This trip was full of contrasts – from the rather dirty areas of Datong-Pingyao to the very scenic sections later.
Very smoggy, in a huge coal area with around 10,000 coal mines, poor and dingy miners villages with the remains of ancient fortifications just dotted around, eg old beacon towers, or bits of old wall, built of rammed mud, crumbling now, all mixed up with modern city development.
There are 2 Huayan Temples, the upper and lower (descriptions to be adjusted).The upper is a working temple, the lower one is more of a museum or for exhibition only. The 9 dragon wall is just a 9 dragon wall. Hmm.
Yunguang grotto is great – less controlled, lighter and more accessible than MoGao., and great statues etc
Hongan Hotel was excellent, and told that the Garden Hotel is also good.
Restaurants –food started going downhill. Mostly 'production line' and the food all similar, which gets incredibly boring. Generally they are part of the standard tourist route, and cater for large groups and small, so the food can be pretty ordinary. Michelle in Datong told me that there are a lot of very good restaurants around, but they need to be paid cash, as opposed to signing a chit with the 'regular' ones. The Agency doesn't like its guides to carry too much cash, but if people want to go to different restaurants then they must give advance notice so that the guide will have cash (and implication that it will cost more). However, she later took me to 'somewhere different' which wasn't, which she insisted her customers love. Can only assume they didn't know any better.
Kelly our guide in Luoyang said it was a problem related to price and availability. Eg around places like the Longmen grottoes there are only tourist restaurants, which all serve the same kind of food, so the customers tend to get similar dishes each day if they are on a standard tour. Obviously the Agency picks the cleanest and best. However, even in the city they are generally steered to that kind of restaurant when meals are included, because of the price. If they don't have all meals included the guides are able to suggest some better places, and help.
It's worth exploring whether it is possible to pay a bit more and get some better food, or some variety. There are some excellent restaurants in Luoyang, for instance.? Even in Pingyao I saw some alternatives which may have been better than where Michelle took me
There also seemed to be a discrepancy in some places (mainly Datong and Pingyao) between what the customer has paid for included meals, and what the guide's allowance for the same meals is ...
Drive Datong Taiyuan
Drive's OK – not so amazing as Silk Road, of course, but through agricultural and attractive countryside, on good roads.
Near the 6km tunnel there is some remnant Great Wall, much older than the Beijing Section (Ming). Free access, and in reasonable condition, and you can walk it.
A 10 minute drive from the freeway, then a 2-hour walk alongside the wall to where it's good enough to walk on.? There are several sections in the province, and CITS run 5, 7 and 9 day supported walks (tents, food etc) with the equipment moved daily, and including cooks, guides, setter-uppers etc
The Hanging Temple is an absolutely awesome structure, and quite physically demanding (narrow steps, alot of steps, and not good for those who suffer vertigo.
Presumably we only visit the Wooden Pagoda as a break in the drive – interesting for those who really care about the 'no nails' architecture, although there have been nails used in the repairs.
At the (new) Guoli restaurant the seats were very strange because there was a hot pot in the middle and a shelf under the table for 'dishes' – so you couldn't fit legs under table (not even Chinese guests could). We did not have hot pot.
Hosting the Road Cycling Olympics next year, so there's alot of renovation and road building, and some very modern buildings (and heavy traffic) in the centre.? The Hotel was fine – an odd thing, Michelle told me that after dinner she and the guide would find somewhere cheap to sleep.? I felt so sorry for them I said I'd eat on my own at the hotel (actually, I was tired, and needing some space anyhow).? But when I checked out (an hour earlier than we had agreed) she was checking out too.? Fortunately, she said, she'd met another guide who was staying there and they shared a room.? That was lucky, wasn't it.
Taiyuan to Pingyao
1 hour to Jinci, cave villages visible from the road. Jinci was good, as were the gardens beside it.?? They're chasing Unesco to be listed.
