Review of the Pingyao International Photography Festival

The Pingyao International Photography Festival 2017 is held within the Pingyao Ancient City, Pingyao County, Shanxi Province, China.

PIPF 2017 Gate outside the ancient city adjacent to park.

It is the largest photography exhibition in China and 2017 marked its’ 17th anniversary. What I thought was really unique about the PIPF is its’ location, it’s set in the county of Pingyao, in the section of the city that’s kept it’s “ancient” Han Dynasty architecture for the most part. Hence the name for it, “Pingyao Ancient City” there is much historical significance to this city, so much so that it has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. A truly awesome venue for a photography festival.

If you’re a participant attending the opening ceremony, you will need your participant’s badge to get into the central seating area. You may want ot be prepared with an umbrella or hat as the area is not sheltered and the ceremony maybe be delayed. Have a bottle of water because it gets hot sitting out there.

Parade to kick off the opening ceremony at the PIPF 2017

The amount of security inside the VIP / Participants area was significant.

The theme for 2017 was “With Original Inspiration, For Brighter Future.” The exhibits cannot be finished in a day if you attend the opening ceremony and have an open floor session for your works. Even without attending the opening ceremony and without an open floor session I doubt you can see all the works in a day. The exhibits are not all in one place/building, they are spread out all over and not just inside buildings but the outside too. I found works on the ancient city walls, on fences between buildings etc. There is so much to see and do! In fact, no one in our delegation had the time to visit places outside the city walls (I left the earliest).  But I think I saw the most of the city as I took a full day to do the touristy thing with my daughter. I figured I can see the works in the PIPF catalogue, I was wrong. The catalogue doesn’t include all the works (and it’s roughly 450 pages thick). Our contingent (the Photographic Society of Singapore) had 6 members participating, of which each had 6 images of 1m on the longest edge. There were many larger prints as well as smaller ones (Polaroid size). I hope that gives you an idea of the number of participating images which may give you an idea of the size the collective venue must be. The highlighted areas on the photo of the map below are the major exhibition areas.

Map of the major exhibition areas at the 2017 PIPF

Within the ancient wall, there is another barrier preventing gas powered vehicles from entering, however, battery powered scooters, golf carts and bikes can still enter and operate. So those golf carts are the “taxi’s” within the inner city and cost 10 Yuan (there abouts) per ride. There were a lot of people but not so much that it was uncomfortable. In regards to photography related merchandise, I only saw one tent selling photo gear (vests, filters, tripods) I’m guessing the photo vests were really cheap as many many people were looking, buying and wearing. As for the other stuff, I didn’t really look since I wasn’t looking for any gear to buy. Didn’t really notice any “branded” gear either.

Battery powered taxis within the inner city.

Battery powered taxis within the inner city.

Now for my fellow photographers, if you’re into ancient architecture and details, there are tons of things to shoot. Landscape photographers will probably have to go outside the walls.or you can hope for a spectacular sunset which you can compose well while on the wall. However, a guy with a bike will come riding around the wall around 18:00 to get you off the wall. Seriously, I had just setup my tripod and about to slot in some filters when the guy came up and started blah blah blah’ing…couldn’t understand anything except “closing” in a not too pleasant tone, he stuck around to make sure I started packing up, maybe because I fired off a few shots. Anyways, we were really close to the main gate (exit off the wall) so I tried to snap and walk without inviting another visit from the guy on the bike.  At the main gate there were many photographers still snapping and other people shooing people off the wall so don’t pack up all your stuff just yet, you still can get a shot or two off.

Sunset on Pingyao’s ancient city wall.

Needless to say, there were some truly remarkable works on display! I saw some really awesome stuff that made me wish I had shot it or wish I can go there.  Being a history buff I loved the atmosphere, architecture and historic tourists spots. I would very much like to visit again for more than 3 days and perhaps make it out of the city to see landscape.If you ever get a chance to get to the Pingyao International Photography Festival, it’s worth it!

