Published: May 7th 2009May 7th 2009
When in Rome!
Signs saying, "No bikes allowed" side-by-side with bike rentals, meant rules in Pingyao were made to be broken!
Well, it was May Day…and the Chinese Government’s cutting of the traditional one-week holiday into long weekends posed a dilemma: what to do for only May 1-3? Then colleagues returning from a weekend getaway showed us their pictures of Pingyao--a walled city from the Ming and Qing Dynasty eras--and their enthusiasm for this so-called “China’s hidden gem” was intriguing. The truth of that phrase was immediately apparent, when in response to queries for more info most responses were, like, Pingyao? Huh? Even our bible, the Lonely Planet (herewith referred to as LP) didn’t reveal much more, except to confirm that the place is basically unknown to expats, and that it's located in the province of Shanxi (with one ‘a’) and not to be confused with the famous adjacent Shaanxi--home to Xi’an of the reknown terracotta soliders. But this only seemed to add to its obscurity. Shanxi? Shaanxi? Who knew?
The LP also stated that Pingyao, once the Wall Street of China, was the location of an early prosperous city of the silk road, and has existed in practically its original state for hundreds of years, falling into rack and ruin (which actually saved it from restoration) only
Will someone please...
...get this monkey off my back!
to be resurrected by its relatively recent discovery by domestic tourists…we knew then any quest wouldn’t be a lonely one. But knowing crowds to be part and parcel of Chinese National Holidays, we figured this could be a good chance to practice our recent painfully acquired Chinese. Then, coincidentally, a short blurb about Pingyao in “City Weekend”, extolling its virtues as an opportunity to see an ancient town where even night watchmen still make their rounds, made us aware this could be our last chance to experience the authentic old China. As well, the fact that the Zhang Yimou-Gong Li movie, “Raise the Red Lanterns” was filmed nearby had us sold. So, we booked our tickets, and on May 1, at 4:30 a.m., we were off!
After a bumpy plane ride (no one had said that Shaanxi was mountainous!), and a somewhat bumpy start (no one had warned us that cars can’t drive into the old city) and an enraged taxi driver who threatened to dump us far outside the city (which stretched our meager Chinese to the limit, only allowing us to protest—bu hao!) we were finally met outside the walls by a nice hotel driver who talked
Courtyards and Lanterns
Standard fare in Pingyao!
our angry one into forgoing the highway tolls he was trying to add onto his already exorbitant rate--and into even giving us our luggage back--and we were taken by the nice driver through the south gate of the ancient walls.
At the sight of our guesthouse, one of many buildings festooned in red lanterns and folk-art, almost all of the stressful taxi experience fell away, and we instantly felt transported back in time…okay, so Huan Kuai Ten—rated the best guesthouse in town by LP--has revamped the ancient rooms with modern washrooms, and the menu offering western food and breakfast meant we weren’t going to be deprived of all our fixes, and the attentive friendly staff all spoke excellent English…still, all in all, Pingyao lives up to its unhyped hype: it really is the town that time's forgot. Sitting in the quaint lobby-cum-restaurant, sipping our "kafei’s jia nio nai, jia tang" and listening to the chimes of ancient music and chirping of resident crickets, one could almost imagine what life was like 200 years ago.
Even watching the crowds of people from all parts of China surge by the window—apart from today’s holiday cowboy hats on the men and
Living up to its promise...
...the lobby of Tian Yuan Kuai DOES offer a refuge from the outside world.
the women’s frilly sunhats—we imagined the people themselves are probably very similar to the inhabitants of past eras. And with very few expats to be seen, it often seemed that we were the figures of amazement to the Pingyao sightseers, and were reminded of our celebrity status in Guangzhou—once again getting frequently asked for photos, or more often than not, just being snapped as we walked, biked and/or sat trying to enjoy our meals al fresco.
Not that we sat still for long; after buying a two-day ticket that gave us access to any spot marked with red, we managed to view a number of original homes, businesses, government buildings and temples of the ancient Ming and Qing civilizations. And the opportunity to pack as much viewing as we could into a few days was too hard to resist. So we found ourselves often racing from spot to spot…but then, we remembered, nobody comes to a major attraction during a Chinese National Holiday to relax. If nothing else our two years in China has taught us that!
And in the process of our mad exploring, if we often caught ourselves wondering how a town so ancient with walls
Originally erected in 800 BC...
...these walls have been reinforced 26 times! Good thing...look closely and you may see the shell marks from the Japanese invasion in 1930's.
so crumbly is still standing, we were reminded that Pingyao, like China, has been around for awhile, and they’re both still going strong.
And more than anything else, that’s the lesson we’ll take away from our stay in both.
Amy & Roel
There are more photos below