Cheng Chin Yuen

Saturday, September 02, 2006

25th August – Ping Yao to Tai Yuan to Da Tong

It rained the whole day over 300 kilometres from Ping Yao to Da Tong. We got caught in Tai Yuan (Shan Xi’s capital) and had to take cover in another Muslim La Mian place. Same quality but double the price. It rained so long that I had to eat another bowl to justify our enduring presence. In the end, we braved to rain and soggy streets to the long distance bus station for the Da Tong connection. On the bus, the weather forecast showed that the entire eastern coast was raining with storms in several provinces! A helpful couple on the bus made sure we got to the bus station where in 5 minutes, we got our tickets, boarded the bus and left for Da Tong.

Another helpful taxi driver helped us to find some affordable accommodation in a relatively central location. Do not believe the LP when they say that there is no affordable accommodation in China. There is but you have to dig and may have to put up with a bit of dirt. In this case, he found us a decent 80 yuan room in a relatively central and quiet part of town. He probably got a cut but it was nice to have our own bathroom and TV once again.

Our search for a certain food street as described by the aunties at our hotel led to a long walk in the centre of the city. The options were either too expensive or too boring so we kept hunger at bay with four mutton satays and I almost tried the squid version at another stall.

In the end, dinner was a decent pork-rib-potato dish, vegetable soup and pulpy orange juice at a small restaurant that was filled by the time we were finished. Rice seems to be low on the memory list of the waiters in China. In several places, they needed 3 and even 4 reminders! Well, according to the LP, eating rice reflects low status and it is insulting to the host if you order rice. It means that he is not feeding you enough. Maybe that’s why portions are huge here! This particular joint must be famous for its house wine which is kept in a big glass pot on the counter.

While waiting for the No.2 bus back, a taxi stopped on the opposite side of the road 20 metres away from us. Two women and a man got out and started quarrelling. The guy gripped one of the ladies by the hair and started hammering her head, slapping her and kicking her in the tummy. The driver and two bystanders tried to separate the two but the man refused to let go of her hair. After much drama and abuse man let go and we back to the taxi. The woman whipped out her phone and made a call, presumably to the police. Our bus arrived and we got on leaving the drama and the gathering crowd behind us.

26th August – Da Tong to Yun Gang Caves and back

Breakfast outside the caves was noodles made out of thick strips of flour shaved from a fat lump of dough straight into boiling water hence the name ‘Knife Cut Noodles’. The cooked pieces are eaten with a soy-meat broth with hardly enough meat in them. I managed to avoid the stewed pork ribs and duck. It was still breakfast.

The Yun Gang Caves stretch along a cliff for 1 kilometre and contain 51,000 Buddha statues and carvings. I didn’t bother to count. The caves are number 1 to 55 (or was it 45?) and ranged from those large enough to house an impressive 18 meter Buddha statues to a small TV sized cavity in the rock. The information boards weren’t very informative and seemed to focus more on the dimensions. Fortunately, the carvings were varied and intricate enough to keep our attention alive till the 40 something cave where the ‘Ang Kor Wat templed-out syndrome’ set in and everything started to look the same.

So just look at the photos.

There is supposed to be a quiet section of the Great Wall 15 minutes east of the caves but access is now denied. It’s a pity, ‘quiet’ and Great Wall’ don’t usually come together.

Dinner was at a popular dumpling (jiao zhi) restaurant which somehow means that they can’t serve rice. So we had beef dumplings, vege and a huge freshwater fish in a bowl full of tasty chilli-something.

Cao(1) Ji(2) Nu(3) Shen(1) (China’s Version of America Idol) was on that night so it was more talented singing and dancing entertainment while we enjoyed our Dove chocolate.

27th August – Da Tong to Hanging Monastery to Beijing

Happy Birthday to me! Great to be 31 and still having people ask you if you are still studying! Unemployment benefits I guess. Thanks to all who remembered and sent their messages (send some funding too)! Also thanks to all who just remembered.

Most of my birthday was spent on the side of a cliff. Not with a rope and harness unfortunately but on Xuan(3) Kong(1) Si(4) or Hanging Monastery built onto the vertical side of a cliff of the magnificent Jinlong Canyon. Whoever thought of this crazy idea 1400 years ago must have misunderstood the word ‘impossible’.

