Monday, October 19, 2009


There are clear blue skies over Kaifeng when we arrive in the morning. It's a small low-rise city with old walls, a remnant of the days when it was the capital of the Song dynasty days about a thousand years ago. The ancient city was built too closely to the Yangtze though - and was repeatedly flooded. It now lies buried beneath the existing modern city. We've come here principally to get an extension on our visa from the lovely people at the local Public Security Bureau - it takes two working days rather than the usual five here - and it sounds like a fairly ordinary and manageable place to visit. So, first things first, we troop down to the PSB with our passports, photocopies and phrasebook. There's a dedicated desk for foreigners and the woman is cheerful and friendly and looks like she has nothing else to do. Bingo. She too has a phrasebook, and we manage to communicate the essentials well enough. Come back tomorrow to collect, no problem.
As the city centre has some surviving old hutong (alleyways), we decide to do what we do best - go for a wander. There's a fairly large Muslim quarter here and another sign that we've come north is the amount of fresh bread for sale. In northern China the diet is traditionally based around wheat, i.e. bread and noodles. On one long meandering street we pass a pagoda-style mosque, a big old church (looking disused), and a newly restored Buddhist temple. There had been a synagogue here too, but it's been replaced by the People's Hospital No. 4. Muslims and Jews came into China initially along the old Silk Road, traders and craftsmen who were encouraged to settle here. The Muslims, called Hui, look like Han Chinese, but the women cover their hair with a headscarf or what looks like a lilac baker's hat whilst many of the men and young boys wear muslim caps. Inside the temple complex we watch a grandmother lead her daughter and grandson in the rituals of prayer and incense-burning before a shrine. The old lady does so with gusto, whilst her youngsters follow clumsily.
There's a street market stretching for a kilometre selling housewares, clothes and fresh food. The socks are cheap, but last only one day. Fresh bread is being sold hot and up by the university students are queuing for bacon and egg sandwiches. Mmmmm. We head for one of the city parks and are glad we invested in fake student cards in Bangkok. There's a discount on the entrance fee. Entrance charges are applied everywhere in China and it's a real pain for the tight-arsed budget travellers that we are. We have paid to enter villages, temples, museums, and now a city park. And the fees are very high. This applies to Chinese tourists too and it can quickly add up. Out of necessity we are having to be a little more selective about what we see and where we go, which is no bad thing really.
The other highlight in Kaifeng is the nightly food market in the city centre where the main street is taken over by hundreds of stalls. We are mesmerised by the noodle-makers - young guys who are constantly kneading dough, stretching and pulling, twisting it and producing long strings of noodles that are then tossed casually into huge steaming pans. They're delicious.
We return to the Public Security Bureau to collect our passports with the visa extensions slapped inside. On we go......

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