Six months in Asia travel blog

Yungang Caves

Yungang Caves

My hostel in Pingyao

Pingyao city walls

Courtyard in Pingyao building

Lantern and paintings

Taoist temple

Just when you you think a Chinese menu can't throw you any more surprises, up popped this dish on offer in Pingyao - "Slow cooks the bull's penis". I'm sure the slow cooking process makes all the difference. In case you were wondering, I opted for vegetarian noodles. To give you some idea of how bad the food is, I ended up in a KFC the other night, and I hate fast food places. To be honest it was not much better than the Chinese fare on offer, but at least there were chips.

I left Beijing last Monday heading west on an eight hour train journey to Datong. The seats were extremely uncomfortable and cramped, nothing like the experience of trains in India. With some difficulty but with the help of some friendly locals, I finally managed to locate my hostel, down a pedestrian street with an entrance cunningly disguised through a children's clothes shop. Datong, like a lot of what I saw in Beijing, is being mercilessly rebuilt, not so much restored as pulled down and reconstructed. Most of the old town was undergoing renovation and the shopping street where I was staying could well have been anywhere in the world.

After decades of systematically destroying the cultural heritage, the government has finally woken up to the financial benefits to be reaped from tourism, but are going about it all the wrong way, creating a sanitised fake charm which the locals clearly love however. Take the Yungang Caves for example, the principal attraction, which contain some fabulous carvings of Buddhas and other figures from the 5th century. Entering the plush marble-floored visitors centre, you might well think you had entered the atrium of some five-star hotel. The caves were fabulous, but the cost of renovation is being passed onto tourists and the price of admission was twelve pounds, something I'd hesitate to pay in the UK.

After Datong I turned south to Pingyao, one of the few places left in China with original city walls and battlements. It was very atmospheric, but a victim of its own popularity, with the usual tour groups and the main streets given over to shops selling tourist souvenirs. Away from the main areas on the fringes of town at the less popular attractions you can find some peace and quiet in ancient Taoist and Confucian temples and fascinating merchants' houses and old banks.

The weather has been disappointing, cold and overcast, and this morning it is pouring with rain so I am confined to the hostel. So far China has proved to be intriguing and beguiling, but I've yet to discover the ancient China I'd imagined and I've seen nothing really of the countryside either. What I've seen from the train seems very developed anyhow. It's not an easy place to navigate as an independent traveller with no Mandarin skills, as hardly anyone speaks English. Getting a taxi driver to drive you to your hotel is a Herculean task in itself, and as for trying to order food, well, it's extremely taxing. The Lonely Planet unhelpfully suggests simply pointing at pictures, but that's a really perilous route to take, as you really have no idea what you're getting.

One other odd thing about China is the number of people, mainly women, wearing surgical masks, as if they are about to scrub up for some lengthy cardiothoracic surgery. I've yet to discover whether this is to protect themselves from bird flu, or against the obvious pollution. Even when the skies are supposed to be clear, the sun is often shrouded in a grey haze. In fact, grey is a colour I'm coming to associate with China. The buildings, many of them in the typical Communist brutal architectural design, along with the monotone colours people wear, all contribute to an impression of drabness, in huge contrast to the colourful vibrancy of India and Thailand. But maybe I'll feel different when and if the sun returns.

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