A big thanks to the the Photographic Society of Singapore and our curator Mr. Vincent Liew for this opportunity and the PSS contingent for the photos below…

You can find more photos taken in and around Pingyao and the PIPF2017 in my Pingyao, China Flickr Album



Review of Yungang Grottoes. Datong, China

Yungang Grottoes
Shanxi Province, Datong.

Yungang Grottos is a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside the city of Datong. While you can catch a bus directly to the site you may want to consider a taxi. While the bus is significantly cheaper, it also take longer to get there. Plus, finding the bus stations/stops might be a challenge. Well, for us it was, we didn’t notice any obvious signage or anything indicative of a bus stop (like a numbers), also we didn’t notice any bus station like building. Anyways, if you can afford the time it is much cheaper by public transport. If you choose to go by taxi, you can either go one way (probably cheaper initially) or the taxi driver may offer you a higher price and then will wait for you in the parking area until you’re done. This may be better because your fare is already negotiated and you won’t get ripped off by the second taxi taking you back (I haven’t had experience with that, only read reviews saying fares are higher on the return trip because the drivers know there’s no other option for you). Also, since payment is made when you return from the outing, you’re guaranteed a ride back. From Datong Hotel, front desk got us a taxi for 200 yuan (this is a bit on the steep side, I think). The ride was roughly 40 minutes driving fast. Remember to take a picture of the taxi, driver and license plate so you can find the guy easier when you’re done at the Grottoes.

Just inside the traffic gate at the Yungang Grottoes.

At the Grottoes, you get dropped off at the parking area and you have to walk into the “scenic area”. There are street vendors with drinks and stuff, as well as people (quite aggressively) trying to sell “discount” tickets. Not sure what the deal is but if you can understand whats being said maybe you can get a deal. We did buy drinks from street vendor. I picked Pepsi, at least what I thought was Pepsi. You can see it in the photo but the coloration was a lot lighter than in the photo. I threw it out right after the photo. From the parking area roughly 50 meters away you’ll see a traffic gate/building structure (the background structure in the photo). Go through the gates and keep going straight! Right after passing through the gate/building there is a way to go left with lots of stuff to see, restaurants etc. That’s the exit plaza. To get to the entrance where the ticket office is, keep going straight, you’ll see stairs. Going up the stairs the ticketing office is in the building on the left. Tickets were 125 Yuan. If you like postcards, don’t crumple the ticket because you can tear off the stubs and the remainder is a postcard. We got there at 13:30 and they closed at 17:00. We barely finished it. We could have spent more time looking at things the last hour but we rushed the grottoes knowing we’d run out of time. Not knowing that there is a park area and that the exit was a ways off.

The first section after you buy your tickets and enter the “Grottoes” is a plaza of sorts with temples, a pagoda, some stone art. You’ll pass an Art Gallery too. After getting past all of that, you’ll cross a bridge before getting to the Grottoes section.

View of Yungang Temple after crossing the bridge to the Grottoes.

The first set of caves at the Yungang Grottoes.

The main paths are pretty much smooth and easy to walk. For the grottoes that are higher, there are wooden stairs and platforms built for access. Inside however is a mix. Some have wooden walkways, some do not and some caves were empty.

Wooden stairs and platforms at the Yungang grottoes

Some caves at the Yungang grottoes were empty but perhaps weren't before.

There is temple on top of the cliff (was under repairs at the time) accessible by an almost hidden (by trees) stairway path. The view from up there is pretty cool and you can see how big this “park” really is. Behind this building is a path that goes somewhere, being pressed for time we didn’t venture that far. Some of the caves were enclosed for their protection, some of which were unavailable for entry.

Temple on top of a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Building built to protect the cave from further deterioration.

Like I said earlier we almost didn’t finish the Grottoes section, but we for sure didn’t get to see most of the park area because we got picked up by an extended golf cart and taken to the exit area because we wouldn’t make it on time for closing. We had to pay 5 yuan each for the ride.  If you can’t walk the entire grounds, you can take the tour cart. It doesn’t go into where the actually caves are though. You may want to budget a bit more time if you like to take lots of photos (like me) because some of the closed areas may be open when you go and also for the park area after the grottoes area. There were games and stalls and stuff.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

A large stone buddha carved into a cliff at the Yungang Grottoes.

