In a list of the world’s most impressive, dynamic animals, the tortoise rarely comes in high. Nevertheless, the tortoise does have some commendable qualities—longevity and defensive strength being the most notable. Which is why, when the Chinese came to construct Pingyao, complete with its six hefty gates and massive city wall, they modeled it on our dear old carapaced friend, right down to the eyes, the tail, and the markings on the shell.
Today, wandering the incredibly well-preserved streets of Pingyao, and along the wall itself, it’s pretty clear the tortoise did its protective job admirably. While the rest of China is locked in embrace with breakneck development, Pingyao tenaciously holds onto its former glory, much like a tortoise with a luscious piece of lettuce. Forget fast-paced life for just a few days, put your best foot forward, and explore the city that time forgot.
DAY ONE – OLD TOWN
7.00 a.m. – THE INN QING
Wake up in the Yide Hotel, or any of the many similar courtyard-style accommodations, savoring the traditional Qing Dynasty décor while you prepare for the day ahead. Throwing open the shutters, take in the sea of sloping tiled rooftops and brick gables, plumes of smoke drifting lazily upward from nearby chimneys. As the morning sun bathes the old town in warm tones, take a few moments to behold this Ming Dynasty fortress in all its magnificence.
The Yide (16 Shaxiang Street; +86-354-5685988; yide-hotel.com) is actually a beautifully renovated courtyard house built by a wealthy merchant in 1736, during the reign of the Qing Emperor Qianlong, although rooms are fitted out with all mod cons, and the restaurant and bar have an extensive East-West menu. The oversized banana pancakes are definitely recommended. Check out the stone posts and trough outside, where horses were once tied up and watered.
8.00 a.m. – DALLY IN THE ALLEY
After collecting an invaluable free map from your hotel, make a beeline for the old town’s most important thoroughfare—Southern Street, or Nan Da Jie (南大街). Take care to avoid the traffic; Pingyao’s absence of cars is more than made up for by a rustic cornucopia of horse-drawn carts and barrows, with a plethora of buggies, rickshaws, bikes, and trikes thrown in for good measure.
Pingyao has only four main streets, eight roads, and 72 lanes and alleys, with a layout said to represent the lines on a tortoise shell. The main streets are lined with the most important buildings and elegant residences. The fact that Pingyao’s rich architectural heritage is still intact is largely due to the fact that the city was considered too obscure to be worth modernizing after the Qing Dynasty ended, a lucky escape that earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1997.
You’ll soon notice that many of Pingyao’s alleys are a little on the snug side, just wide enough for the passage of a sedan chair.
With a little imagination, it’s not difficult to envision the streets of Pingyao in the city’s heyday, complete with laborers carrying sedan chairs, women shuffling along on bound feet, fan-holding intellectuals, and merchants leading horse-drawn carts laden with gold, silver, or other precious cargo.
Some of the city’s streets and courtyards still have deep ruts worn in the siltstone paving slabs and bricks, bearing witness to the busy traffic of old.
8.30 a.m. – VIEW TO A THRILL
Arrive at Pingyao’s tallest structure, Shi Lou (市楼), or Market Building, an ornate, three-story edifice that overlooks Nan Da Jie halfway along its length. This wooden building provides a great landmark for those with navigational difficulties, although getting lost in a place of Pingyao’s size is never an overly troublesome experience.
For a modest fee of 5 RMB, the more energetic and flexible should definitely climb and squeeze their way up to the third floor, which offers superb views along Nan Da Jie, and unbroken lines of curved rooftops and red lanterns stretching into the middle distance.
A well is hidden in the southeastern corner of the Market Building. Local legend has it that it once contained a golden frog, which, although no-one ever saw it, thoughtfully turned the water golden when nobody was looking. For this reason the building is also known as the Golden Well Building.
9.00 a.m. – ON A TICKET TIP
Purchase a ticket from one of the booths dotted around the city—there’s one at the end of Nan Da Jie, by the Yingxun Gate (迎薰门). A multi-attraction ticket to visit all the sights, as well as climb and walk the wall, costs 120 RMB, and is well worth the investment.
Many of the city’s sights don’t allow purchase of a single admission ticket. The ticket’s good for two days, but the second day needs to be validated in the first afternoon – this bureaucratic feat can be performed at the Yamen Gate booth.
