Day 87: Pingyao

18 Nov

We’re back from a quick but much needed and delightful trip to Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Brace yourselves; it’s another long post, but first, a catch up on Thursday and Friday –

Thursday morning we were informed that “oh by the way” the school decided to buy you two new heaters for your apartment and they’ll be here later to install them. What ensued was an all day long process of people coming in and out of our rooms for uninstallation and installation. One man, who specializes in collecting old AC units to sell the parts came in at around 9 in the morning, pulled the units off the wall with relative ease and disappeared. For the next hour or so two or three men, always in different combinations of them, would come in, look in the living room and the bedroom (indeed there is space for a new unit exactly where the old one was), and then leave without saying a word. At 1:30, when we were told to be back in our rooms after lunch, two men showed up, checked the wall space again (no they have not disappeared or shrunk) and left. I taught three afternoon classes starting at 2:30 and when I returned both new units had been installed but (in typical Chinese fashion) there was no power for them seeing that the power cord plug on the unit does not fit into the plug on the wall. Neither does it fit in any of the 4 power cord strips we have sitting in the apartment (all with different plugs). (Have I mentioned each room has only one plug in it, meaning we have a total of 3 outlets in our apartment?). We went to the store and bought an extension cord hoping that it would solve the plug problem but, of course, the plug to the wall did not match and so we had no heat that night.

A worker literally hanging out the window uninstalling piping:

Friday, two new men arrived and, instead of just using the proper kind of plug or extension cord, they spent all morning cutting the cords attached to the new heating units, rewired new plugs onto them, and, with much mess making, managed to get power to the units. It was not all in vain, however, because now we realize just how old and underpowered our old units were. Whereas it would take all day to heat one room and keep it warm, now with just one unit on and the door between the living room and bedroom left open, the apartment is heated within a few minutes. If you stand directly in front of the heater, it feels like you are standing in front of a giant hair dryer (something I took advantage of by washing and drying the sheets within an hour as opposed to the three days it used to take our washed stuff to dry).

I have to say that last week all of my classes were delightful. Though they were all quieter than usual (especially my seventh graders) I believe the classes were effective and very enjoyable for all. Hopefully, I taught my students something about time (a concept that seems difficult for all Chinese people regardless of the language barrier). I discovered that my seventh graders (at least the three classes I had Thursday) do not know my name. They always call me “laoshi” or “teacher” but I assumed they did that out of politeness and not out of necessity because they don’t know my name. After I told them my name and wrote it on the chalkboard, a whole bunch of the students wanted me to write my name on their papers. I have no idea why they wanted me to write my name (especially after they had already written my name down), but I did happily with a smiley face addition (Duncan has had this same experience of kids wanting him to write his name down on individual’s papers). I also discovered that most of them do not have English names and want them so I did an impromptu name-giving session in two of my three classes today. I will make sure the rest of my students have names, if they want them, next week.

Prior to coming to China, I did a lot of research and put a lot of effort into creating a list of English names so that I could give students names based on meaning. When I did this, though, I did not know I would be teaching classes of more than 50 students and I have been disappointed by the seeming impossibility of giving (and learning) names of my 1000+ students. Ideally I would meet with each of my students and give them a name with a meaning that seems appropriate to the individual but seeing as getting to know all of my students personally is not going to happen, I had to resign myself to giving student’s English names based on the sound of their Chinese name and what name I think suits them (or whichever Harry Potter or Hell on Wheels character I thought of first). My favorite names of the day were Felix (to a kid that is literally always smiling), Darwin (to a kid that is a really well-intentioned know it all), and Drake (to a kid that insisted his name mean “dragon”). When I went up to one girl ready to ask her for her Chinese name in Pinyin she informed me that she already had an English name – Candy. After temporarily debating whether or not I should let her know she has a name usually used as a pseudonym for “exotic” dancers, I decided not to make an issue out of it and moved on to the next student. Let the innocence prevail, I say (especially when the alternative is explaining to a thirteen year old girl that her self-chosen English name does not only mean “sweet” but instead would signify someone who takes their clothes off for money). Another kid who already had an English name was Bush – a name I really wanted the story behind. Several boys insisted that their English name be “Black” and I had at least two students who named themselves “Dom”. I’m not sure what’s going on with that.

Saturday morning we woke up really early and headed to the BaodingDongZhan (Baoding East Rail Station and home of the bullet trains). We made it without a hitch and loaded ourselves onto the two-hour train ride to Taiyuan. Though we’ve now learned to leave a lot of time in between train transfers (and after double and triple checking that there is only one train station in Taiyuan and in Pingyao) we forgot to leave allowances for train delays. Our train from Taiyuan to Pingyao was delayed about an hour, which meant we didn’t arrive until a little about three in the afternoon. Fortunately this didn’t turn into a problem seeing as the hostel we made reservations with was only about a ten-minute walk from the train station and they didn’t have a problem with us arriving later than we told them we would.

