This was a day trip that we did from Pingyao. It involved car pooling which we arranged through the son of the family who run Fulin yuan hotel. It was nice to get out into the countryside and see some of the history that Shanxi province has to offer.
The Wang family courtyard is an expansive, aristocratic home, and the underground tunnels were used as a fortress 1300 years ago so this day was packed with interesting information and sights.
The car pooling is a funny concept, you get in the car with a local Chinese guy and most likely 4 other Chinese people and they take you to the place of interest, then when you want to go to the other places you might have to swap cars as some of the people don’t have the same agenda as you. All these is arranged through Chinese drivers who don’t speak English, the version of Mandarin that they speak is really difficult to understand.
In the first car we were very lucky to have two students from Beijing who spoke really good English but the second car we were not so lucky. If you don’t speak any Chinese it’s very difficult to communicate what time the driver will leave, and he will leave without you. He also didn’t give us much time at the tunnels.
At the courtyard we got around three hours but at the tunnel we only got an hour and a half which was slightly disappointing.
The Wang family were a big part of aristocratic China at the time that they lived here. To call it a courtyard is probably the biggest understatement ever. It’s a castle, with 123 courtyards inside, temples, and gardens.
This is the front door!
There are so many works of art and craftsmanship of the highest standard, this is what money could buy you between 1762-1811.
There are some really delightful examples of weathered and warped wooden buildings in some of the less busy courtyards.
It’s well worth a walk right up to the top wall, the juxtaposition of the local people living in caves in the dusty cliffs over the colossal back wall is too perfect to seem real.
There is another colossal temple complex over the valley which is not included in the ticket. This place is mammoth.
Here’s the view of most of the courtyards from the top of the wall.
There was some really beautiful art exhibitions inside, unfortunately the Chinese like to display art from behind a glass window so there’s reflections.
We just liked those monkeys.
And the elephant for Maliphant. The place was built on a hill so sometimes the layers were incredible.
Zhangbi underground tunnels
From the Wang courtyard it was half an hour over the mountains to Zhangbi underground tunnels. As we’d discover later on, Chinese men love to drive fast and recklessly over mountains, this one wasn’t too bad though.
The village itself is stuck in a time warp, it’s a brilliant example of historic China with cobbled streets and stone built houses.
Mind blowingly, an estimated 30 million people (nearly half the population of the UK) still live in caves in China, and a lot of these people live in Shanxi province, where Zhangbi is. Even more astonishing is the realisation that it’s preferable for them because, above ground, it’s cold in the summer and warm in the winter there. The temperature fluctuates between 40 degrees Celsius and -30 degrees Celsius in this area but the tunnels and caves stay 12 degrees all year round. You can see the appeal.
At first we tried to go down into tunnels ourselves with nothing but the small, and pretty inadequate, map on the ticket. To save time and nervous energy, we went back to get a guide. It was really pretty nerve wracking!
The temperature really did drop as we went down inside, The walls turned from brick to compacted clay.
The tunnels twist and turn 20m down under the ground and although the way is clearly marked you’ll miss pretty much everything important without someone to tell you what it was used for. Things like a hole in the wall that was used to communicate by putting a piece of bamboo in it, the caves that were used as ambush places for soldiers,
the general’s living quarters and much more that weren’t obvious but were really interesting. There was lots of examples of architecture to get natural light into the tunnel including a well that went all the way up to the surface which they used to get water for the tunnels and the local village when they were living above ground.
It is a pretty strange feeling to go down under the earth where the temperature drops 20 degrees, it made us think of the book ‘Birdsong’ which perhaps wasn’t helpful as it’s set around the tunnels at the battlefields of World War One.
We had to use the flash down there as it was actually really dark. Sophie’s leg disappeared at one point.
It’s really great to experience being in a tunnel, it actually stretches back 10km to the next village over and is connected to many people’s homes.
As mentioned earlier, the tunnels were used 1300 years ago to defend the area. They were built into a plateau with three sides of cliffs and one side of mountains so it was very hard to attack it. Even though the tunnels go down 20m they still come out of an exit part the way down the cliff and there are regular areas of sunlight through ingenious ways of digging out windows.
It was also used during 1942 when the Japanese reached Shanxi and were stationed in a nearby town. They found the tunnels and were afraid that there was a whole army of Chinese soldiers down there so they closed 6 of the entrances. As it turned out, there were just frightened villagers down there, using the tunnels for storing fruit and vegetables and hiding from the Japanese. They managed to escape to the neighbouring village through the tunnel.
There’s a really amazing example of a Taoist temple above the tunnels where local people prayed to the God of water, Earth, wind, and other more obscure gods such as the God of small pox which was a big killer at the time that the temple was used.
We walked back with the guide through the dusty and derelict village, this is the symbol ‘fu’ in Chinese, it means fortune or good luck. The dragon and the crane are also animal symbols of good luck and they are incorporated into this.
Only old people and a handful of children have remained here as the government offered the others accommodation a short distance away in newly built housing, the guide said they work in factories which were hard to get to from the village so they wanted to move.
Zhangbi is named after a Chinese constellation of stars. We thought that was nice.