We spent the morning sightseeing in Pingyao. This walled city is an odd mix of narrow, traffic-free streets that charm because they’ve not changed in a hundred years, and the crassest tourist trap we’ve seen in China (which, as our readers will know, is really saying something).
Susan had, as usual, done her homework (as you can see, Tim was impressed) and had learned that Pingyao’s ‘must sees’ comprised a couple of museums and a Daoist temple. So off we went – Susan, Simon, Tim, Karen and me.
The first stop was The Museum of Banking which our guide Paul had said was particularly worth a visit because of the city’s history as a banking center. So we paid and stepped into a modest building comprising a couple of courtyards surrounded by rooms identified as ‘Banking Hall’, ‘Cashier’s Room’, ‘Message Chamber’ etc. etc. each of which contained a few pieces of cheap repro furniture and a sign that said something like ‘In this room cashiers did important cashier’s work’ or ‘This is the Message Room where important Messages came and went’. Even Susan struggled to find anything interesting here, so, in search of enlightenment, we moved on to the Daoist Temple.
As you can see, we threw ourselves into this one in the hope of experiencing the harmony that results from perfect naturalness…
..but I suspect the Daoist brothers recently consulted with McKinsey or Bain on ‘streamlining unit throughput’ and ‘maximizing economic gain per unit’. One monk thrust incense sticks into our hands and barked at us to light them from a candle. I moved at a pace I felt appropriate to the spiritual setting and to the possibility of achieving a state of Te, so the monk grabbed my incense sticks, lit them, pushed them back into my hands and forced me to my knees on a cushion before the altar.
I tried to clear my mind of the poor chap’s agitated state so I could contemplate wu-wei and the ‘three treasures’, but he shouted at me to bow three times to the altar, then dragged me to my feet and hurried me across the room to where his colleague sat at a desk waiting to tell my fortune (you can see him in the above photo waiting at his desk positioned by the exit – a sound piece of process engineering). This second monk, who was even less patient than the first, thrust a small book into my hand and gestured that I should open it at any page. I did so and found a single word – CONTENTMENT.
I was contemplating my good fortune when he grabbed the book back and demonstrated that had I selected the page before or the page after ‘CONTENTMENT’ I would have chosen ‘ANGUISH’ or ‘POOR HEALTH’. I was just thinking how truly fortunate I’d been when I noticed that the pages in his book were alternately smaller and larger. OH MY GOD!!! My brother Pete had tricked me this way when I was about five!!!! Surely it couldn’t be that these holy men who’d dedicated their lives to the Dao were swindling tourists with such shoddy conjuring…? But he already had an exercise book open in front of me showing how much money the tourist units who had preceded me had donated after having had their fortunes told. I couldn’t believe it… “Bruce from Sydney , Australia, 600 Yuan” (that’s about $100), “Bob from Seattle, USA 900 Yuan”… The monk was staring at me expectantly. I slowly wrote down my name and home city… He smiled encouragingly. My pen was hovering over the donation space when I noticed that all these donors had printed their names and donations in strikingly similar handwriting on a page that was now full. I had a clean page…a page that could be ripped out if my donation wasn’t sufficient to encourage those who followed. I met his eyes and grinned “You old Daoist rogue”. He regarded me blankly and waited. So I tossed down 10 Yuan for the performance and left. When I glanced back the holy man was scowling furiously at me.
So it was on to the third and final ‘must see’ – the promising ‘Museum of Bodyguards’. In a country that gave birth to so many of the martial arts this had to be fantastic, right?
We paid and stepped into a modest building comprising a couple of courtyards surrounded by rooms containing a few pieces of cheap repro furniture …
Wait This all looked so familiar… Somehow we’d doubled back to the Museum of Banking… I checked. But no, this was definitely the Museum of Bodyguards and now the rooms were called ‘Important Meeting Room’ and ‘Chamber of Bodyguards Conferencing’ and contained helpful explanatory signs like ‘This is the room where important meetings were taken place’ and ‘Here bodyguards conferenced’.
There was however one cool feature of this museum – a courtyard where, for a modest fee of 20 Yuan (doubtless recommended by Bain consultants in accordance with a pricing optimization model) we could fire arrows at targets. This was the most fun we had had all morning.
We rejoined the rest of the team for lunch at our hotel and then rode a relatively short distance to Taiyuan. On the way, Karen amused herself by photographing dangerously overloaded trucks
Taiyuan is home to the famously beautiful Jinsi Temple. Karen, Susan and Tim went to see it and took the following lovely photos. The rest of us caught up on emails and blog writing in our hotel – a huge, luxurious, modern conference center.
And, over dinner, they told us how wonderful the temple was and how we should have seen it.
The end is in sight – and the prospect of it feels very bittersweet.
Best to all and love to my family,