Monday, April 25, 2011

Taiyuan, Shanxi Province

 As I start to write about our latest venture to China, I am sitting in what looks to be a tea room. At is not yet 7AM and I sit alone with my lap top as a young Chinese woman is vigorously dusting all the lacquered maple tables and benches. The room faces the street within an ancient walled city (a World Heritage Site) which lies within the small city of Jingyao. It is Wednesday and various sorts of transportation whiz by the window, carrying people on the way to work or school including bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and an occasional car. The use of motor vehicles is restricted to some degree within the walled city but the restrictions are not clear to me and will, I am sure, remain a mystery. Some young people can be seen jogging which is something not usually seen, along with old people taking their morning walk.

After a grueling day of visiting various Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist temples on Mount Wutai we arrived late at our 2 star (at best) hotel, tired from climbing many steps, some at high altitude (10,000 ft) and spending over 6 hours total travel in a mini-bus. Only the great meals kept us refreshed. We rode up to visit 3 temples, all within the same area, starting at the top (the most sacred) and working our way down.
There are 5 temples all together but thankfully we didn’t attempt the other two.  One was clearly visible with no road leading to it, however, there looked to be about 1000 steps from the parking lot below straight up the mountain.  We saw a lot of buildings 400 years old and trees 1500 years old and of course quite a few lamas going about their work of keeping the place running and honoring their considerable prayer duties.  Lots of Buddha statues, which could not be photographed due to their sacredness with incense smoke ready to fill your lungs and give your clothes and hair (if I had any) an odor of which took be back to the 70’s, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and tie dyed shirts.  “I love to smell of incense in the morning”, I joked, which went of the head of the young woman with us.
There were 3 things I noticed about the lamas, cell phones, bottled water and sneakers. Otherwise, their clothing and customs have withstood the evils of modern life. Time is the one thing about their traditional life that I can find to honor. I fail to see their contribution to society other than the economic stimulus they now generate from all the tourists that come to see them. I see arcane religious practices and theocratic absolutism. But I digress.

At this point I must point out that your kind and generous hosts selected this site for us to see. Left to our own devices, Judith and I would skip seeing any more temples in China. They are all about the same from our view of life, except that there is always a chance for an interesting photo opportunity, and I did find a few.

This lama is doing the Captain Queeg steel ball exercise.
There is no question that we are deep in the heart of China, away from the 4 and 5 star hotels where English sounds are available, comfortable beds, adequate toilet paper, CNN, orange juice, coffee and an internet connection. We have a traditional Chinese breakfast this morning consisting of boiled eggs, cold cuts, buns, and a hot, rice based soup. Soon after breakfast, an English speaking guide shows up. He has a wide toothy grin and lively dark eyes behind his frameless glasses and I soon find out I can only understand a few words that pass through my hearing assisted ears. We climb into eight person golf cart and off we go through narrow streets and alleys with our driver displaying professional horn blowing prowlness to alert everyone we are approaching with considerable speed.
We de-cart and climb up the South tower of the wall. I am beginning to understand the guide by now and rattles off the usual statistics every guide is required to know about the size of the wall, when it was built, etc. There are several hundred dwellings within the walled city. Our group walks along the wall for about a mile and most of the interest is looking down from the wall seeing the ancient homes and some of the people that live there. Here and there we see solar panels that heat water in a small tank perched on a flat roof. But mostly there is an endless view of dark grey tiled and pagoda styled roofs. Monolithic austerity is the flavor of Chinese life yet to be granted economic development and the impact of seeing it was significant. Our guide took everyone’s photo of holding one of the wall towers in their hand.
We climb down from the wall and walk for a bit through the narrow streets to meet our transportation and see old men thoroughly engaged in a board game involving moving muffin sized discs.
We are behind schedule as some in our group stop frequently to pose for photos in front almost any mundane feature. Soon I become annoyed with this constant need but I try my best to forgive them and dissipate my distain. My camera lens is always looking to capture a good photo and it only captures a few of Judith and me to document our presence for future viewing.
One of the things developed in the 17th century in Pingyao was a banking system and our guide was most enthused to explain the intricacies and the various chambers of the ancient bank. Promissory notes issued had water marks of four Chinese characters, one in each corner, and authentication of a note was assured by holding it up to a lamp to see the water marks. Due to the early establishment of a bank, Pingyao was once a great financial center. There was a small room set aside for the highest bank official to meet with a client and smoke some opium together.

We arrive back at our hotel to get our luggage and a cart takes us to our mini-bus and we drive the rest of the day, except for a lunch stop, to the city of Linfen and after dinner at our new hotel, we check in there. The room had internet, but the mattress was hard and the toilet paper was rationed. Linfen once had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world but since the steel mill shut down and with some other improvements; we are told it no longer is.

The coal industry plays a key role in the country's national economy. The largest energy resource base in China is the coal base centered on Shanxi province. With its good geographical location, enormous reserves, excellent coal quality, a full range of varieties of coal, and ease of exploitation, it has become the country's largest coal supply base. Many large trucks carrying coal were seen throughout our tours.

The next morning we are off to The Qiao Family Compound. It is massive and castle-like, covering about two acres. It is the former residence of Qiao Zhiyong, the third-generation commercial tycoon of the Qiao family in Shanxi Province. He attained his fortune by running banks, pawnshops and teahouses. The ornate Qiao Family Compound was built in 1756 during the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911). In 1991, a film directed by Chinese Famous filmmaker Mr.Zhang Yimou, named Raise The Red Lantern, was shot here, making Qiao's compound well-known by lots of people.

I saw “Hang the Red Lantern” last spring in a film class, so the images here were quite familiar. The Compound has been converted into a museum and has period furnishings distributed throughout. Visiting here is like looking through a window into the day-to-day life of upper class Chinese of centuries ago.

We travel on to see the Hukou Waterfall, the second largest in China, on the Yellow River. Big rivers enjoy good reputations either for long history or for achievements in fostering human civilization. The Yellow River, the second longest in China, is no exception.

The Yellow River runs all the way from Qinghai Province to the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces, zigzagging to Jixian in Shanxi Province and Yichuan in Shaanxi Province where it suddenly finds its way through a narrow valley. The riverbed narrows from 300 meters to 50 meters, turning the tranquil river into a turbulent one.
It is this narrow path that makes Hukou Waterfall's popularity unequalled in China. The tremendous water splashes on the rocks, causing foam and water fumes that produce rainbows. The water fumes curl upwards, turning from yellow to grey, grey to blue. Local residents give such phenomenon an exact metaphor, calling it "smoke from river".

We made it back to Taiyuan after this and the next morning we took the train back to Beijing arriving about noon and we soon were in our room at the Raffles Hotel.  We didn’t step foot out of the hotel for 24 hours as we had no ambition left to mingle, shop, or walk.  We did find some time for a relaxing foot massage in the hotel.  We left for the airport shortly after 1 PM the next day  to catch our 4 o’clock flight home and after flying 13 hours we arrived home about 4 o’clock, the same day to discover Chicago had not yet discovered Spring.