Beijing to Taiyuan, China

September 4-9, 2009




On October 1st 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace and announced the formation of the People's Republic of China. With the 60th anniversary just around the corner, excitement and pride reverberate all around us. Brilliant crimson flags sprout in front of buildings, banners are strung across boulevards, workers trim elaborate "mosaic" plantings spelling out 60, soldiers practice ultra-precision marching under clear blue skies. There will be a massive parade at Tiananmen Square -- no foreigners allowed. Nationalism is strong, construction everywhere, wealth apparent in the shiny new Mercedes and VW Passats cruising sixteen lane freeways -- China is flourishing.


We are surprised to find that Mao is so revered -- a long line of "red tourists" queue at Mao's tomb, many standing as in worship with one hand placed over their heart, others beam with excitement as they pose in front of Mao portraits. Mao's "Great Leap Forward" redistributed wealth and land, but caused massive famine and an estimated 20 million deaths. We learn that the National Art Museum is celebrating the 60-year anniversary with a retrospective of Chinese art. Puzzled by the irony and curious to see art allowed during the oppressive Cultural Revolution, we spend a full day wandering from one floor to the next, amazed at the beautiful paintings, drawings, and best of all, the dramatic woodblock prints.




Chifàn le ma? Have you eaten yet?

This is the friendly greeting in China, where eating is the national obsession. And we have joined the masses! After two weeks in Mongolia, where spices (bring your own!) and veggies are practically non-existent, we are primed to eat our way across China. When we return to Beijing, we discover more dishes: delicately flavored congee with vegetarian dumplings for lunch, melt-in-your-mouth eggplant with tomatoes and garlic for dinner, and the dynamic and bustling night market, serving fruit, meat, and strange one-mustn't-inspect-too-closely kebabs.




The weather is fine, the sky is blue so we leave behind the frenetic pace of downtown Beijing and spend a mellow day at the Summer Palace, former playground for the imperial court. Elegant, landscaped grounds surround an enormous slave-made lake, where tourists float by on elaborately painted dragon boats. Photo-snapping families casually meander through the immense grounds, stopping to enjoy the Pavilion of Blessed Shade and the Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance. We particularly enjoy the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, linger hopefully in the Hall of Increasing Longevity, reminisce in the Pavilion of Forgotten Desires and Accompanying Clouds, admire the Hall of Embracing the Universe and the Chamber of Distant Gazing. Beautiful paintings adorn every nook and cranny, and the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha houses massive statues and magnificent painted walls and ceilings.





On the way from Beijing to Pingyao, we have two interesting train experiences: The first is a $23 ride on the new "Harmony Train", 508km southwest to Taiyuan. After checking our tickets, we are led into our slick 2nd class car -- air conditioned, clear polished windows, comfy seats. Pretty stewardesses in smart uniforms with cute little hats roam up and down the aisles making sure everything is ship-shape. The straps from our backpacks in the overhead rack hang down four inches, but moments later they are carefully tucked out of sight. Every half hour they wheel carts of food down the aisles. When we stop to pick up passengers, an attendant scurries down the aisle with a damp mop to remove any dirt that might have been tracked on board.

The bathrooms are squeaky clean and equipped with automatic (choice of western or squat) toilets, sinks, and soap dispensers. The digital readout at the head of the car continuously reports the inside temperature, outside temperature, our destination and speed. The top speed I notice is 237 km/hour, and we make the trip to Taiyuan in a little over three hours.





With our backpacks stored at the train station, we make a stop in Taiyuan to see an amazing over-the-top museum in a massive inverted pyramid building with a cavernous vaulted interior space. It houses exhibits on the wonders of the Shānxi Provence -- 7000 year old ceramics, the development of porcelain, ancient Buddhist artifacts in giant simulated cave alcoves, large-scale wooden models of the beautiful historic architecture, and more.


The neolithic ceramics exhibit features work from 5000-4000 B.C. unearthed from a nearby archeology site.


The museum was amazing, but equally fun was splurging at the museum's fancy restaurant. We ask, Yŏuméiyŏu sŭshí shípín? (Do you have vegetarian food?) A blank look and nervous laughter is the response. No matter how hard we try, not one person anywhere in China has understood our apparently horribly mangled pronunciation of this very simple phrase. Thankfully, pointing to the kanji characters in our phrase book works like a charm, and our friendly waitress soon serves up the local specialties: noodles and tomatoes in a vinegar broth, a platter of smoky tofu, garlicky mustard greens and chrysanthemum tea.

And yes, we have our very own goldfish sharing our table.


Back in the Taiyuan train station, we are sitting in a huge steamy waiting room packed to the gills, waiting for train number two: the $1.15 "hard seat" ride about 100km from Taiyuan to Pingyao. We know when our train is about to board because after the unintelligible (to us) message on the intercom, everyone stands up and starts rushing the ticket-taker gate. We stand too and soon we are swept into the crowd, pressed tightly together like a vast human sandwich. Fortunately we don't drop anything at this stage because it would be impossible to bend down and pick it up. We are pushed along, shuffling with the masses until we pop through the ticket gate. Then comes the mad dash down the hall, escalator, onto the platform and into the train.

We get to our car just in time to hoist our heavy backpacks up into the diminishing overhead space. Folks are cramming all manner of overstuffed sacks and luggage up there until it's full, the rest is strewn about the aisles. Our seats are reserved, so no worries there, but many people have standing tickets, so by the time we get going and make a stop or two along the way, the aisles are packed with people, big burlap bags, and various pieces of luggage. To go to the bathroom, I have to squeeze through the aisle and climb over all sorts of stuff (then the door won't lock, dirty, odoriferous, no running water). The windows are streaked with dirt so it's a bit hard to see outside in the dimming twilight, floors filthy, hot and stuffy, but thankfully the overhead fans are slowly rotating to give us some much welcomed moving air. The amazing thing was that through all this, a guy pushing a cart packed with fruit and snacks is nonchalantly coming down the isle yelling something (probably "fruit, get yer fresh fruit!"). Somehow a space opens up front of him and he goes right on through. Everyone is staring at us, discussing what the foreigners are up to and laughing -- at least we can provide some cheap entertainment for the locals!

After about 45 minutes we are deep into our books when we hear someone speaking English. Apparently the conductor man, wearing a well-worn blue uniform, had gone through the train until he found an English speaker, dragged him over to us (the only non-Chinese folks) so he could interrogate us. Turns out he wants to know where we are going and to make sure we know exactly what time we will arrive. Right, so he is worried about us and is watching out to make sure we are okay!


We spend some time discussing how the hell we will be able grab our heavy packs from over the heads of all these people on the benches and navigate to the exit in time to make our stop in this dense crowd. But when we stand up, a circle opens up and suddenly all these folks are helping lift our packs, one lady is holding Liza's daypack, and an older woman is trying to help me fasten my waist belt buckle! Basically these folks are delighted we are there and do everything they can to help us out. This short trip turns out to be a really special experience, sharing a little time with an interesting collection of wizened old folks to young kids with almost no common language between us.