9.30 a.m. – OF HELL AND HAUTE CUISINE
After buying tickets at the Yingxun Gate, take a stroll back along Nan Da Jie, and then take a right on Chenghuangmiao Street (城隍庙街). It’s here, unsurprisingly, that the fascinating Temple of the City God (Cheng Huang Miao) is located. This large temple, famed for its size and ingenious construction, is one of the few City God temples left in China. Much like the ancient Greeks, the Chinese traditionally believed that City Gods watched over their cities, and, resultingly, City God temples once existed in every Chinese administrative center. This one displays features of both Taoism and Confucianism, and, unlike most City God temples, also honors the gods of wealth and the kitchen.
Enter through the magnificent double-eave, three-gate wooden archway, and admire the elegant Taoist architecture, which includes elaborate murals, clay sculptures, and some exquisitely carved bricks.
Don’t forget to look up—the roofs are decked out in splendid green and yellow-glazed tiles, the ridges adorned with dragons and other mythical beasts. One striking area of the temple is a gruesomely graphic depiction of hell (not really suitable for young kids), complete with sculptures depicting devils, disembowelment, and other dastardly deeds. It’s enough to scare any wayward sinner into a life of rapid personal improvement.
On a far lighter and gastronomical note, the Kitchen, or Cooking, God was one of the more amiable Chinese deities. Once a year, it was his job to report people’s good or bad deeds to the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist deity, who then meted out suitable rewards and punishments. On the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, the day of reporting, people would prepare a sticky dessert called tanggua (糖瓜) for the Kitchen God—hard not to picture as some kind of bumbling, Friar Tuck-type individual—in order to encourage a favorable report. Persistent wrongdoers would cook up a particularly sticky batch of tanggua, in the hope it would glue his mouth completely shut.
12.00 p.m. – OODLES OF NOODLES
Time to sample some Pingyao cuisine. At the crossroads of Na Da Jie and Chenghuangmiao Street are plenty of street-side cafes. Pingyao doesn’t go in for ritzy high-end restaurants—the food here is hearty and homely. A single bowlful keeps you full and content for at least eight hours, an ideal energy booster for tramping the streets.
Locals will tell you, often repeatedly, that they have over 108 different kinds of noodles and pastries, and the menus are indeed heavy on both noodles and beef. Specialties include wantuoze (碗脱则) and cat’s ear noodles (猫耳朵 māo ěrduo), as well as a warming beef stew. Don’t miss the tasty street foods, including fried, pork-stuffed buns called shuijianbao (水煎包), pancakes topped with string beans called doumian jianbao (豆面煎包), and steaming bowls of dumplings called kaolao (栲栳).
1.00 p.m. – SHOP STOP
With myriad shops hawking an astonishing array of antiques, furniture, ancient coins, Chinese paintings, jade ware, lacquer ware, Mao memorabilia, and traditional folk clothing, the streets on and around Nan Da Jie are a shopper’s paradise. In the old days, over 700 shops peppered this same area, and several remain exactly as they were a century ago. If you’re in the mood for a spot of retail therapy, bargain over a calligraphy set, pick up some pearls of wisdom from Mao’s Red Book, or try on those high-style retro specs you’ve always craved.
2.00 p.m. – IT’S A RICH MAN’S WORLD
After passing under the arch of the Market Building, take a right onto Xi Da Jie (西大街), or Western Street. On the immediate left is one of Pingyao’s most famous institutions, the Rishengchang Exchange Bank (日昇昌票号 rì shēnɡ chānɡ piàohào meaning “sunrise prosperity”).
The grand architecture and fortifications here didn’t come cheap, but then again, the city was China’s premier banking center during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Situated at the heart of Shanxi Province, between the central plain and the northern desert, Han Chinese merchants in Pingyao could communicate easily with the northern tribes and set up trade links with the rest of China.
As China’s first bank, Rishengchang began as a single merchant’s attempt to manage the accounts of his own extensive company. As more exchange shops opened, and as traders chose to use bills of exchange instead of bulging bags of silver coins, this became the head of a China-wide banking network.
Fully restored in 1995, Rishengchang is a three-courtyard compound. Start with the cashier’s offices at the front, and then work your way back to the VIP quarters and underground vault, complete with hefty silver ingots at the rear. Check out the overhead net made from metal thread—this once covered the whole compound, and was hung with bells to act as a primitive intruder alarm system.
