Day 61: The Crystal Maze

16 September 2010

Location : Pingyao to Linfen

High Point: Pingyao, for giving us a big hit of old school China

Low Point: Waking up with a Chinese man in bed to my left, Ross to my right and the hope that Chinese Red wine doesn’t make you forget things!

No Point: Barham and I “i hate Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner”

Do you remember the Crystal Maze? yes, well Pingyao’s ancient streets provided the backdrop and the ingredients to a real life FTFE version.

It felt like we were in a grown up medieval zone, a feeling enhanced by Barham’s passing resemblance to Richard O’Brian. Our challenge was to move a big red Fire Engine from our hotel to outside the City Walls. Easy? Well to make things a little more spicy the only entrance to the city that anyone knew of had been blocked off overnight to larger (sorry Martha) vehicles. Our general smugness that we’d managed to thread Martha through the intricate sreets the night before evaporated instantly as it became clear that not only did we not know a way out, we (and the majority of our audience) were not sure that she would fit out.

What followed was hot, sweaty and shouty as we reversed up and back down blind alleys causing gridlock and mayhem. The distance was only 400 metres but with help from a walkie talkie, a piece of rope, and 3 litres of sweat transferred from Barham’s back to the drivers seat we finally escaped two hours later unscathed. The 4000 year old city walls weren’t quite so lucky as O’Brian at the wheel got reverse slightly confused with first!

Pingyao was for us all the embodiment of our ancient China preconceptions. It seems physically unchanged for many a millenia and retains a distinct ambience and pace of life. The city walls had been designed to keep its citizens safe from advancing marauders. In modern times it provides a welcome respite to the psychotic traffic and rampant air pollution that lurks outside.

We had intended to head to Huang He (Yellow River) but the prospect of a 9 hour drive after the morning escapology forced us to change our plans. We decided to call in at a little town called Linfen which emerged from the smog as we headed west. We assumed it was little as it wasn’t listed in our guidebooks. However, after making a few enquiries over dinner it turns out that it is home to some 4 million people! One of its few claims to fame is that it is another of the worlds most polluted city. The locals were however very friendly and gave us an impromptu assessment of our chopstick techniques (for info Ross is the best, Steve is the worst).


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