Backpacking Northern Vietnam IV – Three day motorbike tour to Meo Vac

29.01.2017 – 30.01.2017

So here is the fourth part of our travel documentary from Northern Vietnam at the beginning of this year (2017). In the last blog entry we were still discovering Bac Ha and the trekking routes around that small village with our local guide. We stayed one more night in “downtown” Bac Ha in the Ngan Nga hotel to discover the village a little more.

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The roadtrip, 31.01.2017 – 02.02.2017

A map of the route from Bac Ha to Ha Giang.

Since we were still travelling during the Vietnamese New Year, we had to be a little inventive to get all the way from Bac Ha further up north to Ha Giang. Again, Mr. Dong proved to be a very helpful contact who organized a private shuttle bus with driver in less than 24 hours before the trip. Drawing a linear line from one city to the other, the distance might be less than 80km. In this part of the world these units mean little though. First of all, there is no straight route connecting the one place with the other. There are very few streets passing through the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and even fewer that are accessible with anything else than a heavy-duty motorbike. Most of the streets are mere dirt paths with potholes the size of small swimming pools and our vehicle had to drive at under 30km/h average in order not to break down or get stuck in the muddy mess the spring rains caused. Needless to say there are no highways here, so it took us the better half of a day to make it up to Ha Giang. Once there, we took a room in the Cao Nguyen hotel and asked the receptionist to help us apply for a travel permit into the frontier regions of the north.

The travel permit officially allowing us to enter the frontier regions bordering Southern China.

Since it was only allowed fairly recently for foreigners to access the mountains bordering the People’s Republic of China we were thrilled to have the opportunity to visit. When it was time to rent a scooter for the roadtrip, the girl at the reception of our hotel was very helpful again, renting us her uncle’s motorbike for around 8€ per day. She made sure it had a comfortable seat that was large enough to fit two people plus backpack. Next, we went to a mobile phone store and tried to buy a SIM card with mobile data so we could access online maps during the trip. Unfortunately, they were sold out (or that is what we thought we understood the sales person said) and in the end the receptionist provided us with a mobile phone card. Right in front of our hotel a street market wound its way a kilometer up the road and we spent the evening before our trip buying fruit for the tour and discovering Ha Giang a little more. Very early the next morning we left most of our luggage with the hotel and only took one backpack with clothes for three days with us. Since we did not pay a deposit for the scooter, I guess this also served as a form of security for our return.


Photo documentary of our roadtrip from Ha Giang to Tam Son, over Yen Minh and Dong Van all the way up to Meo Vac and back.

 


The Vuong Palace and the past glory of the H’mong people

On the way to Dong Van we stopped by the Vuong Palace, a two-storey mansion built for the local H’mong king. In the 20th century, this old mansion was once home to an influential family headed by a powerful don. Up there in the mountains, where buildings tend to be small and practical, this structure takes a very special place in the landscape. The road winds down into the valley, so we expected to see the palace from a distance. But since it was built in a turbulent era and had to be protected from enemies, a small forest of trees was planted all around to hide it from view. Relatively speaking the place isn’t large and you would probably have overlooked it in any other context. In the mountain ranges of Ha Giang province though its quite a unique sight. Built in a Chinese courtyard style with a communal open-air space in the middle, the four “wings” on each side house more than 60 small rooms, some of which have secret passages that connect the whole structure. Some of the doorways were tiny, and even though the people who used to live here were probably smaller, I still have to wonder if they had to tuck in their heads to pass through like us.

