Drumbrake's Travels

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Shanxi

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April 2010

Thorntree Report

A short trip report covering Datong, Taiyuan and Pingyao in Shanxi Province, China.

Datong: Original thread on NE Asia forum.

We arrived in mid afternoon by bus from Taiyuan (3 1/2 hours,88 Rmb). The bus leaves you at the South bus Station in Datong, which was a 30 Rmb shared taxi ride for two people to our hotel near the railway station. We stayed at the Datong Hongqi Grand Hotel (280 Rmb booked through elong) which is fine – English speaking reception (without prompting), includes good breakfast in the morning with good coffee machine, hotel restaurant in the evening is ok as well, while the hotel lobby is convenient for sitting in while waiting for the sleeper train to Pingyao.

The centre of Datong is being knocked down, renovated or rebuilt. On the outskirts there are literally a sea of cranes – lots and lots of new apartment buildings, while within the city walls older streets are just piles of rubble, and the temples -such as the Lower Huayan Temple were closed for renovation. The city walls also have cranes, and while looking impressive, will perhaps give the place a Disney feel when they are opened later this year. We saw the Nine Dragon Screen (10 Rmb or half price for students) which was ok, and the outside of the drum tower, which looked quite grubby compared to the newly constructed / renovated temples in the city.

CITS railway station branch has been relocated just to the north. The manager, Mr Gao, is still there with excellent English. The hotel phoned him for us after we failed to find him. His tours are still popular – there were 7 on the day we went to the Hanging Monastery and Yuanyang Caves. We just paid for the transport (100Rmb) and then used student cards for admission, but without student cards you are better paying for the full tour price including admission.

We first went to the Hanging Monastery – journey time was around 2 hours, but we got stuck in traffic in Datong. The monastery (60 Rmb, half price students) is as spectacular as you see in the photos, although some reviews are not so positive. I say go and see for yourself. We spent around an hour there, then stopped for lunch (20 Rmb extra if you just pay the transport fee) and then continued to Yuanyang Caves (100 Rmb / 50 Rmb). We got stuck in more jams – countless coal lorries outside the power station held us up, until arriving at the caves just before 3pm. We then had two hours to see them – but be warned they do close exactly at 5pm and then stop you seeing some of the caves at the extremities.

The grounds surrounding the caves are seeing a lot of construction work – new visitor centres being built and such like. This will mean a higher entrance fee (130Rmb) in the near future. The carvings do have a wow factor, and are certainly impressive, but perhaps as I have seen the ones at Dazu, as well as the Buddhas at Leshan and Laitan, I was not as owed as others in the group.

A short note about the guide and CITS. The guide was included free of charge – if there had only been two of us there would have been no guide, and to tell the truth she did not add much value. We could generally understand 50% of what she was saying – and then that was by her spelling words for her, and often the rest was giving heights of various Buddhas and the number of statues – this was in English on signs anyway. This is not to say having a guide is not a good idea – a good guide can add tremendously to a visit, but if you are paying money for them, make sure you can understand them first.

For CITS, Mr Gao is a friendly and helpful man, and someone arriving from Beijing on their way to Pingyao could get by without knowing a word of Chinese by using his services. He does charge quite high commission – 30 Rmb on a 73 Rmb hard sleeper ticket, but unfortunately I think most times the train ticket office will be sold out for that day and the next day leaving you no choice. He also told us all hostels in Pingyao were full – he was right if by all he meant the two main ones listed in LP. As nearly always, better to find your own room on arrival in a city, rather than book one through an agent.

Overall Datong is certainly worth a day. Perhaps when the renovations are finished it will warrant a couple of days.

Pingyao: Original thread on NE Asia forum.

We arrived by overnight train from Datong (booked using CITS in Datong, 73 Rmb + 30 Rmb commission). Hard sleeper on the train is perfectly adequate for this journey. We were met on arrival by driver with our name on a card to take us to the hostel already booked by CITS. The place booked, Bi Foo Luo Hotel approximate pinyin – Chinese is 平遙百福樓洒店 – is connected to Zhengjia Hostel in the old town across the street from Yamen Youth Hostel . The place we were at is just outside the city walls on the NW corner. Staff are friendly and speak some English and there are computers as well as wireless internet throughout.

The problem is the place is grubby. It is just not cleaned enough. Rooms were 128 Rmb with bathroom. CITS Datong has said the rooms were 168 Rmb and we paid 40 Rmb deposit to CITS in Datong. It turns out that the 40 Rmb was commission earned by Mr Gao in CITS – I don’t think the place in Pingyao were aware of what he was doing, and perhaps as most of the people who use CITS services don’t know much Chinese, it has not been an issue before. We eventually got our 40 Rmb ‘deposit’ back.

On our first day after breakfast and finding a better place for that second night – CITS were right that popular places were booked up for Saturday night in Pingyao – we hired a taxi (250 Rmb) and went to Wang Family Courtyard and Zhangbi Underground Castle. Wang Family Courtyard (66 Rmb / half price students) doesn’t get a great write up in LP, but I found it impressive and interesting walking around the maze of rooms and courtyards. From the rear walls you can see the cave dwellings, with new ones being built as well.

