To Linfen

November 13th, 2008

These days Linfen/临汾 is more notorious for pollution and brick kiln slavery and the mudslides resulting from the illegal tailings dams at less legal mines collapsing and taking out entire villages than famous for the many justifiable reasons it should be famous. Hell, I’ve been testing my students all day, and not even the one who is from Linfen could tell me much good about the place. So I suppose it’s highly unlikely that anybody would write anything positive about the place, right?

I suppose I should make one thing clear: My opinions of Shanxi, until this weekend, at least, were formed entirely by the year I spent in Taiyuan and a couple of trips back to Taiyuan to visit friends after that. When I lived in Taiyuan I lived and worked at the Heavy Machinery Institute in a heavily industrial and very, very run-down area on the west bank of the Fen River. I have often made rather nasty jokes about the place, and indeed I did not much like living there, but I do still hold a certain fondness for the place and would not mind going back for a visit. In fact, I would like to take my wife there for a quick look around before heading down to Linfen. Yes, this paragraph is very self-contradictory, but that is a natural result of the life of an itinerant foreign teacher in China.

Also, ever since I heard my wife’s family history, I’ve been keen to head out to Linfen’s Hongtong County to see the Great Scholar Tree.

And of course Linfen is supposed to be the world’s most polluted city- a ‘fact’ one of my students reminded me of today.

So, what I mean to say is that when this opportunity to spend a weekend in Linfen came up I was at once excited and terrified. I mean, I had visions in my head of the rundown industrial slum surrounding my school in Taiyuan and wasn’t in any great hurry to repeat that experience. On the other hand I was keen to see this amazing historic area that I had a direct (through marriage) relationship to.

I was surprised. Pleasantly so.

My wife got me ready. The night before she made sure I had decent clothes out and my bag packed with the very little I would need for an overnight stay. She booked me a taxi, too, and made sure I got out of the house on time.

The taxi dropped me off for my first experience actually using Beijing Airport’s Terminal 3, and I have to say I was impressed. Check in was sweet, security was a breeze, and finding my gate could have only been easier if the airport had installed magical sci-fi teleporter machines. And then I had to wait only ten minutes before boarding my plane, and I was off.

But Linfen has no civilian airport, only an airbase which has not been opened to civil aviation, and so I had to fly to Yuncheng/运城, where I would be picked up and driven the hundred and something kilometres to Linfen.

Beijing dawned overcast on Saturday morning- and dawn happened only shortly before take-off- and so the flight was mostly a study in cloudscapes, most of which were pretty boring, although a few threw up some pretty interesting deep royal blue colours on the shaded side. But about halfway through the flight the cloud gave way to an amorphous haze puntcuated only by dark, jagged shapes I assumed to be the higher ridges and peaks of the Taihang Mountains, and I found myself wondering what, exactly, I was looking at. Before too long it became clear, through the appearance of long, squiggly lines that could have been either mountain roads or mountain rivers, that I was viewing Shanxi through a thick haze that I assumed was largely smog.

The plane began its descent and the flight turned into one of those oddly worrying ones one can experience in China. We were getting closer to the ground, but the ground took a long, long time about getting more visible, and the plane started turning in not just zigzags, but apparently several circles in every imaginable direction. It seemed that the pilot was struggling to find the airport through the haze. But eventually the plane straightened out and we landed at an airport on what seemed like the edge of the city.

It was the edge of the city and it was a very tiny airport. I was the last passenger off the plane and so was paying more attention to the “follow the locals” principle of travel in an unfamiliar place, but on my way out I confirmed it: There were two gates: Entry, for those arriving in Yuncheng; and Exit, for those departing. It seemed like only a few paces from the Entry gate to baggage claim. In fact, the distance was so short I almost missed the toilet I needed. Well, having only carry-on luggage I got through very quickly and almost instantly, thanks to the magic of cellphones, found the driver who was to take me up to Linfen.

