In which we learn that happiness comes before love.
Starring Anna Ergova, master tea buyer.
From Beijing we got a train to Pingyao in Shaxi province. It’s a big industrial shitty city, with a tiny little forgotten old town in the centre surrounded by city walls that conveniently keep out the cars. Everyone goes around by bike or little motorised carts. Sort of what you imagine China might have been like in the years of Jacob De Zoet but don’t quite dare imagine might still exist. Little winding cobbled lanes of food shops and everyone sitting out playing majong or cards.
You can walk all around the city on the walls and the one ticket also gets
you into every temple in the town. And there are a lot. We went into so many they all started looking exactly the same. We also explored an ancient counting house – this town was the foundation of banking in China and there’s even a little room called ‘Accountant’s office’
Anna had a stone stamp carved with her name in it and the characters for ‘Love’ and ‘Happiness’. The carver was fairly insistent that love needed to go after happiness. We also popped into one of the two remaining tea shops and sat down to a tasting (from a little glass pot). Of course landed up buying some and added these to pile of things that needed to be mailed home. Postage is quite an experience. You queue up with your raw goods at one counter and an expert furnishes you with the appropriately sized boxes, packs them for you, puts tons and tons of tape and a sealed band around the outside and then dispatches you to another counter. There you queue to fill in various forms and then queue again to hand them over with cash. All inspires a great deal of confidence that I hope will be rewarded with delivery.
On the second day there we joined a tour out to see a huge family house – equivalent of the British Estate – with stone courtyard after stone courtyard. The whole complex was enormous and surrounded by a 10 foot wall. Not much in the way of English information except with regard to the women’s quarters (upstairs at the back) and the various ancestors that were memorialised in little altars. That was followed by a stop at an underground castle – not so much a castle and more a series of tunnels originally about 10kms but only 1.4kms of which have been excavated and rendered fit for tourists. It was mainly used as an arsenal with tons of traps and ambush points and of course, as the guide put it, plenty of spaces for “storage of the enemy”.