"Wo xiang liang zhang piao dao Pingyao!" It's another tongue-twister but we pull it off and the woman behind the counter gives us two train tickets to Pingyao, in Shanxi, a province near to Beijing. This little place has a well-preserved old walled town and it's been used in countless films, too many to count apparently. It's a long journey - a whole night and day on the train from Chengdu and we arrive in the dark. Even then we can detect huge piles of snow everywhere. Our guesthouse is in an old Qing courtyard house and we have a small but cozy room with a stone platform bed. It's no more uncomfortable than all the other rock-hard beds we've had in China, but the place is a little more atmospheric than we're used to.
And so is the town. In the cold light of day, very cold light, we wander the quiet streets and really feel like we've travelled back in time. No wonder the film crews like the place. Unlike so many other old places, this one seems to have escaped the excesses of the normal Chinese makeover. Inside the city walls are small paved streets, thankfully free of vehicles except those pesky electric bicycles that seem to be all the rage. They seem to make a real difference to our immediate environment though - no noise and no exhaust fumes (those are generated at the power stations elsewhere), but it seems a pity that no-one actually pedals anymore. One day they'll be wondering why everyone is so unfit in modern China.
Everything is grey in the weak winter sunlight, but that's probably because all the buildings are built in grey brick. Doorways into courtyards reveal snippets of daily life - washing on lines, bicycles being repaired, snow and ice beng cleared away. It is too cold though - a wind howls down the lanes and much of the time the buildings put us in the shade. We can only stand it for so long. Gayle spots a shop selling tights and gets a pair to wear under her trousers. They're one-size-fits-all so the next day I get a pair as well. Wow, what a difference it makes. Nothing can stop us now.
Our onward train to Beijing is another night train which we take with Silva, a young German who has also been staying at our guesthouse. Silva is teaching German at a private boarding school in Beijing. She tells us how the children get up at 6.30 am for exercises before classes begin at 7. In the evenings after tea, they continue studies until 9pm. On Friday afternoons they are collected by their parents and return on Sunday afternoons, but this free time is often taken up by further private tuition. It's a real insight into how much pressure these children are under to achieve. In one newspaper though, there is a discussion on job opportunities for graduates. Over six million students will graduate next year and there's a real struggle for good jobs. The worldwide economic recession has slowed China's growth rate and now the government wants to encourage the people to spend more money and consume more Chinese goods.
We talk about these things before finally turning in for the night in our super-warm carriage. I'm beginning to wonder if wearing ladies' tights is such a good idea after all....