We approach the county city of Xingcheng with considerable reservations. Xingcheng contains an ancient town, allegedly one of the best preserved Ming towns in China. Merely 6 km away from the ancient quarters is one of the finest beaches in Liaoning. As if these were not enough, Xingcheng is also blessed with hot springs that have given rise to a number of spa resorts and sanatoriums. And all this is less than 3 hours by express train away from Beijing! Shortly, Xingcheng has it all! All prerequisites to become a Mecca for Chinese tourists.
We know well the amenities such a place is supposed to offer. As we re-assemble our tandem at the city wall, I ask one of the locals about hotels within the ancient town. He ponders for a while before he admits that he can’t think of any suitable accommodation there.
“Don’t worry,”- I tell him cheerfully, “I’ll inquire at the Visitors’ Centre.“
He looks at me incomprehensively. Once beyond the Western Gate, I understand why. There are no hotels, no bars, no restaurants in the old town. For that matter there is no Visitors’ Centre – none of those over-dimensional marble caverns with huge parking lots and information screens running nonstop promotional movies of the site. For once when we buy our entrance tickets, Sarah will not ask where are we flying to.
We find accommodation in the modern part of the town, close to the Southern Gate. On the next day we head through the bustling market streets leading to the ancient quarter. The city, known in the past as Ningyuan, held strategic importance during the Ming dynasty as the first outpost beyond the Great Wall.
The old town still retains its original and complete city walls that have stood since 1428. They proved impenetrable to Nurhachi, the great Manchu leader who consolidated the tribes of Manchuria and laid the foundations for what would become the Qing Dynasty. He was forced to retreat after the unsuccessful siege of the town in 1626, and subsequently died from injuries, inflicted during the battle – his only failed campaign. The rebuilt pedestrian street offers a rare sight of two stone memorial gates form the early 17th century, covered in weathered carvings. Beyond them one can glimpse the Bell and Drum
Tower that stands at the junction of the four central streets leading to the central gates in each wall.
What strikes most is what is absent in Xincheng. No life-size scenes from daily life, cast in bronze. No coloured naturalistic sculptures inside restored wine shops and ancient apothecaries. No locals dressed in historical costumes and positioned at photogenic backgrounds and specialties stalls. The people actually live inside the city walls – beyond the four central streets there stretches a maze of narrow lanes with one-storied houses that bear no pretence to historical authenticity. Of course, there is no lack of shops selling souvenirs and revolutionary memorabilia.
These are, however, scattered among a hodgepodge of shops catering to the needs of the locals – bookshops, convenience stores, clothing and shoes, even funerary items.
Several of the major temples and residences have been rebuilt within the last decade. We head towards the temple of Confucius, the oldest and biggest temple of its kind in northeast China. While Sarah and Nora play hide and seek in the shady yard, my enthusiasm somewhat cools down when I glimpse in one of the halls a naturalistic statue group of a Chinese student taking an official exam. The voice of a local guide enlivens as she spots us: “And as you can see, many foreign friends come here to pay their respect to Confucius”. The small group of Chinese tourists immediately turns their cameras from the statue of the sage towards us. I escape into the rear yard of the temple, where Volker sits gloomily among a pile of stone fragments, remaining from the original temple. He has had one rebuilt temple too many: “This place has totally lost whatever aura it might have had!”, and decides to go with the kids shopping for daily necessities instead.
I head alone to the other rebuilt temple of the town – the Daoist temple of the City Emperor. Unlike the first one, it does not charge an entrance fee and has ten resident monks, some of them still busy at this late hour writing charms and making horoscopes for the few visitors.
As I make my way back among the tricycles and motorbikes that jam on the pedestrian street, I realise that something feels different and so unusual. Nobody stares, nobody lifts a mobile to take pictures, nobody shouts “How cute!” Without the two little girls, I am invisible in the crowd. I indulge in the lightness of anonymity for another hour until I rejoin the rest of the family.
Since when did normality start to feel so strange?