Pingyao is an ancient city in Shanxi province famous for retaining its layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties and its still in tact city wall dating back to the 1300s, making it one of the oldest and best preserved cities of the Ancient world. Historically a financial center for China, some 30,000+ inhabitants still live within the original city walls.


Before we went it seemed like everyone we talked to not only knew about Pingyao but had been there and, nondescriptly, had said that it was a great place to go. I was a little confused because no one actually ever said what was so great about Pingyao (other than saying “make sure you eat the beef!”) and I couldn’t see how a trip to an ancient town with old city walls could be as awesome as everyone was making it sound. Though I was looking forward to the trip, I wasn’t expecting much and was just hoping that the travel went smoothly and that overall it was relaxing and enjoyable.
Maybe that attitude is what made the experience so great after all (no expectations means no disappointment right?) and I can genuinely say that our time in Pingyao was the most fun I’ve had since being in China. We arrived, checked in to our hostel (after stumbling into a fight between the receptionists which ended with a book being thrown at a wall of alcohol), and immediately just started wandering around through the town.
Most of the buildings are original and have been restored as necessary to now create street after street lined with stores selling “Chinese” stuff invariably aimed at tourists (foreign and Chinese alike). Many restaurants proudly display signs saying “Lonely Planet recommended” and it is now impossible to buy an entrance ticket for just one temple or official site (you have to buy tickets to all potential sites regardless of whether you go or not). Despite this, what Lonely Planet said about Pingyao (that it’s a great place to go if you have a good deal of China experience under your belt) is absolutely true. There was no pressure to go and see constantly or a feeling of running out of time; the people were extraordinarily friendly; and we found ourselves smiling as we walked down the streets while popping in and out of stores and laughing at the charm of this tiny tourist town.
After stopping at a coffee shop (did you expect anywhere else?) that had really good (and authentic) lattes we headed over to find a restaurant selling the local cuisine. We tried the famous Pingyao beef, which, though very good, are really just cold slices of beef that tasted like Emanthol Swiss Cheese. I have no idea why it tasted like Swiss cheese or how they make it but it was very good (though overpriced like everything). We also tried some fried pork dumplings, which were really good. (I’m kicking myself right now though that I didn’t take a picture of any of the food.)
After eating and wandering through the lantern lit streets and admiring the city wall towers sprinkled about, we decided to stop in a bar called “Lily’s Pub” and enjoy a drink. We spent a good deal of time there talking, enjoying the ambiance, and listening to English Christmas carols sung in a Chinese version when a saxophonist wasn’t playing “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic by Celine Dion.
We continued our strolling under the full moon until we decided to go into another bar (making my first bar hopping experience happen in Ancient Pingyao, China of all places) that had a live show going. A man providing musical accompaniment to a woman singing (very well but all of it very loud) occupied the tiny stage inside this tropical themed bar with strange but humorous political paintings on the wall.

Our hostel courtyard:

Pingyao streets at night:



The ancient city walls (and Duncan):

The next morning (which was absolutely freezing) we walked along the perimeter of the Ancient city walls after grabbing a “Western” breakfast in one of the local hotels. We finished exploring the ancient city and did a little meandering around the greater city of Pingyao as we waited for our train headed back to Taiyuan. It was also late which made our arrival in Taiyuan thirty minutes before our Baoding train was scheduled to leave. What ensued was a very stressful half hour of shoving to the front of lines to pick up our already purchased tickets, broken Chinese explanations, and a mad dash to board the bullet train which left only two minutes after we got on.

We made it home to Baoding early enough to grab dinner at our regular noodle shop and make a quick stop to QLH for a mangguolicha (mango tea). Today was a regular (but good) Monday of teaching and when we haven’t been lesson planning for the next week or so we’ve already started discussing our next trip (which will probably be to either Datong or Xi’an).

Though it doesn’t sound like much, especially compared to the touring we’ve done on other trips, our time in Pingyao was extremely relaxing and it charmed me in a way I didn’t think an Ancient city could. I had such a great time wandering and exploring that I’d even consider going back despite the lack of official attractions and even with the rapidly expanding tourism takeover.

[EDIT] So just a minute ago, we were on the way home from the coffee shop when we noticed three men going on a night time walk. We then noticed that one of the men had a dog who was walking along beside them without a leash, as everyone in China has apparently trained their dogs to do. Then, we saw a large white cat running alongside the dog. Naturally, we assumed that this was just another of Baoding’s many wild cats that just happened to be running for cover or something similar. But then, when the cat stopped to smell at something on the ground and fell behind the group of men and their dog, one of them called back to the cat, who perked his ears up and came running back to jog alongside the dog. This cat was his pet and was going on a walk with him and his large dog, all without any leash or anything! I had never imagined that it was possible to train a cat to go on walks in a busy city with their owner, especially without any sort of leash. I have found a new life goal!

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Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Travel, Uncategorized


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