Thursday, 23 October 2014

Beijing markets, night train to Pingyao


After a nice day spent wandering around the Beijing weekend market laid out in a huge open area covered by a giant roof, under which are stalls are thrown together in long lines offering every kind of goods. The first end of the market seems to deal more in bracelets and necklaces, huge and ridiculously long, sold directly on a carpet thrown on the floor. People are haggling while smoking cigarettes, squatting comfortably inches from the floor. Again, like every place in China, there are almost no western tourists.

After a few rows of these the stalls change into huge piles of what looks like infinitely precious china - porcelain - all arranged neatly, waiting for a bidder. There are way less people in these rows and the stall owners are playing games on their phones or catching a quick nap on a tiny chair, head laid back, mouth wide open.

Following this rising trend, the last stalls are small rectangular affairs, more high than wide and my personal favorites: they deal in folk paintings of tigers or rice fields, mountainous landscapes or huge characters of Chinese alphabet, an awesome display of calligraphy.

When I even just ask to look at a tiny necklace of a Buddha sculpted in jade I am rudely waved off by an aged Chinese woman, her eyes closed to emphasize the gesture.

When you reach the outskirts of this mass (mess?) of people you run into these old, small stone buildings that look like something directly out of a Kung-Fu movie. The jewelers occupy these squat houses.

I soon realize that behind those buildings there is another, smaller market where they sell books, old vinyls and even propaganda art. I think about getting a booklet of fragile paper full of drawings against Japanese soldiers. I only know they are Japanese because of the flag insignia they are wearing - they are drawn resembling dogs or rats, stabbing farmers or common folk with bayonets! I know my friend Angus would go nuts for it but I'm afraid to destroy it if I take it with me on my travels. I settle on a classic small Chairman Mao red book written in french, from 1966. Easier to carry.

That night, in my little room consisting of a rock-hard double bed, a tiny desk and a toiler/shower, I read about leaving Beijing.

From the tiny bathroom window seeps in sounds from the street below. The incessant honking that was breaking the silence of day is replaced by chatter, laughs, spitting and burping as people eat their meals on tiny plastic furniture laid out in front of the restaurants. Classic Chinese music (it's exactly what you're picturing) provides a soundtrack to this social life buzz.

I am a little nervous as I read online that apparently it is nigh impossible to get a seat on a train on the same day. I set my alarm for 6 am and try to relax, reading a book in bed while the street noise slowly dissolves and all that is left is the man in the next room snoring peacefully.

After a short 3-hour night (time difference, a ridiculously hard bed and an even harder snorer team up to keep me awake) I take a cold shower to wake up, pack my bags and make my way to the train station.

I get there fairly easily - the subway system is efficient and there are plenty of directions in English - and I all but stop dead in my tracks, gazing at the scene unfolding in front of me.

First of all, the train station is intimidating. Huge, with no English signs at first glance.
Second, there's hundreds of humans moving about like ants working around their fortress. A policeman with machine gun, all dressed in bad ass black, is standing on a podium like a statue.

Not too far from him, kneeling on the hard ground, a lady of about 70 years is begging. I notice that she is not wearing a shirt... but you cannot see her breasts. They are completely engulfed by giant tumors flowering out of her chest. Several people are eyeing me down and pointing at my tattoos without shame.

After a few minutes of aimless walking around with my 15 kilos on my back I finally find the ticket office.

Judging from the giant light sign displaying trains, departure times, seat availability and prices on the far wall, there's a few seats left for the sleeper train that I need. Several minutes later and I have a spot thanks to the fact that there is one window at the ticket booth reserved for English speakers. The train leaves at 5 pm and it's not even 10 am yet so I find the place labeled "Baggage Let" and drop off my temporary home. The man at the booth tries to joke with me in his language and ends his sentence making a gun with his hands and pretending to shoot me.

We both laugh at the awkwardness that ensues.

A quick look at my map, there's still time to squeeze in a last sight! Temple of Summer it is.

Perched on top of a stony hill, overlooking a big lake crowded with small boats, sits a temple built right in the middle of jagged rocks. The climb is quick and easy and the view well worth it. During my walk I try some street food, this type of Pogo... a sausage wrapped in a gauffre, on a stick. Delicious!

Walking back from the Temple of Summer (it was, as you may have guessed, the summer residence of the emperor in ole days) I try more street food that I have been shying away from. All great, all cheap. I try this giant spring roll that turns out is packed tight with rice. I also get 2 types of pancakes, folder onto each other several times to become compact little squares packed with vegetable goodies. I feel that my grace period of adaptation is coming to an end: no more expensive hotels or fancy food or falling for scams, I tell myself!

That night, as a kind of confirmation, I climb into my hard mattress, 3rd bunk from the floor on a rocky sleeper train. There's small handles you can unfold from the wall to help you climb up since it's 7-feet high. I am the only whithey in the wagon. I keep waking up all night, afraid to miss my stop. I am scheduled to arrive at 5 am and I set my alarm for 4:30 but all the announcements are in Chinese and they have a very different way to pronounce city names.

At 4 am however, I am woken up by a train officer, this lady in blue uniform armed with a flashlight aimed directly in my face. When I first got on the train she came to take my ticket and exchange it for a small color card, big like a business card. She is now handing back the ticket to me as I return the color-coded card, I guess it's their little system to make sure people get off at the right place. She tells me to get ready with gestures. 40 minutes later and I arrive in Pingyao.

 It's 5 am, it's pitch black, and it's cold.

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