We walked the few short steps out of the terminal building and into the carpark- honestly, the airport wasn’t terribly much bigger than a Beijing subway station- thence to his black Hyundai Elantra. Now, this portion of the trip gave me a false impression of Yuncheng. The airport area is a development zone of some kind and the airport was surrounded by nice, wide roads, construction sites, and those few developments that were completed. One of my Shanxi (but neither Linfen nor Yuncheng) students did manage to name the high school that we passed on this very preliminary stretch of the journey- Kangjie, if I remember rightly- but otherwise the area struck me as being very empty and very much a work in progress. And very flat. But we were right next to the airport, and Yuncheng sits on the shore of a salt lake (second largest in the world, I am told) so one would expect the area to be flat. But empty? There was very little traffic on the roads and not many people around.

We made our way onto the expressway and I got another quite pleasant shock. Well, I already knew from seven/eight years ago that Shanxi has pretty decent expressways, but this one was almost empty. Fully built but with bugger all traffic. I mean, the year I spent in Taiyuan and my subsequent trips back there saw me spending a lot of time on the expressway between Taiyuan and Beijing that runs via Shijiazhuang, and which changes name at least once over the course of that journey, and I got quite used to the bus constantly having to slow down for trucks and other slow traffic, but this expressway was both good and almost empty. The driver cruised quite easily and comfortably at varying, but high, speeds up the expressway, slowing only for what little traffic appeared (at least half of which was travelling faster than us) and speed cameras.

Leaving Yuncheng we entered a heavily autumnal landscape the took on a gentle roll, a roll which grew more pronounced as we drove further north, until we eventually saw proper hills appearing out of the haze. All but the steepest hillsides, and even the gentler slopes, were heavily terraced. Terraces had been cut in to every halfway viable slope and cultivated. The view was one of hardpacked pale yellow earth reminiscent of the Loess Plateau topped with what little green was left in farmers’ meagre terraced fields. I suppose that’s not really surprising considering Shanxi arguably forms the eastern edge of the Loess Plateau, but the Shanxi landscape I was used to, that up around Taiyuan, is one of deep river valleys bordered by high mountains.

Suddenly the rolling landscape took on quite a pronounced slope and this relatively gentle, terraced loess started to look like Badlands (well, not quite that badly eroded, but still, the closest I’ve seen to that), with deeply scarred gullies cutting far below the roadbed. I thought, wow, now we’re entering the landscape I remember. Wrong.

Within few minutes we crossed over the Badlands and descended into another river valley, and this time I was in for a familiar surprise. Before too long we approached a bridge. A bridge that bore a sign saying “Fen River Bridge 8 hundred and something metres”. Wah! The Fen River! I used to cross that all the time! Not quite on a daily basis, but pretty close. In fact, it was almost a “coming home”-type feeling, crossing the Fen River again. Sure, I’d only seen that river in its 300-odd km upstream incarnation, but it was still the same river and provided one small connection to a significant part of my past.

After that we rose steadily, but we must have crossed an imperceptible rise, because there was another bridge over another river. But first was entry into the outskirts of Linfen.

Actually, one thing that surprised me given Linfen’s reputation for heavy industrial pollution was that there seemed to be far more factories rising almost at random out of the landscape on the Yuncheng side of the Fen River valley than the Linfen side. I’m sure, though, that that impression is purely a product of the particular nature of my experience of the two cities. But one clear sign that Linfen was approaching was that as we headed north, that amorphous haze grew thicker.

Entering Linfen gave me a rather ambiguous impression. On the one hand, we were on a nice, wide road; on the other hand it was lined with old, run-down houses. On yet another hand, we passed a large area where the old houses had been razed and a pit was being dug, presumably for the foundations for a new development. We drove along this for a couple of hundred metres, waste-looking land on our right, old, run-down houses on our left, nice, wide road under us, then hung a right and crossed a bridge over a river I found a little odd.

I already mentioned that we must’ve crossed an imperceptible rise, because we crossed another river. This was that river. See, it was odd, because having crossed the Fen River we seemed to be going constantly uphill, and crossing this bridge we seemed to be continuing uphill, but there was this river beneath us flowing along the slope. Or so it seemed.

