We first laid eyes on Pingyao in a picture book about China late last year. The book listed 100 places in China to see within your lifetime, and a particular photo caught our imagination. It was of Pingyao, a UNESCO Heritage Site, hauntingly evocative with tight clusters of grey courtyard houses sporting elegant curved eaves and seductive with the promise of ancient Chinese history. We decided there and then that this 2,700 year old town was going on our bucket list.
Barely six months later, we were there, having first caught a flight from Singapore to Beijing, then a domestic flight to Taiyuan airport, followed by a 100km drive to our final destination. It was off the beaten track but well worth the trot.
Pingyao in Shanxi Province is special because it is the only complete walled city remaining in China. Inside the 12m thick city walls are mostly Ming and Ching Dynasty courtyard houses which are still inhabited today by its resident population of 20,000. Apart from the locals, it is crawling with domestic tourists, but you can count on one hand the number of international tourists. It gave us a sense of having ‘discovered’ a hidden gem yet to be found by the bulk of the world’s tourists….I’m sure they will descend soon enough.
It’s all about history here. The first thing you should do is get the three-day pass that gives you access to the museums. (This is sold at a central ticket booth in the middle of the town.) These would be the 19 sites around the city, including houses, ancient offices, and temples which have been turned into museums. The city wall counts as one on the list too. Not everyone of them is worth visiting, as we found out. But here are the things you have to see and experience:
From street level, all the homes may be hidden from sight behind high walls; but up on the city walls, all of old Pingyao is spreads below you. It’s a picturesque sight: undulating roofs, private gardens and 300 year old courtyard houses spread out below, and you understand why it inspired the setting of Dreamworks’ Kungfu Panda II.
The easy 6km walk on the city walls bring you round the city along an impressively clean, broad walkway. But some sections of the wall is unprotected, and you could unwittingly step off the edge to plunge to your death below, so keep to the middle of the path and you’ll be perfectly fine.
Dioramas of ancient life in Pingyao have been installed in the little turrets along the wall, so look out for those. Around the six city gates, look at old artefacts on display, as well as the fascinating architecture planned to repel and defend. There is an ancient dungeon by one of the city gates. We couldn’t find it, though we may have been looking at the wrong places.
#2. Rishengchang, China’s first bank
Pingyao was once a centre of commerce and it was home to bunch of insanely wealthy merchants who dealt in trade as banal as tofu, to fine silks and firearms. Being ever practical and sensitive to opportunity, someone set up a bank — China’s first — to support these people. The bank, Rishengchang, is now a museum of…well, the bank. Laid out just like courtyard house, walk through bank offices, the bank manager’s residence, the dining room and even accommodation provided (as a service) for privileged customers visiting town which have been recreated in fascinating detail. Rishengchang issued the world’s first cheque and it is on display there, too.
#3. The Tongxinggong Armed Escort Agency Museum
No, it’s not about gun-toting prostitutes but a security company which provided armed escorts to clients travelling with valuable goods or cash. One of the most fascinating museums, this evokes all the stereotypical images you’d have from kungfu movies — gentlemen pugilists who practiced their moves in hidden courtyards, and took on bandits with their kungfu moves. You see it all here, complete with their collection of weapons and fascinating photographs of corporate travel.
The dioramas that depict their lives are impressive. Don’t miss the re-created bedroom of the ‘Principal’ who slept over an underground vault containing clients’ money and goods, and the practice yard which kungfu paraphernalia. They must have been very successful as all the principals — the sifus of the agency — lived to a ripe of age, even for our standards.
#4. The ancient government buildings
This sprawling complex is essentially the tax man’s office and courthouse rolled into one. It also shows you the priorities, obligations and consequences of the state and ordinary peasant back then. After seeing this, you’ll be glad you weren’t living in those days.
Beyond the main entrance and in an expansive courtyard designed to awe the hapless peasant, you arrive first at the tax office (priority Number 1) followed by the bailiff’s (priority Number 2) and torturer’s office (Consequence Number 1) nearby. Right next door over a garden wall, and cynically next to a pretty rose garden is the dank, dark prison complete with wooden cage and stocks. Used until the 1960s, it has no doubt been cleaned up, but you get the idea of how miserable life was there. Across the rose garden lies the exhibition hall of torture instruments which I happily skipped (there were instruments for interrogation, punishment and execution) and wandered instead to the magistrate’s quarters nearby, ensconced in lush gardens a distance away enough not to hear the goings-on in the rose garden. It’s well preserved, and interesting architecture and the story it tells is definitely worth a visit.
#5. Pingyao’s main streets
Pingyao is a little town and completely walkable. Explore leisurely and take time to look at the architecture, peep into half hidden courtyards and stroll down the side lanes off the main thoroughfares to soak in the real Pingyao.
The main streets are equally fun, though all the shops are targetted at tourists now. Then again, they are nice shops of local brands selling modern, design forward bags, retro-inspired skincare, stationery and artisanal teas all stylishly packaged. There are some ‘antique’ shops too piled with bric-a-brac like old Chinese door knobs, figurines and weighing scales.
The streets are abuzz until pretty late at night. During this time, Pingyao looks very different too, as every main door is alight with red lanterns, which seem a cultural practice here. Bring your camera and tripod.
1. Book a flight to Beijing. The domestic flight from Beijing to Taiyuan can be bought online on ctrip.com. They don’t issue e-tickets though: your receipt would serve as the ticket to board. Buy first class — it’s inexpensive and it gives you some relative peace and quiet.
2. Book your return hotel transfer from Taiyuan Airport in advance. It is a long drive and you won’t want to call the hotel to send a car only you arrive to find yourself kinda stuck.
3. Bring walking shoes. Leave your heels at home. There’s no ‘fine dining’ in Pingyao. Just go casual.
4. Three days is all you really need.
5. It’s a family friendly place. Public toilets at the tourist sites are generally clean, and if you’re tired of walking, there are loads of electric shuttle ‘taxis’ that ply the streets. Hop on one and agree on a fee, or book one to bring you around for the day. Only if you don’t want to walk.