Pingyao Ancient City – A place to remember for sure!

The ancient city of Pingyao is a well conserved, centuries old city surrounded by an equally old wall. This ancient city is within the city of Pingyao, Shanxi Province, China. Pingyao Ancient City is so well preserved that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

 

 

Although Pingyao doesn’t have an airport (the closest one is Taiyuan Airport), it does have 2 train stations. One is the regular train and the other is the high speed train. Taiyuan is the capital of the Shanxi province so once you reach there, you can catch either trains to Pingyao, a bus or catch a taxi. It’s about a 45 min. taxi drive. If travelling by train, here are a few things to keep in mind other than they were under renovations so I couldn’t get a decent shot 😃:

1) When you board the train, a train conductor exchanges your ticket with a plastic card and before your stop he/she will take your card.
2) If possible research how many stops away your stop is and keep count because I didn’t see any English signage at all, anywhere.
3) I highly suggest booking your tickets in the cars with a bunk beds or private cabin, because the regular cabins with the seats, well those seats look really uncomfortable and the people who buy standing tickets are standing around you. The cars with bunks have 6 bunks (3 on each side) per section with a small fold out table and two fold down seats in the aisle above which is the luggage rack. I booked a top bunk and a bottom bunk just in case one of us needed to sleep or if it got too crowded, which it didn’t.
4) If possible get the hotel to pick you up, the fee they charge isn’t much more than what you’d pay taking the street taxis or motorized trishaws and probably less of a hassle too.

Although the train stations are relatively close to the Ancient City, I don’t suggest you walk because the pavement isn’t all that smooth (from the high speed train station) and it seems that every 10 steps you take, there’s a curb. It was so frustrating for us, with our wheeled luggage, that we stopped and contemplated flagging a taxi, no sooner had we decide to, a motorized trishaw came sputtering up the street, in oncoming traffic, with an elderly driver waving an arm at us!

 

 

When he came up, we showed him the picture of our hotel he nodded, we agreed on a price and off we went. In the wrong direction! We kept trying to tell him he was going the wrong way and he just kept nodding, pointing and smiling. A few blocks later we turned into an alley but before any negative thoughts could pop into my head, I recognized the hotel, it just wasn’t the one I booked our stay in. So the driver goes inside and comes out with a lady who spoke a bit of English and she welcomed us. Even though I told her this isn’t the hotel I booked, she said it was ok she has room and we can check in now…sigh, gotta admire their persistence, tho! Anyways, without being too stern I managed to get her to tell the driver to drop us at the main entrance of the Ancient City and we were on our way.

The reason why we needed to be dropped at the main entrance is that motorized vehicles are not allowed inside the ancient city walls. Within the walls they use electric cars (glorified golf carts) and scooters. When you get closer to the city center, however, even those are banned. So it’s either bicycle or walking. As soon as we stepped off the trishaw, it felt so surreal. The architecture was historic, there was street food a plenty, craftsmen and women making/selling their goods along side more modern retail shops. Modern dressed people, older styled fashion, inclusive of children who’s pants had not bottoms. Yup you guessed it, when they need to go they just did it right then and there. Nobody reacts to it so I’m guessing that’s normal.

 

 

Other than being famous for it’s extremely well preserved structures, Pingyao is famed for being the financial hub of China back in 16th century and reputed to have had the very first bank in China which is now a museum. This museum is one of at least 16 historic venues you can enter and check out when you buy the “Town Pass” ticket. You’ll know if it’s an attraction needing the ticket because there’s a turn style gate you need to scan the ticket on (sometimes there’s someone there to scan the ticket for you). Keep in mind there are a handful of temples that are free to enter as well and a museum or two that’s not included with the “Town Pass” ticket. Budget two days just to see everything listed on the Town Pass.

As you move further away from the city center, I would advise you not to walk into any open doorways as it may be the entrance to someone’s home. Yup found that out the “hard way”, lol. It’s actually pretty cool, you enter the doorway which leads to a courtyard type area functioning as the common area with all the other room’s doors facing the courtyard.

 

 

If you’re not a big fan historical stuff and centuries old architecture then maybe you can find joy in the street food. There’s food all over the place! Some establishments have a steamer right on the sidewalk! You can either eat it right there or sit down inside the shop or maybe the seating area in the alleys. Checking out what was inside the steamers was kinda fun too. Sometimes it’s dumpling type things other times it was some type of bun (with or without filling). The best, in my opinion, was the “Pingyao Beef” which only came out after dusk. They set up fold up tables/shelf things in front of a shop that’s closed for the day or in front of a wall/empty space and proceed to sell chunks of cooked meat, “Famous Pingyao Beef” and other stuff. So you go up and tell the vendor how much (either in weight or $) you want and he/she cuts off pieces to weigh and puts the piece(s) in a bag. I had 3 or 4 servings just walking down one street, it was so good! My daughter, on the other hand, preferred these satay stick looking things that were some kind of meat, she went back for thirds then went for some gourmet popsicles!

 

 

If you’re short on time, the one thing that, in my opinion you shouldn’t miss, is walking the wall. Keep in mind that they close around 6pm and you can get some really nice sunset shots off the wall don’t be like me though I got rushed off the wall just after finishing setting up my gear. The “security” guys are on bikes so if you don’t pack up and go (or walk too slow) they’ll come back and rush you, lol. Keep in mind that you can’t get off the wall anytime you like, there’s only so many places to get on/off the wall and some are closed. The ancient city of Pingyao is definitely a must visit if you’re in the area and have a few days to spare. Better yet, time your trip to coincide with one of the arts related festivals!

 

 

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Ray

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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 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.