Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 22, 2022

© Jeremy Ferguson

Pingyao in Shanxi Province, China.

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Hidden treasure

Shanxi Province south of Beijing has incredibly preserved temples and towns that could be out of a Ming Dynasty movie set

At first blush, China’s northeasterly Shanxi Province seems a decidedly unlikely destination. Shanxi is the nation’s coal capital. It produces 80 percent of China’s coal, 300 million metric tonnes annually. Its city of Linfen is the most polluted city in China (which is saying something). Don’t hang your laundry out in Linfen, newcomers are warned: it will blacken with soot before it dries.

So how do I explain why I would send you to Shanxi? Well, for one thing, judging Shanxi (pronounced Shan-shee) by Linfen is a bit like judging the Rockies by the environmental degradation of the tar sands.

For another, Shanxi is home to three very different UNESCO World Heritage Sites just hours apart. One of them has a wall, in fact the only fully intact ancient wall in China. What’s more, the wall around the city of Pingyao surrounds a splendidly preserved Ming Dynasty downtown. Although little-known abroad, it’s one of China’s greatest historic treasures, as important and thrilling as the terracotta warriors at Xi’an.

We began our six-day journey in Datong in the provincial north, home to the Yungang Grottoes, one of the UNESCO sites. This is a kilometre-long complex of 53 caves and 51,000 Buddhas ranging in size from the length of a finger to a colossal 17 metres high. For travellers on a tight agenda, grottos 16 to 20 are regarded as the most important. They beckon to a world that clucks by dutifully, snapping digital images where allowed. Religiosity and mysticism just aren’t what they used to be.

But foreigners warm instantly to the Hanging Temple, also near Datong. The temple, suspended 70 metres above a river valley is one of the most riveting sights in China. It's actually supported by stilts driven into the side of the precipice, and has been for more than 1500 years. Visitors ascend by steps to explore its 40 rooms of Buddhist, Tao and Confucian relics. But it’s clearly the sense of the precarious that makes it exciting to negotiate its network of pillars, posts and mid-air walkways.

Passing through the city of Yingxian, we paused to look at the world’s largest wooden pagoda. Sixty-five metres high and erected in 1056, it must have been the CN Tower of its time. During the barbarism of the Cultural Revolution, townspeople saved the structure's frescoes by painting them over with mud and scrawling “Long Live Mao” on top.

But even more memorable for me was lunch at a local café, another example of an agriculturally poor region making the most of very little. We ate liangfen, an addictive jelly of transparent mung bean noodles, soy, vinegar, coriander, dried tofu, salt and chilies. The cook julienned potatoes and stir-fried them with red chilies and green onions. He scrambled egg with tree fungus. It was a poor man’s lunch. We were told the Mandarin expression for mediocrity was mama hoo hoo. There was no mama hoo hoo here. We were moving at a pace that prompted the venerable Chinese admonition about “smelling the flowers from horseback.” When we arrived at Wutai Shan, the Sacred Mountain, it was the end of summer. The pines (and not the dull sort we have in Canada) had turned an autumnal gold. The sky was so blue, the gods must have been drunk on colour saturation. The five-peaked mountain of Wutai Shan is one of China’s most important pilgrimage sites for both Buddhists and Tibetan Lamaists. Its cluster of 53 monasteries were designated a UNESCO Site in 2009.

We followed the pilgrims. We started early in the morning at the top and spent the day descending through four plateaus. The descent was a riot of images: the weathered wood and exquisite colours of ancient temples. Blue-and-gold-tile rooftops jutted into a Kodachrome sky. A burly monk ferociously scolded tourists for lighting up cigarettes. Young monks armed themselves with wooden bats for self-flagellation. A monk spun a line of prayer wheels with the exuberance of Gene Kelly doing Singin’ in the Rain.

A pilgrim with a shaved head prostrated himself on a walkway in front of us. He chanted a mantra, got up, folded his hands in prayer and prostrated himself again. He repeated the act every few steps. A penitent can make a journey of several thousand kilometres like this, each prostration a demonstration of reverence. The journey can last a year, or longer. And it can, at its most accomplished, wipe away a lifetime of sin.

We pushed on to Taiyuan to visit the Shanxi Provincial Museum. Like museums we’d visited in other Chinese cities, there was nothing provincial about it. It's a stylishly designed modern museum with artifacts elegantly lit and presented. Because Shanxi was so historically rich, there was no shortage of treasures.

