Pingyao Our Final Destination?

Outside the Hutong we waved and hollered for taxis, who one by one refused to take us. We couldn’t afford to wait much longer otherwise we would miss our train. With great determination I jumped into the road. This one would either kill me or take me to the station.The directions were written in Chinese on our piece of paper which we handed gingerly over to the driver. When he accepted to take us, I almost cried with relief.

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This train station had not one, but two terminals which were separated by over a ten minute drive.  Thanks to some miracle Pingyao, our next destination was listed and so we headed down the corridor to the gate which would then lead us to the platform. We passed our number and entered the designated room. It was massive, a small wing like the one used by Ryanair at any European airport. We could see the entrance to our gate but we looked on in horror as it would be absolutely impossible to get to it. Rows upon rows of people were sat down blocking any access to the doors, in fact we couldn’t even get into the room. We panicked. What should we do? No one was moving and we didn’t have that long to go before our train departed. A man in a uniform approached and asked us something in Chinese. I handed him our tickets. He started to take our bags and load them onto his trolley. Shirwa fought him off  but I just let him take my stuff. More bags were added. I just watched on in horror. What was he going to do with them? People gathered around. We kept asking but no one understood.Then everyone set off. Should we follow? I didn’t want to let my bag out of my sight, so that is what we did and we raced after the party, leaving out terminal number far behind.We had just followed the group and somehow we hoped we had come to the right place. We boarded the nearest train with our huge suitcases we asked and asked until someone finally confirmed that yes this was the train for Pingyao.

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We had booked just a few days earlier, so the sleeper carriages were already full. I would highly recommend if you wish to travel around China by train, to book your tickets as well in advance as possible. Our train journey was 12 hours and we had the last tickets left… the hard seats. This was undoubtedly the most packed out train that I had ever traveled on. There were people standing for hours and hours. The whole corridor was full and even the toilets. As we boarded we gave a quick glimpse in to see what would await us if God forbid we needed to go – a whole in the ground and a large contingent of Chinese men all huddled in the doorway. I shuddered and pulled my bag onwards. I was sweating by the time we found our seats.

We made some nice friends on our long journey. A young man bought a basket of ripe apricots from the lady selling food and giving out boiling water for people’s noodles and tea. Shirwa was offered the fruit first but he politely declined by instead insisting that I would love one. An eager face and an outstretched arm offered up the apricot to me. I refused once, but his eyes were so eager and his manner so kind I couldn’t refuse a second time. I held the soft furry object in my hands and smiled at him apprehensively. Both he and Shirwa watched me as I eyed it nervously and then bite into it. Images of the grim train toilet filled my head. I wondered how long it would take for the diarrhea to kick in. I gave the thumbs up when all was gone and made circular shapes on my stomach to show how full I was after just one tiny fruit, to justify refusing the second apricot offered up. As the night went on it got colder and the young apricot guy gave me his wooly blanket for which I was very grateful.

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At around 5am we were woken up by our friends. Pingyao, they waved, Pingyao was the next stop. We thanked them repeatedly, gathered our things and when the train pulled up into the station we eagerly jumped out. I had for some reason expected Pingyao to be the train’s final stop, but it wasn’t, it was just one of the many little places visited towards a much larger destination. The platform was deserted, only a few people had gotten out, a couple of whom were foreign. It was so dirty, litter on the floor, chicken muck. As we emerged from the tiny station I saw huge industrial buildings, cars, and dirty streets. Wasn’t Pingyao a beautiful walled city which was 100 by 100? Where were the twee little houses and the turrets? All I could see were wires, a main road and billboards. We had just hoped to walk to our hostel, but now we didn’t even know where we were. The scene was a cross between Resident Evil and Apocalypse Now. We were stranded, in the middle of nowhere, in the most disgusting place I had ever seen.

After about five minutes of utter despair we heard a call. There it was again. A call for Harmony Backpacker Guest house, the name of where we were supposed to be staying. Was this a miracle? The answer to that one was no. Luckily more a organised person had booked a room and had informed the hostel that they would be coming from Beijing on that train. Apparently part of the service was a train station pick up. They hadn’t been expecting us and wouldn’t of come had this other person not arrived at the same time. A tuk-tuk was waiting. We loaded up our huge bags onto the rickshaw. A shaved headed man pedalled away. We spun off the pavement and onto a huge main road. There were few cars but the ones that were there whisked furiously passed us.

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I hadn’t imaged that Pingyao wouldn’t just consist of the old part. Actually the city is huge and has over 100,000 inhabitants. The UNESCO World Heritage part is just a minor part of this otherwise very industrial city. My nuckles were white from clenching both the bags which threatened to slid off and the frame of the bike itself. After almost dying three or four times we turned onto a smaller street. There ahead of us loomed the gigantic walls of the old city. It was magnificent a total contrast to the rest of the modern Pingyao. We passed under the large gates. It was like going back into medieval times. The buildings looked as if they were made out of mud, the streets were dry and the people looked dusty. We passed burrows of vegetables and food, chickens and raced under amazing ornate gates.Our hostel was at Pingyao’s heart along its main artery. Red lanterns hung from the stone roofs, street vendors lined this avenue and birds fluttered around large temples.

Our hostel was another Lonely Planet recommendation and it was very proud to be so. We sat down and waited for our room allocation. Shirwa ordered some breakfast which we saw being cooked out of a dirty saucepan which had been placed in a pile of crockery in the sink in the main living area. HA! I had gotten my revenge for the apricot after all. He looked faintly at the pile of egg presented to him on the dirty plate. I’m sure its fine I laughed, after all it is recommended!

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We were woken by the sound of the daily procession outside. We got ready and went out to explore. Pingyao by night was incredible. The lanterns shone bright red, street sellers sold food. Stalls and antiques were lined up and bars/ restaurants came to life. This was a true feast for the eyes and it was so exciting. It felt really safe and we wondered around and found a fun place to eat. It was packed and the atmosphere was great. At around 11.30 we came back to the hostel bar for a drink but this was closed and really silent. We crept upstairs in total darkness to our room. We opened our bedroom door. Flick, flick, flick but still nothing, no light. Too tiered and weary to complain, we found our way into the room and collapsed onto the bed exhausted.

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