Only a few of China’s walled towns survive intact. Pingyao is considered to be the best of them. In the Qing dynasty, the city became the home of Chinese banking, and many of the its traditional commercial buildings date from the 18t century. To visit Pingyao is to see history on the ground.
Pingyao – a Trip Back in Time
To see some authentic Chinese history, take a trip with a difference to Pingyao in Shanxi Province. Founded over 2700 years ago in the West Zhou Dynasty, down the years this ancient town has retained its character. It is known as the best preserved of the few walled cities of China still to be seen.
The Ming Dynasty walls, built around 1370, are immense moated fortifications ringing the old city, with towers at each of the four comers, watch towers along their lengths, and six barbican gates. The shape of its walls and gates is said to resemble a turtle, and the city is nicknamed the Turtle City.
In the 1800s, during the Qing dynasty, the city became the banking centre of China, resulting in beautiful traditional buildings raised to house the banks and the banking families. The main shopping street is called MingQing Street and the shops all remain as they have been for centuries.
Residents have struggled to maintain their own little pieces of the ancient city, until in 1997 it acquired World Heritage status, and then a conservation plan, agreed by the Province authorities in partnership with the Global Heritage Fund. Everyone is keen to retain all the features of the city that display such a wealth of social history, while introducing developments that will bring new opportunities and raise the standard of living of the poorer inhabitants. One of the aims of the development planning is to introduce some green areas in the dusty city.
In the 21st century, Pingyao gives the visitor the chance to take a breather from modern life and see the way things were. When you arrive, be sure to buy an inclusive ticket for the city’s attractions.
You can walk the walls and have a bird’s eye view of the city and its ancient courtyards. You can visit beautiful old temples and some of the grand residences of the 18th century bankers who ran their empires from this “Wall Street in China”. You can tour the magnificent building of the Rischengchang Bank, the largest and grandest of its time when it was constructed in 1823, and famous for connecting the whole wide business world. You can browse the traditional shops in Mingqing Street and watch paper and lacquer craftsmen at work before you buy your souvenirs.
The city has an ancient theater where the stage stands above an auditorium full of tables and delicately carved chairs for the audience to take tea as they watch the performance. In 2007 year a local Chinese Opera Company was launched there.
For a day trip from the city, try the nearby Shuanglin Monastery. One of the motorcycle taxis will take you there. Here you can see a number of rooms grouped around three courtyards. They are home to some 2000 Bhuddist statues of terracotta or wood, mainly from the Song and Yuan Dynasties, which came before Ming.
Another trip out is to the Qiayo Family Mansion, about 40 km north of Pingyao. First built in 1756, this compound now has over 300 rooms, with six main courtyards and many smaller ones. Its 10 meter parapet walls were designed to stop unwelcome visitors and provide a haven for the extended Qiayo family from the busy world outside. The whole area covers about two acres of land, the house itself filling about half of that. Its beautiful artifacts include gold murals and tablets, and you can still see some wonderful carving on both wood and stone.
To get to Pingyao you can fly to Taiyuan airport some 97 kilometers away, and then take the train or inquire about road transport from your hotel when you book. No cars are allowed into the old city at Pingyao, but you and your luggage will be transferred to a motor cycle tax and taken to your hotel. Most of the locals use push bikes: bike hire is also available for visitors.
In the late evenings the city is magical. Colored lights appear on the towers and gates high above. Shopping streets and courtyards are lined with red lanterns. Window shoppers are silhouetted against brightly lit interiors.
Restaurants are buzzing with tourists trying the local delicacies, such as Pingyao Beef, a traditional dish that is acclaimed throughout China. Western style food and drink is available at the Sakura Bar if you really feel the need.
But be warned — Pingyao still follows the old ways — it is an early to bed, early to rise town.
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