Mostly wooden, the monastery has two of it’s three narrow sections fused to the side of the cliff, supported by struts jutting out of square cavities made in the rock and supported by long skinny wooden poles that are wedged into the lower ledges. Some of these poles are cracked and wobbly (Karen tested them!) so I suspect they do not bear most of the weight and are there for dramatic purposes!

Narrow wooden corridors and link bridges connect the sections and the several tiny halls contain the pale sculptures of a severely warped mind. In one hall, Buddha sit next to Confucius and Laotzu. Fire wouldn’t be too good for the monastery and a generous supply of fire extinguishers and paper packets of sand are ready to snuff out the first spark. The monastery has some excellent wood and roof work to offer but the main kick still comes from its height above the ground. I think the drop is about 30 metres from the highest point. Many times again Chinese intervention has created a long concrete staircase complete with dragon head and tail beside the monastery. This will lead to the waterfall or rather an outlet for excess water from the dam 50 metres away.

Lunch below the monastery, was one Yangzhou fried rice poisoned with salt and a pork and long bean dish that had the texture of re-cooked leftovers. I ate the rice but insisted that the other was inedible. To prove my point, I asked the manager to taste the problem for herself. She took a sniff, muttered something unhappy and struck it off the bill. She also threw the change on the table. Oh what the heck! Should have had two Cornettos for lunch.

In the morning, we witnessed an auntie brawl at the bus station. Auntie 1 was on one of the buses, I think without a valid ticket. Auntie 2 was the marshal at the station complete with blue uniform and red sash. Auntie 2 got Auntie 1 off the bus. Auntie 1 got angry and started pushing, cursing and yelling. Auntie 3 who was Auntie’s 2 colleague took over the fight and with the help of about 8 other male bus drivers finally drove Auntie 1 out of the station. The victors looked really happy after their morning adventure.

Going back, there was an argument between two local tourists and a taxi driver. The taxi driver was to ferry all of us to catch the bus back to Da Tong but ended up quarrelling for a really long time with the two ladies. That one involved some money-throwing and cursing ‘Ta(4) Ma(1) De(4)!!’. The Chinese are sure persistent when it comes to arguing and we stood by, got in and out of the taxi for at least 15 minutes before we finally got moving. The ladies lost and it was a tense 5 minute ride to the bus.

Back in Da Tong, we had so-so mutton fried noodles, mushy eggplant and orange juice for tea. Gambling was in session when we entered and our requests sent the three half-naked men into the kitchen while the lady got the juice. Of course the game resumed as soon as possible. The house wine jar here had a big black lizard floating in it.

Dinner had more resemblance to a birthday meal. Hotpot with Grade 1 fatty beef and mutton. The thin but generous and tender meat shavings had just the right layer of fat on them and went really well with the spicy broth and a Huang Dou side dish, which looked like a bean sprout with a large head but an undeveloped tail. The friendly boss, thrilled with her first Singaporean customers gave us free watermelon and ice-cream which we couldn’t finish.

It was more friendliness on the train, this time in the soft-seat carriage on the night train into Beijing. The seats face each other and I had a pleasant conversation with a happy family of three, two old men and a 23-year old chap from the army. The army guy told us stories about his 80 year old grandfather who fought the Japanese and suffered a gash on his right forearm. Later, he stepped on a landmine and injured his calf. He made it but now has to have a brace over his calf to prevent it from ‘slipping down’. The family of three are all very smiley bubbly and their little girl with her predator hairstyle is the cutest I have seen in China. Again we are mistaken for students and they didn’t believe I was 30 or well…31.

The bubbly family got upgraded to a sleeper carriage just as Armyboy got upgraded to our soft seat carriage. The priority is to just get onboard via a general class (aka no fixed seating) and then get upgraded. As the lady boss of Harmony Guesthouse in Ping Yao says, ‘Once you get on the train, they have to find you a seat.’

The AC straight-backed soft-seats are not too good for sleeping and when you stretch your legs, they usually go into the guy across. Like all AC trains it gets sub-zero sometime past midnight and one poor girl in the next seat was shivering in her tank top. The armed ticket squad trio do their sweeps very thoroughly so don’t even think of train-hopping in China.

1500 years and still hanging...

non-slip steps

The other way.


Roof Supports, no nails I think

The Little Details

Stone corridor carved into the cliff

Double Dragon


The wobbly 'show' poles

Against the grain

Goh Li Yan

Good guys or Bad?

