Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Pingyao Tour: an historic town given the Chinese mass tourism makeover

You might be forgiven for reading the title and asking Ping-what or Ping-where? Pingyao was not a place on my map until last weekend when I went there as part of a group of international students from Beijing. The trip began aggressively early with a 6AM rendez-vous  at the University.

Although I have plenty of time for Buddhists in general, I am reminded of an observation of Spalding Gray's about not trusting pilots (or in my case a driver) who believes in reincarnation. The little Buddha over the driving seat was not so reassuring.

There followed a coach ride across the city to Beijing West Station. It was quite impressive to see the city waking up like an ill-tempered boss of a snack bar stirring from a bai-jiu hangover. We passed a great many minor rivers and canals than I was previously unaware of and this make me feel they are worth looking into a bit more. This wasn't the moment however, we sped past old people dotted around the parks doing their exercises and managed to enter the station surprisingly swiftly. I had heard the worst about getting into Chinese stations these days since they seem to have become the choice location for internal terrorist attacks and thus have tight security. You cannot just walk into a station and jump on a train, there is a security screening procedure to follow.

 It turned out however that we sailed in and had over an hour to spare so I had a look around the gift stores to kill time. The traveler coming back from the big city should come bearing gifts for everybody, or so it seemed, and the most popular was the the Roast Duck. 

The next leg of our trip was by high speed train to Taiyuan, the main city of Shanxi Province. The train sped quickly and without pause through largely unremarkable countryside notable mostly for a series of long tunnels. My traveling companions and I had a good conversation and I learnt about the media and education system in China from a very sharp witted and friendly journalist from Ghana. The Chinese University system is now teaching masters courses in English and had brought together an international mix of people mostly working in media in their home countries and paid for them to spend a year in Beijing learning the Chinese version of events. I'm not sure this group are so good at repeating what they are told but the chance to spend a year in Beijing remains a welcome and eye opening experience and one they were happy to take advantage of.

Stepping out into Taiyuan city centre we were thrown into another world entirely. We were a group of some 70 or 80 in number, many of whom were clearly not from East Asia. I don't think Taiyuan sees that many foreigners so we were an immediate sight; it was if the United Nations was making a visit. The glances were more curious and even skeptical rather than welcoming but we simply marched onward following our group's leader who carried a telescopic metal rod with a soft toy attached to the top.  

We were led to a hotel where lunch was waiting for us. Whatever else I may say about the tour one thing that I cannot fault is the food. The group was divided into a muslim table where the food was halal and tables for the rest of us where the Chinese love of pork was allowed to give itself full expression. Not eating meat I was concerned that I would get the short end of the deal but there were plenty of tasty dishes of all sorts finished off with a sweetened egg soup that was greeted at first with skepticism then, once deemed edible, was swiftly polished off by the table.

Next came the bus ride to the Qiao Family Courtyard, a trip of an hour or two through more unremarkable countryside. The expansive car park indicated this was a tourist attraction designed to accommodate coach groups. At the entrance, a group of Turkish students decided to take out their flag and make some pictures. Their completely unwarranted nationalistic display didn't seem to raise any attention at all.

Inside we rubbed shoulders with Chinese tour groups who seemed to be louder and bigger than our group. Our guide made a short introduction to the place and then left us to explore. It was striking how there were crowds in the obvious places where we were told there was something of interest.  

But once you stepped away from these, many of the rooms were completely deserted. This stuck me as not unlike China itself. The country is vast but people seem to cluster in very specific spots: cities on the South and East Coast. 

With China's strategic focus upon trade and development in Africa it was not surprising that there were quite a number of African students on the international communications programme and thus, on this tour. There are relatively few black people in Beijing and almost none outside of the major cities so they attracted a lot of attention. When they were standing together as a group of three to take a group picture in front of a bridge, for instance, a Chinese man asked to join them and have his picture taken beside them too. 

And it did not stop there. One would take the picture and then another would step into the vacant space next to the Africans. In this way they took it in turns to have their picture taken beside the students who, I must say, were gracious about it even though this became a rather lengthy process going through all the permutations of the Chinese group members standing with the Africans.  

On the way out of the Qiao Family Courtyard there was a market with a great many stalls selling local handicrafts and assorted snacks. There was even one stall selling a Chinese translation of Hitler's Mein Kamf alongside some Mao memorabilia. That is something I wouldn't expect to find at a tourist resort back home!

We got back in the bus and headed off through the countryside to Pingyao. I was curious to see what the countryside looked like as I have this suspicion that if the cities are so densely populated then there must be space opening up in the countryside where things are more relaxed. Maybe that is the case elsewhere but in this part of Shanxi it didn't seem to be. The countryside was all working fields or else villages of unloved muddy yards darkened by coal dust and sodden by recent rain.  

We arrived in Pingyao and here our guide, the lady with the metal stick and soft toy, sprung into action and got us onto the electric buggies that would take us to our hotel. It was striking that this seemed to be just about all she did: explanation of what we were looking at was non-existent. Instead her duty, it seemed, was to lead us through a number of environments safely and efficiently. The stick was her main tool to do this with and our role was to follow. It really was that simple.

We were accommodated in an old building that was really rather attractive. I would have liked to have known what it was and why it was laid out the way it was but we were not given any explanations of that sort. Instead we were put into pairs, assigned rooms and given a key.

I had expected that they would put us two to a room but that they put us in the same bed was not something I had seen coming. It turned out we had bad luck in that respect with some rooms having two beds, some even got single rooms whereas the two tallest people by far were given a modest Chinese double bed to deal with. Teacher decides is the way things work and while we could have moaned and tried to get it changed, with everyone else already installed in their bijoux suites, this was not worth it.   

