About a week after the Xi’an trip, I was once again leaving Qingdao with Jackson, a Chinese friend, to see the ancient city of Pingyao and Datong, a coal center. We boarded the train Monday evening and expected to arrive in Taiyuan (the nearest city to Pingyao) early Tuesday morning. Thankfully, we had sleeper cars for the overnight part of the trip, but with some talkative fellow travelers and a 4am arrival, sleeping was more like prolonged napping. At any rate, we safely arrived at Taiyuan, ate some noodle soup for breakfast, and boarded the bus for our 2-hour journey to Pingyao.
On the way, we stopped at the Qiao Family Residence, which was an ancient Chinese mansion with a maze of courtyards and a rock garden overlooking a fish pond. After we had inspected nearly every courtyard, we walked back to the roadside to wait for a bus. Thankfully a Chinese man offered to drive us to Pingyao, and considering that we may have become human icicles by sundown, we heartily decided to go with him. After an hour’s drive, we reached the ancient city wall of Pingyao. Compared to Xi’an, it was not that grandiose. However, walking inside the city was like breathing life into a Chinese village painting. A stone wall encompassed the city. All the buildings were either one or two stories with traditional Chinese tiling. Red lanterns dangled on wires stretching along courtyard doorways, and motorized bikes hummed along the cobblestone streets. An ancient city that refused to embrace modernity just yet.
After walking along the eastern part of the wall, we entered one of the courtyards, which happened to be a renovated hotel. Fairly sparse furnishings (a queen bed, small television, and a bathroom with a shower nozzle beside the toilet) but adequate. That night we walked along the main street underneath red lanterns strung across the road and probably saw more lanterns than people. The next day we purchased a ticket (150 RMB) to visit many of the temples and other significant sites in the city. After a quick lunch, we began our temple tour, and I felt like the temples nearly outnumbered the houses. Besides Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian temples, there were also museums about martial arts, banking, cultural history, and a whole government center with some grisly instruments of torture. Maybe lying on a bed of nails is an impressive stunt today, but I think it may have been somewhat less enjoyable for the common criminal then. Apparently, Pingyao was once a thriving economic center of China with its own merchant security forces who guaranteed the safe delivery of merchandise such as wooden chests filled with gold and silver bars. When they weren’t being transported, they were being stored in 12′ stone pits, which may be the equivalent of a bank vault today. While its city wall may not have been as impressive as others, it was a successful deterrent to greedy enemies outside the gates.
After we had visited most of the temples and museums in Pingyao, we lugged our luggage to the city wall, walked along the ramparts briefly, and then boarded the bus for a 2-hour trip back to Taiyuan. Once there, we boarded another sleeper train for Datong. After the train attendant woke me from my fitful sleep, Jackson and I huddled outside in the frigid, numbing cold, waiting for his uncle. Thankfully he didn’t forget us, and we eagerly entered his house after being greeted by their frisky German Shepherd. Once I woke from my blissful slumber, we decided to visit the Yungang Grottoes, a series of caves where monks had carved thousands of Buddhas for a 60-year stint. The site was surprisingly open with just us and two other tourists. After walking through a modern temple that sat over a frozen pond, we climbed the stairs and found the beginning of the caves. Some of the first weren’t that impressive, especially because of their weathered, deteriorated conditions. (Usually the heads of the Buddhas seemed to fall off first followed by the hands and the rest of the body.) However, some of them were simply gargantuan. A few of the Buddha statues were more than 50′ high, usually in the lotus position, and I could have easily laid down on some of their palms. Other caves had 1,000 Buddha motifs with inch-high Buddhas that covered the rock walls from the base to the ceiling. I’m not sure how the monks completed such an architectural feat in 60 years, but they certainly created a lasting memory for future generations. Apart from a natural disaster, they will endure for many more years.
The next day Jackson, his dad, his nephew, and I squeezed into a Volkswagen Santana and went to see the Hanging Temple. An hour later, we had passed through two mountain ranges and reached the temple. When I first saw it, its name seemed fitting. We were in a valley with a riverbed running through rock walls that were hundreds of feet high. In the middle of one of these cliffs, a temple jutted out from the rock wall with wooden planks as the base and spindly stilts and some reinforced concrete as the support. Without modern technology and any mechanized tools, monks in the 8th century carved a temple into the side of a cliff, and it still remains today. Jackson told me the wooden stilts are more of a modern convenience so that we tourists aren’t too terrified to climb the temple. I climbed the temple, timidly looked down, and found the Buddhist statues a more interesting study until I felt the earth under my feet again. Its size may be underwhelming, but its location rivals any temple I’ve ever seen.
On the last day of our stay in Datong, we went to part of the Great Wall about an hour’s drive from downtown. It may have been great at some point, but now a child could easily cross the barrier. All that remained were several watchtowers that slowly morphed into mud pyramids that became dirt mounds which seemed a natural extension of the mountain. It reminded me of Ozymandias, a forgotten king from a forgotten land whose kingdom is no more. I would have loved to follow the watchtowers into the distance, but Chinese New Year’s was coming, and we had a long drive ahead. At 1am, we packed our belongings into the car, and 15 hours later intermittent fireworks greeted us in Qingdao. The celebrations had begun.