Qiao Family Courtyard was also interesting, and much later Kelly from Luoyang told me that he was a famous banker, and there's a popular TV series about him. Suggest that the local guide include that information in future. However, I enjoyed the place, and the approaches through the streets and square (and stone bread! Delicious! By comparison, the Wang family courtyard was huge, and more like a castle. Both worth visiting as they are different – in scale, and in what they are demonstrating (Qiao has a lot more displays).
Note, there is a big replica just built, which is actually a hotel and restaurant beside the Wang. Unfortunately we ate at a seriously revolting bus place, down on a concrete floor where they actually ran out of rice. She said they usually eat near Jinci. Hope it's better than where we went.
I saw a turn off to Mt Ming Shan.Michelle insisted that Westerners 'do not go there'.? But there are a lot of 'scenic spots' reached by bus to different starting points, eg waterfalls (2.5 hrs, steep walk). I got a DVD which is the parcel I'm sending. (As you can tell, Michelle was wearing off by now)
Ugh!!The approach is bad, not because of the coal dust, grime, smog, industrial and rather poor houses, but because of the threatening behaviour of the car park owners, and trying to get through the gates. These open from time to time, with varying predictability, and they all seem to have different opening times, 6, 7, 8 am or pm.So we drove from gate to gate, finding barriers up.? Getting in was an unpleasant experience, with car park owners spreadeagling in front of the car, others dressed as policeman banging on the door, and minicar drivers banging on the windows yelling at us..
There are no parking permits. It's up to the owner to control cars coming in to hotel,? the control is when the gates open and shut. Some hotels meet their guests. Others walk the luggage in, or bring it in at night.
Within the old city you can walk, bike or hire an electric car.? We hired one for the day, but he got fed up, ?said he wanted more money (I think – he seemed to be complaining that we were taking too long in our sightseeing?)? Anyhow, somehow I ended up paying him off and he disappeared.? She then found another smaller cart but it was far too high off the ground for me.
Yes, there are many excellent old buildings – temples, the bank, armed escorts etc.? But many other places have similar, and the sheer nastiness of the locals is very offputting.
The old town is largely unimproved – traffic removed from the centre but the 'walking street' concept does not appear to suit everyone, and one of the local shops has a sign “photo 10 yuan” (Michelle said he was fed up with being photographed, I think he was just greedy).? It's hard to reach, it's dirty, the power goes off regularly (part of a rolling set of cuts, odd in an area so full of power generators) and the whole place seems venal, and at the moment to have the worst of both worlds, trying to make a bob out of the tourists without making an effort to meet their needs. Yes, it's not so 'fake' as West Street in Yangshuou or the streets of Lijiang, but it's not very nice, either!? Chundixian and Pingyao are very original, Chundixia, Lijiang and Yangshuo are in the middle of very pretty surroundings. Pingyao, Lijiang and Yangshuou walking streets all full of souvenirs, but PingyaY is really tacky, and it's surrounding are full of coal dust and acid rain. The other places also have nice Chinese accommodation (not Chundixia, unimproved)
Pingyao may be the place where those determined to love China, as I have been for years, finally do a dummy spit.? But I saw a Dutch girl there who loved it.? However, I also saw 10 other Dutch people who didn't, and talk to a number of people who were deeply disappointed, in some cases they'd deliberately passed up other places for this.
The Yide hotel was OK – but their generator is incredibly noisy (and was in the courtyard beside my room, as are the equally noise kitchen staff – until around midnight! ) Also, the generator is small capacity and runs minimal stuff, which does not include air conditioning.
I inspected the Tianyuanki Guesthouse, which is far better (recommended by Lonely Planet, and deservedly so excellent website at www.pytyk.com .)? Same nice traditional courtyards and furniture, but better done and seems to be professionally run, attractive, and a great 'guest board' with endorsements and well-wishes etc from guests – some of which are also on the website.? I saw one of their better rooms – MUCH better than any I was in at the Yide, and their generator is quiet – and continues to run everything.? It's a top location, closer to the centre, but I'm not sure about the parking. However, ?they do run a pickup service from the station, and so presumably would do the same for guests arriving, which may actually be more comfortable than running the gauntlet as we did.