But crossing that bridge seemed to bring us into Linfen proper, and the landscape seemed to suddenly take on the form of a proper, established town. The haze, by this stage, had gotten quite thick, and so I couldn’t see terribly much, but the traffic had gotten denser and busier and the buildings took a sudden step up the quality scale. I have to say I was quite impressed. The vehicles seemed up to those one would find in suburban Beijing, all reasonably new and of decent quality. We passed buses bearing large slogans stating they were powered by natural gas- an obvious sign the local government had realised the pollution problem and was actively working to ameliorate the situation. Commerce was bustling. This seemed a city alive.

Not far up the road we passed what I first thought was the gateway to a temple. Nope. “临汾师范学院” the sign said- Linfen Teachers College, to give it a rather impromptu English monkier. But off in the distance- a distance of no more than 200 metres, I’m sure, was the silhouette of a rather interesting and ancient looking pagoda. I got to see the same pagoda on the way out of Linfen on Sunday morning in clearer air, and it certainly did look to be worth a closer look. And on both viewings it certainly did seem to be within the grounds of Linfen Teachers College.

Not more than a few hundred metres up the road a drum tower suddenly loomed out of the haze, a drum tower that turned out to be the centrepiece of a roundabout/traffic circle. We circled round and my already surprisedly postive impression grew still stronger: On the northeast side of the roundabout was a wide square obviously put to good use by the locals, and lining the square were several restaurants, including a KFC and a Big Pizza.

See, the “McDonalds” index is a useful measure of the state of a Chinese city. Well, sometimes. The McDs Index is a measure of the Western and/or “Western-style” fastfood outlets in a city- the more, the merrier. Linfen scored higher than I would’ve expected, with a Big Pizza, KFC, Dicos and a McDonalds. And I didn’t even get a chance to explore the city, so who knows how much more there could’ve been.

After a little confusion, we took the road heading north from the drum tower, then hung a right, arriving, 50-odd metres down what turned out to be 解放路/Jiefang Lu, at the 临汾宾馆, where I would crash for the night. And crash for the night was the operative phrase: I had an afternoon’s work interviewing students for an exchange programme at a local high school, a night in Linfen, breakfast, then a trip back down the highway to Yuncheng where I would be amused for a morning, fed, then taken back to the airport.

Altogether far too little time in Linfen, in other words. Among other things, signs pointing to 尧庙/Yao‘s Temple and lzh’s family ties to Hongtong County meant I would’ve liked a lot more time in Linfen, and mean that I would like to go back, wife in tow, with time to explore properly.

Anyway, we arrived at the hotel, and after a bit of confusion between the driver’s incredibly strong accent and the Beijinger’s organising the afternoon’s interviews, we figured out which building of the hotel I was staying in and got me my room. Then I got a desperately-needed hour and a half to relax.

Of course, this was not a time I could catch up on sorely lost sleep, and so it was time to explore my room. Well, I certainly wasn’t going out, not in the state I was in, having just ended a very early starting journey and not knowing exactly when I would be required for either work-related stuff or lunch. The hotel, I have to report, was somewhat sub-par. It claimed three stars and the lobby of my building proudly displayed a photo of the whole staff posing on the front steps with a very unhappy-looking Zhu Rongji back in 2002. Seeing the date on that photo I was not surprised at the expression on Zhu Rongji’s face. I mean, could a hotel age and deteriorate so rapidly in a mere 6 years? And no, I’m not talking about the pollution grime on the outside of the buildings. The interior was very seriously worn down. Unfortunately, my photos don’t quite back this statement up:

my hotel room in Linfen

my hotel room in Linfen

my hotel room in Linfen from the other angle

my hotel room in Linfen from the other angle

So the hotel looks alright in these photos, but it wasn’t such a pleasant environment in reality. Still, as you can see, it had all the necessities and then a little extra; and it was liveable, just a little old and in need of renovation. Here’s the outside view:

my hotel in Linfen from the outside- well, my building in the hotel, at least

my hotel in Linfen from the outside- well, my building in the hotel, at least

Yep, three storeys, white tiles which were much grimier than the photo suggests. The interior was also much older and more worn than the first two photos suggest. I didn’t photograph the bathroom- my reasons shouldn’t need to be stated- but the tub wasn’t just stained but scarred with rust. Sunday morning I had trouble getting hot water for a shower or even just a facewash. First of all, there wasn’t any hot water. Then when hot water came, it came at a very low pressure and wasn’t very hot.