3.30 p.m. – WONDER WALL
Head all the way down Xi Da Jie to the impressive Fengyi Gate, from where it’s possible to climb up to the city wall. The six kilometer wall is in good repair and completely encircles the old city. A dry moat surrounds the outside and a total of 72 watchtowers punctuate the 12-meter high, six-meter thick wall. From the top you’ll get another great bird’s eye view of old Pingyao’s mixture of curving and flat roofs, with the Market Building dominating Na Da Jie in the center.
The top of Pingyao’s City Wall is broad enough for a horse cart, and one entire loop takes about two hours. This is a great walk in nice weather—you’ll be able to peek into residents’ courtyards as they hang laundry or shoot pool, and gaze out through crenellated battlements at the sprawl of the new town, thankfully kept at bay like the would-be invaders of yesteryear. There’s little in the way of safety barriers here, so if you’re going to take kids onto the wall, please keep them from straying too near the edge.
6.30 p.m. – POST PRANDIAL PERAMBULATION
A long day of walking deserves an evening of low-key, Pingyao-style R and R. The Yide’s well-stocked bar is a fine spot for soothing liquid refreshment and then dinner. If you’ve still got energy left, take a nocturnal stroll along and around Nan Da Jie. At night, an endless succession of huge red lanterns transforms the main streets into a set from a romantic Zhang Yimou movie, and shops and impromptu bars stay open quite late. On unlit streets, do keep an eye out for unexpected humps and man-sized holes—the latter can certainly conclude an evening’s leisurely amble with an unexpected bang.
DAY TWO – QIAODAJIAYUAN & BEYOND
8.00 a.m. – SHANXI SWITCH
After breakfast, take an electric cart (organized by the hotel) to the main bus station, just outside the City Wall. From here, it’s a 10 RMB, one-hour ride to the Qiao Jia Da Yuan (乔家大院, Qiao Family Compound), 30 km north of Pingyao.
9.00 a.m.—BEAN CURD BLING
As Pingyao visitors will by now appreciate, Shanxi Province had been well-endowed with wealthy merchants in the Qing Dynasty. Qiao Jia Da Yuan was built in 1756 by Qiao Guifa, a merchant who made his fortune selling both tea and bean curd in Inner Mongolia. After amassing his pile, Qiao returned, and set about constructing his dream house, which was modified and expanded by later generations. Movie buffs will surely recognize Qiao Jia Da Yuan from Zhang Yimou’s movie “Raise the Red Lantern,” where it’s featured prominently.
Head inside for the mother of all courtyard experiences. The complex is laid out in the shape of two Chinese xi characters, 喜喜, meaning “double happiness,” and used to celebrate weddings. Walk along a path leading to the main hall, which is the family’s ancestral hall.
Keep an eye out for the exquisite craftsmanship on brick carvings, woodwork, murals, and inscribed tablets. Many doors, windows, eaves, pillars, and railings are also beautifully made, and the wide variety of different roof styles is particularly interesting—there are over 140 chimneys in the compound, each featuring a completely unique design.
A Qiao Jia Da Yuan visit takes around three hours. After you’ve finished, grab a bus or taxi back to Taiyuan and onward destinations. From the view of your jet plane, or one of China’s new bullet trains, Shanxi and Pingyao may seem a little backward, but, as the tortoise once remarked to the hare, slow and steady is always good for a weekend break in China.
WANT TO EXTEND THE WEEKEND? DON’T MISS:
More Pingyao – Make the most of your two-day multipass by checking out ZhenguoTemple (镇国寺 zhēnɡuó sì), Shuanglin Temple (双林寺 shuānɡlín sì), Qingxu Temple (清虚观 qīnɡxū ɡuān), Confucius Temple (文庙 wénmiào), and Lei Lvtai’s Residence (雷履泰故居 léi lǚtài gùjū). Taiyuan’s Jin Temple (晋祠 jìncí) – Ancient ancestral temples are something of a rarity in China, and Jin Ci was founded about 1400 years ago. It boasts over 100 halls, towers, pavilions, terraces, and bridges, some of the best Song Dynasty sculptures in China, and even a 3,000-year-old cypress tree。
- Where can I buy a multi-attraction ticket?
- He made his fortune selling bean curd.