After a frenetic 48 hours in China’s Capital, Matt, my parents and I boarded a high speed train* and sped to Píngyáo 平遥 – an ancient city in central Shanxi province, approximately half-way between Beijing and Xi’an, and the second stop on our four-city tour of Northern China.
* Bizarrely, when booking the train tickets we were told that the journey from Beijing to Pingyao had sold out – but, that we could book tickets to the stop after Pingyao and get off a stop earlier at Pingyao. Nope, we didn’t understand how that worked either, but that’s what we did!
While I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Beijing with it’s delicious roast duck and imperial grandeur, there is something particularly special about exploring parts of China which veer off the tourist track and Píngyáo – despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 – was the ‘wild card’ part of our trip. No-one we knew had been (most hadn’t even heard of it) but we’d seen a glowing review in the guidebook so decided to stop off and take a look.
A Courtyard Hotel…
The sun had set by the time our train pulled into the station and the evening air was chilly. We lugged our suitcases past a cacophony of touting taxi drivers and chattering travelers into the mini-van sent by our hotel.
So, I don’t normally dedicate space in this blog to hotels; however, I’m going to make an exception here as this is the first time that we opted for a more ‘authentic’ accommodation experience. Normally when travelling in China we aim for standard 4-5* hotels as they can be very cheap here (though quality varies significantly). This time we went for a local-style 3*, ‘City Wall Old House’ (also known as ‘Ji’s’ Residence’), a 280-year-old courtyard-style building in the heart of Píngyáo Old Town. Our room (see below) was small but cosy; furnished in the traditional Chinese style with a hard (but comfortable) bed built up on bricks and topped with a little wooden tea table.
Having checked in we were ushered into the dining room and presented with a simple, hand-written menu from which we ordered some noodle soup, steamed green vegetables and – on the recommendation of the staff – a plate of cold-sliced cured Píngyáo beef; a local specialty with a strong flavour and tender texture (a bit like corned beef). Apparently, when the Empress Dowager Cixi (the same one who featured in my Beijing blog) passed through Píngyáo she fell head-over-heels for this stuff and it was subsequently elevated in status to an imperial dish! It really was delicious.
A view from the City Walls…
The next morning – after a curious but very generous ‘western style breakfast (which included chicken nuggets, fries, eggs and fruit-bread?!) – we ventured out to explore the city. Píngyáo – founded in the 14th Century – is an exceptionally well-preserved Han Chinese city, having miraculously escaped the comprehensive destruction of the Cultural Revolution.
Our visit coincided with a Chinese public holiday (Qīngmíng jié 清明节, or ‘Tomb Sweeping Festival’) so the streets were crowded with a homologous mass of tour groups and street-vendors. Getting up onto the city walls early seemed like the best plan of action (tickets to climb the walls were around 150rmb, so there were far fewer people making it a great way to take in the city). Built in the Ming Dynasty to resist invaders, the walls are 10 metres high, 3-5 metres wide at the top and over 6000 metres in circumference. In addition to the six gates and four turrets, there are 72 watch towers and 3000 crenels, which represent the 72 disciples and 3000 students of Confucius – of course!
From a higher vantage point we looked out over an earthy labyrinth of streets and alleyways. The busy main streets were lined with colourful canopies as far as the eye could see and behind these lay a gray grid of residential buildings, tightly packed and neatly structured, with flat roofs and stumpy chimneys.
A view from street level…
Whether you look down at Píngyáo from the wall, or take in the view from the red-lantern-lined streets, it’s clear that the city has avoided succumbing to modern development. The weather-beaten wood-panelled shopfronts had uniform black-and-gold signage and there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight – although there were some lovely independent coffee shops so Matt and I managed to get our caffeine fix (phew!).
The main streets were dotted with small specialty stores selling trinkets and souvenirs. Cured beef, polished lacquer-ware and hand-made shoes are much sought after (I’m now the proud owner of a beautiful navy-blue lacquer jewelry box).
However, by far and away the most common thing that people seemed to be purchasing – perhaps due to it being year of the rooster – were tiny little clip on chickens that could be attached to your hair! Sadly though, you could also buy the real thing, in an unnatural shade of fluorescent yellow, pink or green.
Off the main streets, the crumbling houses are muddy and somewhat dilapidated, but still hold a sense of elegance – especially in the light of the afternoon sun (I love the photo directly below). The whole city seemed covered in a thick layer of dust, which we heard was a result of the nearby mining industry; it hung in the air and you could almost taste it.
The Wall Street of Ancient China…
During the 19th and early 20th centuries Píngyáo was the number one financial hub in China, and as such the city played a key role in the economic development of Shanxi province during this time. You can see evidence of this affluent past in some of the more ornate buildings, and many of the tourist attractions capitalise on this financial heritage, such as the Rìshēngchāng (日升昌) Financial House Museum – China’s first bank, which eventually expanded to 57 branches nationwide.
We also visited the Tongxinggong Armed Escort Museum (同兴公镖局), established in 1849 by Wang Zhengqing – a martial arts master who was then famous around China. The Escort agency offered secure long-distance transport of gold and silver across the mainland by road or water. In the museum you can see examples of the weaponry used by the escorts and learn about the process of transport. We didn’t stay too long though as it was incredibly busy!
As one of around 0.25 million laowei (foreigners) living in Shanghai, Matt and I don’t generally attract much attention – especially in the cosmopolitan Former French Concession where we live and in the Lujiazui business district where I work. That said, I’m usually conscious of being the only blonde in the room (or metro carriage/ shopping centre/ restaurant…), and the further I venture towards the outskirts of the city, the more this becomes apparent. I become an anomaly and the subject of not-so-subtle stares (sometimes accompanied with a huge grin, loud ‘hello!’ and self-conscious giggle, especially from children!).
Step outside of Shanghai however, into a city which – despite it’s relative size – doesn’t register on the radar of most people, and this sense of ‘otherness’ becomes amplified. I am usually the only blonde in an 100-mile radius! Cue de-facto celebrity status and a steady stream of invitations to be a part of a strangers’ holiday photo album. Matt and I had already experienced this in our visits to South-East China and more recently in Huangshan. While in Píngyáo, my mum and dad got a first taste of insta-fame… As you can see from the slideshow below, they were naturals!
We spent 2 days in Píngyáo and managed to squeeze in most of the sights without the help of a tour guide. There are a couple of temples (notably Confucius Temple and Shuānglín Temple 双林寺) that we chose not to visit – mainly because we had overdosed on temples in Beijing! – but both were highly recommended.
“…imposing city walls, atmospheric alleys, ancient shopfronts, traditional courtyard houses, some excellent hotels and hospitable locals, all in a compact area. You can travel the length and breadth of China and not find another town like it. In fact, when you discover Píngyáo you may never want to leave.” – Discover China, Lonely Planet