Once you exit the grottoes, the exit plaza has a whole bunch of stalls for you to buy souvenirs. Lots of cool stuff, remember prices can be negotiable. I got 20 yuan off just for picking up a silver bracelet after asking for the price. If you plan to buy the black bead bracelets keep this in mind, once you exit the traffic gates to get to the parking area where your taxi should be waiting, there are a lot of old ladies selling those bracelets at 3 for 10 yuan but I got offered as high as 7 for 10 yuan. These old ladies are aggressive! They will put the bracelets in your hand on your arm wherever they can and refuse to take them back. Once you buy from one you will get swarmed. They will prevent you from closing the taxi door even (our driver was of no help in shooing them away) eventually though they gave up.

All in all,  in our opinion, the Yungang Grottoes is worth the entrance fee. I think I could spend an additional 3 hours in there. Our only regret is rushing and not finishing the park as well as not trying the food. Although you may not want to if you have nut allergies (specifically peanuts) I saw and smelled a lot of peanuts at the exit plaza area.

For more of my photos taken in and around Datong, visit my Datong Album on Flickr.



Review of Datong Great Wall and Inner City Attractions

Datong Inner City Tourist Attractions

Datong City Wall

Biking on Datong’s Great Wall.

The Datong City Wall  encloses the original city of Datong. It is quite spectacular to see. This wall is not the original wall, it is a replica which is why it looks relatively new. Still impressive to look at and be on top of! Getting onto the wall is free, you just have to show your ID (passports are fine). At two of the gates you can rent bikes for 60 Yuan per hour and you can return the bike at the other bike stop if you don’t want to ride the whole wall. From what we could interpret, you can finish the wall in an hour. We paid for the hour but it took us two so we just paid the extra hour when returning the bike so don’t worry about going over on time. We stopped a lot to admire views and take pictures and just overall messing around having fun. As you can see in the photo below, the wall is really wide, some parts are being restored and my daughter taking off on the bike when I got off to take pictures of the city below.

After the wall you can continue to walk around and there are plenty of things to see like Temples. All the ones we walked into while looking for the “tourist attractions” were free.

9 Dragon Screen

Largest 9 Dragon Screen in China.

9 Dragon Screen for all the hype it was, in my opinion, underwhelming. While the size of this wall and the story behind it is interesting the space they had it in was bleh at best. The cost to enter was 10 yuan per person. I thought it was worth it just for being able to see something that old in relatively good shape. Despite the total destruction of the palace it was part of part. There’s even a mini moat in front of the wall although it’s dry and unassuming. Over 600 years old and surviving a sacking or two this palace wall remnant is not in pristine condition (like in the images in the post cards they sell) but it still looks really awesome, it’s reported to be the largest of only 3 such walls in China.  There is a gift shop in which the attendees were a bit aggressive, sticking things in your hands for you to see, if you didn’t want it they’d just yank it back.

Walking/wandering around we passed many interesting places, a coffee shop (with an English menu) sites still under construction/renovation. Then we get to a plaza where young people were skateboarding and hanging out. This was right in front of the Huayan Monastery.

Huayan Monastery

Entry fee was 65 Yuan. This place is huge! Lots to see.we took an hour and a half and still didn’t see everything. Almost though. They are pretty diligent in closing on time at 18:30. There is a pagoda you can go all the way to the top and there’s a basement you can go down too. To help preserve the inside, you are required to were slip on covers over your shoes. Also, the stairs are pretty steep and narrow, so mind your shins.

Close up of the pagoda in Huayan Monastery

Slip ons for your shoes to help preserve the flooring in the pagoda

I wished I had more time in this monastery, I really like the “feel” and would really have like to see everything. Well worth the entrance fee! There are monks walking around, some even join the tour groups and add to the stories (I’m guessing as they do a lot of talking). So monks (not just in this monastery) will actually move to a more favorable spot for you to include them in your shot. I found that really awesome! The first few times I was hesitant as I thought maybe it was a gimmick and they’d come ask for a “tip”, but that never happened! It seemed they genuinely wanted to help you get a “better” shot.

