Pingyao, almost 600 kms southwest of Beijing or a mere 4 hours on a highspeed train, is considered to be one of China’s best preserved ancient towns and premier tourist attractions. Most people come for a day, and most tourists are Chinese. I was drawn by the iconic photos of stone lanes and red lanterns, and I was delighted to find that Pingyao was that and so much more! I lingered in Pingyao.
The first key attraction is the small walled city itself – the charming architecture, enduring culture and living history that make Pingyao one of the top UNESCO heritage sites celebrated in China. Strolling the intersecting main streets reveals the tourist shops by day…..
and the gorgeous red lanterns by night.
I had booked a guide, and Jonathon from Red Plum Tour showed me the three key attractions of Pingyao. Jonathon is a very professional guide, a really terrific young man, and a local Pingyou resident – I highly recommend him!
Possibly the most significant historical feature of Pingyao is the development of banking in China. Because robbers disrupted the flow of silver from the wealthy Pingyao merchants to other cities, paper money was created for the transit of wealth and hence the beginning of China’s paper monetary system. The setting has been preserved as a clever museum.
On to the temples – Buddhist, the Confucian and the City God. I lingered at the Confucian temple as I would soon head to Hefei to lecture, in part, on Confucian leadership.
A prominent symbol of Pingyao is the Gate Tower – there are six guarding the entrances and the center of the city.
Pingyao is a walled city, and the view from atop the wall is enchanting – a sweeping vista over layers of rooftops and down into family courtyards.
Forty thousand people live inside the 2600-year-old walls of Pingyao and have called it home for countless generations. The unchanging life of the locals just goes on around the tourists.
The red Jeep rocket launcher is the new way of celebrating weddings with firecrackers and fireworks – the only way having caused too many fires.
Pingyao is proud of a reputation for exceptional corned beef, sweet sorghum vinegar, and wheat noodles. With Jonathon, I tried them all!
Mian Shan (Mian Mountain), the second exceptional attraction of Pingyao, is 40 kms outside the city. An easy and scenic drive ends at the base of a mountain range, cut sharply by the Mian Shan canyon. A small road climbs up and along the side of the canyon, a river far below and temples hanging on the cliffs above.
Jonathon is climbing the chains that pilgrims had to climb before the zigzagging steps were built. The height gives a view of a different China in each direction.
The third exceptional attraction is the amazingly creative theatre performance Pingyao Impression celebrating the history of Pingyao. In a striking auditorium, the audience moves through the sets with the actors as the story unfolds around them. Thankfully Jonathon kept up a running explanation for me! I was hugely impressed by it all and deeply moved by the finale where young people from the Chinese diaspora came home to proudly claim the Pingyao that was in their blood and their hearts.
My hotel – the Pingyao Laochenggen Inn – is a former courtyard home – very small, very inexpensive, a little far from the action – like, where the food was, but the host was as helpful as he could possibly be when we didn’t share a language. Inside the city walls, nights were almost silent, mornings were heralded by roosters and bicycles. I’m glad I spent 5 nights there so that I could experience a little of life in the city.
When I’m adventuring, always I wonder what I should purchase as a small reminder that could fit in a traveler’s suitcase. Pingyao is famous for beautiful lacquered boxes and intricate paper cutting, but I chose red china lantern teacups that now sit on my desk in Oman.
Always I am captivated by the characters I capture. The little girl was in a group of school kids who were enormously proud volunteer tour guides on National Day.
Always I am intrigued by the details I find on close inspection.
Doors in China are always blocked by a large wooden bar at ground level to trip up evil spirits. Occasionally, the step is too high for some people. Clever solution!