Once the financial center of China during the Qing Dynasty and honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the ancient city of Pingyao, located in Shanxi province is a throw back to another century, actually many centuries.
Surrounded by a four mile, 6,000 km perimeter wall almost 12 meters high, meandering through the city can be a Disneyesque experience. Narrow alleys appear to crisscross the city, which consists of of 70 interconnected streets along four main thoroughfares. The main roads, led by Ming-Qing street are lined with shopkeepers and craftsman appearing to practice their trade. Although I suspect most of the goods are mass produced elsewhere, the effect works. As does the traditional architecture, cobble stone streets and smells of authentic Shanxi cooking. Hostels, quaint hotels and guesthouses are found throughout the main roads along with a number of traditional restaurants and noodle shops. Automobiles are off limits inside the city walls, so walking is the way to go, although bikes and carts can be rented for the weary traveler. Be sure to climb and check out Pingyao’s Cit tower, especially at night for an impressive view.
Where to stay
There are numerous guesthouses to choose from within the city. For those looking for a truly unique experience, check out Jing’s Residences. Located in a restored mansion of a wealthy Qing dynasty silk merchant, Jing’s features 19 traditional style rooms, inner courtyards, a spa and native Shanxi cuisine. With Impeccable service day and night, Jing’s can also coordinate transportation from the nearest airport in Taiyuan.
What to do
Pingyao itself – It is said that old Pingyao courtyards are some of the best-preserved traditional Han architecture in the whole of China. Take a stroll and try to get lost rambling the streets and alley’s, snack on Pingyao beef and shaved noodles. You can’t really get lost as the city walls surround you. Speaking of which, walk the wall anytime of day, but early morning at sunrise when the city slowly comes alive is the best. As you walk along the wall, be on the lookout for the city gates. The north and south sides have one gate each, while the east and west sides have two gates each. The pattern is similar to that of a turtle (the head, tail and four legs), earning Pingyao the nickname “Turtle City.”
Wang Family Compound – Located outside the city and Wang Family compound or it’s slightly small Qiao Family compound is a must visit. Located near Lingshi, the massive complex features over 1,000 rooms, and dozens of courtyards. Belonging to a successful family of merchants and farmers the house dates back to the 1600’s and grew along with the generations to follow. Check out the impressive architecture, carvings and rooflines. Allow four hours
Buy an Abacus? – Although you can purchase calligraphy, paintings custom made slippers among other local crafts, as the first financial center of China, perhaps an abacus is the most appropriate keepsake. The Rishengchang Exchange shop, now a museum was the first bank in China and at it’s height Pingyao featured as many as 20 financial institutions, more than the rest of China combined. Check out the many museums throughout the city and be on the lookout for recently made “antique” abacus.
Check out Grace Vineyard – Located outside of Taiyuan Grace Vineyard is a sprawling complex of over 200 hectares. China has made great leaps over the past ten years and industry continues to evolve. The tour of Grace Vineyards and the scale is truly impressive, and on some levels is reminiscent of a weekend jaunt to Napa, However the comparisons stop when the corks are pulled.