A lovely few days in a traditional time-locked town

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Asia » China » Shanxi » Pingyao
October 29th 2012
Published: October 31st 2012
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After an 8 hour restless train journey from Datong, we arrived into Pingyao at 1am. Our hostel pick up which was promised wasn’t there to meet us at the station, so we jumped in a taxi and rattled down the quiet dark streets into the old walled city. Once at our hostel we were shown to our room, which was set around a quaint courtyard and very original with high ceilings, stain-glassed windows, large wooden furniture and an oversized ‘bed’ built onto a big concrete platform – this was our first glance into this traditional town. We were shattered and even though it was cold and the electric blanket we excitedly found wasn’t working, we fell asleep quickly.

The next morning we had a well-earned lay in until 10am, discovered we had both caught a cold in the last day, then got dressed and headed out to explore the city which is quite small and set inside the city walls. Pingyao is actually one of the only remaining cities in China which hasn’t been redeveloped or modernised so still contains a lot of original features and has a rustic feel to it. It was a lot warmer than in Datong and the sun was out, but we still needed our jackets as we strolled along the cobbled streets. Well I say strolled, but that was only for a few metres before Scott missed a raised metal pole in the middle of the street and went flying, hurting his leg in the process. Along with his cold, he wasn’t in the best mood after that, and things didn’t improve when his sunglasses broke a few minutes later – especially as his other Ray Bans had broken just a few weeks before we left home!

We found a lovely little family run restaurant where we sat in the sunny courtyard and had a tasty lunch of fried rice with Pingayo beef and stir fried noodles with pork and vegetables, alongside a cute puppy and a noisy cat. There are actually loads of dogs here in Pingyao (and a few cats) and they all seem well fed and healthy, if a bit grubby, something we weren’t expecting in China after hearing horror stories about them appearing on menus – it seems that Chinese people do like animals after all.

After lunch we continued wandering through the small streets, enjoying the atmosphere of the old town and its photogenic shop fronts and original features, as well as a bit of people watching. Old men gambled and played cards on the street and women chatted and cooked on the sidewalks, while children played in the road and people whizzed past on bicycles. It was really nice to see that old-world charm still exists in China, and we had found it in pretty Pingyao.

As we were walking, we ended up outside the walls and were thrown into a modern part of the city which we weren’t expecting, with loud cars and lots of people – something which is never far away in China I guess, but it worked well as we were near the train station so thought we would get our tickets for the next evening on a sleeper train to Xi’an. This was easier said than done, and although we had heard getting tickets for this route was hard, we didn’t realise how hard and we came away empty handed. We later found out that Pingyao doesn’t get allocated many tickets for this route so they are always near impossible to get unless you get them when they are first released, 10 days in advance. We needed to sort out this leg of our journey so had to come up with a plan B sooner rather than later.

On the way back we stumbled across a food market where all sorts of delicious looking dishes were being rustled up – steaming meat and vegetable broths, various types of handmade noodles, warm chicken buns and tear-and-share chilli bread all looked tasty and we vowed to come back later to sample some of these local delights.

We went back to the hostel and had a rest in the common area for a while, deciding what to do later that day and the next day. We debated climbing the walls which surround the city and visiting some of the sites and museums in Pingyao, all of which are available on a 2 day ticket, but didn’t really fancy doing that, so instead we wandered down to a hostel we had heard about which offered good tours called Harmony and booked on one for the next day which would take in a famous Courtyard out of town and an underground castle. We also managed to book onto a bus to Xi’an for Monday morning, which would only take 6 hours instead of 11 on the train, so we were glad that was sorted.

We were then peckish, so walked back to the food market we had seen earlier and had a bit of a feast while being stared at by inquisitive locals and cute kids – it’s amazing how you just have to say ‘Ni Hao’ (hello) to local people and give them a smile for their faces to change from blank stares to big open grins, and really heart-warming when the kids say ‘hello’ in English back to you, proud that they know this foreign word – The ‘chef’ at one of the stalls we ate at had great pleasure in shaking our hands and introducing us to his family members one by one. Pingyao has definitely restored our faith in both the Chinese food and the people, and has reminded us that although sometimes we may find things difficult or strange compared to what we are used to at home, one of the main reasons for travelling is to experience different cultures and see the world from another angle, so ultimately we have to embrace what is thrown at us and learn to accept that things are just different here. Although spitting in the street, squat toilets and eating donkey meat is hard to find acceptable!

It was approaching 6pm when we left the food market and as we made our way back to the hostel we saw a pagoda type structure above us, so thought we would go up it and see the views of the city from a height, as we weren’t going to be climbing the walls. We timed it perfectly and watched the most amazing orange-red sunset over the rooftops of the city as the city walls changed colour in the distance, which signalled the end of a really great day. We did some internet bits back at the hostel that evening and had an early night, and as we wrapped ourselves up in the blankets in our room, we went to sleep happy in the knowledge that sometimes things are better left untouched, and luckily for us Pingyao is a prime example.