With fresh snacks in our backpack we continued our roadtrip up north. The landscape became steeper still and the mountain road twisted and turned around the conical hills. Except for the occasional car we only encountered people on motor bikes or walking on foot alongside the street. I often asked myself what the people on the other bikes where doing today and what purpose they had driving or walking along this road that day. This being the only way through this region some of them might have traveled between the few larger villages, maybe from Tam Son to Yenh Min, or even farther up all the way to Dong Van to visit family. Some people obviously went grocery shopping, one couple even carrying a live chicken bound with a rope around its feet to the backseat of their motorbike. Every few hours the public mini bus would pass us by, speeding along the dirt round and announcing its arrival before every corner with a honk from its horn. That is what every one did to make sure they were not run over by oncoming traffic, so every time we made a turn – which was more often than not – we also sounded our horn. The best thing about doing this trip on a scooter rather than by public transportation was that we were free to stop whenever we felt like it. Since it was early in the year, it was still quite cold and my knees would freeze stiff when I sat too long on the bike. Even without that excuse to take a break every once in a while, it gave us the possibility to take in the landscape whenever we saw something interesting. Sometimes that would be a small stonepark long the street, or like in the pictures above a street market popped up on an intersection of the road. But most often it was simply the breathtaking views over the misty mountain ranges that made us hit the breaks and simply enjoy the nature.

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The Wild Wild West – Yungang Grottoes, Hanging Monastery & the Sakyamuni Wooden Pagoda in Datong

Dragon Boat Festival 2017 – May 26th to May 29th

In May, an extended weekend during Chinese Dragon Boat Festival provided the opportunity for another roadtrip. Since we already been to Pingyao, we decided to discover the rest of Shanxi province and visit the city of Datong. Usually, an extra holiday has to be made up for with a working saturday, but luckily we had enough overtime (and understanding bosses) that we got four consecutive days to spend on the road. Friday evening Jelte went to Dongzhimen to pick up the car so that we could be on our way later that night in high hopes to dodge the majority of the holiday traffic. Although the streets of Beijing are always overcrowded with people, bikes, motorcycles, and cars, it actually payed off to make the extra effort and get started right after work, because we managed to arrive in Datong at around 1 am early the next morning and get some sleep in the Holiday Inn. Our sightseeing itinerary consisted of three major sights: first, the UNESCO World Heritage Sight of the Yungang Grottoes, the oldest collection of Buddhist carvings in China. Then the Hanging Monastery which was built into a cliff and is supported by long wooden stilts, and lastly the Yingxian Padoga, the world’s oldest and tallest wooden pagoda.


Big buddhas, carved caves &  ancient artists – The Yungang Grottoes 云岗石窟

During the Northern Wei dynasty Datong was declared their capital and buddhism was developed from a minority religion to a major following. In the course of this expansion, the construction of these buddhist caves commenced in 460 A.D. and continued for more than 65 years. It can be seperated in three building phases: while the first phase was led by the monch Tan Yao who led the contruction of the five biggest caves, the second wave is remarkable for its twin and triplet caves. The third phase focussed on smaller caves and niches in which statues of buddha and other religious entities reside.


Climbing a (formely) firebreathing mountain – The Datong Volcanic cluster 大同火山群景区简介

A lesson we learned well then was that a detour isn’t always a bad thing. If we had followed the navigational system’s advice and hadn’t missed our exit on the way to the Hanging Monastery we would probably never visited the Datong volcanoes. It seems to become kind of a theme of our travels that we visit (or in this case accidentily stumble upon) a national geopark of some sort (see for example our trip to Inner Mongolia and the Hexingten Stone Forest). Here, over an area of around 77 km2  a group of 17 cinder cones are the main geological marker. We are pretty sure we climbed to the top of Hei Shan (Black Hill), the largest of the volcano group at an altitude of 1430m. It was sourrounded with deep trenches, which fractured the landscape into several pieces and could best be seen from the top of the Black Hill. It’s foot was covered with ancient frozen lava debries, of which even the larger pieces weighted less than one would expect, because they are riddled with air veins.


The Hanging Monastery 悬空寺

With the Yungang caves we got lucky because we visited them on the working saturday before the Dragon Boat Festival. Unfortunately, the following sunday we went to the Hanging Monastery was already a holiday, so naturally the place was swarming with tourists. Still the buidlings clinging to the face of the mountain were an impressive sight and were worth the 1 hour wait to get in.

