After a prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
The slow train from Beijing to Píngyáo was a long, plodding twelve-hour slog. We could have paid a bit more and cut that time in half, but it was the start of our trip and we figured there was plenty of time. Having gone for the overnight train, we also reckoned seven to eight hours of bunk bed sleep would wipe out most of the journey. And so it proved.
I was feeling awfully reflective as we chugged out of the capital towards the final chapter of our Chinese adventure. Although she was sad that I was leaving, Trudy had been really gracious during my final weeks. She helped us sort out train tickets and threw a school party to ensure I was sent off with great fanfare.
A number of parents came to the party, more than likely for the free buffet, while I was asked to make a speech and formally introduce my replacement, a girl called Joanna from London. One of my students, Nina, burst into tears and hugged me so tightly I thought she might self-combust. And then there was my teaching assistant Nini and her boyfriend Kevin, who presented me with a farewell present of traditional Chinese art. “Keep in touch Leighton!” exclaimed Trudy, “maybe one day in the future we can meet again”.
No chance, I remember thinking.
Located in Shanxi province, eighty kilometres from the capital, Taiyuan, the UNESCO World Heritage town of Píngyáo is billed as the best-preserved ancient walled town in all of China. We knew we were in for something special as we tumbled off towards the historical centre in a pedicab from the train station; the grey city wall watch towers drawing ever nearer. Inside we wound through a series of narrow hutongs and their traditional Qing Dynasty buildings; a dutiful parade of uniform grey, sporadic splashes of colour sprinkled across the roof sculptures.
Our Pingyao base was Harmony Guesthouse, a three hundred year old edifice set around a stone courtyard. On arrival we were greeted personally by Harmony’s portly owner, a Chinese man called Jackie Deng who spoke very good English. “Hey, welcome to Harmony” he said softly with a knowing smile, “you guys look like you need breakfast”. He wasn’t wrong.
Fed, watered and expectant, we spent the rest of the day meandering around Píngyáo’s sights. An incredibly chilled atmosphere prevailed, from the old man sleeping in a chair outside a craft shop, to the mother and daughter quietly sewing traditional shoes from handmade cloth. Deep in concentration, the older woman momentarily lifted her head to smile at us before returning to her work.
There were several florists around town. Not the typical kind with plants and bouquets, but dusty workshops overflowing with grand, multi-coloured floral wheels attached to wooden tripods. On closer inspection, some of the arrangements weren’t flowers at all but crafted from paper. Jackie Deng later told us these were traditional tributes for funerals. I’d never seen anything like it.
Everything in Píngyáo, seemed to move in slow motion, the fun of the place very much in its little details. Strolling in and out of its narrow side streets, we came across an old woman beating the world’s grimiest rug against the side of her house. Elsewhere, a smiley old man unloaded blocks of coal from a silver metal wagon. He even seemed to pose for me as I indiscreetly photographed him from the other side of the road. I guess he’d seen it all before.
Reaching the old town’s ramshackle outer streets, we soon stumbled upon the unlikely sight of a Christian Church. It was a charming little building with a stark interior, its faded walls and wooden benches crying out for a lick of paint. The ever-knowledgeable Mr. Deng explained that two percent of Píngyáo’s four hundred and fifty thousand population was Christian and that Sunday services were well attended. There wasn’t a soul to be seen as we looked around.
Just a few yards from the church stood an intricately carved screen wall of grey-blue stone. A dense and dusty structure, there were dragons and serpents twisting in and around a bubbling river. It was a fearsome old thing that oozed an atmosphere of foreboding and dread, something that felt like it had been around since the very dawn of time. But as curious as I was about its history, neither the accompanying stone plaque nor indeed Mr. Deng could enlighten me about its origin.
It was late afternoon when we bought our tickets to enter the city walls. Dating back to 1370, the six-kilometer pathway went all the way around town, punctuated by seventy-two watchtowers and with some really impressive views of Pingyao’s curvy-roof skyline. There were a variety of bronze sculptures along the route, from chattering tradesmen, shooting archers and elegant horses; to a pair of weapon-wielding warriors in mid battle, one with a sword and shield, the other brandishing some manner of spiked spear. Some of the watchtowers contained enclosed paragraphs of Sun Tzu’s ancient military text The Art Of War, a highly influential book that went on to shape eastern and western military thinking. Peeking down at traditional townhouse courtyards and gardens across the city, it was impossible not to feel the weight of history as we navigated our way back round to the starting point.
