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Dinner for fish

Dinner for fish

Day 13: Beijing to Ping Yao

After two whole days rest we’re off again, to Ping Yao, an ancient walled city about four hours on the high speed rail (300kms/hr!). We wind our way in the sea of minnows to the checking turnstile in Beijing. For some reason everyone queues up in long lines way before the train is due to leave, even though the seats are assigned. Chinese trains are no joke. If the departure time is 9:58 the train leaves at 9:58. Ping Yao consists of cobblestone streets inside a large wall of buildings built primarily in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and was originally established around 2700 years ago. It was once the financial center of China which is ironic as we couldn’t find a working ATM anywhere.

We spent half an hour looking like idiots wandering up and down the same 20 meter stretch of street looking for our hotel at 111 North St. I’d thought it would be easy to recognize because the Trip Advisor photo showed it having yellow and red lanterns hanging outside. Turns out EVERY building on the street had yellow and red lanterns hanging outside. We are used to spending (at least) half an hour per day looking like idiots regardless of where we are, but it was particularly frustrating because we found 108 North St and thought we were close. What we didn’t realize was every other building had “108” on it. Maybe it’s a lucky number, maybe a way to create so much confusion it keeps the tourist population down. We eventually found our hotel off a side street. $32 a night, the bed was a sheet over a brick platform, but no bugs. As usual, first order of business, massage. It was so painful I would have paid them to stop, except that they did not understand anything we said. This did not stop them, thirty minutes in, pausing the massage and trying to up-sell us ‘scraping’ and ‘cupping’. I have no idea what scraping is but it sounds painful. I have had the misfortune to accidentally try cupping in San Francisco. They stick plastic suction cups to your feet and attempt to suck all the blood out of them. This first originated in the Mao Zedong’s torture regime, but has since become part of popular culture. By far, the Chinese massage is the cruelest massage style in the world. I consider myself an expert in this area. I’ve had massages in the US, NZ, Morocco, Senegal, India, Thailand, Canada, and the UAE, and the Chinese win hands down (so to speak). Our massage ladies, disappointed at our unwillingness to subject ourselves to more of their evil ways, got their revenge by savagely banging their knuckles on our heads for the remaining 15 minutes.

Ping Yao seems to be a city designed for tourists. Most are mainland Chinese and as with the majority of places here, is not set up for English speaking. We find it hard to communicate even yes or no, and even the major hotels have few people that speak English and those that do speak very poorly. We have had to do a lot of miming, but people do not seem to find that amusing and do not get into the fun of it.

We have been ripped off a lot in Ping Yao, often charged 2-3 times the Chinese price. I find it disgusting that people take advantage of us, and it is a constant source of stress for me. When I do the math the actual overage isn’t that much, maybe between $2-$15 a time, depending on what the purchase is (street food, taxis, restaurants). A few vendors are fair, but definitely the minority. Everything is pretty cheap though, cheated or not. One thing that isn’t cheap is coffee. Especially the fancy kind Rick likes. $6-$7 for a coffee! I liked the sign in one coffee shop “Roses are red, bacon is red”.

The food in Ping Yao is meh. For some reason I’d thought the food would get better as we moved south, but I was wrong (Mongolia notwithstanding). It’s not very spicy, pretty bland. We’ve taken to pointing at things on the menu and crossing our fingers that it tastes okay. For our first ripoff meal in Ping Yao I accidentally ordered grass. It came with disgusting black bean curd. Normally a review on Trip Advisor is cathartic, but as few of the restaurants have English names I was denied revenge.

The streets are packed with 100s of vendors selling dumplings, crispy bread, taffy, things that look like waffles and pancakes, meat on a stick, ice blocks, and giant sesame balls. Woks full of flames are being tossed. There’s also the same junk for miles and miles that I don’t know who would buy. Plastic masks of lions, miniature supermarket trolleys and motorcycles, plastic men doing gymnastics, miniature wooden toys, a lot of ladies hats and men’s Mao caps, amber (Rick is fascinated by it, I just see ‘expensive rock’), swords, tea pots, and tiny fluffy rabbit toys. There are live birds telling fortunes, and dozens of cute dogs seemingly ownerless (China has by far the cutest dogs of any country we’ve been to – no hounds of hell here). There are beads and combs and juice that steams, there are huge vats of what looks like soy sauce, but so far we’ve not seen soy sauce in any restaurant, just what tastes like black vinegar. A sign says “do not forget the national humiliation, with the motherland in mind”.

This is all fun to look at once, but after half a day I’ve had enough. Rick has more patience and goes exploring with his camera. There is an exterior still within the city walls but beyond the tourist friendly interior. What we are seeing is a fa├žade. If you peak through cracks in the inner circle outwards there are broken, unhinged doors and piles of concrete, trash, cardboard, sewage and thousands of roof tiles. Pingyao has a pretty face but is rotting inside.

But, Pingyao has something awesome that makes the trip here worth it. THE FISH SPA. Tanks of tiny fish that you can dip your feet in and they eat the dry skin off your toes. I know it sounds gross but it was in fact fantabulous. This was just what I needed after the horse ride. It took all of point five seconds to get me through the door and into the aquarium. The fish went crazy, pushing and shoving and snarling at each other to get to my feet. I have never felt so desired in all my life! Rick had to hold me back from dipping my flaky, healing butt in there too. Those fish would have gained 10 pounds. I felt guilty getting out because those poor fish seemed so hungry, and my feet were in such dire straits. It was like leaving food on your plate when there are starving children in Africa. I could see their sad, pouty faces when I left and I know their memories of me will be bittersweet.

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