Up early the next day for our tour we had a quick breakfast of banana pancakes and set off with a nice Mexican couple to the first stop of the day – Wang’s Family Courtyard. The Wang Family Courtyard is located in Jingsheng Town, 35 km from Pingyao, and was a luxurious residence built during 1762-1811 by the descendants of the Wang Family, one of the Four Families of the Qing Dynasty. It consists of various courtyards and buildings (now empty except some original furniture) in huge grounds of over 150,000 sq metres, which we walked around for a couple of hours. It was fascinating to think that people lived in this compound as it was so big and spread out, and a great example of residential architecture, aswell as a museum of architectural art, with original paintings on display throughout. Sculptures of stone, wood and brick were also everywhere in the courtyards and rooms which were interesting to see.

After spending some time there we were back in the car to our second stop of the day about 45 minutes away through winding mountain roads, Zhangbi ancient castle. This wasn't a typical castle, more a series of courtyards with Buddhist inspired temples within them, which lead down to a netowork of underground defence tunnels. It had been a multi-purpose castle which served as a military center, residential area, production site as well as religious activity, andis now open to the public. The tunnels were used against attacks from invaders and were built over 1500m long over three levels. We followed our guide into the tunnels (which were quite dark and narrow) and she pointed out various spy holes, trap doors, caves and storage rooms along the way - we imagined what it was like when you had to either hide in the tunnels to protect yourself against outsiders, or use the tunnels to trap potential invaders - and were down there for about 45 minutes before coming up and exploring the small Zhangbi village outside, which was quaint with locals going about their daily lives.

We got back to Pingyao late afternoon and had a small bite to eat, then went back to our room and snuggled in the blankets watching films for the rest of the day as we both still had a cold. In the evening, we ventured outside to find somewhere to eat and were surprised to find almost every restaurant (of which there are loads) empty, even though in the day there are a lot of people in the city - really strange. We were about to give up and go back to our hostel when we came across a tiny little French inspired place owned by a lovely lady, and proceeded to have the best sweet & sour chicken of the trip so far, along with eggplant and pork fritters and some rice - it was delicious and also cheap, so we went to bed full and satisfied.

After a lovely couple of days in Pingyao it was time to say goodbye, as we were off to the city of Xi'an next on a 6 hour day bus. Pingyao is one of those places that is hard to leave as it has such an authentic feel and is really easy just to chill out in the courtyards watching the world go by at a slow pace, and we could have easily stayed longer - we know we say that about a few places but this was definately one of them and we really enjoyed our time here.

S&V's Travel Info & Tips:

General Info: Approx 10 RMB/Yuan to £1. Pingyao is pretty small, its a 1.5km walk from the train station to insdie the city walls.

Transportation: We took an evening train from Datong at a cost of 125 RMB each for a hard sleeper which took around 8 hours. In the day we would have walked to our hostel from the station but as it was night time we took a taxi for 10 RMB. Pingyao is easy to get around on foot or you can also hire bicycles to explore the city. We took a tour to Wang's Family Courtyard and the Zhangbi castle as they are both difficult to get to by public transport and taxis are expensive - transport to both these sites and return to Pingyao cost 85 RMB each booked at Harmony guesthouse.

Food: Lots of food options in Pingyao, mainly on West St (Xi da Jie) or South St (Nan da Jie). The restuarants all looked good here and serve similar dishes - noodles or fried rice with meat are around 12-15 RMB each. The food market was great - chicken buns were 2.5 RMB and the noodle soup/broth was 6 RMB, or 1 RMB per ingredient you choose. Harmony GH do great banana pancakes for breakfast! There is a cute little bakery on West Street as well with cakes/muffins for 5 RMB, and lots of fuit stalls. And the little French restaurant on West Street was awesome with sweet & sour chicken for 20 RMB and all other dishes between 10-25 RMB.

Accomodation: We stayed in a private double room in Yamen Hostel for 120 RMB a night and it was nice, as well as one of the cheaper options in town, but there are loads of guesthouses to choose from, ll set around traditional courtyards.

Other observations:

x) Although Pingyao is not filled with sites and attractions, this town is about living and breathing the historic Chinese vibe.

xx) The ratio of dogs to humans is roughly 1:1, whilst the ratio of men to women in the whole of China is around 25:1.

Additional photos below
Photos: 55, Displayed: 30


31st October 2012

oh how I love this place!!! one of the best in China for sure!!! happy travels guys, Beata
3rd November 2012
Photo 31

Sensational place...also one of our favourite places in China...no better sleep than on a kang with a millet pillow...no better place to step back in time.

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