Monday, September 5, 2011

Dusty, Rustic, and Worn with Age Appeal: Pingyao, China


Destination:  Pingyao, China (Shanxi Province)

Number of Days Spent: 2 days

Where we stayed:  Harmony Guesthouse – Set in a 300 year old residence, the courtyard and architecture are worth the stay alone. The owners are friendly and the beds in the rooms are huge platform style beds that practically cover the entire room. Not the softest beds, but quite unique.

Best restaurant:  For cheaper and more authentic eats, head outside the walls. We walked out to a little noodle place just outside the Upper West Gate and pulled up the ‘traditional’ plastic kiddie chair for a cheap helping of noodle soup. Cart vendors can also be excellent value and filling.  


Best of: The Wang Family Courtyard was impressive albeit a little repetitive. Wandering around the cobblestone streets of Pingyao proved to be interesting as well. 

Most Memorable:  Christianity is a relatively new religion to China and while most ‘churches’ are of the underground variety it was interesting to stumble upon one that not only displayed its function proudly, but had an active congregation. As we were strolling around town on a Sunday morning, we came across this church. A couple of people noticed us outside taking pictures and checking it out and invited us in for worship. The service was more in the style of Buddhism whereby people come and go as they please while a preacher gives the daily lessons. Some were seated on benches while others came and went taking time to pray and give alms. It was interesting to see how their style of worship has been adapted to what was ‘normal’ in their culture. We dropped a few Mao bucks in the pot on the way out and thanked the people that had graciously invited us in. 


Pingyao’s history is rooted in the financial sector. Pingyao is home to China’s first bank and checking system. The merchants were looking for a way to exchange silver more quickly and efficiently rather than haul it all over the place. A single document proved lighter than 4000 silver coins and thus the bank and check system was born. That original bank is long gone but it did establish Pingyao’s importance as a financial center for all of China for a century.

The financial centers are now closed, but Pingyao has found new life in the form of tourism. Widely regarded as the best preserved walled city from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the city looks, and acts, much as it did over 400 years ago. No cars are allowed within the city walls and the size of the old city – about a mile square – make it a pleasure to walk. Carts of goods are still largely transported by animal drawn carts (although motorbikes are slowly invading). The entire town within the walls has this dusty, rustic, worn with age appeal. There may be no major sites to see in this little town halfway between Xian and Beijing, but the city is a site in and of itself and worthy of a days worth of wandering and exploring.




Aside from the well preserved town, there are a couple of noteworthy sites slightly further afield. The guys who run Harmony guesthouse can arrange a day trip out to see the Zhangbi Underground Castle and the Wang residence in the same day, otherwise it will likely take the better part of two days if you want to try a combo of public transport and shared taxis to visit the two sites.

The Wang residence, more so a castle than home, is a massive collection of over 50 courtyards and 1000 buildings. As nearby Pingyao prospered, so did some of its residents. Many of the more affluent ones began to build their own little compounds outside of the city. Wang’s Family Compound is one of the larger ones and while the architecture, style, and carvings are impressive – it can all be a little redundant after you have wandered through the first 50 buildings or so.


Just past the Wang residence is a Confucian temple where you can climb to the top of the walls and get a good view of the compound. It’s hard to imagine that all these buildings, which looks more like a village than a home, belong to one family.


The other stop on the tour is the Zhangbi Underground Castle. Contrary to the name, the Underground castle is a collection of tunnels and basic rooms built right under the existing village. The purpose was to help defend the city against possible invaders but the invaders never came so the tunnels were never used for their intended purpose. It’s an interesting tour showing the various uses for each room and how the residents could enter the tunnel through hidden entrances and go from one end of town to the other undetected. Perhaps just as interesting is the current sleepy village above ground. Since we were on a ‘tour’ we didn’t have a chance to wander the streets too much but it looked to have some potential for exploration.  


Pingyao may not be the highlight of a trip to China, but it does provide a welcome distraction from the rapidly changing China that has consumed most of the nation. Modernization, pollution and overcrowding plague most Chinese cities these days but Pingyao has managed to remain low key off the developer’s radar for now.

Taking our last train ride in China, we hopped on board for our final destination – the capital, heart, and soul of modern day China – Beijing. 

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