Asia, Destinations

Pain in the Neck

November 29, 2014 • By

I’ve definitely asked for trouble this trip. After turning up the forced heating unit to 30 degrees C (86 F) and snuggling under two duvet covers to watch Bridget Jones’ Diary for the 300th time on my MAC, I attempted sleep. A short time later this strange smell that I vaguely recognized started to permeate my room. Again, I am not a scientist but it’s a mix of sulfites or something very similar to rotten eggs or if you live in Chicago the smell you ingest when traveling through Gary, Indiana.

Pingyao ancient city wall

Pingyao ancient city wall

I sized up the situation and realized the forced heat draws the air from the outside and funnels it inside. The air is contaminated. I am about to die in this town and no one will know for days. I created a type of mask under the covers but then I developed shortness of breath and panicked that I might asphyxiate myself. I jumped from my bed and ran to the door but I had dead bolted myself inside and frightened I fumbled with the lock in the dark. Finally, the door opened and I thwarted my head outside and breathed in….crap. That was foolish and a bad idea.

I turned off the heat, added more layers, left the door unlocked and dived back under the covers with my phone next to me. At least this way, if I suffocated, they would find my body and return it home before the flies and cats gnawed on it.

Thankfully for all of you, I woke up exhausted but without injury. I complained to the only English-speaking woman at my guesthouse and she said this time of year many locals are sick especially the kids and that they all wait for it to snow to clear the air. My lungs cannot take this type of pollution – Not to dwell on it (but I will) the air is intolerable and now I’ve developed a smokers’ cough. I can’t even comment on the landscape of this area because the visibility is less than a quarter mile. Envision the sky right before a whiteout (snow storm). The sky ceiling lowers hovering at building tops and the snow consumes the sky and envelopes the landscape. This is what the smog is doing now. I feel claustrophobic and want to escape. The pollution and the city walls have me trapped.

I put the night’s escapades behind me and readied for the day. The chef prepared Chinese pancakes, which tasted airy and light almost like an egg white. They don’t use diary here so my “crepe” consisted of some rice paper concoction and bananas. Since my friend Edward told me a local remedy for the pollution cough involved honey, I opted for the honey over the chocolate and poured it on thick. I’ll try anything. Satisfied with my breakfast, it was time to start the adventure of the day.

I piled in the car with six Chinese tourists and one English speaking (very weak) Belgium guy for a tour. I commandeered the front seat and managed to control the heat knobs until the driver caught me. I needed something to do to occupy my time since I couldn’t read the signs and my fellow tourists were jabbering in Mandarin (and to beleaguer the point I couldn’t see 5 feet in front of me). After driving for a good 45 minutes, I looked over to the driver and simply said, “Where are we going?” He replied in broken English, “Jung Family.” Oh yeah the Jung home just what I have been dying to see. I guess I misunderstood what I signed up for last night in my tirade about the pollution and looks of the town.

We finally arrived at the WANG complex not to be confused with the Jung home and the driver politely told us to return to a designated spot at noon. I did a quick assessment and realized I was going to be at this fortress outside for two hours. In addition to the pollution making for a less desirable stay, it’s cold. I don’t do cold. I made a pact with myself that I would suck it up and make this about exercise – walking outside for two hours will be good for my heart and with the beautiful fresh air (insert sarcasm) it will do wonders for my health. To my utter excitement, the first thing I see when I walk through the complex gates is a sign in English and Mandarin, “No Spitting.” Not that I am condoning spitting in anyway but even I have developed a wicked cough with this declining air quality and now my lungs are filled with gunk and the thought has occurred to me that maybe I should take up the Chinese sport. It’s very popular and I bet I sure could attract quite a crowd. The question remains. Do you think the tourists obliged the stated policy? And the answer is…..NO.

I really need to stay dehydrated on these touring days because the bathroom situation continues to be an issue. After two (shall I say) stops, I officially swore off liquids for the duration of this trip but I made the most of my excursion to the Wang (Wang Jia Da Yuan) home. It is one of the largest residential complexes of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Known as the Forbidden City of Shanxi, the Wang family’s wealth came from land farming and later trading. It is quite a decorative fortress with hundreds of rooms and gardens. The architecture is the first where I have seen the dragon showcased so prominently. I conquered that in about an hour and even participated in a mini photo shoot with a Chinese man and his wife who took pity on me and flashed about 10 pictures of me posing along the mainframe of the complex.