Zhangbi Underground Castle (40 Rmb /half price students + 20 Rmb for guide) doesn’t get many tourists, but it is definitely worth visiting. LP says that there are no English speaking guides (a guide is compulsory when going underground) but when we were there we got one with excellent English. In contrast to the one we had at Datong, we could clearly understand her and she made our visit enjoyable and memorable. I suppose given her good English, it might be the case that she is poached by somewhere more popular.

The tunnels are still being excavated, but are quite extensive and lit by low powered light bulbs. You see where it is believed horses were kept, generals slept and guards waited to surprise intruders. The guide continues her tour in the village outside the tunnels, commenting on the new roof of a temple looking inferior to the old one, and the destruction ravaged to statutes of Buddha during the Cultural Revolution. Our guide also pointed this out during the visit to the Yungang caves – on previous visits to China I don’t remember it being so starkly mentioned.

Overall I highly recommend a visit to Zhangbi Underground Castle – it’s easy to combine with Wang Family Courtyard, and possibly if you start early enough in the day you could also visit the ‘hanging monastery’ of Cotton Mountain – between the two places.

For the second night we moved into Cui Chenghai Guesthouse (180 Rmb for double). We had a room in the rear which is newly constructed in an old style, while rooms nearer the front much older. Staff are friendly and the place is comfortable. Computers and wireless in the reception. Opposite is Harmony Guesthouse where we had breakfast. Harmony is very popular with non Chinese speakers with train tickets and tours all being arranged. Mr Deng seems a quiet guy, while his wife is much louder and sounds a little abrasive in English! Food ok there – although we sent back one cold omelette- and it was fully booked throughout a stay.

We got a Pingyao ticket on the second day (120 Rmb, half price students). It’s valid for 2 days but you can only go in each place once. While for most places in the old town this does not matter, remember that you can only go on the walls once with the ticket so make sure you spend enough time on them when you go up- we tried to go up the second day of the ticket and were refused – although at one entrance a guy asked for 10 Rmb to let us up.

Besides the walls, the other good places worth visiting in the old town are the Daocheng Hall within the Confucian Temple, and the Ancient Government Building near Yamen Gate. Other places where you need the ticket to enter such as Chinese Commerce Museum and Hui Wu Lin Martial Arts Museum are all quite similar – lots of martial arts exhibits and rooms showing where the money was kept and the head accountant stayed. There are also lots of dusty exhibits on show which sometimes appear to have no relevance to the actual museum – clocks of various shapes and sizes are popular. The City Tower costs 5 Rmb extra to go up, and views are not that much better than other places you can go up included in the entrance ticket.

Lots of eating choices – De Jun Yuan Guesthouse has good food and reasonable prices. The cold beef and ham which you can get everywhere around town is delicious while in De Juan Yuan, the beef with potatoes is also excellent. Many places have English menus, and English is spoken more here than in many other places in China.

Overall a good place to visit for a couple or so days. Outside of weekends and holidays the place is noticeably quieter – and the number of western tourists is more evident. In terms of old towns without the tourist numbers and gift shops, perhaps Langzhong in Sichuan is better although it doesn’t have the city walls.

Taiyuan: Original thread on NE Asia forum.

I doubt many people stay in Taiyuan – at most they pass through on the way between Datong and Pingyao or catch a flight from there. It’s true that there are more attractive places to see in Shanxi, but if you have a day to spend there, it is quite a nice city to be in.

We were catching a late afternoon flight to Shenzhen and arrived the previous day in the afternoon. We stayed at the Jinlin Oriental Hotel, 248Rmb through elong for a nice double room in a convenient location for train and long distance bus station. We arrived from Pingyao and the bus stops at a station south of the city. We caught a taxi into the centre, but got stuck in a traffic jam as police closed roads around the railway station to transport survivors from the latest coal mining accident.

On the first afternoon we went to the Shanxi Museum in Taiyuan. LP calls it ‘top class’ and I agree with them, at least compared to other Chinese museums. Entry is free and it is worth a couple of so hours of your time. Lots of different exhibits, and good to see after visiting the places in Shanxi such as Pingyao and Datong. Guards there were very polite as well; it must be an extremely boring job making sure people behave in a museum but they surprised us by recommending and leading us to exhibits to see – in English.

In the evening we went to ‘food street’ in Taiyuan, but were disappointed in the selection of places available. Nearby – Liuxiaang Nanlu is a commercial street with lots of shops and some other eating choices. We ate around there but food was only average.

The next day we went to Yuci Ancient City. You can catch bus 901 (3 rmb) from near the train station there, but while in the bus queue a taxi driver offered to take us for 20 Rmb a person in a shared taxi. Even by taxi it took an hour, so expect a long journey by bus. I highly recommend Yuci Ancient City – some parts have renovated, but it is kept extremely tidy for the film crews working there, and at least when we were there, it does not get many visitors. We had whole buildings to ourselves. There is no charge to enter the town, but there is an admission fee of 60 Rmb (half price students) for the temples and government offices – worth paying.

Near the centre of the old town are some restaurants; we had an excellent hotpot in a expensive looking place and were just charged 80 Rmb for very filling and delicious meal. From just outside the old town we caught a taxi to Taiyuan airport (40 Rmb, 30 minutes) – probably 10 or so Rmb too much.

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Written by drumbrake

September 11, 2010 at 11:53 am

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