1 April 2007
Our trip from Xi'an to Pingyao lived up to the old backpackers adage "it's not traveling unless it's a challenge".
Taking the train from Xi'an to Pingyao proved to be impossible as we had come up with our plan to visit Pingyao at the last minute, and all of the sleepers were full. Taking the one hour ($60 USD) flight was easy enough, but the 100km drive from the Taiyuan airport proved to be another matter. Talking with the cab drivers outside the airport, I came to the conclusion that they were fixing their prices. I am naturally opposed to this kind of behavior, so I walked out to the main road, flagged down a cab, and negotiated a less expensive price. It quickly became clear that all was not well, as after we loaded our gear, the cab driver shifted through his gears and topped out at the break neck speed of twenty kilometers per hour (this in a country were all of our other cab drivers fancy themselves Mario Andretti, totally disregarding all posted speeds and basic rules of the road). To make matters worse, two minutes into out ride the driver stopped and asked for directions from another motorist, who was pulled over and taking a leak. It was painfully obvious that the inept cab driver quoted a low price not knowing where Pingyao was or how to get there. Once he had been given directions and realized that Pingyao was 100 kilometers away, he tried to jack up the price of the previously negotiated fare. I would have none of it, leading to him pulling over at the next turn out. Before I could get a handle on what was going on, our cab driver handed us off to another driver (who agree to drive us to Pingyao for the original price), this new driver sporting the miniest of mini vans. The new driver was obviously not licensed as a cab driver, nor was his van. Within minutes we were driving down some of the most god awful, pot hole ridden, open sewer back alleys. A sudden realization came over me that this was not a good position for my father and I to be in. We were in a place we didn't know, being driven by someone we didn't know (and who now seemed ominously frightening), with pockets full of money. If this guy wanted to, he could drive us to some remote area, and rob us - or worse. No one knew where we were. No one would notice us missing for several days. It was not a happy realization . . .
As it turned out, my fears were unfounded, and the basic rule that says people are generally good the world over was once again validated. Our new driver didn't want to take the toll road to save money (we were obviously getting what we had paid for). We ended up taking the more 'scenic route' as the say, which gave us a chance to see how people live outside the cities and tourist areas. As the mini van dodged pot holes, bikes, people, motorcycles, trucks buses, flocks of sheep and other obstacles it became quite clear that the construction boom seen in the cities and tourist areas was not happening out in the country. Some people were living in little more than huts, similar to rural Central America but seemingly dirtier.
A common theme we have seen through out China has been pollution on an apocalyptic scale. Factories big and small belching out the nastiest black sludge of smoke. Drainage ditches that are more of an open sewer than storm run off culverts. Auto and heavy equipment repair shops dumping oil in the area that surrounds their businesses. Air quality so bad that it causes my eyes to burn and occasional asthmatic like shortness of breath. I can't imagine what all of this air and water pollution is doing to the health and life expectancy of it's citizens. The "New China" may be an economic powerhouse, but it is paying a heavy environmental and (I'm sure) human toll.
After our experience getting to Pingyao, the city itself was like a dream. It is a well preserved town from the Ming Dynasty with a completely intact feudal wall protecting it the the cookie cutter high rise boxes that plague much of China. Pingyao reminds me of Antigua Guatemala in the early 90's, with a Chinese twist. Great for walking, and just enough regular tourists to keep the hotels and restaurants comfortable. We spent the night and the following day aimlessly wandering the compact city, discovering new treasures around each bend. As with all unexpected travel finds, our stay was to short.
This morning we hailed a standard cab (well worth the extra $10) to Taiyuan, hopping a flight from there to Shanghai and the rally. Although I'm excited for the adventure ahead, being a part of driving fantastic old cars from Shanghai to Beijing, a little part of me is going to miss following my nose and stumbling across the Pingyao's of China.
Here are a couple of short videos from Pingyao
Click on the thumbnail images to enlarge
Click here to see our original plans for this trip.
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