After a breakfast of made-to-order omelettes, good croissants and decent coffee —yes, croissants in remote Taiyuan — we set off for what I had been anticipating most: Pingyao and the wall. The traffic was wild. “It’s like they’re all drunk,” said my wife Carol. “Drivers go like they’ve been fired out of the mouths of cannons. The only way a driver knows he’s doing something right is he’s still alive.”

The drive to Pingyao was eventful: we paused to enjoy bridges and pavilions of the lovely 1600-year-old Jinci Temple. We wandered the Qiao Family Compound, the home of a rich 18th-century family of tea merchants, with 16 courtyards and 300 rooms. It seemed familiar and so it should: it was the family manse in Zhang Yimou’s classic film Raise the Red Lantern.

At last, we reached Pingyao. Our first taste of the town was a lunch of donkey stew. The donkey was delicious, not unlike boeuf bourguignon. It was much tenderer than my last donkey dish, which had been so tough I’d thought I was eating a woolly mammoth. From the north tower of Pingyao’s wall, the city unfurls as a panoply of gracefully arched, tiled rooftops, pagoda towers and a vast grid of narrow streets. Once, in the Silk Road era, it had been one of the richest cities in China. This Ming Dynasty character has remained largely unchanged since the 15th century. Except for the veil of smog: the coal fields of Linfen are 137 kilometres away.

Our hotel, the Pingyao Hongshanyi was at one with its surroundings, a walled cluster of reconstructed Ming houses transformed into a 68-room accommodation. With its courtyards, gardens and arched gates, it reinforced our delusion of time travel. Pingyao’s broad Ming-Qing street has been transformed into a gauntlet of cheerful restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and historic buildings. Chinese tourists swarm it. It’s also one of most likeable tourist streets I’ve ever encountered.

On Ming-Qing, we met a winemaker, the sixth generation of the Guo family, which has been in the wine business for 300 years. His wine, Chang Sheng Yuan, is made from millet. Business must have been resilient because it survived the triple maelstrom of the Chinese Revolution, the Japanese invasion and the Cultural Revolution.

What I wanted to see most was the wall. It was constructed by the Ming in the 14th century. It’s six kilometres in circumference and stands 10 metres high with six gates. It has 72 watchtowers and 3000 parapets. It’s more impressive than many of Europe’s medieval walls.

When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, he went about ripping down all the ancient city walls in the land. Pingyao’s wall survived because the city inhabitants appeared in full force to defend it. Nowadays 400,000 people live within it.

I spent our last morning walking the ramparts, peering down into the daily life of the city. Grizzled men were leading grizzled donkeys, hopefully not to the stewpot. Seniors were huddling in the street over Chinese chess boards. Corn and chilies had been laid out on rooftops to dry. Not much had changed from the days of the Ming.

I was smitten with Pingyao. I loved the view from its wall. I loved its antiquity, its stubbornness in being the past, its palpable sense of time. I loved the intimacy of its streets, its exoticism, its vitality.

I don’t think I’m being overly optimistic when I say that one day it will be liberated from pollution, its houses and rooftops repaired, its streets alive and its reputation assured as the greatest living museum in China. There is, I tell you, nothing mama hoo hoo about it.

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Showing 3 comments

  1. On August 11, 2011, Gerard Jansen said:
    Great article. I was in most of these places and a few more (Xi-an, Pingyao, Datong, Beijing) in May and June 2011 for 3 weeks. China is amazing and a must see, especially now as non-Chinese toursists in many places in China are still not such a frequent occurrence (so you’ll get a taste of the real China). A word of advice: China is best appreciated with a private guide and private driver (which is in most cases less expensive than many advertized tours!!).
  2. On August 12, 2011, Mary Berg said:
    Hen hao! A wonderful introduction. Traveling in China reveals so many untold treasures. So much to see, after five trips and seeing many of the provinces and prefectures still dream of returning. I am always amazed at the changes I see each time I return. No problems traveling 'yi ge ren" either. Just a great experience.
  3. On August 13, 2011, Geoffrey Tse said:
    Great and concise article. A must-read for travellers heading to the historical cultural "Central China". I recommend to history/culture buffs, if time allows, to visit two other neighbouring provinces : Shaanxi and Henan. These 3 provinces represent the very heart of the historical Han-Chinese culture north of the Yangtse River.

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