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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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Asia, Destinations

Houston we have a problem in Pingyao

November 28, 2014 • By

What type of sign is it when a black cat crosses your path twice in a span of 24 hours–once at the Great Mosque in Xi’an and today on the sidewalks of Pingyao? I’ll tell you what it means. It means start saying your prayers – quickly. I’ve relocated from civilization to another ancient walled city but this one remains as if I stumbled back into time to 1370 AD. By train, I traveled three hours from Xi’an through air polluted clad towns and villages. This is an agricultural area but what concerns me is that the air quality is so horrible I must now be inhaling radioactive waste ad nauseum and now I am also digesting it. Bring on the health scare in about twenty years. Did I mention I wish I paid attention closer attention in that environmental biology class by sophomore year at MSU?

Pingyao, China, China Tourism, Pingyao Tourism

The Pingyao alleyways – the road to nowhere

Since it’s Friday at 5:00 PM and it’s happy hour somewhere in the world just not here, I am giving you the abridged version of the great ancient city of Pingyao that time has forgotten and yet again tourists have found. My time in this place warrants alcohol. According to Wikipedia, the encyclopedia of the Internet, Pingyao is about 445 miles from Beijing (there is hope I will return to this century soon). It’s an ancient city that dates back some 2,700 years. During the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty in China from 1644 -1912, it served as the economic center. Believe it or not some 50,000 people currently live in this Clint Eastwood Western. In 1997, it was named a World Heritage Site because of the amazing scarves, lacquer and beef. Just seeing if you are paying attention but that is a strong possibility based on the potential shopping.

The city walls were constructed in 1370 (same as Xi’an’s ancient city wall). There are six fortified gates defending the city and trapping me into my adventure of torment. I’ve been captured by stray cats and dogs which are likely the centerpiece of most menus and it’s so cold that I really wish I bought my new GAP jeans a size bigger to fit some hello kitty long underwear underneath.

What type of fundraiser comes off 10 months of grueling work to relax in dusty (but yes still clean), ancient Pingyao? I’m evidently someone suffering from delusional episodes of grandeur. I’m looking for some empathy. Please!  What was I saying about not needing a face mask?

The city walls are the reason for the heritage site but the city contains a great number of Confucian and Taoist Temples as well. If I can recover from my demise by 8:30 AM, I will learn much more about my surroundings but since this is in the middle of nowhere it didn’t even make my fancy Fodor’s guidebook.

At some point in time, there were 20 financial institutions within the city and one such place is reputed to be the first bank in China. It’s most evident that the banks and the money have abandoned the town without a trace — Go on take your money and run comes to mind. What this town needs is a remodel and some modernization. I’m beginning to come around to the rest of the Chinese people- maybe modern is better?

Before I leave you and take part in the time honored Irish tradition of a Bailey’s and Coffee (oh this is so happening), my lovely day started talking to my parents for Thanksgiving (my mother is probably convulsing about now) and a visit to the luxurious Sofitel gym followed by a delightful breakfast, a mix of Chinese and Western specialties. Where it all went wrong —three minutes before the train left the station in Xi’an a grandmother and 1 1/2 year old baby piled in the seat next to me. Life is about signs. Next time, I’ll get off the train.

Pingyao, China, China Tourism, Pingyao Tourism

It’s taken me 10 days to learn how to say Thank You and now I am trying to forget it (kidding). It’s xie xie, pronounced see-eh, see -eh. I knew being friends with Canadians would eventually come in handy. Until today, I basically sounded like a jackass. “She She” one day, “She eh She” the next day and on and on….Oh and Hello….is Knee How. That I got. I just remembered all the pain I have in my knee and how my Chinese medicine man could fix me right up.

Tomorrow, it’s Pingyao and me against the world and an afternoon of massage therapy, cupping and acupuncture. I informed the woman at my guesthouse to prepare the works for me. I’ve earned the works. The countdown to Beijing begins…5 more glorious days and the Peninsula Hotel is mine.

Until then…think of me in your beautifully heated homes on your wonderfully cushioned beds eating your lovely turkey leftovers maybe talking in English with your friends and family. I’ll be struggling to keep my wallet out of the stores and my mouth away from cat ears. My handy dandy flashlight will be next to my bed so I am better able to crawl to the bathroom when the blackout comes…and it’s coming and I am ready.

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