My "五一" Labor Holiday began with a trip to the Great Wall. I wasn't sure which section we went to because I kept forgetting the name everytime I was told (this happens a lot, especially with new Chinese words), but it seemed relatively unknown because not many people were there even though everyone I told said that it would be crowded to all hell. I went with an expat group that my coworker knew about. Stumbling around the undeveloped portions of the wall was pretty fun, and we ended up at some resort doing dragon boat racing and having a barbeque. I now know how crappy I am at throwing footballs (the English kept making fun of it saying it should be round, etc.).
Next up, Pingyao. Again, my coworker arranged the train trip for us, but since we booked our tickets on the same day the train was leaving, we ended up on the top bunks of a slow train which meant a 14 hour trip without air conditioning. Yeah; I balked at first as well... but it ended up not being too bad. The weather is pretty mild still, and the top bunks were stuffy at first, but ended up becoming comfortable after the weather outside got a bit chillier. Luckily we had no chain smokers below us.
Pingyao (I had never heard about it before my coworker suggested it to me) is an ancient city in Shanxi (山西) which was too poor to modernize 50 years ago. It did the next best thing, touristize -- meaning restore all historical things and make a theme park out of it. It has some pretty bad ass Ming/Qing-circa city walls, and some of the historical sites were pretty interesting; although they all started blending together by the 3rd one -- like temples in Beijing.
We stayed in a siheyuan (四合院) which is four buildings situated around a central courtyard. This is what you usually only see in special hutong areas in Beijing, only in the Pingyao city limits it's the norm. The courtyard of the one we stayed in doubled as a restaurant, so we woke up to the din of early morning breakfast eaters. Luckily, the 12 hour, overnight train ride had pooped me out so much that I slept right through the whole thing. My unfortunate roommate also got to hear my night-time sleep-screaming which is what happens when I get no sleep (hmm, am I giving away too much here?)
The next day, we did a round-trip on top of the city wall. It was actually more interesting than walking around in the city looking at the old sites up close because you got to peek into Pingyao life from the vantage point the wall gave you. Real life always seems a bit more interesting than the fake life presented to you at each of the sites.
After the round-trip we sped over to the train station to inquire about getting train tickets back to Beijing. It turned out we could only get sleeper tickets originating from Pingyao two days later. All else were standing only tickets -- for fourteen hours. The train ticket lady seemed pretty indignant at our request, i.e. she reduced all her replies to one word answers and refused to look at us. But I guess it's the Zhongguo way of saying "there's no way that's going to happen, please go somewhere else." I've seen it before. Anyway, we ended up hiring a mini-van to take us to the nearest industrialized city (Taiyuan) to see what we could do there. The driver kicked out a couple people to make room for us (not at our behest); we were sufficiently worried about not getting back to Beijing that we let it happen. Along the way we picked up some woman on the side of the road who the driver's buddy squeezed in next to us. The buddy pulled out a stool and sat on the ground. All in all there were 9 of us in a van that sat 6. We also snaked around a toll road booth and paid some lady half the price to use her farmland to connect back up to the main road. And they say corruption is on its way out ;)
At the Taiyuan station we found out something simliar: no sleeper tickets, but they had hard seats. If you've seen the hard seats here, you'll know that it is not sustainable for 14 hours. We found out about the bus station across the street and discovered that they have buses that leave every half hour and arrive in Beijing 6 hours after it departs from Taiyuan AND they only cost 3-4 USD more. Pay dirt! Why the hell do people take trains?
So all was well with the bus? Well pretty much yes, but it was a bit weird that when we bought tickets we were carted off by some black car to another part of the city where the 3:45 bus was waiting for us (we bought our tickets at 4:10). We also had to kick out the people in our seats... The ride ended up being about 8 hours, but who's counting when you thought you were going to have to stand up for 14 hours among people who took their last shower for their cousin's wedding.
All in all, a great trip. I hope Shanghai will end up being just as fun.
You can see all the pictures for these trips here.