Old Town Pingyao
The old part of Pingyao, within the walls, is a very well-preserved ancient city. The population is nearly half a million but to Chinese standards it’s tiny . . . the smallest city we’ve visited here so far. Old Town is filled with streets and alleys to explore. Just strolling is activity enough for days. Ancient architecture is all around. For example, there are many famous buildings related to banking that tell something about the town’s prosperous past. In the middle of Old Town, Ri Sheng Shang Exchange Shop is the first bank in Chinese history. Many of the attractions don’t sell their own tickets, and it’s necessary to buy a “Joint Ticket.” This covers twenty or so places, including the City Wall (you can walk up on top of it…probably the most interesting and enjoyable of the attractions, and best of all it’s designed to resemble the shape of a turtle!), the County Government Office, Confucious Temple, Temple of the City God, the Rishengchang Exchange Shop, and several other museums and historical sites.
We rented bikes one day, rode around town and then out to the Shuanglin Temple, a great Buddhist temple surrounded by a small village. It’s known for some beautifully carved statues from the Song period, and painted Yuan statues. It’s called the “ancient painted sculptures museum” by some, housing over 2,000 of these colorful works of art. After taking our time enjoying the quiet and playing with some friendly temple cats, we rode the 7 KM back to town and turned in for the night.
Day Trips from Pingyao
The following morning we joined a group from the hostel heading to the Wang Family Courtyard and the Underground Castle. The former is a grand example of a wealthy Chinese estate from the Qing Dynasty. Encompassed by high walls, this was a sprawling compound where many generations and branches of the Wang family resided when Pingyao was a major trading hub. Built by the Wang family in the 1600s, it is the largest folk residence among all the well-known grand courtyards. “It consists of five alleys, five fortresses and five ancestral halls. It has 231 small courtyards and 2,078 rooms, covering an area of 80,000 square meters. The layout of the yards shows the strict hierarchical system of ancient China. Rooms and yards with different scales were offered to people in accordance with their social status.” [China.org.cn] From atop the walls, outside the estate, you can see some still-occupied cave houses set into the mountainside.
Later, we visited Zhang Bi Ancient Castle, village (elected as one of the Top 10 Charming Ancient Towns of China in 2005) and the maze of defensive tunnels and rooms that were built beneath it over 1400 years ago. There were rooms for weapon and food storage, trap doors, wells, guardposts and secret passages from village homes, since this was a place of refuge or escape into the valley below if the village ever came under siege. The deepest tunnel is nearly 30 meters below the surface, and the tunnels run on three levels. A number of the homes are still occupied, so direct access to the touristed portion is blocked, but people still use the cool temperature of the tunnels for food storage! The tunnels are an amazing feat of engineering, with different levels for different purposes, all divided into various caves and niches.
One of the last days in Pingyao there was a school group visiting from Xi’an. They were only there for the day: arriving on the overnight train and departing the same evening for the trip back. The kids ranged in age from about 11 to late teens. They all had some kind of assignment which involved making contact with foreign visitors. The younger kids swarmed ’round and took turns asking the same set of questions in their very best, well-practiced English: “What is your name? When is your birthday? What is your favorite sport? What is your favorite pet? What is your favorite color? What is your favorite food?” They were so earnest and nervous. Most asked to take a photo together when they were finished. We spent at least an hour trying to help fill up notebooks and changing our answers occasionally just for variety. The older kids seemed to just be collecting autographs. Late in the afternoon we ran into a pair wandering around the base of the city wall. We sat and talked for a while about studying and languages and travel. It was nice to have the opportunity to just chat. Before long, they were on their way back to their group and we moved on as well.