The next morning we left the Fairmont and headed to the Beijing train station with our carry-on bags and a bagged breakfast. We boarded the train for our three hour ride to Taiyuan, the capital of Shangxi Province. Once we arrived there we had a two hour bus transfer to Pingyao. We dropped our luggage at our hotel, Pingyao Yunjincheng and went right to lunch at the Tian yuan Kui restaurant. They had the best “western” bathroom outside of the Fairmont, which is something that is hard to find. So to explain, a “western” bathroom is what we are used to here, with an actual toilet. An “eastern” bathroom is what is typical in China. This is basically a urinal laying down that you straddle and squat over. In most cases neither has toilet paper. It was not clear to me if they don’t believe in toilet paper or if they just didn’t feel the need to supply it. Our tour guide “Ken” made sure to tell us to take the spare roll from the hotel whenever we went out.
We left the restaurant and did a city tour of Pingyao. This is the best preserved ancient city in China. It is a small town in central Shanxi Province with a history of 2700 years. It is an example of what a Chinese city was like during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911). It entered the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997. The area is very dry which is good for preserving the original wooden structures, unlike other areas of China. Coal is the primary industry in this province, leading to very bad pollution. It is also has the largest steel industry in China. It was the financial center of China during the Qing Dynasty. The city has a population of over 400,000 and is renowned for its well-preserved ancient city wall which is inhabited by 40-50,000 residents. The streets are lined with vendors selling everything from food to clothing. Chinese lanterns hang from almost every awning which is a symbol of “welcome”. We visited the Rishengchang Exchange Shop, one of China’s earliest exchange shops where the earliest form of banking was created. We also visited the Temple of the City God, here the Hall of the City God is where the first court house is located, as well as two temples. There are no cars within the walled city, only bikes and a few golf carts that transport luggage. It was very quaint and reminded me of a city you see in the old “spaghetti westerns”, Chinese style. We headed back to our hotel to check in and get our rooms and we had about an hour before dinner. The specialty here is yellow wine, which is actually brown and tastes very similar to sake.
Pingyao Yunjincheng Hotel–
This hotel had eighteen courtyards that housed 80 suites and apartments. Rooms varied, some were one floor with a king bed, others were two floors with the beds on the upper floor bathroom and living area on the ground floor. There were steep narrow steps leading upstairs. These were the rooms with two beds. It definitely wasn’t the Fairmont! It was quite rustic, but clean, authentic and spacious. The beds were very hard but we were so tired we didn’t notice until we tried to get out of them a few hours later after our 3am wake-up call. It was such a neat city and definitely worth seeing.
We left our lobby at 4:15am, walked through the pitch dark town with the light of a cell phone as the resident dogs barked and woke up half of the neighborhood. It was a memorable experience! Our golf cart took us to where the bus was able to park and we started our two hour transfer to the Taiyaun airport.
We left the airport and drove about 45 minutes to a Brendan Boutique Journey exclusive stop at an ancient shoe museum. It is a private collection at the home of Yan Shao Rong. They explained the ancient custom of the women binding their feet. Bound feet were a mark of beauty that became a prerequisite for finding a husband, as well as an avenue for poorer women to marry into money. They began binding the feet when the girls were between two and five years old. The ideal length, called the “Golden Lotus”, was about 2.75 inches. Walking on bound feet required bending the knees slightly and swaying to keep their balance. This “dainty” walk was considered sexually enticing to men. Binding is thought to have started during the Tang Kingdom’s reign around 937 and continued until it was banned by the Qing Dynasty in 1912. We also learned the significance of various styles of shoes. It was fascinating to learn about this and see the various “lotus” styles.
Our next stop was The Bund. The original meaning was an embankment along a muddy waterfront. It is now a beautiful waterfront about a mile long with a collection of buildings of different architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism and the Renaissance. It is a place for the locals to come and exercise in the morning and enjoy the view of the buildings lit up at night in neon lights. It is the major symbol of Shanghai and has been for hundreds of years.
After lunch we headed to Yu Garden, a classical Chinese garden in downtown Shanghai, reputed to be the most beautiful in South China. It boasts a history over 400 years with a landscape design from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was a beautiful mixture of pavilions, halls, rockeries, ponds and cloisters of flower walls, trees and shrubs. I can only imagine how beautiful it would look when everything is in bloom. Outside of the Gardens is Old Shanghai, a bazar with shops, restaurants and non-stop bustling activity. It was a combination of old architecture with the hustle and bustle of current city life. The food venders in this section had authentic Chinese fare, from fried Sparrow (with beak and feet in tact), to skewered squirrel. This area is a must see in Shanghai.
We ended our tour at Taobao City, a famous market mall with over 300 stalls. This was very similar to the Silk Market in Beijing. We tested our bargaining skills for our last purchases before heading to the Renaissance Zhongshan Park Hotel, our home for the night.
Renaissance Zhongshan Park Hotel–
The rooms have coffee/tea makers, mini-bar, tub and shower, flat-screen TV, iron and ironing board, DVD player, and high speed internet access. There are two restaurants, a lounge, indoor pool, fitness center, sauna and solarium.
China is a fascinating country with a unique culture and some amazing historical sightseeing. This is a destination that requires a considerable amount of walking and would be very difficult for those who are mobility challenged. I think everyone should visit this country at least once in their lifetime. My only regret is that we didn’t get to Xian to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, so I guess I will have to go back!