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 Wooden Pagoda, Hanging Temple, Heng Shan mountain

So my second day in Datong started with a pre negotiated price of 500 Yuan for a taxi to take us to the wooden pagoda, Hanging Temple and Heng Shan then back to the hotel. A private tour guide will cost roughly 1000 Yuan and a price chart in the hotel lobby advertised this trip to be 750 Yuan. So I think we did alright. This price included the tolls but not parking fee up on Heng Shan and didn’t include lunch. As usual, the driver waited in the parking area.

We had arranged for this driver the day before and had gotten used to way of driving. This day though, he took us through corn fields and back roads when the “main” road was closed. At one point we had to get out of the car in order for the car to make it over a bump! It’s amazing how he managed to not get lost!  Anyways, he picked us up at 8:00 am.and the first stop was the wooden pagoda.

Yingxian Wooden Pagoda
Yingxian Village, Shanxi Province, China

The trip took roughly an hour and it was a nice scenic ride for the most part. The Yingxian pagoda is quite the site, it’s leaning a bit and as a result you can’t go up although we did see one or two people on the second floor balcony. From online reviews, I thought an hour should be enough time even if we could have gone up to the second story. We spent two hours there and didn’t even get a chance to look around the town as our driver was walking around looking for us!

In front of the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda

Behind the Pagoda is a temple and a yard. In the yard area is an exhibition hall and open space, some nice looking flowers there and an old looking door that’s closed and locked. The temple is cool too and if you go to the very back you’ll get a view to where that old door in the yard leads to. A very big courtyard of an old palace looking building (looks abandoned though).

Temple behind the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

Yard beside the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.

I really do hope that the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda gets UNESCO World Heritage status, it really is a feat of engineering and a site to see! Was well worth the 50 Yuan entrance fee, in my opinion.

Hanging Monastery
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

Wide view of the Hanging Temple of Mount Heng.

Our next stop was the Hanging Temple (Monastery)  which took about 1 hour 15 minutes by taxi from the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda. The Entrance fee was125 Yuan. If you’re afraid of heights, you may want to give this a miss. The hanging temple is made of wood and the floor boards creak and may sway. The pathways are narrow (two people cannot pass shoulder to shoulder). The railings are around mid thigh height (I’m roughly 5’10”) in many areas and my be a bit unnerving. If you are wearing a back pack, going up and down the narrow stairs may be tricky, you may bump your head or get stuck.

Narrow stair case of the Hanging Temple.

Slender poles supporting the Hanging Temple.

Having said that, it is quite a sight and experience. Everything felt solid enough to walk on. We took an hour to see everything but rushed a bit as we think that’s what the taxi driver was saying since we had one more stop to go.

Overall we felt that there should be more to see for the ticket price but maybe we missed some? There was a blocked pathway leading up to areas you can see from up in the temple, so maybe it would be better when that section reopens.

Heng Shan
Hunyuan County, Shanxi Province, China

The start of the upward hike up Heng Shan.

Heng Shan’s scenic area is roughly 30 minutes up the mountain from the Hanging Temple. We spent 3 hours hiking up and down the mountain and couldn’t finish it as the path lead to a totally different part of the mountain in which we wouldn’t be able to communicate with our driver where to come get us. Also, what we thought was the peak, wasn’t we found another staircase going further up but running short of time (we had to get back down the mountain) we elected not to find out what was up top.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

An entrance to one of the many temples on Heng Shan.

There are a few temples on the way up to the top but some were closed. Thankfully there was a “rest stop” about 1/2 way with toilets and a drink stall. The view is of the the valley below is nice. To get to what we thought was the top you have to climb a VERY STEEP flight of stairs. It was scary just looking at it. On the way up and down there were people making their way on all fours! There’s enough to see up there to make it worth the effort.

Steep stairs to the top most temple at Heng Shan.

Temple at the top of Heng Shan

To truly enjoy Heng Shan we feel you should devote more than 3 hours. The entrance fee of 50 Yuan plus the 10 Yuan parking fee we feel is more than reasonable for this place. It’s truly remarkable. One thing to note though. As you leave (towards the end of the day) you may get approached by other taxi drivers to take their cab. This one guy went so far as to tell our driver we wanted to go with him but told me that there were 2 more passengers to ride to Datong. So I ok, they can ride with us. It hadn’t crossed my mind that he was poaching us until he beckoned for us to follow him (we were already in our taxi) so I said no, closed the door and motioned for our driver to go. He seemed upset but I couldn’t ascertain whether he thought we tried to bail on him or that the other guy was poaching. Anyways, something to be aware of.

For more images taken in and around Datong, check out my Datong 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.