I instead took a short walk and found simple amusement in the Chinglish restaurant signs. This is a particularly good one. It reads like a piece of cautionary advice you might give to someone unaware to mushrooms' true dark character.

Above the Full English is the enigmatically named A rotten. I don't make a habit of looking for Chinglish signs but every now and then some good ones pop out and Pingyao had plenty.

Next came dinner which was not bad at all but which featured an incongruous plate of fries in the midst of an otherwise Chinese meal. I think this was a nod to our foreign ways on the part of the chef. They got eaten.

The tour of Pingyao was not due to start till the morning and we were left with free time to make our own explorations of this UNESCO listed site. It was still wet so wandering the streets was no fun, we instead ducked into a store offering tanks of fish to nibble your feet. It had absolutely nothing to do with Pingyao but then again most of the stores and attractions were similarly random and rooted not in the location but rather in what visitors were willing to pay for. The foot fish turned out to be remarkably cheap and decidedly silly. I have never done it before and don't see it becoming a habit anytime soon, but I must say that was 30RMB well spent! The fish really do bite at your flesh and they were hungry too, but as you can see they are very small and the sensation is more like tickling than pain. 

We then hooked up with Chinese guys who were getting pretty wasted in the corner of the hotel, toasting one another repeatedly with bai jiu, the Chinese strong alcohol of choice. They took us off to a Karaoke bar and the evening ended with some decidedly red songs.  

Next morning started with photographs and here are some of the group doing the done thing. I was interested in observing that people have a stock set of poses they produce for tourist photos and that this repertoire varies if it is a solo pictures, a group shot, a man, a woman etc. It got me thinking you could draw up a taxonomy of tourist photo body language. I might well get round to doing this one day. 

As you can see from the map, Pingyao is very square and is protected by a city wall that stands to this day. The maps were generally all like this, that is to say, in Chinese, so finding my way around seemed difficult but was in reality quite easy as there were only about 4 or 5 roads that housed the tourist trade while the rest of the old city was often somewhat run down. This got me thinking that, Chinese tourism being all about numbers, there is capacity in Pingyao for a far larger number of visitors and one day the whole place will probably be turned over into a giant maze of souvenir stalls, restaurants and hotels. 

Our tour guide next took us up the city walls where we could look down upon the buildings. Corrugated metal and tiles were the two staple roofing materials.

We were next led through a passage that had another opportunistic touristic experience waiting for us: the donkey ride. Like the fish of the previous evening, these donkeys were positioned here as there was a enough demand for them and not because they belong here on any deeper level. I don't mean to get too purist about this as there are a great many things that appear in a tourist location as a result of there being a market for them, such as ice cream, and these have no deeper meaning than they are something people like. Still, Pingyao seemed to be composed almost exclusively of such elements. It felt was a UNESCO protected shell that was being exploited on a small scale level by 100s of little businesses with no obvious regard for the bigger story of what the place is.  

Probably my favourite example of this was the drum stores. There was not one, not two but three stores selling African drums. This one even had two Chinese drummers banging along to some backing music. China is surely moving into and discovering Africa, and with that, becoming interested in its musical heritage.

The next location we were taken to by our guide was a carpentry museum that was of quite marginal interest. The one thing I noticed was a display board boasting of China's invention of the mortise-tenon joint. There is a bit of a thing here for making big historical claims about being the oldest culture and this was a perfect example. When I got home I had a thorough look online and saw nothing in English to support this claim: all the things I read said it was the ancient Egyptians who invented it. It seems there is a serious information gap between China and the rest of the world. 

We were led past some stalls on the street which also sold a curious range of pistols, catapults and grenades. I'm not sure what the grenades' purpose is but the pistols I saw demonstrated and they use a normal match which is inserted into the pistol, and when 'fired' creates a loud bang, like a budget starting pistol. I started to wonder if there was a distinctly martial character to the tourism in Pingyao but had nowhere to direct my questions.

We then had some more time to wander by ourselves and I took some back roads which led me to a building site. I was interested to see how the reconstruction work was being done since this was a conservation zone. Not being so technically minded however, the scene in front of me just looked a lot like any other small-scale building site. I wanted to understand more as there is a very particular relationship to history which at once valourises it and at the same time takes an entirely pragmatic approach that can permit the tearing down and rebuilding of things with no problem. The idea of history seems more important than its object.

That brought our tour of Pingyao to an end and we were rushed out by buggy, herded onto the bus and to the train. It was strangely reassuring to see that the food carriage on a Chinese train looked just as prosaic as the food carriage on a European train. With an over-priced under-flavoured dinner secured, we sped back to Beijing and I was left to reflect on what a Chinese student tour of a historical site consisted of: an attractive weekend escape from the big city designed to show off the good side of China. It was heavily subsidised and was more or less a package holiday. No commentary was offered and this felt to me as something of a missing element. What we saw was tourism more than history and once you've seen one Chinese tourist site the rest all begin to look the same. The same basic pattern is reproduced in Xitang, for example, because it is the same basic group of consumers who are fuelling this type of development. There must surely be some regional differences and with time places will distinguish themselves more, I expect, but for now I was stuck mostly by the short-term opportunism that was characteristic of Pingyao.

Friday, 13 June 2014

London Workshop and Beijing Tour

The Beijing site-sensitive workshops went really well, it was focussed and there was some good work, London is next with a workshop on 12th July:

Also, there will be one more Beijing Tour of All Tours on 29th June at 11AM starting at Bookworm. For reservations: info ( at )

I look forward to being able to write properly and the site not being blocked as it is in China. There is a lot to say! Also news of a new tour commission for later this year....