I exited out the wrong side of the compound and after panicking momentarily (I figured I had an hour before I had to report back) I nearly collided with a wedding party. Before I realized it, the group moved inside for lunch. The awaiting car and decor outside the restaurant gave me a sneak peak as to what happens. Later in the day, I saw a handful of other restaurants set up with large flower bouquets and red balloon arches. I also noticed brides wear both red and white wedding dresses.

I meandered around the parking lot of the Wang home for a bit. With no sign of the driver and the tourist office empty, I narrowed my sights on a restaurant. I stepped inside and almost chocked on the smoke. This seemed like a bad idea and I motioned for the door but paused to consider my options. It was either endure the pollution and cold or cope with the smoke. What’s the verdict you say? For anyone who knows me well, I hate smoke and cold equally but I elected the smoke and made a mask out of my scarf and sat uncomfortably but warm for 50 minutes before I bolted to the car. My clothes and hair wreaked and I vowed to take my business to smoke free establishments. (PS….they don’t exist).

We returned to Pingyao and I wandered around the city walls losing myself in endless thought. I really do love the lacquer jewelry boxes but retail therapy may not be in the cards this trip because my bags came packed full.  I did want to let my audience know that lacquer is believed to originate in Pingyao around 200 BC. The jewelry and Kleenex boxes are stunning. There are various colors, sizes, designs and carvings and many are decorated with patterns of birds, flowers and Chinese figures. The surfaces are smooth and the colors bright. They are simple but beautiful and would make for the perfect gift. It’s my hope my rich Chinese husband can buy me one when he gets a chance.

…And now for the highlight of the day –a massage. I signed up for a full body Chinese massage at 2:30 pm. She came to my room where I lay face up fully clothed on the bed. She poked at my eyelids and forehead and then kneaded my head before she turned my neck around like a light bulb. I assured her it would not twist off as much as she tried. She methodically moved from arm to arm and leg to leg then my stomach, which held up despite murmurs of unhappiness. She targeted all my aches and pains and then she motioned for me to turn on my stomach. There was some commotion and some language barrier issues and she showed me a comb and I went with it. This process gives new meaning to the phrase “comb out the knots.” Here I always thought it was for the tangles in my hair. Guess what? I was wrong (see below). I was equally aghast at the sight but I promise it did not hurt any more than a deep tissue massage. At one point, she seemed to irritate a few of my moles and I did start to worry that I would need to spend more time and possibly more money at the dermatologist but so far so good.

And then…like that…it was over.  When she made a hand gesture with her phone, I thought she wanted to call someone. She took my phone and snapped a picture of my back to show me. Startled, she somehow relayed the words “toxins” and “skin.” My immediate reaction – The Chinese are definitely poisoning me. I must have the plague and should be quarantined.

Now standing, she pointed to the bathroom and I followed her. She held the showerhead and said “no today.” Loosely interpreted, she intended to say, “your back is so fucked up right now water may hurt.” Yep got it. On a positive note, the 90-minute torture session only cost me $26 so I guess I should be thankful I didn’t ask for two hours.

 Locals shoes made here and I really wanted to buy but no big girl sizes here (probably for the best)

Locals shoes made here and I really wanted to buy but no big girl sizes here (probably for the best)

That experience warranted some shopping so back through the alleyways I weaved and into the stores I browsed. Two scarves later, I tore myself away from the lacquered jewelry boxes and returned to my guesthouse to sample the local beef. It stands up to the hype.

You may be sad to learn that I am off to Datong tomorrow and leaving the city of Pingyao behind for the black cats, dogs and locals to manage.  I’m one step closer to the Peninsula where the air will be rotten but the ventilation system superior. I’m hopeful I can find someone to detoxify me there too. On a side note, I really did like Pingyao. It warrants a trip in the spring or summer when the air is clearer and the shops can be appreciated.

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