Walking around at night was something else! Although really dark in many places, we didn’t feel threatened but didn’t want to leave things to chance either, we made our back to the hotel. Some places only had the lights from the buildings on top of the wall or car headlights.

The Datong Great Wall at night.

NOTE: Although I took a lot of time photographing things, I could have taken a lot more. There’s just so many things to see and make images of!

For more photos taken in and around Datong, check out my Flickr Album.



Review of Hong Changyu Inn, Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China

Hong Changyu Inn
Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China.

Hong Changyu Inn is situated within the city of Pingyao’s ancient walls. For clarification, the Inn is inside the walls but outside the no drive zone. This means that you can get front door pick up, drop off service for a fee. My quoted pricing was 48 Yuan for pickup at the highspeed railway, 30 Yuan for the regular train’s station (the one from Datong stops here) and drop off service to Taiyuan Airport was 380 yuan. Shaw, the Inn keeper can converse in English and responds to emails quickly. He’s very patient and helpful. Payment was made in cash at check in (remember to get your receipt, just in case) including security deposit and payment for taxi fare to Taiyuan airport. Check out was smooth and quick. Deposit was ready and returned without hesitation. Breakfast is not included and costs 10 Yuan per person. As a matter of fact, I don’t even recall seeing a restaurant. We didn’t have time to experience it though plus the street food looked way too good.

Courtyard of Hong Changyu Inn

Details and decor of the Hong Changyu Inn.

If you’re into ancient architecture, decor and ambiance, then you can’t go wrong with Hong Changyu Inn. The room we got looked exactly the same as the one pictured when I booked on Booking.com.  It had everything I wanted to experience straight down to the stone bed. We didn’t get to light a fire under it for warmth though. The opening to shove in wood/coal was closed off and it wasn’t cold enough anyways. The bed was not as hard as I thought it would be, probably because the padding was pretty thick. Pillows were comfortable, might be a bit too hard for some (don’t worry, it’s not the wood blocks of old). The room and Inn looked a bit too new for the decor (there were some run down looking Inns/Hotels but I didn’t want to chance it). The room was clean as were the sheets, blankets and towels.

There is the usual compliment of toiletries and a sitting toilet but there isn’t a safe for your valuables. Lucky, I always bring my laptop cable lock and looped it around the the ornate brick of the bed and locked the tumbler section inside my suitcase (between the zippers and locked the zipper handles). Not perfect, but better than nothing I suppose. The entrance to the room is unique in the sense that there is a heavy, rattan like mat, roll up curtain (but doesn’t roll up) that you have to move aside to open the door. If you’re wondering why it’s there, its so you can leave the door open for more fresh air and still have some privacy. The door is secured via latch and padlock.

Doorway to a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

Doorway to a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

As you can see, the room is small but still ok for a couple or single occupant. The bed is big enough to fit 3 though. If you do stay with more than just yourself, take note that the frosted glass of the bathroom/toilet is not as frosty as the photos indicate, especially when wet. Another thing to note is to remember to take the toilet paper out of the bathroom (and the dust bin) when showering (yes, that’s the roll holder almost directly under the shower head)! Also, for some reason the water tastes weird (but bearable), don’t know why or how. No I didn’t drink it, just got some in my mouth from showering and brushing my teeth.

Inside one of the rooms at the Hong Changyu Inn.

View inside the restroom of a room at the Hong Changyu Inn.

If you’re visiting Pingyao for the the Pingyao International Photography Festival, this Inn is really close to Feng Yi gate which you need to exit to attend the opening ceremony if it’s held at Feng Yi Park (as it was in 2017). It’s also really close to the main exhibition halls (Diesel building and others). All within 15 minutes walking (assuming you head directly to the destination).

I would definitely stay at the Hong Changyu Inn again next year (if I’m fortunate enough to make it into an exhibition)!