Having whinged all of that, I do have to say that not only were the facilities adequate, if old and a bit too well used, but the service, such as it was, was outstanding. Shit, what does that mean? Well, many of the services advertised seemed to no longer exist, but the staff were incredibly brilliant. Thoroughly gracious, helpful and efficient, but they also took a step back and allowed us (myself and the two Beijingers) to do our thing. I mean, they certainly weren’t the grovelling kind of staff that is too common in certain kinds of hotel and restaurant in China, especially when confronted with white skin, but the did their utmost to answer any question or resolve any problem I had. They were, in other words, the perfect hotel staff stuck in a less than perfect hotel. They were brilliant, and for them alone I would recommend the 临汾宾馆/Linfen Hotel.

But then again, all the locals I met and/or dealth with in Linfen and Yuncheng were the same. The driver who took me from Yuncheng airport to Linfen had an impenetrable accent, but one look at him and a quick assessment of his attitude and I could see he was trustworthy. Then at lunchtime we were picked up by a Linfen man in his late forties driving a police car (but not in uniform) who took us to lunch, and he dealt with me directly and easily as if the colour of my skin and hair was the same as his, or as if such things didn’t matter in the slightest. And the others I met out there were all the same. When I needed to deal with somebody who did not speak English, we dealt with each other as normal, healthy human beings do.

This is, and should be, a very strange thing to point out, but far too often in my travels in China, and especially in Taiyuan (remember: The source of my initial impression of Shanxi) and even with many of the less observant of my current students, my skin colour does present a barrier. It’s not that I can’t speak Chinese, it’s that too many people assume that all obvious foreigners speak only English while all those who look Chinese must be locals and therefore speak the local dialect, or at least Chinese and be capable of figuring out what’s happening. I raise this because a large part of my very favourable impression of both Linfen and Yuncheng comes from the fact that I had absolutely zero linguistic bullshit to deal with from any of the locals.

In fact, the worst I had to deal with from any local was the waitress in the Sichuan restaurant we had lunch in on Sunday warning me that the dish I was ordering was spicy. I don’t count that as bullshit because I have never yet met a Shanxiren who could handle spicy food. In fact, very few northern Chinese I’ve met can handle spicy food. In other words, the waitress was treating me the same as she would treat any other guest regardless of skin colour.

And, while I’m on the subject of crap a foreigner in China has to put up with, as for funny looks from passersby: I did have one incidence of the “Heloooooooo!!!!!” catcall, but otherwise the looks I got were of the, “Eh? What would a foreigner be here for?” variety, nothing untoward, and I would’ve happily answered the question had they asked, and those looks were far fewer than I was expecting, and there was nothing wrong with them.

In other words: I found Linfen and Yuncheng to be very open, friendly and welcoming.

So our cop took us off to lunch at a noodle restaurant near the railway station and plied us full of many different kinds of noodles. I have to admit I absolutely can not remember any of the kinds of noodles we tasted, only that they were all very good. And no vinegar appeared. In Taiyuan I got used to a saucer of vinegar being placed in front of every guest in a restaurant.

Well, work came and went, and the principal of the school- a good man, the kind who inspires trust and confidence through his openness and friendliness- but who didn’t have time to entertain us personally- arranged phoned a swanky hotel to book us a room in their best restaurant and encharged a near subordinate with our care, and off we went.

