The new week starts bright, fresh and full of hope and anticipation. Another day another city.
This time we are travelling by minibus. We load up and head for the hills. Metaphorically, and indeed literally, speaking. For an hour we plough our furrow southward. Mysterious hills roll past the windows of our bus. At one point we roll underneath the hills, firing down a long tunnel that seems never ending.
Eventually we start seeing trucks queuing on the other side of the road. Truck after truck after truck. Like Dover is predicted to look after Brexit. It goes on for miles. It is some comfort knowing that we are not caught up in it.
Then we get caught up in it.
At times like this you would think driving on the correct side of the road would take on an added importance. It doesn’t. We find vehicles heading towards each other on the same side of the road. The absence of speed means collisions are less likely, but the chaos is not helping the situation. Neither is people getting out and going for a walk.
Eventually we arrive at the next temple. Again carved into a mountain but this time half way up a huge cliff. It is called, appropriately, the ‘Hanging Temple’. At the foot of Mt. Hengshan, it sits serenely along steep cliffs. Standing 60 meters high in the air, its 40 perilous halls and pavilions lean straight over the Canyon. Originally they used to abseil down to the temple. These days there are steps leading up to it.
We gird our loins, take a deep breath and go for it. Up a shit load of steps, past the cave selling postcards and fridge magnets, on to the rickety wooden verandas surrounding the temple. It’s not for the faint hearted and we don’t all make it to the top. Some of us that did make it wished we hadn’t. Whilst the temple looks stunning and impressive from the bottom of the cliff, being in the temple does not improve the view. But we did it.
Then exit through the unspecified snacks market. None of us were brave enough to buy anything.
A short bus ride away and again we have food spinning around our table, chopsticks are clicking and debate rages over whether the bean sprouts have meat stirred in.
The next temple is the tallest, the firstest and oldest pagoda temple in the world, the Yingxian Wooden Pagoda.
After another enlightening tour we exit through the gift town. It appears a not insignificant ancient shopping centre has grown to pick up the crumbs from what tourists have left in their pockets after throwing money at Statues in the hope of securing s place in Nirvana. Presumably after nirvana they will aim to progress on to the Foo Fighters.
I shouldn’t mock the superstitious, but the more sacred sites we visit, the more it seems there is a lot of parting suckers with their money going on. But all the same, wow. What a temple. All made from wood with no nails a thousand years before the term ‘millennium’ burst onto the scene.
Next leg of the journey involves a three and a half hour blat in the minibus. We role through more mountains. En route I give Lucas a history lesson of the welsh origin of the red flag and the decline of the valleys following the closure of the mines; he tells me of how contemporary Chinese look at the imperial powers that once exploited the country (fortunately (but in my opinion undeservedly) the British have been forgiven for the opium wars etc). And he tries to explain how capitalism and communism intertwine in twenty first century China. When I say ‘try’, I don’t mean he is not a good teacher, far from it, it is just that it is a complex subject full of contradictions.
On the horizon I can see lesser restored sections of the Great Wall. It has been that sort of trip – we now take wonders of the world for granted.
Then suddenly we duck into a tunnel that takes ten minutes to drive through. Once on the other side, we exit straight onto a huge bridge that defies gravity and common sense.
With time on my hands I start to reflect twenty first century china.
No one can say the Chinese are scared of a challenge. They casually take on Mother Nature, look her in the eye, and push her out of the way. From temples clinging to the side of mountains and walls that go right around this vast country, to motorways that slice through mountains and bridges that span huge valleys. They throw up huge tower blocks of apartments that scrape the sky then wait for them to be needed. Not just one or two but dozens of them at once. Whole cities just spring up overnight, like high rise versions of Milton Keynes or Cwmbran. They trample over their own history whilst honouring it by rebuilding ancient monuments to keep their heritage alive.
Their mastery of engineering and casual approach to the environment are both impressive and saddening in equal measure. It’s odd. They are clearly a spiritual people, masters of kung fu, tai chi, Buddhism and Confucianism. They have mastered herbal medicines, they cultivate huge quantities of rice using ancient irrigation techniques. And yet they still rip mountains apart for roads that are not needed.
And with all their mastery of engineering, their public sewers are inadequate and they shit in holes rather than sit on a self flushing bog with a heated seat.
Can you tell it’s been a long journey?
I think we are near our destination now. We are driving through a busy city. We have seen some crazy driving in the last week but this is the first time we have seen mopeds without lights driving the wrong way down dual carriageways. And I’m not talking about one or two. Dozens of the fuckers.
Taiyuan is an ancient city with more than 2500 years of urban history, dating back from 497 BC. but we you can’t tell this from the windows of the minibus. This is the most modern city we have visited on this trip so far. It’s like Gotham City, nothing appears to be less than ten stories high and every building, bridge and tree is artistically illuminated like a real life computer game. The only thing not illuminated is the suicidal moped drivers coming at us head on.
Thankfully we arrive at the hotel in one piece and check in. We get the usual blank stares when we ask about the nearest pub so resign ourselves to the hotel bar. Unbelievably we have a night to ourselves in a mysterious and exotic city and we can’t be arsed to leave the hotel.
Lucas joins us in the bar and encourages us to drink the local Chinese spirit. Allegedly it will blow our socks off. It is served in the smallest shot glasses in the world, so we buy a bottle for the table. It is warming on the way down but frankly not particularly potent. Duty free gin and whiskey are swiftly brought down from the rooms and wine and beer ordered from the bar. Lucas let’s his guard down and gives us his life story.
The bar is allegedly twenty four hours but we definitely get the vibe the staff are not used to people calling their bluff. By midnight we are back in our room and Jim Bob from Carter is put to bed.