Beauty Means Business
Despite its tourist-trap window dressing there’s always something new to discover in the tortuous alleyways of Pingyao, Shanxi
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pingyao is a surprising diamond in the bleak loess plateau of northwestern China’s Shanxi Province. Despite being one of China’s most-visited ancient walled cities, the cacophonous hassle of tour groups can be avoided almost entirely by visiting Pingyao off-season, especially in the chilly northern fall, when you’ll be treated to the city at both its bitterest and most serene.
Belying the promising sign (“Our hotel is doing the business”), the Yuan Tai Mao Hostel was deserted on arrival; admittedly, it was around seven in the morning. Despite the absence of any other guests (or staff) throughout our stay, the chain-smoking proprietor Cao informed us the 260 yuan (US$40) per-night deluxe room wouldn’t be ready for several hours. Perhaps that was because the housekeeping had fled town. This Pingyao hotel was strictly business – no frills.
Hunger was a pressing concern for a pair of travelers who had spent 16 hours on a sleeper train with a buffet carriage that inexplicably closed at 11. Thus we hit the narrow streets in search of food and a smidgen of early-morning adventure.
At such a benighted hour, Pingyao’s streets are populated by wizened local seniors and equally wizened feral dogs – all of whom seemed to have already had breakfast. As with most tourist traps, the best food is away from the main drag – helpfully demarcated in Pingyao with cast-iron posts. These also have the additional function of blocking access to the profusion of tourist golf carts that zip through the quiet alleys, honking forlornly for business.
Maddening distractions like these, and the identical shops hawking exactly the same “antiques” and Maomorabilia can annoy any visitor. But the clear blue skies, sound of birdsong and near-absence of demolition noise and debris demonstrate how easy it is to completely write an area off based on first impressions.
The city’s imposing, 600-year-old, 10-meter high walls, complete with watchtowers and gates at all four points of the compass, loom over the surrounding buildings and gladden the heart. It is this square mile that’s the main attraction.
Pingyao is constantly reminding you – as if it even needed to –that it’s a city of history. It is one of the rare places in urban China where you’ll actually need to take to the rooftops to glimpse the lofty cranes that signify “development.”
The city’s biggest claim to fame is that it became the chief silver depository along the former Ming and Qing dynasty trade routes. After the Rishengchang, the first piaohao – or remittance house – opened in 1823, the city soon housed 50 percent of China’s banking houses, perhaps explaining the presence of a quite enormous police station in the middle of such a quiet area. Pingyao soon became the Switzerland of Ming China: 800 years of peaceful civilization built on banking and defending itself against would-be robbers. Marauders and bandits probably took one look at the city’s impregnable walls and went straight for the next village.
Pingyao has consequently been in business for well over 1,000 years. Rishengchang however, along with the area’s other leading banks, collapsed a little over a century ago, leading the citizens who remained to face the turmoil of the twentieth century and, eventually, shift their focus to tourism.
The spectacularly intact walls, and everything else, including shops, temples, opulent residences and other feudal trappings, apparently survived the decade-long Cultural Revolution just by staying off the radar -- unlike the equally spectacular old quarter of the provincial capital Taiyuan, of which barely any trace now remains.
One ticket of 150 yuan (US$23) will get you a pass to all places of interest in the Old Town plus six kilometers of ancient wall.
Architecture buffs will be thrilled at the distinctive local construction style, which builds courtyard houses on progressive levels, with the rearmost and most prestigious lodgings built atop artificial caves, representative of traditional yaodong cave homes built into Shanxi’s loess plateau for centuries.
While old rambling temples and residences are all very well, the real magic of Pingyao lies in the joy of just going your own way, wandering the alleys and courtyards with their sloping clay roofs, where life seems to go on just as it did two hundred years ago: slowly and with little interest in the outside world.
Pingyao may be old but it’s growing up fast. My 2009 guidebook has the Da Mian Noodle House as a “Real China” kind-of place, offering pork soup with egg (six yuan, US$1) on an improvised, Chinese-only chalkboard. Now it’s eight yuan (US$1.25), there’s a bound picture menu (complete with the usual backpacker fare, like banana pancakes and burgers) and bike rentals. The same was true that evening with the Shanxi specialty restaurant, where Lonely Planet economics were again at work.
I had to go out to the Zhangbi Underground Castle – a 1,400 year-old warren of defensive tunnels in a cliff behind Zhangbi Cun, a youthful 800-year-old village – to find true peacefulness and proper Shanxi food.
The dishes - salted kelp with garlic, wild roots salad, a spicy Shanxi tomato dip (fanqiejiang, reminiscent of salsa but entirely local), a thick pork stew – kept arriving, preceded by a big cold bottle of the local beer, Xinghuacun, a strong, hop-heavy pilsner which nixes the watery Tsingtao most expats drink by miles. The entire feast cost about 40 yuan (US$6.25) – next year, it will probably cost twice that.
The tunnels themselves were (literally) cool and completely deserted yet not at all creepy. Well-lit, signposted routes almost recall Pingyao’s own beguiling town planning; it looks simple, which is why it’s easy to lose your way.
This is the enchanting spell that Pingyao can weave – you suddenly find yourself alone, in the silent, crumbling streets, with nary a human voice to offer comfort. Suddenly you feel how vulnerable, lonely and anonymous the ancient former residents of this tiny fortified city were in years gone by.ê
There are up to 10 China Eastern Airlines flights a day from Beijing, and about half that number from Shanghai, to Taiyuan airport, 10 miles from Pingyao’s walled city. Trains from all over China stop at Taiyuan’s train station, including two daily expresses from Beijing (four hours). There are also direct, slower services to Pingyao’s small train station from Taiyuan, Beijing and several other cities. Buses to Pingyao depart every hour from Taiyuan’s main bus station.
You’ll likely be spending no more than a couple of nights in tiny Pingyao, so you’ll want to get your accommodation right and avoid hotel-hopping. The English-speaking Harmony Guesthouse offers banana pancakes and helpful local expertise. Starting out at over 1,000 yuan (US$157) a room, the city’s highest-end Yunjinchen Hotel offers Ming opulence and ample creature comforts, but seeing as everyone in Pingyao seems to live in an 800-year-old leafy siheyuan courtyard with swallow-eaved rooftops, lacquered furniture and ornate carved fittings, you may be able to spend that money better elsewhere.
A 150-yuan (US$23) all-you-can-see ticket actually offers underwhelming value: the two-day ticket buys you the privilege of walking the walls and entering (once) any or all of its 18 designated “historic tourist sites”. Better value in every sense to rent a bicycle for 10 yuan and cycle to the Buddhist Shuanglin temple, admission 25 yuan (US$4) to take in the very real and utterly captivating Song and Yuan iconography.
You can also peek into the private life of Qing aristocracy at the Wang Castle, a 123-courtyard fortified residence which is impressive, if repetitive. Behind that, there’s a remarkable taste of how the other half lived – and continues to live – at the still-occupied yaodong cave dwellings in the shadow of the castle walls.
Better still, time your arrival to coincide with the Pingyao International Photography Festival in September, a week-long curate’s egg of collections. This eclectic event with no admission fee will easily consume an afternoon, with dozens of different exhibitions and stalls offering a range of photography from the unexpected – a North Korean photo diary of the Korean War; an attempt to document the facial diversity of the Han Chinese people – to the insightful-photojournalist Xie Jun’s Impression/The 1990s, a collection of black-and-white urban vignettes that ranges from the bizarre and humorous to the petty and tragic, accrued from China’s Reform and Opening-up era.
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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