Happy Dragon Boat Festival 2017!!

One of the things I love most about traveling in China is that at most sights, supplies are still fairly cheap to buy. Since we lost some time on our detour to the volcanoes, we decided to get something to eat for lunch before entering the Hanging Monasteries. As I already mentioned we went there during Dragon Boat Festival, so the traditional thing to eat are Zongzi, which is sticky rice usually filled with dried dates wrapped in banana leaves and pressed into a triangular shape. They are then steamed and served warm or cold right out of the their leafy packages.


For the time of our trip, we made Datong our basecamp and returned there after each sightseeing trip. A surprising sitenote about the city is the fact that – much like Pingyao – Datong also has a massive and intact city wall that is beautifully lit up after sundown. Built in 1372, it has a total length of 6.5 km and although we didn’t find the entrance, we’ve seen people walk on top of it.


Sakyamuni Pagoda 佛宫寺释迦塔 – The world’s largest wooden pagoda

As part of the Fogong Temple, the Sakyamuni (or Muta) pagoda was built in 1056 in Yingxian County. It is the oldest and tallest existent fully wooden multi-storey building still standing in China, and the world. From the exterior, the pagoda seems to have only five stories and two sets of rooftop eaves for the first story, yet the pagoda’s interior reveals that it has nine stories in all. Unfortunately visitors are no longer allowed to climb the octagonal structure, so we had to make due with a look from the outside. However, the ground floor was opened to the public and contains a very tall sitting Buddha statue. Not yet under UNESCO World heritage protection, the pagoda is almost a thousand years old and reaches a hight of close to 70m.


After visiting the Sakyamuni pagoda, we decided to head back home to Beijing again. As we had to check the mobile app for directions, we stopped on a small parking lot next to the road. An ironic reminder of the current brick up of Beijing’s Hutong just happened to be parked there – a broken down bus turned into a restaurant.


 

Backpacking Northern Vietnam Part II – Bac Ha and the surrounding minority villages

January 29th, 2017


You might say we chose a less than optimal time of year to travel from China to Vietnam, because not only was the whole of China on the move, Vietnam also was amidst the New Year celebrations, which is more commonly known as TET. Since we have never been to Vietnam before and did not have any particular expectations, I have to admit we did not notice the effects of the holidays all that much. We might have been able to make more frequent use of public transportation instead of having to rely on private cars to go somewhere. But since neither of us speaks or reads Vietnamese, and the results of our online research suggested that especially the far North does not have a formally organized bus schedule yet, it might have been our vehicle of choice no matter what. That is also why we were greeted by a private driver the moment we made it over the border and entered Vietnam, which was fairly straight forward to organize: During the travel preparations we contacted one of the suggested (and tested) hotels in Bac Ha and the owner, Mr. Dong, turned out to be a very valuable contact in the Vietnamese hinterland. He confirmed that no buses would be serviced during the TET and offered to help us organize a car from the Chinese-Vietnamese border into Bac Ha. Admittedly not the cheapest way to take on the 90 minutes drive over narrow and winding country roads, but an earned luxury after the 5 hours train ride to get here. And indeed, we did not see a public bus until three days later when the holidays came to a slow end.

The first night we slept a few kilometer outside of Bac Ha in a rural homestay. Virtually all hotels in the main part of town were closed for the holidays anyway, and the cute Vietnamese family of four that took us in welcomed us into one of their newly renovated rooms. Although this wasn’t a standard hotel (or even hostel) room, it strikingly demonstrated how scarce the living conditions up in Northern Vietnam are. And yet, our room was clean and furnished with a matress on the floor and a thick blanket with two cushions. That was it – no other furniture. A tour around the house reveiled that the homestay owners had a similar bedroom, which they shared with their two children. The building’s roof was covered with palm leaves, the windows had no glass and the door to our room could only be closed with a small padlock. We shared a wet cell with the owners, which to our surprise had a western style toilet but no shower, just a tube that could be fitted onto the faucet.

