Hanging Monastery and Muta Pagoda, Shanxi province
A day's ride south of Datong, we enjoyed this fascinating and beautiful monastery built into the side of a cliff. While entering the premises felt like we were cattle getting herded into a corral, somehow the crowd dissapated the further along we went on the offical tour route. It seemed like an oxymoron to have a man with a megaphone enforcing the correct flow of tourists in a place of peaceful worship, but his people-jam prevention measures were absolutely necessary. I would not want to see a crowd get testy on old wooden platforms supported by long wooden stilts precariously perched on the cliffside!
Later that same day, we gazed upon the world's oldest and tallest wooden pagoda, built in 1056 at 219 feet. Since visitors are not allowed to climb up the five storeys anymore, we opted not to pay the fee to enter the first floor and see the equally old Buddhist statues, although I am sure it would have been pretty cool.
A couple of days later, we made up for skipping the Buddhas in the Muta Pagoda with a spontaneous detour to our largest Buddha sighting yet. It was a brutally hot, so we welcomed the shuttle ride to an odd but mostly attractive park at the base of the climb up to the big guy. This tourist attraction didn't even get a mention in our guidebook, so we particluarly enjoyed people-watching the people watching us as we hiked along a shady stream in our cycle spandex as well as posing for the numerous photo requests, of course. Not a bad way to get off the bicycles on a steamy afternoon.
The next day we reached our highly anticipated destination of Pingyao, an ancient walled city that had its heyday during the Qing dynasty when local merchants created China's first banks and checks backed by silver. Based on Lonely Planet's glowing description, "This is the China of your dreams," and so on, we were not emotionally prepared for our major letdown. While Pingyao has indeed kept its authentic architecture intact, it seems merely a backdrop to the tourists and their touristy trappings. Even if when we tried to look past all of the superficiality while wandering the lanes, we'd inevitably get honked out of the way by a zippy electric tourist-cart as it whipped around the corner. Perhaps our inability to connect with Pingyao's past is partially our fault since we refused to penalize our budget with the high cost of climbing up the city walls or entering the historically significant buildings.
On the bright side, we did score a deal in an adorably humble courtyard hotel. Our room had the Pingyao trademark of a kang, a raised platform bed built into the wall to create a large nook, as well as the traditional wooden tea table that rests on the bed. Our lack of love for exploring Pingyao made it easier to spend some time resting up "at home," handwashing laundry and tuning up the ol' Surlys. After visiting Pingyao, we fear even more that this is what Jimingyi is headed towards.
After our disappointment with Pingyao, we were hesitant to get too excited about the Terracotta Warriors, despite the fact that we had cycled hundreds of extra miles southward just to see them. Having braced ourselves for crowds and cruising past the pre-entrance tourist facilities, we were truly impressed with the extensive site. Like Machu Picchu, it doesn't matter how many photos you've seen beforehand, it is both different and worthwhile to see it with your own eyes.