Damn, that was a nice place, totally up to the same standards as the best that Beijing can offer, even higher if you count the far better service (i.e. non-grovelling at the foreigner’s feet) service that we got. The room was sweet, the food brilliant, the service incredible- down to earth, straight up, no bollocks, and the epitome of polite. The two Linfen locals- one from the school, and the other the cop, made sure we had 汾酒 and our glasses were filled- then emptied rapidly. Nothing to complain about there, that’s the southern Shanxi way, and my downing a shot of fenjiu with no complaints did me good in their eyes- and quite possibly was what got me a carton of damn good fenjiu to bring home. And the food was pretty damn good, too, although, unlike lunch, it was the local version of Cantonese cuisine. They did put a saucer of vinegar in front of each of us, which I suppose was one way of adapting the cuisine to Shanxi tastes. But that was a great meal.

Sunday morning had to be a relatively early start, but later than Saturday- for me at least. The Beijingers who organised these interviews had to be on a train from Yuncheng at 2 pm, whereas I had to be at Yuncheng airport in time to check-in for my 4:10 pm flight, but all wanted to take advantage of the little time available to see at least something of the area. Fortunately it’s only an hour and a half down the expressway between Yuncheng and Linfen, and there’s a wealth of places to visit. Unfortunately time did not allow us to do justice to any of those sites. To see one and swear to visit the others next time was the best we could manage.

Now it seems to me that breakfast is the one meal the foreigners in China generally do not adapt to. It also seems to me that those who marry into China adapt pretty well to Chinese-style breakfasts. I find myself thinking that the problem most foreigners have with adapting to Chinese-style breakfasts stems from the fact that Chinese hotels do not serve Chinese-style breakfasts. Sounds odd, but Sunday morning’s breakfast buffet reconfirmed that impression: There were a few varieties of 粥/Chinese porridge and a couple of kinds of Chinese bread, but otherwise nothing looked like any breakfast I’ve ever seen outside a Chinese hotel.

Ah well, I got some sustenance and took off for a short walk. I needed the exercise to get the blood pumping. I only walked down to the nearest big intersection and back, then along to a little shop to get a bottle of green tea, but I liked the street scene. Yeah, I saw more natural-gas powered buses, and yeah, the traffic was dense and bustling, and what needs to be added is that every intersection, no matter how small, had a team of traffic police in flourescent vestskeeping the chaos under some semblance of control. Some street scenes:

Jiefang Lu/Liberation Street, Linfen

Jiefang Lu/Liberation Street, Linfen

a big intersection in Linfen

a big intersection in Linfen

See? It doesn’t look so bad, and it’s not. I mean, anywhere with trees so densely lining a street has got to be good. And in that third photo you can see one of those natural gas-powered buses I was talking about.

But like I said, my time in Linfen was far too short and before too long- like about fifteen minutes after taking those three photos- we were back on the highway down to Yuncheng.

The original plan was to visit the salt lake where there was apparently something spa-like. Fortunately the driver talked my fellow travellers out of that idea, saying the salt lake was only good in the summer. We did, however, pass one branch of the lake, so we did at least see it:

Yuncheng's salt lake, not a bad picture considering it was taken on a cellphone from a speeding car

Yuncheng

Except we didn’t stop in Yuncheng, we took the expressway right around the city and out in the direction of a place the highway signs called “Xiezhou” but which a book I bought there calls “Haizhou”, both written 解州. See:

my new book

my new book

Alright, so it doesn’t come out so well in a photo, but it definitely says ‘Haizhou’. No dictionary I have in my possession gives the pronunciation ‘hai’ for 解, but the dictionary you can see in the background of that photo does give it as ‘xie’, in the fourth tone, as referring to a county in Shanxi.

The attraction of the place the highway signs called Xiezhou was the 关帝庙- Guandi’s temple- yeah, you can see that in the photo of my new book just above there. And that was what drew us off the expressway and onto ordinary rural roads.

And that was my first taste of actual poverty in Shanxi since 2002. It was not as bad as I was expecting, but it was several steps lower than rural Beijing. But those villages we were passing through didn’t look badly off, just poor and struggling to develop. Evidence of that struggle to develop abounded and no village we passed looked like a bad place to live. Rough and ready, but not bad. Still, this is just an impression gained by whizzing through a few villages in the safety of a car. Doubtless had I had a chance to spend some real time with the locals I’d be writing something subtly different.

