The Yellow River
Datong (Shanxi Province)
11.30 the train changed platform; if you could read Chinese you would have quite clearly noticed this, however me and James can just about say 'hello' and 'thank-you' which didn't help us in this situation. The train was due to leave in five minutes and there was no show of it or any passengers, thankfully a kind Chinese lad pointed us in the right direction and we just made it. Getting to our seats was again a mammoth task, imagine two Chinese lads getting onto a train in England and striking every English person with their extra large rucksacks and saying 'sorry' 'in Chinese, they'd probably get happy slapped off some young rapscallion. Yes we got a few stares as we mounted our third tier bunk bed, but I think the Chinese locals were more intrigued to why two English lads would want to visit North China in such a cold climate. When we arrived in Datong we were asking ourselves the same thing.
-20 with a wind chill of - 35, Datong is definitely the coldest place we've ever visited. The language barrier became even more of a problem and it took us about half an hour to check in, I'd booked the hotel on the internet (Zong Gong Hui Hotel) and specified the time of arrival, the train arrived an hour late and it'd seemed that our budget room had been conveniently booked up. After befriending the receptionists we were upgraded to a bigger room for the first night.
After a bowl of pig intestine and rice we retired to our executive suite for some rest.
Our first day in Datong. Datong was supposed to be gritty, polluted and unattractive however today flaunted blue skies and sunshine. Datong is situated near the border of Inner Mongolia and is a much higher altitude than Beijing; although the sun was shining, electronic thermometers displayed temperatures of -20 (during the day) freezing our nostril hairs within ten seconds of leaving the hotel.
We caught a taxi to the drum tower (pagoda) which dated back to the Ming dynasty and visited the nine dragon screen; a lively forty five metre long relief of nine sinuous dragons depicted in 426 multicoloured glazed tiles, the largest in China.
Our prime reason for visiting Datong was to visit the Yungang caves and the Hanging temple; both these attractions were on the outskirts of the city in opposite directions so we figured a tour would be the best way to view them both in one day. We spent the day organising a tour, banking, onwards train journey and of course eating. I'm really fond of animals and when I saw turtle on the menu my immediate thought was 'sick' however after being recommended this local delicacy, I felt obliged to try it; to my amazement it was splendid. Served in a basket with nuts and chillies, turtle was a taste sensation.
We wore eight layers and three pairs of pants but Mr Gow (the CITS tour organiser and only person in Datong who could speak English) advised us to go to the army surplus clothes store and buy some proper garments. We piled into the shop mainly to escape the cold and tried on some thick communist officer jackets. We were already continuously being stared at and the thought of dressing up like Chairman Mao would only draw more attention to us, we left the shop with a pair of fur lined gloves each which were sublime in these arctic like conditions.
Early start as we had to be in Mr Gow's office at 9.00. Flagging a taxi down was pretty easy but explaining where we wanted to go was pretty difficult. Mr Gow's office was near the train station so I made the international train noise chooo chooo and Lloydy performed the internationally recognised train gesture, elbows bent, arms forward, rotating your shoulder joint in a train like fashion; this worked a treat and before we knew it we were heading in the right direction.
Mr Gow had sourced us a driver for the morning as well as our onward train tickets - legend. Our first stop was the Yungang caves, just 16km west of Datong. This set of caves are Buddhist grottoes carved into a sandstone cliff and built around 400 AD at a time of the Buddhist revival. As many as forty thousand craftsman worked on the project, coming from as far as India and Central Asia and there is much foreign influence in the carvings; Greek motifs (tridents and acanthus leaves), Persian symbols (lions and weapons), even figures of the Hindu Deities Shiva and Vishnu. All of the above are amongst more common Chinese dragons and phoenixes; however the most impressive of all the carvings were the larger Buddha figures. In cave five we were dwarfed by the huge carving, light shone through the upper carved window onto his golden face. A humbling experience no matter what your beliefs are.
After visiting a number of caves, our feet were now feeling like cold meat so we clambered back into the warm taxi and headed to our next stop; the hanging temple.
