I first came to China in early August after two slow months of anticipating my work visa approval. When it finally came I immediately booked the next flight for Beijing. From Beijing I would have to travel to Wuhan but before I got there I made a plan to “slow travel” and see all the major historical destinations that were located directly between the two cities. My journey would to take me through three provinces; Hebei, Henan, and lastly Hubei; where Wuhan was located in. I would be spending a week and a half on the road after spending one week in Beijing (more on that in a later post). On my list of sights to see was a town called Kaifeng where the went to extra lengths to preserve the historical integrity of its Song Dynasty past. I immediately put an allegorical thumbtack in the city as a place I would definitely be seeing along my route across the Han Plain. I would be going at it alone as Iulia was still back in Europe fixing her visa problems.
Kaifeng During the Song Dynasty
The first time I heard about Kaifeng was in a BBC miniseries called, “The Art of China”. In the miniseries they had mentioned how Kaifeng had been a prosperous ancient capital during the Song Dynasty. Some of the most remarkable soft-blue coloured porcelain was created during this period. Personally I find it to be the most graceful looking porcelain objects I have seen and the prospect of looking at some of these pieces in person made me want to start planning my side-venture to Kaifeng.
Getting into Kaifeng from Beijing
To get there I had to take the train from Beijing West Train Station and travel to the provincial capital of Henan; Zhengzhou. From Zhengzhou I took a intercity bus to Kaifeng. My train was overnight and the bus ride only three hours long. I was in Kaifeng by midday.
Kaifeng – Preservation Efforts
The first thing I noticed when I took a taxi from the Kaifeng bus station to the hostel is that Kaifeng lacked skyscrapers. Most Chinese cities and towns have large glass and concrete apartment buildings rising over 15 stories high placed everywhere. Kaifeng was different. Later I found out this was because underneath the city was still buried the remains on the original ancient capital. So far during my journeys in China, I had seen many historical places overturned and destroyed without care during the Cultural Revolution. Here in Kaifeng however, they had always taken care to watch their relics. I knew even further so that they liked their history when coming into the old town, there was a perfectly preserved Qing Dynasty wall surround the entirety of the old city. Within the walls the town was made to recreate what it looked like 1,000 years ago. Mostly the old town can get away with this. It’s not really the buildings that make you feel like you’ve gone back in time but the lifestyle. The dusty roads with street markets selling fruits and meats and a slowed down pace of life everywhere. I could imagine how this place was during the silk road times. I was definitely off the beaten path of where many western tourists visit as it was in this town I got the most stares and pictures of me holding babies. Coming from Beijing this was different to how I was treated as an ordinary person there. I did not feel I was trying to be hustled anywhere in Kaifeng.
After my arrival in Kaifeng, I spent the remainder of the day exploring the small ramshackled streets of the old town. There were many grand buildings in the city walls that gave the impression of authenticity of being once a part of an imperial grounds but they were mostly fake. There were a few buildings that were actually original there.
Kaifeng’s Night Market
Around evening I was introduced to my first amazing Chinese food experience: Kaifeng’s Night Market. Around 6 PM, one of the streets near the twin lakes opens up to cater street food or “Shaokao” (barbecue) to the residents of Kaifeng. The night market here was fully traditional. The grilled mutton was not the ground skewers you would get in the city but real greasy lamb meat with fat. The squids on the stick were larger and the coconut milk more milkier. It was the best, and cheapest, night market I have visited in China so far.
Kaifeng by Night
Kaifeng at night was an attraction itself. All the old temples, the old structures, bridges and the fake buildings as well are lined and illuminated with LEDs. It can look a little hokey at first but considering during the day it is a dusty town where visibility is low you can really see the size of the ancient old town by viewing its lights at night. It looks beautiful as well around the water where the lights of the buildings reflect into the black lakes. All around the lakes are young, aspiring street musicians dressed in period costumes performing, for free, traditional Chinese music. It has a tinge of romantic beauty.
The next day I received a taste of what real Song Dynasty imperial life was like at Kaifeng Fu. Inside the old town is an even smaller recreation of an imperial court. Filled within are actors and actresses, about a hundred dressed just as they would during the Song Dynasty. It was great fun if you don’t mind the other Chinese tourists tainting the experience with loudspeaker groups and the performers periodically checking their cell phones. After I experienced the recreated ancient life I walked across the old town and paid a visit to Iron Pagoda park where a beautiful pagoda stands tall above lotus-bloomed lakes. The walk there followed a canal which passed most of the other major attractions in the city that I didn’t pay to get in or stop at. I took a bus back from the Park to my hostel and called it a day. The next morning I checked out and decided I would walk out from the old town and back to the bus station. stopping by on the way at the free Municipal Museum to have a look at the artifacts it housed. The displays were a bit disappointing, I was hoping to see a horde of the the amazing Song Dynasty porcelain I was so eager about but sadly, the largest collection of this porcelain lays outside of China in Taiwan, taken when the Republic broke with the Communists.
I enjoyed every bit of Kaifeng. Charms lay within those old town city walls where people worked hard to remember a past which has largely been destroyed or forgotten. Its people aimed to make ancient China feel real to its visitors and could do with alot more attention by Western tourists wanting to get a hit of the ‘real thing’. Kaifeng to me remains a symbol of historic China.