Well, after a couple of stops to make sure we were headed in the right direction, we arrived in Hai/Xiezhou and found a spot in the carpark outside the Guandi Temple.  Obviously Hai/Xiezhou has been profitting from the tourists attracted to the Guandi Temple, and the side of the road opposite the temple was lined by rather nicer-looking buildings than the surrounding villages could offer and commerce had a noticeably bigger bustle to it. Even so, apart from a few souvenir shops, most of the businesses seemed to be much more geared to local customers. But that was good for me, because my cellphone was insisting that I had plugged in a headset- which is absurd, because I never use the headset and leave the headset sitting untouched in the box- and so wasn’t making any sound. Unfortunately, the staff of the cellphone shop couldn’t figure out how to fix this problem. Not wanting to spend the morning in a rather boring cellphone shop opposite a beautiful and intriguing temple, I said forget it, I’ll fix it in Beijing.

As it turned out, all I needed to do was plug in the headset, unplug it, and the problem was fixed. Temperamental bloody technology.

Some things are the same everywhere you go, and one of those is the kind of person doing business around the edges of a tourist attraction. In the temple carpark was a small crowd of people selling mostly incense, and they were persistent. A bit too persistent. Nevermind, we eventually managed to get rid of them. The strange thing, though, was that they were mostly gathered round the exit, and nobody near the entrance bugged us. Nor did they bug us when we left the temple.

We walked up to the entrance, and after some reassurance that we did not require a foreign speaking guide, just a Mandarin-speaking guide, we entered.  It’s an impressive temple, not just old, but aged- and no, not artificially. It wears its age like a retired professor- visibly worn down, but dignified. Even so, I do think it will need some renovations soon.

My cellphone, as well as refusing to admit that there was no headset plugged in and it therefore should make noise, was also running low on battery power, so I turned it off for the wander through the outer part of the temple, and only turned it on again when we got to the really serious bits.

Yeah, I should get some new rechargeable batteries for the digital camera. But I’m quite happy with what my cellphone can do.

Anyway, here’s a few of the less bad shots:

The temple exit

The temple exit

Four Dragon Screen

Four Dragon Screen

The only other Wumen/午门 in China, they say

The only other Wumen/午门 in China, they say

Yushu Tower/御书楼

Yushu Tower/御书楼

Chongning Palace/崇宁殿, where everybody burns there incense and kowtows to Guandi

Chongning Palace/崇宁殿, where everybody burns their incense and kowtows to Guandi

So who is this Guandi character that everybody is so keen to worship? Well, that little book(解州关帝庙 Guandi Temple in Haizhou, from Shanxi People’s Press/山西人民出版社 series 三晋揽胜 Scenery of Shanxi, edited by 侯学金 and 何秀兰, published in 2002) I bought there says:

Born in Changping Village of Haizhou in 160 in Eastern Han Dynasty, Guanyu was a famous general of Shu Country during Three Kingdoms Dynasty.

[…]

There had been so many generals as Guanyu in the long period of history in China, but only General Guanyu had been honoured again and again by many emperors and the general respected by the people throughout the different periods. It was only this general that who had become the king from the general, then become the emperor, and then even become the god (Guandi).

[…]

His philosophy of life had been regarded as the best example for the people throughout the thousand years in the history. He was also regarded as the brave general, good example of loyalty by the people. His spirit of “loyalty, justice, benevolence and courage” has been regarded as the best example of Chinese nation and also the guide for Chinese people in their daily life. [page 7]

The grammar is theirs, not mine. Or, I suppose, you could go to Wikipedia’s article on Guan Yu.

And the temple? Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have an article, but I do have that book, and it says, again with the original dodgy grammar intact:

Since Guandi Temple in Haizhou is located at the hometown together with the ancestral temple of Guanyu and the tombs of its ancestors, it becomes the hot spot both for the tourists and followers in the country and abroad to come to worship and hold the ceremony to General Guanyu.