Dinner with our local hosts in Bac Ha.

The cooking fire was built in an adjecent building, and was fueled with bamboo, which as we learned is not only the main building material but is used in almost every aspect of life as well. In the evening, our host family invited us to a generous dinner with them and we had the chance to meet other relatives that lived a few houses away and came over for the joint meal. Unlike many other Asian countries that we visited so far, where people tend to stay awake way after nightfall, bed time in Bac Ha came at around 11pm, and everyone retreated into their own homes/rooms. I didn’t expect to sleep well, because I was not aware that the temperatures would drop so steeply after dark, but have to admit that I had a chilly, but pleasant night.


Our hosts and the owners of the Highland Homestay.

The next day we planned to hire a trekking guide to explore the mountain ranges and small minority villages of this part of the country. Since the family with whom we stayed the first night drew their main income from tourism, we hoped that someone we already met would also be able to show us the hinterland. So when our young host (and father of the two curious kids) offered us his tour guide services, we gladly accepted. We set out early and took the steep mud trail up and into the hills. Thick clouds of early morning mist obscured our view and added an eery flair to the landscape. Sometimes the clouds would allow a few glimpses of the fields and valleys far below, while at other times we lost each other out of sight only meters apart.

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After an hour and a half of ascending and descending misty mountains, we arrived in the first small minority village. The harsh landscape and farming conditions have made water buffalos an indispensible help not only for farming, but as a general lifestock and family investment as well. They were the dominant sights in all the small villages we walked through. The people we met mostly kept to themselves and stayed in small group among themselves, with a clear distinction of gender roles. While the women tended after the children or stood together and chatted, the men played games or drank high volume corn liquor. As for the drinking, the way this worked was that one person would invite another one to raise their glass with them, drowning the liquor all in one shot and then shake hands. As guests we were asked to drink shots of the homemade booze together with the men, while the women stayed in the kitchen and mostly remained out of sight. I felt a little bit out of place among all the men, and I still wonder if they made an exception and allowed me to drink with them. Unfortunately, the men would not agree to shake hands with us unless we drank the whole glass in one draw. We tried our best to dodge the majority of the glasses going around, but ended up pretty tipsy when we continued our hike some time later.

The Eastern Qing Tombs and Dowager Empress Cixi’s Final Resting Place

Sunday, 30th of April 2017


Strolling towards the tombs of one of the most powerful women of the Qing dynasty – the dowager empress Cixi.


Weekends are for daytripping – at the end of last month that motto brought us to the Eastern Qing Tombs in Zunhua, almost 130km northeast of the Jing in the province of Hebei. Since online research suggested that regular public transportation wasn’t an option we went to Qianmen to buy a bus ticket with one of the public tourism companies a day in advance. We must have scored two of the last tickets, because early the next morning when we entered the bus, almost all the seats were taken. Five hours later, when we finally arrived at the Qing Tombs, we definitly learned some lessons:

  • Always arrive some 30 minutes ahead of time if you want to have adjecent seats

    I’m not gonna translate that (go ahead and use the translator)

    in the bus (that one should go without saying, and it proved to be true once more);

  • Boiled eggs are a type of “fast food” snack in China and a fart-like smell that creeps through the centre aisle does not necessarily mean that somebody couldn’t restrain themselves;
  • No matter how innocent an intersection looks, you can be almost certain that traffic will jam for miles nonetheless (giving you the time to stretch your legs and buy some ice cream at a rural 小卖部);
  • If you didn’t think about “doing your business” before the trip, you better be prepared to pay 10 Kuai to use the roadside thunderbox for a No. 2.
  • Never trust that the bus driver knows the way – even after continously consulting his cell phone map, he chose a road that allowed only vehicles no taller than 2.9m (yes, a long distance bus is taller than that). Luckily, pragmatism wins, and ten minutes after being stuck here a

    Our bus driver didn’t agree with the hight limitation of the road he chose, so he asked the gatekeeper to lift it.

    chubby gatekeeper arrived to ramp up the steel barrier and let us pass.


