Coffin in a Cave 

Our short sojourn in Pingyao was about right, and we left thinking that we could have done more (we are told there is an underground castle close by). But as we left the province of Shanxi (Mountain West) for Shaanxi (West peace), we know we will be back to go Datong and the Hanging Monastry in September.

After 3 hours ish on a D train from Pingyaogucheng  we arrived into Xi’anbei. There we met our final guide, Kevin. The last time we had been to Xi’an, we had arrived on the sleeper for our whistle stop 36 hours tour. This time it was much more leisurely and Kevin was really engaging and within about 10 minutes I had taken more in and learnt more than probably I did first time round.  Compared with Suzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, Xi’an is a relatively small city – just at 8.7 million people…

So how does Xi’an get to have one of the largest train stations? Who knows, but it is huge and as we walked to the bus we were told that they have only opened 1/3 of it.  Jonathan was definitely struck with the vastness of the train stations.

Xi’an, along with Beijing, Nanjing and Luoyang is one of the 4 Great Ancient Capital Cities of China.  It really is a melting pot of cultures and religions and is known as the cradle of Chinese Civilisation. It is also the start of the silk route.

We were taken (with our permission) straight the Muslim Quarter. We had missed it on the last occasion, but the wait was worth it.  In the middle of the city, there were cows tied up to trees, very close to the many butchers. There were many shops selling naan bread and we walked past most of them, until Kevin came to one.  His favourite. Having chosen our naan, it was warmed up in the cyclindrical oven. Definitely best eaten warm, Martin and I shared one. Eleanor for the most part had her own! IMG_5557

Kevin is in the background.

We then shared amongst the 4 of us, a sticky rice dish layered with dates. It didn’t look appetising, but it was quite surprisingly nice.

This area was bustling, and we weren’t even there at night or during the weekend.  Our friends had been there during QingMing and apparently you couldn’t move very far or fast. It wasn’t even full of tourists, the area we went to was very much the local area.

From here we checked into our hotel, Crowne Plaza – the highest building in Xi’an. We upgraded to Club, so we had breakfast and drinks/nibbles in the evening. Well worth it. That night we just chilled. We were taught (and then I promptly cheated (well not intentionally) to play Hearts, and then Jonathan and I stayed up to play Gin Rummy.

Friday we were up and out to see Banpo Museum, an archeological site, then off a factory to see how they make the warriors now.  I would say that we had a better explanation by the factory on the making of the warriors last time round, but no matter, we still got discount by staying we lived in China.  We got half price and bought a horse this time (miniature) and some brightly coloured Shaanxi pottery in the shape of a rat, for Eleanor’s birth year.

Then we were off to the warriors. Second time around they did not disappoint.

 

Lunch was in the Museum restaurant. Which was taken up with Martin’s phonecall to CTrip the company that we had booked our flights with back to Wuxi. They had unilaterally changed one of the children’s names, to her first name and her third name (her last name being the fourth). A whole new ticket had to be bought in the correct name, and with no refund on the horizon because they are deciding whether it was our fault, we may be thinking twice about booking with them again.  Rest assured – it is not our fault.

Dinner was taken at The Small Shell Restuarant. Kevin had wechatted me (messaged me) the names of dishes in Chinese and I duly showed this to the waitress. We also ordered rice, and some vegetables. The restaurant was ostensibly a “No Smoking Restaurant”, we even sat under the sign, but the table beside us of all men clearly couldn’t read English, Chinese or pictures.  The food however, could not be faulted.  Ribs were tender, steamed fish I thought was tender and flavoursome, Kung Po Prawns were lovely and the sweet and sour dish delightful.  A lovely evening, save that we all smelt of smoke.

However, the best memory of this holiday wouldn’t be here, or at the wall but in a cave about an hour from Xi’an.

My friends who have lived in China before, had told me last year that if we were ever in Xi’an to go to the caves and see the folk who live there. Because last year’s visit was short we didn’t. So armed only with a contact number of a guide whose parents live in a cave I had sent that to our travel company who had duly passed it onto Kevin. However, nothing had been forthcoming. Kevin however was resourceful and asked a friend who installed air conditioning units in a local village by the caves if he would come with us on the Saturday afternoon and help.

Having done (but only a fraction of it) the City Walls in the morning, we had lunch, picked up the friend and off we went into the countryside.  Kevin was apprehensive. Everything else was planned but this. This was a “suck it and see” moment. Eventually we came to a village with a local shop. Kevin got out and explained about the “foreigners” wanting to visit some lived in caves, sadly the people at the shop had moved out of their caves and didn’t know anyone who would be obliging. We were though directed back through the village until we came to a junction. Kevin got out again.  This time he came back with a grin on his face. We were in business.

 

We had come prepared with some Suzhounese snacks which Eleanor gave to the 80 year old man and his 73 year old wife.  The caves (they had two adjoining) had been in his family for 5 generations (400 years). They had 3 children and numerous grandchildren who all live away. The entrance to the caves was across a courtyard and had been bricked up with a window and a door leading into the cave.  Each cave had a bed, though her cave had a double bed and small area for preparing food. His cave had a TV, cable box, a single bed, many pictures of Chairman Mao, and in the back cave – a coffin.  Both caves led out into a vegetable garden and a hutch with a chicken and a noisy goose.  (Their beds were like western beds, but on a trip to the derelict cave next door Jonathan saw the concrete bed – like we saw in Pingyao prison)

The coffin shocked us all, but he/his wife are only being prepared, but given that one would see the coffin every time you feed the animals/pick your veg it must serve as reminder of your mortalilty. Neither of them seemed fussed by it.

He was keen to show of his calligraphy skills and prepared the ink and paper and started writing a poem, but in the middle he forgot a character, so Kevin explained that we couldn’t have anything too big because of travelling.  Instead he painted “happiness” on one square of paper. Both families got one. At 80 he can still hunker down and he appeared to get up with ease.  At 34 I can’t do that! IMG_1919IMG_5413

He was keen to let us know he still had his memory. He is able to recite the red book of Chairman Mao and poems and we treated to a poem.

Before we left, Kevin obtained their phone number and if anyone is interested he will do a trip out to see them.  Kevin had never done anything like this before. Eleanor is very retro having got a polaroid camera for Christmas. We therefore took two polaroids. One to leave with them, and one for us.  Ours wasn’t soo good quality, but theirs worked very well.

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This photo taken on a phone! Her cave is on the left, his on the right

As we left, the lady was still clutching the photo, and as we walked up to the bus, we were able to look down from on top of the cave into the courtyard. There we saw the lady, now with her glasses on, still clutching the photo and studying it intently.

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We all left Xi’an very content. This was a holiday that none of us will forget.

 

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