Ancient cities and achey legs

So, having left Wutai Shan it was time to get back on the road again, southwards to Taiyuan and then Pingyao, which is considered to be China’s best-preserved ancient walled city and one which hasn’t suffered as much as most from either demolition or more insidious reconstruction.

Leaving Wutai Shan was thankfully fairly easy due to our previous reconnaissance of the bus station. The bus didn’t seem in any hurry to leave initially, and a slightly painful hour and a half was spent crawling up the road, stopping at random and with a very early toilet break to a very unpleasant toilet… Still, once on the way we arrived at Taiyuan well under the anticipated time- The first stop on the 7 hour journey to Pingyao.

A massive travel fail ensued as we were mobbed by taxi drivers, paid a little over the odds but not massively so and then turned up at the wrong train station- Not the high speed link I was aiming for and we managed to pay a lot of money for a completely un-necessary pair of sleeper bunks for the 3 hour journey in the middle of the day, nonetheless we did make it.

Pingyao is a fantastic place, stepping inside the city walls is like stepping back in time, and it’s hugely popular with Chinese holidaymakers too. We eventually navigated the way to a beautiful hostel with one of the best-preserved courtyards in the city.

Pingyao isn’t really a “doing” city. There are a few sights in and around the walled section however its main attraction is simply wandering, taking in the atmosphere and indulging in near-constant eating from the wide variety of food stalls.

Pingyao by Day

It really comes alive in the evenings, with Chinese lanterns lighting the way and hordes of Chinese tourists taking in the sights and smells. We ate at one restaurant with a bunny hopping around the diners. I’m sure it was a pet. Convinced… At least, I didn’t see him on the menu!

Pingyao by Night, our hostel on the right.

One of my favourite dishes was Kao Lao Lao, giant “hoops” of wholewheat noodles with a volcanic chilli sauce on the side for dipping purposes. Simple but filling, and not quite as random as some of the meat dishes which get served up.

 

There are attractions near Pingyao, such as an apparently interesting underground castle, however when I learnt they involved an 8.30 start for the bus tour I left Sarah to it and enjoyed a leisurely morning strolling around the city in the sun and sorting out a bit of trip admin before our next stop. I could quite happily have spent another couple of days around the city, as a lot of people seemed to do, however our somewhat punishing schedule didn’t really allow it. Somewhere to come back to!

Our next stop was the major city of Xi’an… Luckily the train gods were smiling on us this time so we managed to get to the new high-speed station and onto the fast train rather than an expensive, slow and un-necessary sleeper!

China’s high-speed train network is staggering in the scale of its ambition and expansion. Pingyao is a tiny place however the new high-speed station is bigger and grander than virtually any station in the UK. I suppose it comes from the twin benefits of endless space and a compliant population that new, arrow-straight 200mph tracks can simply appear across the country- Especially when compared with the slightly painful HS2 debacle whereby we are years on with no sign of… anything happening.

Xi’an is a modern and Western-facing city with a glittering centre and a decent range of French bakeries. We were staying only long enough to visit the Terracotta Warriors and also to climb the holy mountain of Hua Shan. Unfortunately, we failed at the former!

Hua Shan is a staggering place, however not for the faint-hearted… It’s generally climbed in the dark to allow for a mountain-top sunrise view. It is also a bloody long way up!

Our trip began with a 2-hour bus ride from Xi’an to the nearby village. Upon arrival we were pointed in the vague direction, stocked up on water and munchies and began to climb. It is, as with all things in China, well-trafficked and the path is lit, however this does not detract from being a real challenge.

The guidebook notes that the first few kilometres of the journey are ‘easy’ before the trail gets steeper. After a few hundred large stone steps we felt this to be bollocks. We started climbing around 5pm so had a couple of hours of daylight to appreciate the surroundings through a haze of perspiration… Although late in the day it was still humid enough to be thoroughly unpleasant on the way up!

The start of the trail

The trail does, indeed, become steeper and as day turns to night the lights on the path come on. Somewhat disheartening to see a steep path switchbacking upwards into the night at an apparently impossible angle. To be honest, I’m glad it was dark as a few sections were slightly vertiginous…

Sarah, complete with climbing geek headtorch

…and some insanely so.

Sky Ladder…. eeeek. The first bit isn’t vertical, it’s an overhang.

There are five peaks on Hua Shan. The most common first point to reach is North Peak- Either by the path we took, which was around 5 hours of hard climbing from the village, or the other “soldier’s path” which apparently takes a fraction of the time but does involve a lot more vertical walls, steps and general merriment- No thanks!

The views from the top were staggering, even in the dark, with the scale of the mountain apparent in the city lights so far below. Love locks are everywhere on the mountain- It’s clearly a bit of a favourite spot for lovelorn Chinese youth.

View from above North Peak

From North Peak we pressed on, depressingly upwards… The best peak to see the sunrise is East Peak, so we had a bit of distance to cover. Whilst there are lots of food outlets and places to stay on the mountain, it is nonetheless very scary in parts. I was particularly glad that we were covering the next section in the dark, as it’s a thin ridge with a drop on both sides of literally thousands of feet. Some rusty chain doesn’t help allay every fibre of your body saying “this is a bad idea!”

We reached East Peak around midnight. There’s a ‘hotel’ there with stupidly expensive double and twin rooms, however also dorm beds for £20 a pop, which is what we went for. The very definition of a captive market, really… since we didn’t fancy spending the next 5 hours outside it was a necessary expense, particularly since the wind was now near-hurricane force on the exposed top.

Our shed for the night wasn’t warm, but it was out of the wind, and I gratefully slept almost instantly. We awoke at 5.30am and made our way to the summit to view the sunrise…

….Ah well, misty as hell, but you can’t have everything. 

We had decided to descend to West Peak and to then take the cablecar back to the village. Neither of us really fancied the thousands of steps back down. However, in the meantime we walked to the remaining peaks. This allowed me to appreciate the fact I had been along the steepest bits in darkness, in the daylight it really did look a bloody long way down. Here is the path to South Peak:

Long way down

View from the path

Mountain guard at South Peak

At least the cable car was relatively enclosed, and a nice rest for tired legs… Great view too.

So, back to Xi’an. Unfortunately our plans for the terracotta warriors had gone astray, by virtue of time pressure. Apparently Sarah has a family curse preventing her from actually seeing them, so it was good to maintain tradition. We simply ran out of time, and I’m glad we managed to climb the mountain instead. This also provided some time for looking around Xi’an, from the ancient city walls to some uniquely #China experiences. 

Warring robots

There seems to be a battle for custom between the two mobile shops- Oppo, above, and the other one whose name escapes me. This leads to a bizarre sight as above whereby dozens of young employees in inflatable robot suits take to the streets. On our way back from the train station I witnessed by far the funniest episode, whereby the Oppo robots on parade passed the other ones coming the opposite way and started physically laying into them! Very, very odd. China likes odd. And noise. Xi’an is LOUD!

And so, onwards… an evening flight to Chengdu and the promise of some pandas. I wanted to take the sleeper train but the times just didn’t really pan out. Next time…

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