S and I had built up quite an appetite! The restaurant we ended up in was a tiny little joint with a huge picture board on the wall detailing all the dishes. Settling down at one of their tables, the owner came over and handed me a giant bamboo stick. “Urggh!” he growled, gesticulating towards the board. And that’s how we ordered (!), banging the stick against the desired picture. There were some wonderfully botched translations, from a bowl of fried green vegetables called Small Rape, to a stew-like dish called Potato Burns The Pork and a miscellaneous stir-fry thing called Ambiguous, that looked every bit as indistinct as it sounded. But the pick of the bunch, by a bamboo-stick Pingyao mile, was the meat-veg-rice concoction named ‘You the surface the ancient times rich man entertained visitor’s highest food’.
As pretty as Pingyao was, its sights could be pretty much done in a day. So the next morning we hired some bicycles and rode out to the nearby Shuanglin Temple. It was a hairy eight and a half kilometres of bumpy road and we had to weave and wobble between cars, motorbikes, pedicabs and ambling locals. Eventually the main road gave way to a pretty tree-lined street of excitable locals and street side traders. “Helooooooo!” they called in what sounded like their best Mrs Doubtfire impressions. “Ni haaaaaaaaoo” we responded. This invariably produced long bouts of giggling and I felt more than happy to be such a rich source of entertainment.
It was chaotically busy at the temple, with people streaming in all directions. Much to our surprise, we learned that it was the birthday of Kwan Yin, a resident Buddha. The locals were offering prayers and burning incense sticks in huge numbers, a steady stream of smoke wafting up into the morning sky. Dating back to the Song Dynasty, the temple was a diminutive structure stuffed with a staggering two thousand sculptures in various states of peeling decay. We found Kwan Yin, nicknamed The One Thousand Hand Buddha, out in the main courtyard; though on closer inspection he only seemed to boast twenty-one hands.
Kwan Yin’s birthday shindig spread out around the surrounding area with a sizeable clothing and food market. The aromas were absolutely mouth watering, with every conceivable Chinese dish on offer, not to mention some inconceivable ones too. Passing up the tempting offers of bugs-on-a-stick and fried chicken heads, we ultimately went for two bowls of Cha Ge Dou, a delicious noodle soup with egg, tomato, onions and beef shavings. The dough (roughly translated as newt-like noodle), was flattened, grated and dropped into the stock right on front of us by the hardworking vendor.
“So what do you think of Pingyao?” Jackie asked us back at Harmony. We were checking out, backpacks at our feet, a pedicab waiting outside to shuttle us off to the train station. “It’s really chilled!” cooed S, “a great start to our trip!” “Perfect” he smiled, handing me our change. “Because you know, Ping literally means peace and Yao is relaxation”.
The night train from Pingyao to Xian took eleven hours and the aforementioned peace and relaxation was conspicuous in its absence as we made our way out of the station and into the city. A booming metropolis of 4.2 million people; it was a jarring, smoky, honking bus ride through the urban sprawl to ShuYuan Youth Hostel. Even the hostel itself was a bustling place, with just about every nationality under the sun crammed into the communal lounge. Its walls literally rattling with the sound of animated chatter, colliding pool balls and clinking beer bottles; we took a quick look around and decided to get the hell out of Dodge. Located twenty metres away from the southern gate of the city walls, ShuYuan at least gave us a prime location from which to get out and about. We kicked things off with a walking route to Xian’s fascinating Muslim quarter, home to the ethnic Hui community.
A network of interlocking lanes and streets, the Muslim quarter experience was all about food, from noodle and stir-fry hole-in-the-wall joints to open-air butchers, pomegranate juice stalls and a pair of friendly brothers baking Arabic-style bread from a giant metal stove. Amid all these culinary delights stood The Great Mosque, China’s largest place of Muslim prayer. Amazingly, it was open to visitors and free to enter (the only such mosque in China). While we couldn’t actually enter the main hall, it was still great to be able to stroll around the gardens and leafy courtyards, taking in the carved stonework, wooden arches, Qing dynasty furniture and Islamic art.
Xian’s biggest draw is its amazing archaeological site home to the world-famous Army Of Terracotta Warriors. Hoping to whet our appetite for the main event, on day two we took a bus out to The Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, a smaller scale excavation where twenty-one narrow pits display a varied range of ancient relics. Filing through the entrance gates, a so-called welcome sign warned us that Drunk Clothes Will Not Be Permitted. Luckily my T-shirt had only had a couple of beers for breakfast and S’s jeans were completely sober, so we could pass through without incident.