[…]

Guandi Temple in Haizhou, its original Guandi Temple was built in Xiguan of the city during the period of Early Sui Dynasty and it has been enlarged gradually since the General Guanyu coninued honored titles by the emperors of different dynasties. There had been Guandi Temples almost throughoutthe whole country until Ming and Qing Dynasties. But Guandi Temple in Haizhou is the most famous one in the country because it is located in the hometown of the general and the special significant construction, magnificent decoration and the complete arrangement of the whole courtyard of the temple. [pages 8 and 9]

It also seemed to attract a lot of emperors, who would, as emperors do, leave examples of their calligraphy behind. The guide showed us several boards whose characters had been written by Qianlong, Kangxi and Xianfeng, among others.

Changning Palace, the main hall, was interesting, too, as it still attracts worshippers. Everybody burned incense to Guandi, and most kowtowed, with a Daoist master ringing a bell with each kowtow. Many seemed to be praying, too.

Temple visited and visitors suitably impressed, we wandered back out to the car and drove back into Yuncheng for lunch, which, being a Shanxi-ised attempt at Sichuan cuisine, was rather disappointing, thence to the train station to deliver the two Beijingers to their train.

This meant travelling in to the Yuncheng city centre and the correction of the false impression I got from the ride from the airport up to Linfen. The city centre was just as crowded and bustling as Linfen and seemed to be about equally developed and prosperous. In fact, neither city looked poor or undeveloped.

The railway station was quite small, as was the carpark in the station’s forecourt. Right in the centre of the station forecourt was a big statue of the local hero Guan Yu on a horse. I didn’t go into the station itself, preferring to wait outside while the two Beijingers and their luggage were delivered to the train, but the station looked fairly new. It was also busy, with people coming and going, delivering friends and family to their trains, or picking them up, sending goods off through the freight, boarding the long-distance buses lined up along the side of the forecourt, and generally doing what people do at railway stations.

I didn’t have to wait too long before the driver and his mate came back out and took me out to the airport. It was slow progress through the city traffic, but as we approached the airport area the traffic lightened up and we arrived pretty quickly at Yuncheng’s tiny airport.

Far too early, as it turned out. I had half an hour to wait until they opened the check-in counters. The driver and his mate made sure the case of Fenjiu I had been given in Linfen was securely trussed-up, then left me at the little teashop while they went for a stroll. Then when the check-in counters did open, they made sure I was properly checked in, my case of Fenjiu was whizzed out the back to be loaded, and we said goodbye as I went through the security check. Then, of course, I still had over an hour to wait.

But the waiting room had an electric socket sitting there unused, so I sneakily plugged in my cellphone to recharge, and spent the time…. deleting old SMS. Then our plane arrived 15 minutes late, as the PA system had been constantly informing us, it was unloaded, reloaded, and we were off.

It was a boring flight, which is good. An exciting flight is one in which bad things are happening. A safe flight is boring. Having an aisle seat didn’t help. Aisle seats are convenient, but they also cut down on the amount of scenery you can see. But considering it was overcast with patches of rain, a window seat wouldn’t have been any better. And then, of course, it was already dark when we arrived in Beijing.

It was a long trip from the runway over to T3, but when we did finally arrive, the new terminal worked its magic again, and I was out of the airport and on a bus far quicker than I’ve ever managed at Beijing airport, then home in time to dump my stuff, change my clothes, and take lzh out to dinner and tell her all the stories of the trip.

And in an odd little postscript, when I finally got a chance to open up this case of fenjiu and see just what it was they’d given me, I found this:

Ah, that brings back memories! That’s the very first kind of fenjiu I ever had. Back in September 2000 when the foreign language department and international affairs office of my school in Taiyuan took their three foreign teachers out for a welcoming lunch, the ordered a bottle of exactly this kind of fenjiu, gave me the rather large cup that sits on top, and filled it to the brim. I don’t think they were expecting me to be able to down the whole cup. I think they were hoping for some funny laowai tasting baijiu for the first time kind of reaction. They were perhaps disappointed.

7 Responses to “To Linfen”

  1. Susan Yang Says:

    It took me long the read this blog.hahaha..i guess you must be tired to write so long a page..so take a rest!

    I have not been here for quite a lot of days ,and you added many new stuffs. Happy to see this!

