to drive the rear axle.
We rode around the inside of the wall from the East Gate around to the north and discovered that the east side of town has very few tourist attractions. Just normal everyday life over here. That’s a pile of ears of corn set out to dry.
And that’s a pile of coal in the street with buckets to carry it inside for heating and cooking.
By the time we returned the bikes, it was after dark.
For dinner, we went to a somewhat more upscale place that was recommended in a guidebook. There was a guy in an old-fashioned costume who beat on a drum and announced the arrival of customers.
You can tell it’s upscale because the dishes all match. On the left is a local snack consisting of mashed potatoes formed around a stick and deep fried. You dip them into either the sweet sauce or the spicy salt powder. Interesting, but not outstanding. At the back is a chicken and vegetable dish that was good, and nearest is a nice eggplant dish.
I had been fighting off a cold for several days (living on Sudafed and Halls lozenges), so didn’t feel like a late night (and honestly, Pingyao does not have a bar scene like Lijiang does). We went back to the Catholic and arranged for a driver to take us to a site out of town in the morning.
Continue to part 4.