To see more pictures from Pingyao, China, visit my Flickr Page.



Review of Datong Hotel, Shanxi Province, China

Datong Hotel
Datong, Shanxi Province, China.

Front view of Datong Hotel.

Datong Hotel looking out from hotel window.

Datong hotel is located in a relatively convenient location to most things. The Datong Great Wall is just a 20 minute walk if you don’t stop to look at things. The train station is a 20 minute taxi ride away (cost me 15 Yuan). Right after the front yard of the hotel is a major street with a small area where taxi’s and buses often wait. There’s an overhead bridge crossing this street with restaurants, convenience stores all around.

During our 3 day 3 night stay, we encountered 3 staff members that could converse in English. All were met at the front desk. Other staff may seem rude and just ignore you if you don’t speak Mandarin, they get nicer if you try to communicate with a different Chinese dialect.

The hotel itself is rather old. Dimly lit in many places, thin walls, faded paint and carpets and the like but most importantly, it’s not dirty. The beds and pillows were way to soft for my liking, it felt like i was embedded in the mattress and had to stack 2 pillows to even feel there was one. We got a street facing hotel on the 5th floor. Nice view but you can hear the street noise. Doesn’t bother me but if it bothers you, you may want to request for a room on the other side. Don’t hold your breath for an email response though. They’ve NEVER answered any of my emails both pre check in and post check in.

I booked via Booking.com and as stated on the website, Datong hotel does take Mastercard/Visa and payment is at checkout. Whether or not they honor the rate confirmed via Booking.com is a different story. It’s not that they flat out deny it, they just over charge the security deposit and refuse to rescind the security deposit charge and charge the correct rate. To date, this has not been resolved and the total overcharge amounted to 188 Yuan which comes out to roughly $28 USD. I think that had I had time to argue they would not have pulled this fast one on me. As it stands, we were in a rush to catch a train and the taxi we had per-arranged to pick us up was already 20 minutes late. As the amount is smaller than the cost of re-booking train tickets, I just took my lumps and will regard this as a cost of travel / education. So that’s what this post is for, to save you some $.

UPDATE: As of 9/30/17 The security deposit is gone from my credit card statement and the proper charge is reflected.

There is free WiFi in the rooms and the whole floor shares one password. So while in the lobby, I couldn’t get free Fifi. Lucky I brought my travel router with wifi, just buy a local sim card with data and you’re set. Our rooms had air con,a sit down toilet, a bathtub and all the toiletries.  Rooms are arranged by even numbers on one side of the corridor and odds on the other. Size of room was normal, 2 beds, a desk, a night stand, a coffee table and chair, a closet with extra blankets/pillows and a safe. The one in my room was locked and housekeeping came in and punched in number and it opened, don’t know if they locked it or they have a universal code.

View in a 5th floor room of the Datong Hotel.

View of the hotel room's bathroom in Datong Hotel

There are 2 restaurants in the hotel, one is only for breakfast (at least we’ve only seen it in operation during breakfast hours 7-9:30 am) and the other is on the mezzanine and looks like a small coffee shop area. Don’t be surprised if the waitstaff / management are a bit rude. It seemed like they only had one menu so we had to wait our turn for it. This was after we tried to get a table and the Manager just grunted and walked away. So we went to the front desk and asked what was up and they called someone and told us to go back up and everything should be fine and it was. The food was good and well presented. The free breakfast had a large selection of food, mostly of the Asian variety. You will find cereal, bread, bacon, eggs (egg station), some pastries and coffee. Be aware of the closing time, we almost missed one because we didn’t know it closed so early.

All in all, I think this hotel gives you good bang for your buck if you don’t mind a good stroll to older parts (touristy) places. Should you brave this hotel, At check in, make sure they charge a security deposit amount you are comfortable with. Make sure you allot PLENTY OF TIME to deal with any shenanigans they may pull on you at check out (including paying cash because their machine is “broken”).

GOOD LUCK!

For more photos from Datong, check out my flicker page.