Saturday 27 – Sunday 28 May 2017
Accommodation: Pingyao Baichanghong Inn booked on booking.com. CNY 243.10 for one night in a double room (no breakfast)
An ancient walled town
While planning our trip, I popped into an STA travel shop to get a brochure about their trips around China. This is a handy tip for getting ideas for travel routes and helps you to discover places you didn’t know about which are on your way.
We had decided on Beijing and Xi’an and STA had a tour which stops between the cities in a town called Pingyao. The town looked very traditionally Chinese and would give us a short break from mega cities so we decided to stop there on our way back to Beijing. We swayed between one and two nights, eventually deciding on only one night as we had so much we wanted to see in Beijing.
Our hotel was very helpful via booking.com messages and we booked a driver to pick us up from the train station through them. I’m sure it was more expensive than getting a taxi but it was still super cheap in comparison to taxi prices in the UK. When we got out of the small (by Chinese standards) train station, we spotted our driver holding a piece of paper with my name. After ignoring us for a while, we managed to get his attention and he ushered us to his car, along with another couple! He drove us through the city, which looked quite run down, into the city walls and along the tiny streets. I think there’s rules about where you can drive within the city walls so we stopped a short distance to our hotel.
The entrance to our hotel looked amazing – it was traditional with a lovely courtyard in the centre. Our room was tiny (which I guess is because it is an ancient building) and we didn’t have any space once our cases were in. The bed was a traditional Kang style. The bathroom had a toilet, sink, shower and hairdryer all in one tiny space. A hairdryer and shower being in the same place was slightly concerning and I wouldn’t say it was spotless, so we ended up waiting to have showers in Beijing (don’t judge us, we only stayed one night!).
Pingyao, like Xi’an is an ancient walled town, though on a much smaller scale than Xi’an. It is home to the first bank in China and has only traditional style buildings within the city wall. I think a lot of Chinese tourists visit the town and we saw a few foreigners like ourselves. The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
There are about 20 places of interest around the city, including temples, little museums and the city wall itself. When we checked in we were giving a map, showing all of the places and the ticket offices. Visitors can buy a combined ticket for CNY130 which gives you access to them all. We only planned to visit a few but the only option is the combined ticket. The places of interest that we walked around were all very quiet, which was a nice change in comparison to the crowded sites in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai.
Pingyao Museum and Qingxu Temple
After buying our tickets, we went to the Pingyao Museum and Qingxu Temple which was right beside one of the ticket desks. Apparently this is the only Taoist temple open to the world and 1,300 years old.
The temple had a nice courtyard with rooms around the sides with a few exhibitions. One had boxes with dolls set, which looked like they’d been there for most of the 1,300 years. Signs were only in Chinese so I’m not sure what they were depicting.
At the top of the courtyard we were ushered into the temple and asked to sit down in front of a monk (I’m assuming). It all happened very quickly but he seemed to talk us into giving him money, asked us to sign our names in a register and gave us a folded piece of paper to keep for good luck! I think we got scammed by a Buddhist monk?! He gave us some incense sticks and sent us on our way, confused!
First Museum of Armed Escort in North China
Next up was a random museum showing the history of armed escort. Armed escort, or ‘BiaoHang’ was used to escort payment for goods between different places and to guard shops or courts. China’s earliest armed escort was set up by a boxer called Zhang Heiwu. Eventually armed escorts were replaced by modern policing and security organisations.
This is the first museum of armed escort (there surely can’t be many others). The museum was similar to other buildings in Pingyao in that it had a central courtyard and buildings around it. There are rooms set up with mannequins showing what life would have been like in that time, e.g. guarding a court, counting money and displays of weapons used. It was pretty weird and I wouldn’t describe it as a ‘must see’.
China Chamber of Commerce Museum
Continuing on through the streets, we stopped in another museum, this time of China’s Chamber of Commerce. The museum is on the site of the former Pingyao Chamber of Commerce. I didn’t find the displays particularly interesting but the building and courtyard were lovely.
Free Heart Hotel
I was much more interested in lunch, which was next on the agenda! I had been in contact with someone via Instagram who had just left Pingyao and she recommended her hotel for food. After eating only Pizza Hut and McDonalds in our last stop in Xi’an, we were keen for some Chinese food.
The restaurant area of the hotel was small and we were the only ones there apart from a few members of family (I think). The owner spoke English and warmly welcomed us and there were English menus and photos of food. We decided on some dumplings, pak choi and mushrooms and fried potatoes and the food was really good. We ate and planned what other places of interest we wanted to see.
Before leaving for China, I’d taken Chinese lessons at a Confucius Institute so decided that we would visit the Confucius Temple. Confucius was an influential Chinese philosopher, teacher and political figure known for his popular aphorisms and for his models of social interaction (stolen from biography.com).