The hanging temple is a temple suspended on a cliff void located on the valley road that runs up to Heng Shan. The temple is anchored to the cliff by wooded beams which are set into the rock; we paid a small entrance fee before climbing up to the rickety structure. Again we were quite lucky because there were no other tourists about so we could walk around the claustrophobic structure on our own. We were glad for the abundance of tourists; even though the structure has stood the test of time it still looked and felt like it could come crashing down the precipice at any point.
Both weary and hungry we headed back to our hotel where we ate dumplings and duck, before packing our bags, ready for the early morning train to Pingyao at 7.30.
Pingyao (Shanxi Province)
Checked out of our hotel which took as long as check in. We caught a taxi to the train station, cruised through the standard security checks before we embarked the huge locomotive. I climbed onto my top bunk and wrapped my chilled body in the thick duvet provided for a couple more hours of sleep. We eventually arrived in Pingyao after a nine hour journey and caught a rickshaw type thing to our accommodation; we weren't too impressed with the scenery around the train station but as soon as we drove through the city walls we both knew we'd enjoy our stay here. Pingyao is one of the few towns in China to boast traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, our accommodation was no different. An atmospheric mansion with stone courtyard, wooden window screens, traditional furniture and beds raised up on platforms, we fell in love with Zhengjia International Hotel instantly. The town had a retro charismatic feel about it, it was like visiting China50 years back, cars were banned from within the walled town and the rooftops were all relatively low like a scene from 'Crouching tiger'.
The hotel owner - who had the long-established Chinese name 'Bob', Bob asked us if we would write a review on the internet. We spent about ten minutes writing the review; after that we were treated like VIP's, free drinks, bikes and breakfast.
We spent the evening speeding through the quaint streets on a tandem bike but ended up pushing it back after snapping the chain, probably due to our excessive speed.
In the morning we rented bikes again but gave the tandem a miss. We explored the whole town stopping off for lunch, bulls penis was on the menu, it's suppose to be a little hard and a ball ache to eat so we opted for the more pallet friendly shredded pork. After a spot of shopping we headed back to our hotel, we'd watched the news that morning and seen that there would be a lunar eclipse later today and that you'd be able to view it from certain provinces of China. We checked the internet and worked out it'd be happening around 16.45. The highest point in the town is the central bell tower, other buildings within the city walls aren't allowed to be built higher than this, and it was an obvious vantage point for viewing celestial bodies. We thought other people would be rushing up there for a glimpse of this rare occurrence, however quite the contrary, the tower was empty. It was to be the longest eclipse in terms of duration for over a thousand years and we may have a chance to view it. We couldn't believe our luck as we climbed up the narrow steps and walked out onto the 360 degree view point pagoda, the moon was just entering the earth's umbra. To be in this remarkable town on a 500 year old bell tower pagoda watching an eclipse was breathtaking, talking about being in the right place at the right time.
Later that evening (22.00) we caught an overnight train to Xi'an.
Xi'an (Shaanxi Province)
We chatted to a young Chinese couple at Pingyao train station, Matthew and Misha (obviously not there Chinese names). Matthew, a well educated student studying politics was particularly interesting to talk to, the younger generation seem eager to talk to us about their government and what foreigners views were on this subject; he basically had similar views as us on the matter, stating that the government are a set of communist bullies and that democracy / freedom of speech is still a distant reverie. The four of us played cards until around 1.00 before retiring to our bunks.
7.30, we arrived in the smoggy city of Xi'an and a tuk tuk took us to Super 8 hotel where the receptionist had no idea who we were and what we wanted. After about half an hour we managed to work out between ourselves that there were two of these hotels in Xi'an and our driver (who was long gone by now) had taken us to the closest one. We jumped into another taxi and eventually found our hotel. We used the rest of the day charting our next plan of action.
