Pingyao

Our introduction to Pingyao was a little tuk-tuk which picked us up from the train station. Cramming our bags into the front, we were whisked off into the morning air. Almost immediately, our driver was in the middle of the road, honking his little horn. He then proceeded to go the wrong way around the roundabout as we clung to each other behind him. Perhaps this will be like Beijing after all..?

Once we arrived within the old city walls, which are pristinely preserved, we realised that this would be nothing like the hecticness of Beijing. There are even ‘pedestrianised’ (vehicles with two wheels still allowed) areas! It’s a bit of an odd town, although I guess it makes sense from a capitalist perspective – since it’s beautifully preserved, the Old Town comes with a full onslaught of tourist tat and tourist-priced restaurants to match. The biggest downside was that in order to see any ‘historically significant’ buildings you have to buy a twelve quid pass to all of them, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we spent our time wandering the streets, meeting other travellers and making our best investment yet – a flask (with filter to catch the tea leaves). Most of the people we’ve seen seem to carry a flask, since hot water is available almost anywhere – bus and train stations, on buses and trains, in restaurants and tea shops… At first, this seems an obvious way to deal with the fact that there is no safe drinking water here, but in public places in England there are often signs saying that you shouldn’t drink the tap water, but is clean water offered in its place for free? Not normally. So that makes it even better.

From Pingyao we took three buses to Qikou, a tiny little rural town. Here we had properly epic staring experiences… It’s quite standard to get gawped at in the street, but this was next level. When Josh and I sat down to eat some (stupid-Westerner-priced) noodles, a two-deep semicircle of observers gathered around our table. Literally. ‘What do they expect, for us to shove it up our arses or something?!’ demanded Josh, who is becoming ever more intolerant of starers. They gradually lost interest, but then when we stood up again, this was apparently worthy of another gawping session…

A much more pleasant experience of the same ilk was on the bus. The old, toothless man sitting next to us was staring in an amiably curious way, and asked lots of questions (in the local dialect). He compared each of Josh’s layers of clothing to his own, being particularly impressed at the silk thermal trousers, pulled questioningly at Josh’s wristbands asking why he had not thrown them away, and then realised how hairy Josh’s arms are.

‘Bolo! Bolo, bolo!’ he exclaimed. I guess that means ‘fur’. He compared his own hairless arms to Josh’s and laughed. Then he pointed at Josh’s legs.

‘Yep, they’re even hairier,’ Josh said as he lifted his trousers. The man found this completely hilarious. He pointed from his own chest to his feet.

‘?’

‘No, not my entire body! Well, not yet, anyway…’

Lijiashan

From Qikou we headed to Lijiashan, which is pretty incredible. The landscape looks like something from an 80s sci-fi movie, as the hills have been carved into layers to make them more easily cultivable. They’re a bit like a large-scale Gardener’s World wedding cake or something. Beautiful.

We stayed in a traditional cave dwelling, although we’re not sure what the place that we stayed at is called, as we asked our taxi driver to take us to a particular place but instead he just dropped us off at the place to which he was already driving! Either way, it was a fiver for lodging and three meals a day, staying in a room which is carved into the hillside. The only tourists who make their way out there are students from art schools who come out to paint the landscape, so on the first night we were joined by about 20 kids from Inner Mongolia. The next morning they all left, so we had the place to ourselves to wander the sloping paths, pick apples, find dates that had been dropped from the huge harvest baskets, and to stare at the enormous crates of chillies drying in the sun.

Xi’an

Getting from Qikou to Xi’an turned out to be a bit more unpleasant than we had expected. The Lonely Planet guide had told us that it would take 8 hours on the bus. 8 hours after getting on it, we looked out of the window from our beds (on the bus! never had that before…) to see a sign saying that Xi’an was 422km more. 8 hours after that, we arrived. I was so dehydrated that I was wiped out for an entire day, unable to stomach anything more solid than shots of water, sugar and salt…

People only really come to Xi’an, it seems, to see the Terracotta Army. But after weighing up our budget against the mad entry price (the people who run the ticket booths also know that people only come to Xi’an for this), we decided against doing that, instead opting to hang out in the Muslim quarter a lot, surrounded by bustle, kebabs and so much tofu! This was one of the first times we’ve been in a hostel with a big common area, so we finally managed to meet a whole bunch of people, which has definitely been good for my mind. On the Trans-Siberian we met a couple and the woman talked almost constantly. I wasn’t sure whether maybe that’s because she just generally talks all the time, or if it was because she hadn’t really had anyone but her partner to chat to for weeks. Now, given my own babbling behaviour, I am much more inclined to believe it was the latter! Having said that, thanks to everyone for your comments on here, apologies that we don’t manage to reply personally to everyone’s…

‘Friend’s Price’

Josh previously wrote about the incredible gap between starting prices and finishing prices when haggling, but today really took the biscuit. Wandering amongst cashmere scarves, ‘Oba Mao’ T-Shirts (with pictures of Obama wearing traditional Chinese Communist Party garb – the best one in my opinion says ‘I Voted For Obama and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt’) and rip-off North Face rucksacks, we asked how much some cushion covers were.

‘These good quality. Silk. Good design. Good colour,’ said the woman, typing 680 into her calculator. That’s 68 quid!

Josh couldn’t help but let out a guffaw – ‘What are they made out of, solid gold and unicorn hair?’ – and the price quickly dropped, but we thought we’d share what ‘friend’s price’ can really mean. We finally haggled some others down to Y30 – about 1/23, or around 4% (I hope I’ve got my maths right on this one)  of the original suggestion. I don’t think that’s us being mean, either! ‘

One third of the asking price’ definitely doesn’t always work…

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