The temple grounds are lovely and much bigger than the Buddhist Temple we’d seen earlier. There was a big bell in the courtyard which you could pay a few CNY to strike. There was a sign to say what kind of luck you could get depending on the number of rings.
There are a few rooms around the courtyard set up with exhibitions, like a room with statues of Confucius with different expressions. A lot looked like they were very angry with us.
Pingyao City Wall
Not overly impressed by the places of interest that we’d seen, we decided to visit the city wall. Apparently the best preserved city wall in the country, it was built in the West Zhou King Xuan period (BC827-BC782). It covers 6.2km and is 10m in height. In comparison, the city wall of Xi’an is 13.7km and 12m high.
We took a wander on the city wall, admiring the views of the roof tops of Pingyao. I think you can walk the whole wall if you want to.
Drinks and a stare
We decided to sit outside a bar and have a drink. I’m not sure of the name of the place but it was right across the street from Free Heart Hotel where we’d had lunch. Coincidentally another foreigner sat at the other table outside and it was hilarious to see Chinese people walking by, staring at the three of us. They would look at us and at the sign of the bar wondering why it was full of foreigners. A few people took photos ‘of the bar’ and I felt like a celebrity being harassed by the paparazzi!
Next up, more food! We chose a busy looking place near our hotel – Tian Yuan Kiu Guesthouse. There was a wait for a table but it didn’t take long and we were soon ushered through a courtyard to a table for two. The waitress gave us tablets which we used to look through the menu and pick food. We got a few dishes, not entirely sure what they all were – dumplings, veg, a tofu dish, shaved noodles (which are famous in the region) and French fries!
The food was really good though we accidentally ordered noodles with meat so I ate around that. We wanted to try lots of things and over ordered so unfortunately couldn’t finish it all. If you’re visiting Pingyao, I’d definitely recommend Guesthouse for food.
Actually, on that point I’d like to say that I really wouldn’t recommend the street food in Pingyao. An Instagram friend (@roaminrob who has been travelling around Asia since April) ate street food and ended up with food poisoning for two weeks so please be careful.
As we left the restaurant, a fellow foreigner caught our attention and said that he had seen us twice before – once in Xi’an the previous day and then on the train to Pingyao. A small world considering the millions of people in Xi’an!
Pingyao at night
Before heading back to our hotel, we had a little wander around the streets. The town seemed to be a lot busier than it had been during the day but it was really beautiful lit up at night with red lanterns hanging outside the buildings.
Train to Beijing
The next morning our cheery (!) driver took us back to Pingyao Train Station for our high speed train back to Beijing. We were sitting on seats waiting for our train when I noticed a man beside us blatantly taking a selfie with us in the background! When we were on the platform, there was a little boy being carried by his mum, staring open mouthed at David. There clearly aren’t many foreigners at Pingyao Train Station!
When we got on the train, we were sat in a row of three with me in the middle and a very sweet Chinese lady at the aisle. She was very excited to be sitting beside foreigners! She didn’t speak a lot of English but way more than I know of Chinese. She spotted the wallpaper photo of David and I at our wedding in Italy last year and I told her it was in Italy. I went to the toilet and came back to hear her excitedly telling other passengers that we were Italian. Using my translation app, I explained that we were from Scotland but had gotten married in Italy. She asked if she could take a selfie with us and sent it to her friends over WeChat!
She explained in English that she was going to Beijing to visit her son for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday. She had made her son lots of food and was insistent that we try some, which was all very nice. She showed me pictures of her family on her phone and I shower her some photos of my family. I took out my iPad and started to write some of my blog and she watched over my shoulder. Eventually I decided to start a game of Cooking Fever on my iPad, showing her how it worked. She said she would just watch but eventually her hand crept over to the screen and she started serving customers while I made the food. We made a good team!
Needless to say, we were best friends by the end of the train journey and we parted ways on arrival in Beijing when she went to find her son and we headed towards the metro!
Is Pingyao worth a visit?
When I mentioned to one of my Chinese colleagues that we were visiting Pingyao, he laughed and asked why. It is a very touristy place and I was a bit concerned that it would be awful, which is why we swapped from two nights to one. It definitely wasn’t awful but I’d say one night was long enough to stay. The streets and buildings are really lovely and the town is worth a visit for that alone. It feels like a step back in time to what China was like before mega cities. And it was so nice to have a break from the huge cities and skyscrapers for a couple of days.
That said, the place is quite run down and it feels like it needs an injection of funds to bring things like the museums up to date. It was also the only place where I was bothered by the pollution as I think it’s in a region with lots of coal powered factories. We’d been lucky avoiding pollution in the big cities as there had been a big summit of world leaders in Beijing the previous week resulting in factories being stopped for a while.
As well as Pingyao, we had been considering stopping at Dàtóng en route back to Beijing. Logistically, it wasn’t possible to do both in the time we had so I’d be interested to hear about Pingyao vs Datong from someone who has visited both places.