It probably shouldn’t have surprised us, but every bus or train that took us closer to Beijing seemed to take us to some place busier and more touristy. Coming through the ‘backdoor’ to China, we found ourselves in bigger and bigger cities with more people, more smog, and more noise.
It was time to get out of the ‘big city’ chaos that is China and headed to Pingyao, a city famous for being unchanged over the centuries.
Known as the “ancient city of Pingyao”, it is a famous destination amongst the Chinese mostly because so many old buildings still stand. The first place to implement a banking system, as well as paper money, Pingyao was once a significant commercial trading center. With a banking system came security, and yup, martial. Although there were tons of old buildings, homes and shops to walk around it, we had the most fun working out in the martial arts demonstration areas. Sing it with me now, “everybody likes kung fu fighting…” We practiced our Kung Fu fighting in the courtyards, alone except for a few birds, some imaginary opponents and a cold breeze. Those aggressive vendors better watch out!
While few buildings have been changed over the centuries, they are the best attraction in what could otherwise be described as a tourist trap. Thankfully we escaped the hordes of tour groups deep inside the grounds of the Confucius Temples, and old banking houses. We wandered around the gardens and courtyards of the old temples with a feeling of momentary seclusion, only to have it broken by an enormous tour group a few seconds later. Pingyao was definitely a tourist trap, but if you’re interested in ancient Chinese architecture (or the worst English translations you’re likely to find anywhere) it would be worth a stop.
Hoping a night train to Datong, we didn’t expect things to get much better. Bleary eyed as the train let us off at 4am, we prepared ourselves for what we were sure would be another disappointment. China has three famous buddhist caves: Dunhuang, Luoyong and Datong. Having been to Dunhuang, which was amazing, we were cautiously looking forward to the caves at Datong. To compare the two is unfair, the caves at Dunhuang were far more spectacular with more elaborate work and in much better condition. However, you can explore Datong on your own unlike the relatively short tour you’re forced to stay with in Dunhuang.
About 65 km from Datong is the hanging monastery, which for me us was one of the coolest sites in all of China. Perched on the side of the cliff, Danny and the guys we were traveling with all agreed that it was likely the spot Christain Bale’s Batman used to learn all his very cool ninja moves for the last set of Batman movies. Who knows, but the monastery was rather incredible. Small, but richly decorated, the monastery is really a series of small temples linked together hanging off a cliff face. The religious icons aren’t the most incredible, largest or most detailed I’ve ever seen, but the atmosphere of the place, being surrounded by Buddha’s and such while looking down 100 feet into a valley is pretty cool. The tour was short but enjoyable, mostly because we got to climb through the temples and walkways on our own.
Heading back to Datong, we were delighted to find an all you can eat pizza buffet with a manager who spoke excellent English. Gorging ourselves, we got back on the train and promptly slept for 4 hours until we arrived in Beijing.
IF YOU GO: Pingyao is easily accessibly by bus or train. Getting train tickets out (especially to Xian) can be difficult and you should try to buy them on arrival. With a student ID, a 50% discount is available on the “Pingyao Ancient City” ticket, which will give you access to all the historical sites. The sites had signs in English, but the descriptions were poorly translated- use your guidebook through the sites.
From Datong- trains to Beijing were full, it was only with the help of a Chinese girl that we were able to negotiate the only tickets available for ourselves. It is imperative you try to get tickets out on arrival if you’re headed to Beijing. The Datong Buddhist Caves are accessible by public bus (Bus 3 – 1rmb), but you’ll have to take a tour or a taxi to the hanging monastery. It’s best to negotiate for a taxi in town- taxi drivers outside of the caves won’t accept less than 200rmb. Both sites offer a 50% student discount with ID.