On a recent trip to from Xi’an to Beijing, I took the opportunity to stop off at Pingyao 平遥, one of China’s best-preserved Ming and Qing dynasty-era walled towns. Although now a major tourist destination (and a UNESCO World Heritage site) Pingyao still retains a run-down charm in places, with grey brick courtyard buildings hiding comfy kang beds, tasty north China food on offer and the smell of coal (the Shanxi province’s most important industry) lingering in the air. With around 100,000 people (about 20% of whom still live within the old town walls), it’s a relatively (by China standards) small and interesting place to spend a night or two.
We travelled by high-speed train (link opens train ticket booking site) from Xi’an North Station 西安北站 to Pingyao Gu Cheng 平遥古城站, located 11 kilometres outside of the town. Ask your hotel for pick up options as there were no taxis there when we arrived. This high-speed line has reduced the journey from Xi’an from around 12 hours to a mere three hours, making it much easier to visit the town on route to Beijing or even as an overnight from Xi’an itself. The onward journey to Beijing West Station 北京西站 is also similarly reduced by the high-speed train at just five hours.
What this also means, however, is that it’s now even easier for others to visit this beautiful place so you won’t be alone in soaking up Pingyao’s sights, sounds and smells (the extensive car and coach parks that ring the outside of the old wall, in the new town, offer a terrifying confirmation of how busy it must get). Still, we stayed two nights over a Monday and although there were plenty of people on the main central streets (the majority of which have been renovated and now house tourist shops) we were practically the only people walking on the old wall, which was a great place to start a tour of the town.
Things to see
Like many northern towns, Pingyao’s walls were central to its defenses and are nowadays a key part of the town’s charms. You buy a ticket for access to both the walls and the various buildings of interest around the town (you don’t need to buy a ticket just to stay or walk within the old walls). At 120 RMB it’s pricey although my parents got tickets free of charge because they’re both 60 (present your passport to prove this).
The walls were originally constructed of tamped earth (and there are still some sections where you can see this original method) before beginning to be replaced with bricks in the Ming dynasty around 1370. They’re apparently built in the shape of a turtle (towers representing the head and tail at the north and south ends with multiple towers on the west and east sides representing the feet). We got on at the north gate and walked around to the south gate (about 3 km), peering into people’s houses below on one side and into the impressive moat on the other. Keep a look out for the weird dioramas in each of the watch towers, depicting scenes of life in old Pingyao.
Pingyao’s charm lies in its ancient streets and because it’s small (just a mile squared) it’s easy to while away the hours simply walking around. Many of the central streets are pedestrianised but it’s good to try to get off the main streets to explore the back alleys. Nearly every building in the old town dates from the Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties and most are still inhabited by locals and (friendly) dog gangs.
During the day it’s inevitably quite busy but it’s at night and early in the morning that Pingyao comes into its own, the dark back streets and chill-air adding a desolate, middle-of-nowhere feel that reminds you how far you travelled on the high-speed train from Xi’an.
Many buildings are in a bad state of repair and you do wonder how long it is before the whole old town has been renovated. I just hope that if and when this happens they don’t ‘Disney-fy’ it too much…
Rishengchang Exchange House
At one point in its history, Pingyao was the centre of trade and banking in China, establishing the country’s first draft bank in 1823, the Rishengchang, before eventually becoming home to more than 50% of China’s draft banks. You can visit the Rishengcheng’s original location (in a traditional courtyard building) with your entry ticket and find out information (in English) about how it operated. In its heyday, the bank had 43 branches in key cities in China as well as in Japan, Singapore and Russia before collapsing in 1932.
It’s interesting to think about the impact this small town had and to see how courtyard-style buildings were used for business. I particularly liked the fact that some of the back offices had kang beds in so that business could be conducted in a warm, snug environment – quite like the idea of doing my work from a heated bed I have to admit. And, having just read The Opium War by Julia Lovell, a fascinating account of the impact the ‘Opium War’ between Britain and China has had on modern Chinese history, I was also intrigued to see a collection of opium pipes on display, which were used by bank employees and clients alike. Imagine having a cheeky toke after a particularly satisfying client meeting…
One of the most lovely aspects of our trip to the north of China was the abundance of swifts swooping around in the afternoon and early evenings, as the spring sun set and the heat of the day faded. In Pingyao, these cheeky little birds take their aerobatic routine seriously, practically dive-bombing tourists along Ming Qing Street (one of the main thoroughfares in the town). They honestly come within inches of your head as they fly up and down the length of the street, apparently just for the sheer fun of it. Brilliant!
What to eat
As with many tourist towns, Pingyao’s restaurants can be accused of being over expensive and of sub-par quality, although we didn’t encounter anywhere especially deserving of that reputation. For the most part, we ate cheap steamed buns and in ordinary-looking street-side restaurants, as well as at our hotel restaurant (more about which below).
The town is famous for its Pingyao beef 平遥牛肉, which is traditionally marinated and comes sliced and served cold. It tastes a lot like corned beef and is pretty delicious. We tried it hot in a tomato and potato stew at a couple of places (which generally lowers the price of this quite expensive dish) as well as buying it cold, sliced and by the gram from a stand outside a shop. About 300 grams cost us around 45 RMB and it made a tasty, protein-rich snack as we wandered around the town.
Where to stay
We stayed at the beautiful Yi De Hotel, housed in courtyard house built in 1736 and located just inside the walls. It’s an easy walk from all of the main sites of the town and features lovely comfortable kang beds – the perfect place to rest up and imagine life in old Pingyao. Staff are attentive and well-organised, even getting in touch with us before our arrival to find out whether we needed a pick-up. The hotel’s restaurant is also very good (and beautiful), serving local-style dishes and a nice range of alcoholic beverages.