Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

Rīga, You’re Lovely, but Please Let Me Sleep!

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A breeze blew off the Daugova River and tempered the munificent sun. Trams howled and clanked along the boulevards which frame Old Rīga. Cobbled lanes converged in squares with verdigrised spires, turrets and towers, gargoyles, grotesques and columns.

The sun brought out the Beautiful People. They strolled in the squares, ducked into shops and draped themselves over chairs at tables under awnings, accessorising with cigarettes and espressos; they sprawled and frolicked in Batejkalna Park across the boulevard at the edge of the old town.

It is a pleasant park on a sunny day with its sloping lawns and meandering paths and cast iron standard lamps. The Pilsētas Kanāls divides the park into two and hands out half each to the Old Rīga and Centrs neighbourhoods. A pretty wooden launch from 1907 chugs tourists along the canal. It chugs under bridges, past a fountain, through a tunnel, alongside the Central Market, then chugs out onto the river under the railway bridge and the road bridge and back through the marina, past moored yachts, and round again to the canal.

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The market was the biggest in Europe, once. Its buildings were made from old Zeppelin hangers. The stalls spill out into the surrounding streets and occupy several blocks. You can buy a whole salmon, a big sack of cat litter and a Soviet air force uniform, if they all happen to be on your shopping list.

Centrs is quieter than Old Rīga but just as beguiling. It has more Art Nouveau facades than you will see in one place anywhere else in the world, and they are as exuberant as anything but Gaudí’s Modernista buildings. Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Battleship Potemkin director, designed some of the more arresting, with eagles, sphinxes, lion’s heads, keyhole-shaped windows, and human faces with gaping mouths and expressions which suggest they have just seen the architect’s bill.

I had a room in the top of a townhouse right in the middle of Old Rīga. It was just a mattress on the floor of a room little bigger, but I was happy enough with that. Or at least I was until I tried to sleep and found out how good the sound system was on the late bar round the corner. Earplugs just muted the higher frequencies and seemed to trap the bass in my skull.

I got up and got dressed and went out in the end. It was a warm night and I walked round Old Rīga, then sat a table at a bar in the square and saw off a couple of beers. The music had stopped by the time I got back and I slept then, finally, for a few hours until the other guests began to get up. Whenever the heavy front door slammed shut, as it always did, it shook the whole fabric of the building; two people walking down the corridor was like a surprise attack by a battalion.

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The next night was the same, except that people moved into the room next door a couple of hours after the music stopped and the walls were so thin that their conversation was as clear as if they had been sitting on the edge of the bed.

I logged, fuzzy-headed, onto a booking site and paid a lot more than I normally would for a nice hotel overlooking Batejkalna Park. It was a lovely room and, on a normal Saturday, it would doubtless have been as peaceful as I had hoped; but that Saturday was the Rīga Festival and right across the street there was a 24-hour basketball marathon with booming commentary and amped-up EDM.

Fine, then, I thought, perhaps I will sleep when I get to Estonia.

© Richard Senior 2015

They Do Things Differently in Helsinki

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Whole sides of salmon sizzle on the grill at a stall in the marketplace down by the harbour. There are stalls with baskets of lingonberries, bilberries, cloudberries and cranberries under brightly-coloured awnings. There is reindeer meat and handicrafts from Lapland and fur hats for epic winters.

The sun sparkles on the waves in the harbour where a woman sells freshly-caught fish from her boat and a full-rigged sailing ship rocks at its moorings and a deckhand monkeys up the mast and guffawing young men putter off in a motorboat and the Soumenlinna ferry backs out of its berth and a yacht glides in with its staysail pregnant with wind.

Old Detroit cars throb down the North Esplanade past the rattling trams. It is rare to see them in Europe, at least in any number, but they do things differently in Helsinki.

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Senate Square, a block from the harbour, was supposedly modelled on St Petersburg, by a German architect, in the familiar neo-classical style. Yet its confident simplicity seems quintessentially Finnish.

Helsinki’s architects have drawn from established international schools, but interpreted them in their own way. Bold statements are rare. Helsinki is not Riga, nor Barcelona. But clean lines, smooth curves and clever details are commonplace. Everything, moreover, seems harmonious, as if the city had been planned all at once instead of evolving over two centuries.

The ethos extends beyond architecture. Design is to Helsinki what fashion is to Milan. The design district, spread over twenty-five streets north and west of the harbour, has something like 200 shops selling deceptively simple, often revolutionary, furniture, homeware, lighting and glass.

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On almost any street, you can find a store selling chairs so radical and yet so practical, it is as if centuries of chair designers have been going about it all wrong. You can find gastropubs selling craft beers and salmon and harissa burgers with pimientón-dusted fries, and restaurants with cool white walls and blonde wood tables and sautéed reindeer with lingonberries on the menu. Yet you can walk several blocks before you find an ATM. They do things differently in Helsinki.

Wherever you are in the city, you are never more than a few blocks from a park. They are not so much ring-fenced from urban development as blended seamlessly into it. You can cycle round the headland, stroll along the water’s edge watching the paddle-boarders, use the outdoor gyms, or sit with a picnic and gaze at whimsical sculptures. There are public saunas dotted about the centre and even the cheapest hotels, even backpacker hostels, have their own; many Finns have them at home.

Across the bridge from the city centre, past the iconic Hakaniemi Market Hall, the traditionally working-class Kallio district is now full of character cafes, organic food shops and hipsters. The boys wear Breton jerseys and Romanov beards, the girls vintage dresses and brogues; everyone wears hats and tatts. There was a guy swanking round in jackboots and an officer’s cap worn at an unmilitary angle, and another in the trousers and waistcoat of a three-piece suit and nothing underneath but tattoos.

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They do things differently in Helsinki, the capital of the nation which gave us the jollity of Sibelius and the irritating Nokia Tune, and Angry Birds and the Egg chair, a historically progressive state which had universal suffrage before anyone else but New Zealand, and which – in the Nordic social democratic tradition – built a comprehensive welfare state in parallel with a robust economy and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Some say that it is the most liveable city in the world. I saw no reason to disagree with them.

© Richard Senior 2015