Our first task for today was to exchange US dollar traveller cheques for the Chinese Yuan sometimes called the Renminbi (RMB) which translates to 'peoples currency'. We also managed to sort out our onward train tickets before heading onto the city walls to hire bicycles. The city of Xi'an integrates its architectural heritage with the modern city and like Pingyao, central Xi'an is contained by a large wall running 14km around the city centre.
Using our STA issued student cards (again) we managed to climb onto the city wall and rent bikes for half the cost of a standard tourist. We set off on our heavy retro bikes to complete the wall circuit thinking we'd see some spectacular scenery from the vantage point. However we were pretty disappointed, yeah there were a few nice pagodas upon the wall but the bell tower and goose pagoda were lost in a cloud of pollution and smog. When we first got to China we laughed at people with masks on and here we were wondering where we could purchase them from.
After returning our bikes, slightly sweaty, hungry and thirsty we headed back to the bell tower in the city centre and ate lunch. We ordered a pretty standard lunch but were astounded by how many people were watching us eat, I felt like a chimpanzee in a zoo.
The rest of the day was spent shopping but with a bag full and already the size of a small horse, I have to resist buying more foreign artefacts.
Had Eel and noodles for tea but it upset my stomach slightly. We bought some beers to take back to the room; it was nice to return to our smog free room. We both blew our noses, my nose being slightly bigger had collected and filtered half of Xi'ans pollution, and we were both now suffering from man flu.
Stomach ache now gone but man flu still lingering. Some people have described certain types of man flu to be more painful than giving birth; I've never given birth but am inclined to agree. We soldiered on and after our McDonalds breakfast we caught the 306 bus to the Terracotta warriors.
We arrived at the site after about an hour on the road; you could take private tours to see the warriors for about 220RMB (£20) however we decided to catch the local bus and save about £19. After a tedious walk through the large car park and a stretch comprising of touts and tour guides we eventually arrived at the ticket office (£4 with student card). More tour guides swarmed around us but we soon dismissed them telling them that I'm a Cambridge Professor specialising in Chinese History and ancient artefacts, and James a specialist in Chinese symbology and pre Bronze Age sculpture. I almost tricked myself into believing this.
The terracotta warriors were definitely the highlight of visiting Xi'an, the huge rectangular vaults constructed of earth and timber were built to house more than a thousand warriors assembled in battle formation in a grid of six metre corridors. These vaults (three to view) were built over two thousand years ago to guard Qin Shi Huang's tomb which is located 28km East of Xi'an. Qin Shi Huang was the first Emperor of a unified China and with his advisor's ruled a harsh philosophy of Legalism, the idea that man is bad and needs to be kept in line by draconian punishment. Ancient literature was destroyed which conflicted with his beliefs and peasants were forced off their land to work as labourers on massive construction projects including the Terracotta warriors.
Each warrior has different features and expressions, some historians believe that each figure represented a real member of the ancient Imperial guard. It's hard to imagine how an ancient assembly line would operate.
Later that evening we ate in the hotel restaurant, we weren't really impressed with the food, the meat tasted like it'd been sat in a bucket of pond water for a few weeks. A few of the waitresses were practising their English on us, so we traded a few English words for Chinese ones. It was one of the girls birthday, so we sang happy birthday to her, the nineteen year old girl told us that it had been one of her best birthdays because we had eaten in the restaurant, her previous 18 birthdays must have been diabolical.
Luoyang (Henan Province)
The early morning train to Luoyang arrived on time and after a struggling loading our bags into the overhead rails, and an old man telling us off for moving his bag, we were soon back on our top bunks eating beef jerky and a snicker bar for breakfast.
15.00, arrived in Luoyang and like Xi'an this place was very smoggy, there was a small stampede of touts and taxi drivers coming our way. After a bit of bartering we jumped into one of the taxis and whisked off to our next hotel (Mingyuan Hostel). We were just stopping in this city to see the Longman caves which are located on the outskirts of Luoyang so we weren't really that bothered with the appalling view from our hotel room. Our room was ok but smelt a bit feisty and the hot water was merely lukewarm; not good when you're trying to shake off man flu.
