Pingyao 平遥, located in Shanxi 山西 Province (not Shaanxi 陕西, where Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors are), has been on my list of ‘must-see’ places in China ever since the list began. (Haerbin Ice Festival & Huangshan-Yellow Mountain are still on it). So with a ready traveling companion and I already making the trip to Beijing, I decided to add in a stop over in Pingyao.
Pingyao is one of China’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. It was the first banking center of China, with its heyday in the 19th Century. The town quickly fell into poverty and therefore escaped modernization and development, which helped to preserve the city’s original structures. Pingyao boasts its the only city with the original city wall still intact, and the only remaining original example of traditional Han Chinese architecture from the 18 and 19th Centuries. (Compare Lijiang, which was built by Naxi Minority of China, and has been largely reconstructed–and expanded.) While I won’t pretend to believe that Pingyao is all the original or that none has been ‘restored’, Pingyao still maintains its charm. While we were there it was quiet, peaceful, picturesque, and often times we could be walking all alone down an ancient alleyway–something unheard of in China’s metropolises.
We took the 1163 overnight train from Beijing directly to Pingyao and we had pickup service waiting for us, provided by our hostel, Pingyao Zhengjia Int’l Youth Hostel (an HI Hostel, but no card required). This hostel was excellent: very friendly staff (but almost no English spoken), set in a traditional courtyard house, exceptionally clean, social atmosphere, great value, and all around nice place to stay–it was rated 2nd Best Hostel in Asia on Hostelworld.com.
The nearest airport is in Taiyuan, provincial capital of Shanxi, which is 2-hour bus ride away. To return to Shanghai, we took the bus to Taiyuan, then took a taxi to the airport. If you arrive at the Taiyuan Jinan Bus station, the bus to the airport stops directly across the road. If you go by taxi, put on the meter, then add 10kuai to the final fare, it should be about 30RMB. Be careful, be careful, be careful on the bus. There are some buses operating illegally around that region, and there are a gang of thieves who work the buses (and seem to have an agreement with the operators to turn a blind eye). I was a victim of this. This is now twice in <9 months I’ve had stuff stolen on a bus in China. Take good care of your stuff no matter how large, small, or worthless–you’ll miss it when its gone, and it will be, if you don’t watch out.
Then entrance ticket to Pingyao Ancient Town is 120RMB and includes entrance to more than 19 different attractions, including walking on top of the city wall. After about the first handful or so, most the attractions begin to look very similar. Except for the wall, the temples, and the church, most of the attractions are courtyard compounds used for different purposes: long front wall, 1 gate, opens into small entryway followed by a courtyard with rooms on each side and a large room at the back, with another courtyard behind that and on each side. This pattern then repeats for the depth of the property and at each place. It was a good method to prevent attackers and to maintain the inner sanctum of the business or family household. Both businesses and residential compounds had this layout.
Perhaps the highlight for me was chatting with an elderly couple who had been married for 45 years and who were eager to chat and show us their courtyard house. They were very proud of the fact that they had so many children who were now office workers in the modern city and had kids of their own–they had a grandson that was Eliana’s age. They also insisted on showing us that they had modernized their house to have indoor plumbing, including a washing machine!
In the day and a half Eliana and I were in Pingyao, we saw a number of the Ancient Town attractions:
Residence of Lei Lutai
Yingxun Gate (End of South Street to climb the wall)
Qinhan Gate (End of East Street to get off the wall)
1st Armed Escort Ageny in North China
China Chamber of Commerce Museum
Ri Sheng Chang
Then lunch at DeJuYuan Hotel/Restaurant
Ancient Government Building
Fengyi Gate (West Street Gate)
Ancient City Building (at night)
Chenghuang Miao (Daoist Temple)
Bai Chuang Tong
Yong Long Hao Lacquerware Shop
Full collection of pictures from the Pingyao & Beijing trip on Flickr