Saturday, September 12, 2009


Pingyao is in the center of Shaanxi Province, which is not to be confused with neighboring Shanxi Province. Shaanxi is known for its coal mines, and based on our view from the train window, the rest of the province is ugly and underdeveloped. Pingyao is about 350 miles southwest of Beijing. The city is special because it has not only preserved the ancient defensive wall that circles the city, but it has preserved the architecture within the walls. It's got an authentic "old China" feel made all the cooler by the fact that people still live in it. It's not a museum. Sure, the courtyards and rooftops have been maintained and restored over the years, but within the city walls there are no high-rises, no shopping malls, and definitely no skyscrapers.

The drawback is that Pingyao is decidedly touristy. The buildings here are gorgeous and its great fun to wander down the various alleyways, but the main pedestrian drags throughout the town are lined wall to wall with souvenir shops and hotel/restaurants that cater to Europeans. And yet, walking down these streets has been one of my favorite things so far in China. Despite all the trinket vendors, the city is peaceful and legitimately authentic. You can't help but feel that this is what so many other Chinese cities were like before they were torn down and replaced with high-rises and shopping complexes. On the other hand, who am I to say that Pingyao doesn't deserve the modernization underway in the bigger Eastern cities? But I guess that's for another post...

Today is our last day here. We have been staying at the absolutely wonderful Yamen Hostel. Like many of the hostels and inns in Pingyao, Yamen opens up into a series of beautiful courtyards once you go beyond the front lobby. Our room was in the first courtyard, and when "Robert" led us into our room, it was so big that at first we thought it was a common room shared by several other rooms. After all, we were paying under $5 per person per night, so we weren't expecting much. But Yamen hooks it up. Our room had a huge bed that overlooked the courtyard, two huge wooden chairs, plenty of space for luggage, and a clean, private bathroom. After a restless night on the train, this room was a gift from heaven.


After napping for a few hours, we took showers and went out to explore the town. It is free to wander the streets of Pingyao, but if you want to go up on the city walls or enter any of the buildings deemed historically significant, you have to pay the equivalent of $20 for a city pass. Given the length of our trip, we decided to conserve money and not get the passes. After all, we could explore the city on our own and get plenty of the flavor without seeing the inside of an old bank. Maybe were missing out on something, I'm not sure. So we spent most of the day wandering around, looking at the various stores, nibbling on street snacks, and getting lost in the alleys.

Unfortunately, Mimi had begun to feel ill on the train and her stamina remained low once we got to Pingyao. We took that day pretty slow and Mimi went to bed early. By night time it was clear she had more than just a sniffle, and we made sure she got plenty of rest so she could beat her fever as quickly as possible. In fact, as I write this, Mimi has been asleep for a solid 12 hours. Wow!

The next morning I got up bright and early. I wanted to stick around the hostel to help take care of Mimi, so I ordered breakfast from the hostel. For unknown reasons, perhaps a deep hidden craving, I ordered a Western style breakfast that was really more like a British breakfast. It consisted of scrambled eggs, white toast, baked beans, a cooked slice of tomato, and a hash brown medallion the size of a Sacajawea. Had I been served this breakfast in America, I would have laughed. But after almost two weeks of Chinese breakfast, I was actually pretty stoked.

We spent the rest of the day doing more of the same type of wandering around the city, which I was more than happy to do. The streets of Pingyao are quite charming, and there is plenty of stuff to look at and fiddle with. You just have to fend off the shop owners from coaxing you into a purchase. Mimi had come out with me for an afternoon stroll and some lunch. We had made it halfway down the main drag when I saw it.

Now, I'm no fan of meaningless trinkets. In fact, I hate useless clutter and own very few non-utilitarian objects. When I buy expensive things, I like them to have a purpose, such as the small laptop I'm currently typing on. But every once in a while, you see something and it hits you. You say to yourself, I pretty much have to own this object. I need it. For me, on that fateful overcast afternoon in Pingyao, that object was a 18 inch copper sculpture of a chicken. This thing was just calling my name. It spoke to me through its eyes: "Buck, Buck. Michael! Buy me! Buck, Buck." What do I do?

Now, in China, the price of anything you buy on the street is negotiable. The Chinese know that Americans are suckers, so they set the price almost twice as high than they would for a Chinese person. That way, when the American tries to bargain, they get the originally absurd price down by 10% and feel like they've really pulled their weight. In reality, they are still getting totally ripped off. So the rule of thumb for foreigners is to pay around 30% of the original asking price. As Mimi's father put it, "Don't cut them at the waist. Cut them at the ankles."

The shopkeeper's opening bid was 550 RMB, which translates to $80 USD. This was, of course, an absurd price. We balked at the price and walked down the street. Behind us we could hear (in Chinese), "OK 500." Pause. "OK 400." Pause. "OK 200." Nothing more. That means 200 is as far as he'll go. About $30. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to buy the chicken at that point. But as the hours went by, I couldn't get the chicken out of my head. What a cool thing to own! A giant copper chicken! If I bought the smaller version, which was maybe 1/8 in size, I'd surely lose it at some point, or lose interest in it and give it away. But if I get the big guy, he'll be mine forever.

Later in the evening, we did a bit of price shopping. Several other shopkeepers had the same chicken. I knew we could find out what the best price was because Mimi speaks Chinese and could get us a much better price than any other foreigner. She's a mean negotiator. One guy opened his bid as high as 650 RMB, and no one was willing to go anywhere lower than 200. We went back to our original guy for another round of bargaining, but were only able to get him down to 190. You could tell he was getting to the breaking point and he didn't even really want to sell it for that little. We told him we'd be back tomorrow.

Flash forward to today. What can I say? I bought the chicken. Like I said, it had my name on it. I put rationality aside and bought an incredible near life-sized chicken. Besides, the rooster is good luck in China. All I gotta do then is figure out a way to ship it home, because there is no way I'm carrying that thing around for the next month. Look!



  1. "I hate useless clutter and own very few non-utilitarian objects." --> quite a statement from a man i just returned a Bullwinkle hat (complete with floppy antlers) and a Biggie Smalls action figure to.

  2. i like that the rooster has a handle. And that bug by it's claw.