Exploring the Qing Tombs

The burial site was too large to see it all in three hours, and we will definitly come here again with a rental car. Along the way many locals offered rural homestays for rent, so it might even be an option to make this a weekend trip. The imperial mausoleum complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and requires a whole day of sightseeing if you want to see it all. On the tomb grounds, shuttle buses and golf caddies transport visitors from one grave to the next.

Again, I have embarrassingly little to write about the historic significance of the Qing Tombs. In fact, I am still waiting to discover a tourist site in China that actually has meaningful descriptions that provide some background information about the place you are visiting. So instead of paraphrasing Wikipedia I trust that the images convey the grandeur and splendor of the Qing Tombs. Enjoy.

At the entrance to the expansive tomb grounds ponds with water lilies and marble bridges greet the visitors.

Three gates granting access to the necropolis of the Qing emperors. The left (eastern) gate is the entrance gate for the emperor, whereas the west gate was used by the ministers. The coffin was carried through the center gate.

The Eastern Qing Tombs.

Yu Tomb (Qian Long) Stone Tributes, representing an altar with an oven, two candle holders and two vases on it. It was used to worship the ancestors. During the Qing dynasty, the royal harem could go no further than here.

Yuling, the tomb of the Qianlong emperor is one of the most magnificient royal graves in Chinese history. A series of nine vaults separated by four solid marble doors, weighting 3 tons each, are located at a depth of 54 metres. In 1928 the underground palace was robbed by the warlord Sun Dianying.

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Down below in the Yuling tombs, all the walls, vaulted ceilings, and gates are covered with Buddhist imagery and more than 30,000 words of Tibetan scripture and Sanskrit.

Reenactment of a royal ceremony.

Marble bridges leading to the Xiao Tombs Tablet Tower. The double eave gablet roof covers the tablet on which Emperor Shun Zhi’s title is carved in three languages – Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese.

Cixi Tomb Small Tablet Tower.

Looking down from the Ming Tower of Cixi’s Tomb, the highest site of the mausoleum.

Below, the grave grounds span all the way to the mountains.

The Pride of Lions guarding Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge

Saturday, the 29th of April 2017


One more of Beijing’s sights is down from our tourist bucket list. Last weekend we took a bus all the way out to the suburbs of Beijing and visited the Marco Polo Bridge, a historically significant place in the south-west of town. There is not much else out there, but the bridge in itself is definitly worth the trip. Along the railing over the river some 500 different lions from different eras of Chinese history guard the bridge, and myth has it that no two persons will count the same number of lions there. One of the reasons why is that each individual lion is oftentimes joined by many more small baby lions hiding all around the stone sculpture. Below is a small selection of the creatures that can be seen there.

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A short trip to the Ancient City of Pingyao, Shanxi

Saturday, 1st of April – Sunday, 2nd of April


Extended weekends are ideal to take short trips within China. Especially in Beijing we have the advantage of an excellent railway system, so you don’t necessarily have to take a plane to reach sights that are within a 500-1000km radius. There are night trains that can bring you all the way to your far-off destination while you sleep. Although I have to say that we haven’t done an overnight train ride yet, I’m tempted to try it on our next trip. The rail routes are not too spectecular, so I figure we might as well get there well rested. On this trip though we booked an early morning high speed train to the ancient city of Pingyao.

