We’re on the 604 slow-train out of Beijing, heading for Pingyao in the Shanxi Province. This is night two in China spent together as unfamiliar travelling friends, resting in the Hard Sleepers stacked three high.
We fall into our bunks easily after the exertion of getting ready for being here. We’ve packed up studios, finished off works, pushed through the rigmarole of life’s administration pre-departure, and everything that’s come lately.
Now with a t-shirt and a toothbrush and a notebook in a bag we exhale, grab a sideways look at each other’s gear, and give a school kid smile. A fat baby boy tugs at his slight mum’s shirt. Fit men in white singlets, or light pink and grey, with warm looking arms play cards across their knees.
We wait for the Carriage Boss to turn out our lights and put us to bed. Nothing to worry about here – Mai Wen Ti. She’ll get us up at the other end with a poke and smooth song over the speakers. The Mandarin music sounds like cheap Chinese wind charms as we pull into Pingyao station.
Our trip begins now, skating through the streets in an open taxi-bike. There are billboards and road stalls and blasting horns and to the left a team of workers doing their morning exercise in sync. An instructor stands on a box out front waving her arms like a Willow.
Then inside the old city walls there are thin streets and ancient rooves and little cats and a bicycle mechanic squat sitting with a cigarette at the front door to his shop. It’s very beautiful, surprising, and we’ll spent the next three days finding temples and tea stands for smokos. We’re getting our heads around the good luck we must have had to be asked here.
We walk into courtyards where local families cook in dark dinky kitchens. Vegies pile up in enamel bowls and washing hangs out on wire. People are generous with their time for talk and share food that is chilli hot with vinegar. This place is old and endearing, personal in design for an ancient Merchant Town.
On one of these Pingyao days it starts to rain a Chinese mist, so we hire bikes and read books. Some of us draw and do it quite badly except for Pete, who rolls out 8 feet of paper on a side road and busts out a Pagoda in black. He pulls a crowd and comes home dirty-kneed with a soggy though serious and impressive scroll under one arm. He’s wearing a woollen beanie, hollow at its top, perched too high on his man handsome head.
Outside of Pingyao there’s The Wang Family Residence and the Zhangbi Underground Defence Tunnels. We’re taken there by an operatic taxi driver who sings to us when we get bogged. Out again and on our way to Zhangbi Cun Village we drive up a mountain with wild flowers by the road. More singing and attempted language lessons, horns and sliding past trucks.
It’s cold in the dirt underground and barely lit by bulbs. They hang out from the wall at intervals on stiffened wire with tabs of tape and little twists of string. It’s almost claustrophobic down there though astonishing enough to endure it. Then light and air and we’re happily met by our virtuoso who speeds us on to The Wangs’.
When it comes to aesthetics The Wang Family had the right idea. As inventors of Tofu all decadence was allowed them. Intricate wooden structures fill the protective walls of their large family home, empty now though perfectly maintained. We see laced balconies and a lamp hanger in the shape of a bird. Circular doorways and a Qing Dynasty ink drawing of two fat grey hens. That one blows our socks right off.
Before leaving our Hostel we’re invited to do some images on the wall of the Bar next door. A memory of the Australian Artists’ who came to stay, and our first group show of sorts together. So we take up a beer and do our shy and shameful best with the texta we are handed.
Average art aside, The Boyz’ Bums are most inspiring as they face the wall to work first up and side-by-side. Guido cocks his right hip – has a noticeably cool left hand. Philjames is all up and in it – a composed kid on a textbook cover. Then we hoot like it’s good to get that bit done and leave for the train to Xi’an.
with love from China