Later that evening we ate a few blocks down from the hostel, the food was excellent and purely down to luck as we played Russian roulette with the Chinese menu.
Still no hot water I boiled the kettle and had a full body wash in the sink before our complimentary breakfast. I thought there'd be a few tourists in the restaurant, after all the accommodation was classed as a youth hostel; however nobody was around except the greasy cook.
After a short walk to the bus station we paid our three Yuan (25p) and jumped onto bus number 81 which terminated at the Longman Caves (the highlight of Luoyang). The Longman caves are yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of 1350 caves dotted along the Yi River. The Toba Wei began work on these caves in 492AD, when they moved their capital from Datong to Luoyang, the carvings here were intricate and the large central Buddhist statue was the most impressive. However the caves became a bit repetitive especially after we'd already visited the Yungang caves in Datong (which were significantly cheaper and more impressive).
Later that evening we wandered into another restaurant for a game of Russian Roulette with the menu. We were presented with what looked like a check list of possible food options; we ticked about 5 boxes and crossed our fingers hoping for the best. It turned out that the items we'd ticked were all ingredients for a large hot pot. The delicious hot pot was fired up in front of us and plates of beef, pork, potatoes and noodles soon appeared on the table. The helpful (giggling) waitresses showed us the ropes, any excuse to practice their English.
We'd already booked out onward train from Luoyang to Yichang, however we thought we'd be clever and book our next train from Yichang to Huihai. The busy train station was only minutes from our hostel so we walked there stopping off for breakfast. The queue at the station was a few metres long but soon went down, that was until it was our turn. We had written down the destination as well as the point of departure, we even had the train number to hand, however the frustrated women who couldn't speak a word of English was convinced we wanted Luoyang to Huihai. The most frustrating thing was that I've seen their Chinese computer system so many times I'm sure I could have input the correct information. The women kept pointing at another train number, almost willing us to say "yeah ok we'll have that one", the queue was now snaking out of control and the I could hear the Chinese public chatting amongst themselves, probably sayingsomething along the lines of "English p**** can't even buy a train ticket".
My book recommended buying tickets from another building which was located on our map; however we couldn't find the surreptitious edifice so we resorted to food and drink. Duck and beef followed by a few beers and a bottle of red wine cheered us up. We were catching our next train at 3pm on the 22nd, therefore we could afford a bit of a lie in.
Packed our belongings before lunch, we ate in the same restaurant as the previous evening as it had been our favourite since stopping in Louyang and possibly China. Shredded beef and shredded pork were both exquisite, the meal was one of the best yet and my only critic wasn't with the food but with another punter. The oldish man on the next table made a loud hocking noise before spitting out an oyster sized flem ball onto the tiled floor, the green mucus matter sat there until the man rubbed it into the pristine floor with his shoe. This would have been a nasty sight to see on the street but the fact we were inside a nice restaurant made it worst.
14.00, we arrived at Louyang train station and boarded the train at 15.00. It was the first time we'd been separated on the train, Lloyd was on a top bunk and I was in the next dorm on the lowest bed. I seemed to be sharing my dorm with a few giggling student girls, every time we pass a group of girls they seemed to giggle amongst themselves; I don't know whether they have a soft spot for us or just laughing at my wispy beard (probably the latter). One of the Chinese girls (Serena) could speak excellent English and it was refreshing to have a conversation with her. The material physicist student quizzed me about a number of topics - what are my thoughts on Socialism? What do English people think about the Chinese? What I thought about USA / China, China / Taiwan relationship?
12.30am arrived in Yichang, we chose our taxi driver who drove us off down the busy one way road. The taxi driver made a call on his mobile then passed me the phone, "were you wanna go" asked the quiet voice, "Manor hotel" I replied, "Manor house full" the voice insisted. I was about to lose my temper then spotted the grand hotel looking down at us from a large hill, I pointed to the hotel and passed the mobile back to the driver, the last thing we wanted at this time was to be taken to the drivers uncle lee's house. The hotel had an impressive but cold lobby, we checked in before retiring to our spacious, clean room.