Terrible Twos

By Stephen Ewashkiw | October 17, 2013

6,491 km so far.

We both wanted to be at the train station quite early this morning to look for our bikes, but we didn’t get to sleep until past 2:30am, so we slept in and then were slow getting going this morning. Since I have little faith that our bikes will be at the station, I am really in no rush to get there.

At breakfast we met another guest of the hostel. She is Chinese and wanted to look at our plans for our trip. She offered suggestions of places to go, and places not on our route we should come back and visit on our next trip to China. She told us we have made some excellent choices already and we will get to see a very diverse cross-section of Chinese culture.

Now we just need our bikes so we can get on with it.

We went to the Taiyuan train station for the second time in less than 12 hours, taking a city bus (¥1 or about $0.15 each) rather than facing another taxi driver. The woman working the desk was able to find our bikes on her computer, but not in the station. A girl waiting in the baggage collection area spoke English, so she came over to help us figure out where they were.

Apparently they have not arrived yet, but are due in tomorrow morning. This is not what we were told in Beijing, which admittedly was a bit of a mess, but at least they were in the system. We were just relieved that she didn’t say:

What bikes?

The Two Towers

Since we couldn’t do much but wait, we booked our hostel for another night and decided to do a bit of sightseeing. The main attraction in town is the Twin Pagoda Temple. It’s quite near the train station, so we walked.

The walk itself is an adventure, as the sidewalks (when there are any) are bustling with pedestrians, the streets are rammed with vehicles of every size and kind imaginable (and many unimaginable unless you have been to Asia), and the bike paths, as we have already discussed, filled with two, three, and four-wheeled vehicles of every size and shape. One of the roads we walked on was having major roadworks (or more specifically sidewalk works) and was a dusty, dirty mess.

We were greeted with stares and looks of amazement wherever we went, with people wondering how we’d ended up on their street.

Jane’s note: All day I had that Eminem lyric in my head: “Y’all act like you never seen a white person before.” I’m fairly certain we’re not the first white tourists to wander around.

The Pagodas were built in the late 16th century during the Ming dynasty. They are made of brick and are the tallest set of twin pagodas in China, each more than 50m. They have 13 floors each, and you can walk up a spiral staircase to get to the top, with each floor getting progressively less tall, and the stairs less wide.

pagoda taiyuan china

Pinwheels and pagodas, Twin Pagodas, Taiyuan.

We got up about four floors before we decided we were far too big (and tired) to climb any higher.

View from the highest floor we made it to in the Twin Pagodas.

View from the highest floor we made it to in the Twin Pagodas.

They are on the grounds of a Buddhist Temple that also dates from around the same period, and just outside the temple entrance is a large peony plant that was planted some 400 years ago during the Ming dynasty.

The pagodas sit high above the bustling chaos of the city of Taiyuan, which is going through massive growth, and therefore construction. The city itself is a noisy, dusty, and chaotic place. As I write this I can hear countless car horns a’honkin’ as rush hour is in full swing. It was very nice to get up to the pagodas and get a bit of peace away from the bustle and dust of the city.

While we were up there a nice breeze picked up and cleared away quite a bit of the dirt and smog from the air, and a little blue sky reappeared.

Two Bowls

As we walked back into town, we passed a large indoor market. We are always interested in checking out local markets, so we headed in. This was our first Chinese market of this size and it was a diverse collection of goods.

The market was quiet, with half the stalls closed and very few customers about, so our visit caused quite a stir. Most shop owners said hello to us in English or Chinese and many had their small children with them, who they encouraged to try out some English, or if they were too young to speak, they told them to wave. We really might have been the first white people these toddlers had seen.

One end of the market was all brand-new scooters and bikes, where Jane got pulled into a shop when they saw her carrying a bike helmet. Inside was an electric folding mountain bike with disc brakes. The battery was easily removable so that it could be pedal powered, or electric.

A bike like this would sure make our trip less physical work, especially in the mountains! And since it folds we could carry it onto trains as luggage. We immediately decided that if our bikes don’t materialise, we’ll come back here for replacements.

In an anteroom of the market was the animal area. Many of the animals in here were still alive, including a vast array of seafood such as shrimp, snakes, frogs, and all kinds of fish. There was a bird stall where I saw a freshly chosen and killed goose getting its last few feathers plucked, and there were also a lot of cow and pig parts waiting for buyers.

white kitten taiyuan china

Adorable kitty, not for eating, Taiyuan.

I find these areas fascinating because it is interesting to see what people eat, but I also feel quite sad, as I would rather these animals were able to live out their lives free from the threat of being eaten.

frogs for sale in market taiyuan china

Frogs for dinner, market at Taiyuan.

On the way into the market we had seen a very simple, and busy, noodle stall. We decided to have lunch there, and produced our very handy card which says “We don’t eat meat” in Chinese. The owners read it, nodded, then pulled out a tomato and an egg, asking us through gestures if these were OK.

Giant noodle parcel in the market at Taiyuan.

Giant noodle parcel in the market at Taiyuan.

We said yes to the tomato, no to the egg, and sat down to await our lunch. A couple of amazing bowls of friend noodles with fresh hatch chilli, tomato, and bean sprouts arrived a few minutes later. We were, once again, stared at by almost everyone who stopped by, some of whom we are sure came by because they had heard white people were eating there.

chef cooking noodles in taiyuan china

Preparing the noodles at the noodle stall, Taiyuan market.

A man even brought his baby (or grand-baby) over to us so that she could see these strange pale, tall people. She immediately began to cry, but eventually calmed down, realising that what she was seeing was in fact real, and not some strange nightmare.

At least this is how we interpreted her reaction. She was totally adorable, as you will see below.

Baby in culture shock at the noodle stall, Taiyuan market.

Baby in culture shock at the noodle stall, Taiyuan market.

Two Tired Tourists

This was enough activity for us today, and with our slow start had actually taken most of the day, so we headed back to the hostel. We decided to walk part of the way, and found ourselves in the backstreets of Taiyuan on a new road that our map said didn’t exist.

We passed an elementary school where the children were all lined up in the yard wearing red neckerchiefs, while the teachers and a few students were slowly arranging some sort of presentation. A few students stood to one side holding the flags of several Communist countries. We were watching them from an overpass along with many parents. The students soon noticed the two white people watching them and turned around to watch us, jostled their friends to tell them we were there. After half the class had turned around, we decided we better move on before we completely ruined the ceremony.

We then found ourselves on a road that wasn’t on anyone’s map. It was a dirt path winding its way through a maze of construction sites alongside the train tracks that lead out of the main station. We followed the path past workmen definitely surprised to see us on their job site. We also passed many small run-down dwellings that made us remember how lucky we are to live as we live. Before long, we were back on a main road, and back in the city centre.

We caught another bus back to the hostel. After a rest we went out for dinner, and picked up some street food from a couple of different street vendors. It was delicious and incredibly inexpensive. Fried tofu with garlic, chilli, green onions, and coriander for 25¢ each? Who can complain?

Hopefully tomorrow we will have our bikes back and will be able to begin our journey to Pingyao. If all goes well we should be able to make it there for dinner tomorrow, but I hold out little hope for seeing our bikes for a few more days, if ever again.

The only bike we saw today, in Taiyuan.

The only bike we saw today, in Taiyuan.

Fingers crossed.  

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  1. Comment by Dave morrow

    Dave morrow October 18, 2013 at 11:49 am

    I am sure you have realized this already that it takes a lot more mental energy to travel in a country where basic communication is difficult and the jostling of people is never ending.

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen October 18, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      It sure does! I slept like a log after our long day yesterday. Phew! Definitely worth the exhaustion though.

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