Entering a grand old stone museum, a cinematic hologram show revealed that Emperor Jingdi was a decent old chap who lowered taxes and cut down on frivolous military expenditure. A dreary exhibition of information boards, glass cabinets and the usual array of pots and pans followed, before we descended into the pits for a look at the treasure.
Partly illuminated by yellow spotlights, the glass walkway and open balconies provided an up-close-and-personal look at the mostly naked and armless figurines embedded in the grey stone. Some of them were soldiers and servants, others eunuchs and elegant women on horseback. There were herds of farmyard cattle too, with sheep, pigs and horses very much the order of the day. It was an interesting if not earth-shattering display and, we hoped, the perfect prelude to the terracotta warriors.
“You know, Emperor Qin Shi Huang was a bad man… mmm… some might say crazy!” trilled Jia Jia, addressing the minivan through her golden microphone. We were zooming down the motorway towards the Terracotta Army, our eccentric tour guide keeping her thirteen or so subjects more than entertained. “Emperor Qin Shi Huang make many people slaves… mmm… he hate Confucianism so much he ban it… mmm… any scholar who speak out against him he bury alive… mmm”.
“But he did some good stuff too right?” interjected a stiff-looking German from the back of the van. “Mmm yes!” grinned Jia Jia, swinging her microphone around playfully. “Qin Shi Huang evil but not stupid mmm… he create first centralised government mmm… standardise currency… build many roads… mmm. He also give green light for Great Wall construction. So you know… how you say in English… he put in a good shift! Ha ha!!! Mmm”
The other good thing that Emperor Qin Shi Huang did during his reign was to commission the building of a vast army of stone warriors. And why? Well, I could tell you… but I think it was Jia Jia who explained it best. “Qin Shi Huang always think about death… paranoia you know… mmm. He kill many people and think that when he die those spirits come to get him… mmm. So he build terracotta army for bury with him when he die… mmm. That way, he have guardians to protect his tomb and help kills his enemies. He also think he can continue to rule from grave! He ****ing crazy! Mmm”.
On arrival at the excavation site, Jia Jia gave us a tour of the three underground pits containing the results of Qin Shi Huang’s insane project. First up was Pit 2, a dimly lit warehouse divided into four sections by a raised crucifix-shaped wall. Most of the stone soldiers on display were cracked and shattered, if not completely destroyed. But the level of detail was impressive, with Jia Jia explaining that no two warriors were exactly alike. And right enough there were subtle differences among the figurines, from their hairstyles and expressions, to the type of footwear worn. “This one is a general!” cried Jia Jia, pointing to a plump, fearsome looking dude. “In ancient China a big belly and a bushy moustache were considered very handsome!” This was the cue for Kentucky Derek, an ex-army American, to chip in with a “well… one out of two ain’t bad”, while patting his own considerable stomach. “Mmmm” replied Jia Jia and we all had a good laugh.
Next up was the u-shaped Pit 3, which contained just seventy-two warriors and horses, mostly in good nick. “Many warriors not finished!” explained Jia Jia with a knowing smile. “When Qin Shi Huang died project was abandon and the pits closed up, mmm. The workers so relieved! Many of them buried by emperor to protect his secret project, mmm”.
Saving the best for last, Jia Jia led us into the spectacular Pit 1, the site’s largest space and home to around two thousand statues! It was quite a sight, a vast expanse of east-facing figurines dramatically poised for battle. “The warriors were discovered in 1974 by a peasant man, Yang Xinman” said Jia Jia, as we all gazed out across the pit. “If you want meet him he is here today mmm… to sign books and answer questions!”
She wasn’t kidding either (!) because there he was, stationed at a desk as we exited the main pit into the adjoining gift shop. He must have been in his mid seventies, a studious looking man dressed in a smart black shirt. “You know Chinese government paid him only 10RMB ($1.50) for his discovery, mmm” whispered Jia Jia with a disapproving tut. “But I think he had interesting life because of this…mmm. He met many people from all over the world, even the Clintons mmm”.
Jia Jia’s incredible enthusiasm and energy ensured the drive back to Xian flew by. She cracked jokes, sang us a traditional Chinese song and asked us all where we were from and about our upcoming travel plans. She got particularly animated upon hearing that S was Dutch. “Oooh! I love Dutch people, mmmmmmm!” she exclaimed, digging around in her bag. “A few weeks ago Dutch girl give me these!” she beamed, producing two pairs of model clogs. “So cool! I also love windmill, mmm. And the orange football shirt, mmm. And people always on the bicycles, mmm. And those crazy city rivers very narrow with the buildings look like might fall over, mmm”.