By now I am wondering why we did not make better use of extended weekends while we still lived in Germany. You can discover quite a few travel gems that are only a few hours' trainride away from Beijing and fit nicely into a two to three day holiday. Beijing's West Railway Station is our point of departure for a short weekendtrip to Pingyao Ancient City today. The EMU hightspeed train that services that route is affordable, has comfortable spacy seats and quietly take you all the way to Pingyao in just over 4 hours. Of course, traveling in a highspeed train in Germany will most likely drop you off in different country after traveling a few hours, instead of the bordering province😜 #china #instachina #beijing #instabeiing #hypebeijing #igersbeijing #peking #thatsbeijing #timeoutbeijing #pingyao #ancient city #travel #tourism #travelchina #unesco #wanderlust #railwaystation #beijingwest #fellowtravelers #livingabroad #holiday #extendedweekend #weekendtrip #shorttrip #ritnb #riceisthenewbread

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We rose early to catch our train at 7:45am. Like everything in China, the West Railway station is quite large, so you definitly want to be there ahead of time in case you don’t find your platform right away. Also, security checks at the entrance will slow you down, not because they search you thoroughly, but simply because a few hundred people try to push into the station with you. Everyone just throws their baggage onto a conveyer band that carries the suitcases, rucksacks and travel bags right into a large scanner. So far that’s just good security practice. The interesting part is the person entrusted with checking the contents of the baggage. They’re either fast asleep, are chatting with their coworkers or play candycrush on their mobile phones – surely anything but their job. On a regular day that is a fairly funny sight to behold (when you ignore the security implications). Not so when you are in a rush to get to your platform and still have to endure this work creation program (I apologize for the rant). At any rate, we were in a very good mood this particular morning and actually factored in enough time to go for a coffee before bording the train. If only we had known that the West Railway Station had a McCafé (and a Starbuck) we wouldn’t have bought a black coffee at the regular McDonalds. It still served it’s purpose and refueled us for the four hour train ride some 600 km all the way down to the south-west of Beijing.


A city within a city.


We had bought our tickets over the CTrip platform for 183 RMB, had assigned seats, and an unobstructed view out the window. Early as it was though, we slept most of the train ride anyways, but as mentioned above the scenery isn’t too impressive, so bring music or a good book/magazine to pass the time. And before you know it, you will arrive in Pingyao Gucheng (平遥古城). Prior to our trip we had asked the hotel if it was possible to arrange for a pick-up into town and thus we were greeted by a guy holding a “Fly By Knight Hotel” sign upon exiting the railway station. Once on the road, the first few kilometers take you along an industrial highway, looking nothing like the imagines you saw online. Only after a 15 minutes car ride do the ancient city walls of Pingyao come into sight. To our astonishment, the car drove right through the gates and into the tiny hutong-like alleys. As comfortable as this car ride right to the front steps of our hotel was, being a tourist trying to explore the city on foot among all the cars and golf caddies was quite annoying. You are constantly being honked at, and the streets are too narrow to accomodate cars and people (and cyclers) at the same time. Car drivers on the other hand have figured out that driving at top speed into a group of pedestrians is the best method to get them out of the way as quickly as possible, and so we were constantly pressing into buidling walls to avoid being hit. Fortunately, this was the only issue we faced during our time in Pingyao.


Jelte had been to Pingyao before with his family and recommended the Fly By Knight Courtyard Hotel, which didn’t fall short of his praise. Not only is it located right in the middle of the Old Town, the courtyard atmosphere adds a calm extra layer to your holiday. Many of the rooms have their own bathrooms with good water pressure and hot water, and some even have a small glass conservatory in front of the entrance to their bedroom, which makes for a relaxing reading spot. As the name suggests, the center of the hotel features a large inner courtyard that blocks out the busy city noises and may be used to have an early morning coffee or as ‘basecamp’ to plan your day trip.

Since we were not here to stay in the hotel all day, we just went for a quick shower and headed right out to explore Pingyao. Conveniently, tourists can buy a “through ticket” at one of the visitor center (130 RMB, half price if you have a student ID), which grants them access to each of the small museums and the city wall as well. Just make sure you keep the ticket at a save yet quickly accessible pocket of your bag, because you will need it often. There are more than 20 or so noteworthy houses where former accountants or other prominent bank employees used to live and/or do their business. You walk past them as you navigate the main streets and can easily hop from one museum to the next with only a few steps to walk in between.