Evil Eye

Caught You

The Grand Canyon

Karen before the quake

Quite high up eh?

Last View


Main Buddha


Two of a kind

Bad Neighours

Hey! Where's the BIG guy?


Between Good and Evil

45 caves on a 1km stretch, 51,000 carvings and sculptures!

help from a little friend

Which hole do you belong to?

No Photo!

Religious Concentration

Buddha Blue

To Each His Own

Meeting Master

Food aplenty


Lucky 9

Friday, September 01, 2006

24th August – Ping Yao

We arrived in style with a free pickup from the train station courtesy of Harmony Guesthouse though in an electric tricycle. Ping Yao is the place to be after a big city. The 200 by 200m old Han town is enclosed by Ming high walls and only electric vehicles are allowed in. The pedestrainised town centre is a lovely chaotic mix of dreary ancient houses and those that have been restored. Architecturally, this collection is a gem which we mostly admired from the outside thanks to the 120 yuan all inclusive ticket.

Harmony is well runned by a Chinese lady who spoke English fluently and confidently. For 40 yuan each the dorm bed wasn’t cheap but the boss was kind enough to give us a private room within the dorm. So to use the toilet, we had to get out of our room, go through the dorm, into another private room which the shared toilet was attached to.

The morning got off to a slow start after interesting travel trivia with a Swiss (Marcel) and Portuguese (Mario) traveller. Among others we talked about a Mount Blanc boulder the size of a house tin foiling a passing car below, hang-gliders in Portugal who miss the beach landing and wind up in the sea, the pregnant lady simulator (complete with baby delivery) Mario was working on and the one hour he had to run through Potala Palace in Tibet. Mario thought that India was hell. Ha Ha!

After some excellent 3 yuan mutton Lan Zhou la(1) mian(4) which was freshing ‘la’ed before your eyes, we walked the old streets of this once-merchant-now-tourism town. We passed a very old hospital and one joint that used to hire out bouncers to protect valuable goods as they were transported by carriage in the past. These bouncers need not be the big guy outside Zouk today but was probably a martial arts exponent. It was the time before the gun levelled the fighting field. Main doors usually open to reveal a big ‘fu(2)’ and the richer homes can have up to 100 rooms! It was nice to have an even mix of those who restored their homes and converted them into mini-museums or a ‘Reception Foreign-Guest Exampled Unit’ (aka Guesthouse) for tourists and those who couldn’t be bothered and let time take it’s toll.

Piped sewerage hasn’t caught on yet in most parts of town so you have to wait your turn till the shit-cart comes along. The donkey pulling these carts have a tough time especially with the perfume coming from the traditional wooden buckets. Half-naked uncle does the job of scooping the muck up with a large coffee strainer attached to a pole and filling the buckets inside your house!

Beyond the tourist stretch are the hu(2) tong(4) or single storey mass produced small local dwellings. These brick houses are laid out in a neat but narrow grid and do not have bathrooms or toilets. You have to cycle out to the public ones which come with a thriving rubbish dump in front of them. There is a small external store-room outside each house where the coal-clay solid fuel is stored.

On some streets, it’s quite amazing how people live in a space about 3 by 3.5m. This is not only their shop but their living space, kitchen and bedroom. Windows have a removable wooden panel over them, I think it’s to protect the glass and for security but one lady told us that shops with the panels covered are vacant.

There also seem to be several autistic people here.

I found a room for two going for 30 yuan. It’s on the southern edge of Xi Da Jie about 30 metres from the Lower West Gate. No name, just a sign in Chinese that they have rooms. No hot water too. But we decided that one day of old houses was quite enough.

Dinner location was determined by paying a rider 3 yuan and asking him to drop us at his recommended eating place outside the old town. This conscientious guy did his best but unfortunately, the place where we landed ourselves wasn’t fantastic at all. Perhaps it had something to do with the lady being away leaving her hubby with the cooking. There was a cute kitten (making me think that ‘Mimi’ is the default name for female cats in China) here which we played with and heavily photographed.

Only pedal and electric power allowed in Ping Yao!

reverse-parked donkey


Harmony's Boss


Leave a light on for me

Oooh! Is that roast duck for dinner I smell??

tee(4) kee(4)

something you can't deny

silent war

For Siew Ping who will buy me chocolates when I get back.