Visit Pingyao: The Town That Time Forgot
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Once upon a time, before the glittering skyscrapers rose up, China was a land of elegant courtyard houses and brightly painted Taoist temples. Once upon a time, spindly and ornate watch towers pierced the sky and red paper lanterns crisscrossed streets too narrow to squeeze a car down.
In much of modern China -in Beijing’s hutongs and Xi’an’s terracotta warriors- you can still catch glimpses of this world that was. But it is only in Pingyao that you can walk the same streets, sleep in same imperial beds, and, for a little while at least, live a life that is now mostly forgotten.
Pingyao is no ghost town; it is a living city inhabited by 50,000 people. Founded an incredible 2,700 years ago, it is the best-preserved example of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture and has consequently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It can be reached via a straightforward train journey from Beijing or Xi’an (although travellers who value their comfort should shell out for the high-speed option).
The City Walls
Pingyao’s city walls are the first thing to greet its visitors. Remarkably intact for their age, they encircle the town on all sides. Arranged in a pattern that has given rise to the moniker “Turtle City”, they total six kilometres in length.
Every trip to Pingyao should begin with a slow amble along the walls, looking out on the sloping rooftops flecked with the dusky pink of the cherry blossom trees. Start at one of the four watchtowers which guard the town and clamber up to take in the city from the sky.
Sights & Temples
If you love ancient Chinese architecture and the temples of the Taoists and Buddhists, then Pingyao is the place for you. Richly deserving of its reputation as a living museum, the city has around 4,000 buildings built in the Ming or Qing style. Think graceful open courtyards, delicately carved woodwork, and strikingly ornate roof decorations.
During the Qing dynasty Pingyao became established as China’s financial hub, and you can still visit the Rishengchang – the first bank in China – which once controlled half the country’s silver trade and only closed its doors in 1914.
Other jewels include the 18-metre high City Tower, which is painted in a kaleidoscope of colours and straddles the main thoroughfare, and the Temple of Literature, which is the guardian of the last remaining Confucian Imperial Examination Paper.
A short bus ride from the old city will also take you to the Qiao Family Compound, which comprises of so many opulent buildings that it boggles belief that this was once a banker’s family home.
Indeed, every corner turned in Pingyao reveals a new delight, and the only way to make the most of the town is spend several days following the bicycle-mounted locals down every one of the narrow cobbled streets. Go explore, and revel in getting lost in history.
When every building is postcard pretty, staying in Pingyao is a delight. For the best of the best, however, head to the Harmony or the Tian Yuan Kui Guesthouses. Both epitomise the charming open-courtyard style of Pingyao’s buildings, and the rooms are resplendent with traditional kang beds, where bedding is piled upon a platform which stretches the entire length of the room.
Expect the most spacious – and most comfortable – sleep of your life!
Food & Drink
To eat well in Pingyao you need look no further than the nearest market stall. Ask the owner to serve you up fresh wantuozi or wantuo and they’ll be only too happy to oblige. If you want to get off the streets, the food in the Tian Yuan Kui guesthouse is excellent, as is the charming Sakura Café.
Don’t leave Pingyao without sampling the local tipple either. Yellow wine lives up to its name, and is made from sticky rice and wine yeast. It requires something of a sweet tooth, but (according to the locals) has a variety of medicinal benefits. You can find it at Changshengyuan, an ancient store which has been brewing the wine for over three hundred years.