Pingyao offers a variety of 'mini museums', each one featuring a different facette of Ancient Han Chinese culture. Since this city used to be a financial epicenter, many display the workings of famous banks and accountants. When visiting Pingyao, it is advisable to buy a round pass for 130 RMB to avoid missing out on any of the sights you might pass by. Especially if you plan to discover the historic streets by foot (rather than booking one of those annoying golf caddies that honk pedestrians out of the way) you are bound to walk past many smaller attractions showcasing a famous person's house and their role in the building Pingyao's (former) wealth. #china #instachina #pingyao #unesco #worldheritage #ancienttown #ancientcity #finance #banking #history #chinesehistory #sightseeing #travel #travelgram #wanderlust #architecture #tourist #tourism #museum #chineseculture #hanchinese #ritnb #riceisthenewbread

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Two of the major sights to be explored are the Pinyao Confucius Temple and the City God Temple. Whereas the ‘house museums’ are centered around the families that lived there and their role in buidling up Pingyao as a financial center, these two temples exhibit the religious facet of life in the ancient town. Though they may not have known it at the time, especially the interior designers of the Temple of City Gods had a pretty sarcastic sense of humour. When you enter the temple, the two buildings lining the left and right of the courtyard feature all sorts of gods. The left side was reserved for the ‘good’ and gentle gods, that smile at you and have a serene facial expression. The right side of the courtyard however was set up for the evil gods, that torture and torment people you have sinned (or at least that is my explanation).


An astonishing feature of the building shown last in the galery above is the way its gable was constructed. There are no nails or screws involved and it holds togethers simlpy by a very elaborate plug system.


Of course, one of the main reasons for everybody to visit to Pingyao is the enormous and intact city wall. We saved this bit of sightseeing for the evening hours, so that we could enjoy the sunset as we strolled along the top. Before climing up the wall though we each bought a bottle of local beer so that we could make a quick break and have a drink together. But be warned: each of the four sides of the wall have only one entrance/exit, so you better take a restroom break before visitng this part of Pingyao.


The morning of our second (and last) day of our visit to Pingyao we spend strolling along the smaller streets and eating our way through the local specialities.


The Residence of the Ma Family – 马家大院


A pleasant surprise was a recommendation from our host at the Fly By Knight Hotel. He pulled out a map of the Ancient City and pointed at a sight called the Residence of the Ma Family, the biggest courtyard in Pingyao. The short 15 minute walk there led us through homey hutong alleyways and past private living quarters. A large signs attached to the neighboring building soon announced that we have found the 马家大院. The ‘through ticket’ we had bought the previous day also granted us access here, since it is valid for three consecutive days. Once inside, the English-language tourist descriptions again left room for a lot of speculations, which didn’t deminish the fact that this courtyard still allowed passage to all of its rooms and towers, from the highest of which we had an impressive view over the city below. Since the Ma family accumulated quite a large sum of money over the course of their business activities in Pingyao, the family vault below the property exhibited the equivalent of their wealth in fake gold barrels and was accessible though a whole in the ground and a very steep flight of irregular stairs.

Another quite ironic tourist sight was the Tingyu government building, in which our personal highlight was a wall painting of a naughty fox flirting with an almost nude woman.

The last building on our travel itiniary was the Xietongqing Banking House. Unfortunately, the lighting below in the vaults was too dim to capture it accurately, but in the first room after descending into the cellar there was a tall round stele on which a dragon was snaking up. I didn’t quite catch the exact meaning of this – it sure promised good luck/fortune –  but almost  every visitor walking past it ended up placing their hand on the lowest part of the dragon’s tail and walking clockwise around it tracing their hand all the way up along the dragon’s body to the top. This made for quite an absurd dance a few meters below the bank’s main building in which some 10 people could participate at the same time.