    I also checked your albums.The puppy called “zaizai’is really cute.

  2. Adam Minter Says:

    Interesting piece of travel writing. I’m not all that surprised that Linfen turned out to be something less than the hell hole that so many people claim it is. No doubt, there are some ugly days there, and plenty of things that you didn’t see. But also, no doubt, the place is far more complex than the manner in which it is commonly depicted. Glad you wrote this up.

  3. wangbo Says:

    Susan: It took me four days to write this. Something about the trip had me really inspired, and although I didn’t really do or see much out there, I still had a lot I needed to write, but of course the real world kept intervening and I had to go teach my classes and grade papers and all that kind of stuff. I’m glad what I wrote was good enough to keep people reading through to the end.

    Adam: Cheers. I tried to make it as clear as possible that the nature of my trip to Linfen put some pretty hefty limitations on what I could actually say about the place, and I hope I’ve left everybody with that understanding. I do have to say the air really was quite thick and flavoursome when I was there, and yes, I did see evidence of the hell-hole aspects of the place. The little I did get to see of Linfen really did flesh out a more complex picture. I was most impressed with the strong evidence of a lot of work being put into cleaning the place up and developing it- and not just the environment, but the economy and education, too. And a conversation with one of my students on Monday backed up that impression. He said there’s no longer pollution there. I said, really? He said it’s much better than before. Unfortunately all my short trip did was intrigue me enough to leave me with a strong desire to go back and spend some quality time there.

  4. Ji Village News Says:

    Really enjoyed reading your experience!

    Last year during our family road trip from 薛城 to 上海, my brother played 郭兰英’s (a Shanxi native) 人说山西好风光 in the van. Partly due to the musical quality, partly due to the simple yet absolutely beautiful lyric, partly due to the memory and familiarity it brought back, it touched me greatly. And the image/atmosphere that song conjures up fits your description here pretty well. Thanks for the indulgence. Marvelous!

    人说山西好风光
    (故事片《我们村里的年轻人》插曲)
    词:乔羽 曲:张棣昌

    人说山西好风光
    地肥水美五谷香
    左手一指太行山
    右手一指是吕梁
    站在那高处
    望上一望
    你看那汾河的水呀
    哗啦啦啦流过我的小村旁

    杏花村里开杏花
    儿女正当好年华
    男儿不怕千般苦
    女儿能锈万种花
    人有那志气永不老
    你看那白发的婆婆
    挺起那腰板
    也象十七 八

  5. Ji Village News Says:

    I just looked up 解 on the web, and no place has an entry for “hai”. “hai” is wrong, I think, especially with the highway sign saying it is “xiezhou”. I had a classmate in middle school whose family name is 解, pronounced as xie.

    三国演义, of which 关云长 is one of the important characters, is the major reason why 关帝 is so famous all over China. It was more or less written in 白话 of that time (14th Century), not totally 古文, so I suppose it could be used as a good intermediate step to 古文. It is engaging and very influential to the Chinese psyche.

  6. TH Says:

    It would be interesting to know the dimensions of the Linfen city square which you mention as being somewhere north of the Drum Tower (“…wide square obviously put to good use by the locals, and lining the square were several restaurants, including a KFC and a Big Pizza”). If so inclined, compare the extent of the square with, say, a Republican era or late Qing gazetteer 地方志 map of Linfen, and you may arrive at some interesting conclusions.

  7. wangbo Says:

    TH: The square was on the northeastern corner of the roundabout around the Drum Tower. I didn’t get a chance to see it other than from the car as we drove past. What I saw seemed to be of very recent construction, but you’re right, it would be very interesting to look into the history of that area.

    Mr Ji: Two very good comments. Thanks for the song, I’m Baidu-ing it right now- ah, it seems the first result in the MP3 search is a very old recording, sounds 1930s-era. Very interesting. I must remember to download it when I get back to Beijing and can use my own computer. And thanks for the confirmation of 解’ pronunciation. The only thing I could find that called it ‘hai’ was that book. Everything else I saw agrees with you.