Sunday, September 8, 2013

Taiyuan - Dragon City (China trip part 4 of 6)

...we resume our story with a 9 am flight from the Guangxi province (read more about Guangxi here). We flew 3 hours (map) to our next stop, Taiyuan* city (an old nickname of Taiyuan is Dragon City).

Arriving in Taiyuan we took the airport bus into the city. We checked into the hotel and explored the city a bit. Taiyuan is a very modern city with many newly built skyscrapers but the traditional Chinese elements are still visible in the “shopping streets”.
View from hotel.
Gate to shopping street
Before our big dinner (hotpot) we had a few pre-dinner snacks, a very good lamb and noodle soup/stew followed by stinky tofu (fermented tofu) from a street vendor. After these appetizers we went to a hotpot restaurant. A hot pot is a meal where a metal pot is filled with stock and left simmering at the table. Various ingredients are then placed into the pot and cooked (including vegetables, fish, meats etc). The cooked food is then removed and dipped into a dipping sauce.
Ronnie in famous lamb restaurant 
Lamb stew with noodles
Munching on stinky tofu
Hotpot (with tofu and shrimp balls on the side)
After dinner we strolled through the shopping streets and bought delicious cream puffs for dessert. While walking to the hotel we passed a large city square where people were performing traditional Chinese dances. The traditional dances on the backdrop of the modern Chinese city is a good metaphor for Taiyuan.
Chinese Zodiac

For the following few days Zheya organised a car with a driver and early the second day we hit the road south heading to see the Hukou waterfall (tea spout waterfall) on the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces. The Hukou waterfall is so named because it is situated in an area where the Yellow River (second longest river in Asia) is confined to a width of less than 20 meters, which cause the water to accelerate quite dramatically. Thus, from Taiyuan we travelled for 5 hours, covering much of the south of the Shanxi province and reaching the border with Shaanxi province in the afternoon. However, before actually going to the waterfall we checked into a hotel in a town close to the waterfall and had really good lunch.The lunch rooms in the hotel were small private rooms each with a TV set to provide entertainment during the meal. The “small” lunch included ribs, fried chicken, a number vegetables, prawn salad and durian cakes. Durian fruit is a famous Asian fruit because it has a very pungent smell, disliked by many people, but it is very tasty and makes a wonderful dessert cake. We also had A LOT of tea here - since your teacup is refilled almost after every single sip.
Lunch at hotel
Durian cakes in foreground

After lunch we were off to the waterfall. During our visit to China, this region received quite a lot of rain and the river was in flood, which amplified the speed of the tea spout waterfall, and made the sight even more spectacular (see video below). There were a few flooded paths we had to cross before we reached the edge of the viewing area. We  thus removed our shoes and waded through the, sometimes thigh deep, rivulettes. Since the water is completely opaque due to all the silt and sand (giving rise to the yellow color) it is quite tricky to negotiate (not knowing the depth of the streams). Thus we saw a number of people fall and becoming completely soaked. In our party we did not have this problem (most of us being reasonably sturdy European/African build). However, during one of the crossings one of the shoe bearers made an offering. A few valiant attempts were made to grab the single shoe bobbing on the rushing streams, but alas it disappeared over the edge into the tea spout with a last desperate scream from Olga.

Walkway to waterfall
How many white shoes do you see?

After the excitement of the waterfall we returned to town for dinner at the hotel and obligatory shoe shopping. For dinner, amongst other things, we had  fish in local vinegar, tofu and vegetables, bean soup, Chinese cabbage and cucumber salad. We then went on a shopping expedition into town. It appeared that this town was not a regular spot for western tourists, since we proved to be quite a sight to the locals, with many photograph requests, friendly “hello welcome to China”s and children openly gawking at us.  
Fish in local vinegar

The third day in Shanxi province, we left early again and landed ourselves in a massive traffic jam accompanied by torrential rain. Luckily we had a very experienced driver who wormed through kilometers and kilometers of standing trucks, roadworks and flooded road fringes. We finally arrived at our next stop, Wang's compound. This luxurious residential compound of the Wang family (one of the Four Families of the Qing Dynasty) was built during 1762-1811. The compound occupies a total area of 150,000 square meters and beautiful sculptures of stone, wood and brick can be found everywhere in the courtyards of the numerous buildings (altogether 231 courtyards and 2,078 houses). We did not see all of them but the few that we managed to visit and the views from the surrounding walls were very impressive.
Entrance to Wang's compound
Circular doorways

After Wangs compound we drove 30 km to Pingyao city. On the way we stopped at a small truckstop for lunch. Despite the dingy appearance we had very tasty food and the most amazing home-made noodles here.
Food being prepared
Home made noodles
In the late afternoon we arrived at Pingyao, a World heritage site and one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world. It’s history dates back 2,700 years and it was known for being the financial centre of China during the Qing dynasty. The ancient Pingyao city walls are very well preserved and a very impressive sight. They measure 12 metres high, with a perimeter of 6,000 metres, 72 watchtowers and more than 3,000 battlements. Inside the walls the city retained it’s layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties and is still inhabited by around 50,000 people. We browsed through the hustle and bustle of the Pingyao streets and got a very nice view of the central shopping street from the bell tower.
Pingyao city wall
View from Pingyao bell tower

When we arrived back in Taiyuan we went for a last dinner with our first driver (we got a new driver the next day to take us north). We had wonderful fish (which we again had the opportunity to choose from an aquarium), duck, tofu, vegetables and dessert cakes. We stayed at a cheap but nice hotel (after being denied at a previous hotel for being too foreign).
Driver ordering some dishes. Aquariums in background.
Left - fish, Right - duck (leftovers)

The next day we departed for the spiritual leg of our journey…

*Note: Not once have we said “Taiyuan” to anyone without being misunderstood as saying “Taiwan”.  The difference in pronunciation is as subtle as “Shanxi” and “Shaanxi”. Native Afrikaans speakers may thus be unable to ever get these right but at least we can say: “Rooi Rolf rol in die rooi bruin grond rond” :)

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