The restaurants where I ate, including the hotel, were pretty ordinary.
Note: trains from Luoyang: difficult to get soft sleepers. Kelly had some horror stories, including the Swiss people who got off before the train left, and didn't tell anyone for 24 hours.
We changed the order of sight-seeing away from the itinerary:? the Shaolin Temple is on the way from the airport and it made more sense to see it on arrival.? It was terrific, and so was the show there – quite different from the more sophisticated shows in the major cities, but all the more impressive for that.
I loved the Longmen Grottoes, which were also very accessible, able to take our time, and in prettier surroundings than either Yunguang or MoGao.? The White Horse Temple's OK, but wonder about Guanlin Wholesale Market. This was just a standard undercover area of shops, like the BaGui mansion but very cheap clothes, and surrounded by stalls. The clothes were cheap, but low quality. It may be interesting for a tourist on a short trip as an insight into life for the poorer folk, but only as on option as you drive along, rather than a destination in itself.
Millionaire Kang's Mansion is bigger than Qiao, smaller than Wang, but still more like a miniature castle.? Enjoyable, some good displays and the main buildings beautifully furnished for aspects of the life of a wealthy Chinese family in the old days.? It is generally less crowded than the others.
The Paeony Plaza hotel was fine, some nice Chinese furniture in modern room. Food in the Luoyang area was basic.
Is just as lovely as I remember it, by day and by night, and the ongoing development here seems to be well-managed and sticking to the original plan.
The gardens are great, and it's worth seeing the 3 main ones (Lingering, Nets and Humble Administrator) as they illustrate different kinds of garden design.? Tiger Hill also good, some nice stories and a pleasant (and manageable) climb.? We took a boat ride from there, instead of a rickshaw, to the old town, and that was wonderful, and very relaxing.
Zhouzhuang Old Town: also excellent.? The drive there is interesting, the place is picturesque. I also enjoyed the visit to the Silk Embroidery Research Institute, which was actually very interesting and quite different from other such places. If people are going to Chengdu as well, then I recommend this rather than the Chengdu one.
The Bamboo Grove Hotel was good, and I also inspected the Pingjiang Lodge which looked fine and in a good location, picturesque traditional.
The seafood restaurant at Zhouzhuang was excellent, (I didn't have fish, but a terrific braised meat hock which is a delicious local speciality), and the teahouse there was also excellent.
HuangShan (Yellow Mountain)
Again – WOW!? Terrific.? Very beautiful.? Visitors need warning before they leave their home country that they will be walking here from the cable car, (1 km, steepish, steps) and that it's recommended they leave their big bag behind in the city, to collect when they get back, ?and take a small pack for overnight.
The VIP waiting room is a nice touch, and the fact that we didn't have to wait 3 hours to get on the cable car. I think most people have only a day here – that may be enough, but another day could also be enjoyable and allow people to do more/longer walks.
Also need to warn people that all the walks are on formed tracks, and no smoking anywhere out of doors in the park.
The 3 villages are pretty, although we skipped Xidi (it was very hot, and it looked like it had nothing different after the other two). Loved the meal at Hongcun, we walked through the village to get there, in a local place where we could eat outside under the trees, or inside cooled by a fan, and sit out the midday heat.? These are well worth visiting.
The Wuyuan Museum – interesting if you're into inkstones and calligraphy, but a little bit specialized. The showroom/sales was quite good – nice paintings, some ceramics, but it's more to fill in time, I think, than anything special.
The Huangshan International Hotel and the? Behai were both good, per expectations, although the Behai was quite noisy from people who appeared to be walking around the park half the night.? Or in the park without a hotel. I fixed up their English menu for them. Also inspected another restaurant on the road: Buo Nei Lu You Ding Dian Fan Dian (!) – looked good, nice rooms, very clean.