Pingyao: Putting the old back into fortified walls

Full set of Pingyao photos are here

The one drawback to train travel in China is that it’s hard to buy tickets for a journey if you’re not located in the city you want to start from. We couldn’t buy train tickets for the journey from Datong to Pingyao until we arrived in Datong, by which time there weren’t many tickets left. Chinese hotels do a great job at arranging to buy the tickets on your behalf which does save some hassle, but we still ended up spending more time than necessary chasing this process. Still, we got tickets on the day train to Pingyao, about 8 hours away, and blissfully they were in the hard sleeper section (apparently soft sleeper is not as nice as it sounds). Not that we really had to sleep on a day trip, but it was nice to nap in the heat, review some photos and read a book without feeling sick as you might on a bus. The day drifted along in a summer haze as if we were having a picnic by the banks of a river, which it was in relative terms compared to some of the travelling we had done recently.

Pingyao is famous for escaping the communist’s propensity for knocking down old structures, such as the Beijing walls. I can’t find any information on how Pingyao avoided this fate, but the town is rare for having its city walls intact, and they are the real deal unlike the many reconstructions you see around the place. Walking around the walls is great, not only because you feel like an ancient Chinese soldier, but because it’s the best place to get away from the crowds. We arrived in Pingyao on a public holiday weekend and the normally busy main street was heaving with domestic tourists buying the local specialities. I don’t know what the local specialities are because they are elaborately packaged in extravagantly decorated boxes with only Chinese writing, but I’m sure this area is famous for something which the domestic tourists can’t get enough of. Pingyao buildings in the large old town have a lot of character and at night, when you escape to the back streets which are still decorated with glowing lanterns, you can imagine life in a Chinese walled city before modern life arrived.

Pingyao really trades on its “ye olde” image.  Every second house is converted into a shop or museum of some sort.  There was the bank museum, the art museum, the martial arts museum and many others that we didn’t pop our head into.  The classical architecture is certainly lovely with the rooms arranged around internal courtyards, but the exhibits didn’t hold our attention for long.  Even the massive Confucian temple felt a bit vague, the best bit being a display of modern photos.

Pingyao also had the indomitable Mrs Deng, who, with her husband, ran the hostel we were staying at. Sarah took at instant dislike to Mrs Deng who talked over people and was kind of rude, but also had a lot of power as it was through her that travellers got their onward tickets. We overheard people at dinner that night in a restaurant in a different part of town bitching about her with the theory that she made it difficult to get onward tickets so that people would have to stay at the hostel longer. I tend to think it was hard to get train tickets because it was a holiday weekend but for whatever reason Sarah had her suspicions and emphasised to Mrs Deng very strongly that we had to get to Xi’an urgently as we had plane tickets booked, which was true. In the end we bombed out on the train and had to get the bus instead, which we had heard was a very smoky experience in China. We probably got overcharged for the bus but at least we escaped. We caught an electric rickshaw to the highway which had a top speed of about 20km/h. We were being blitzed by the other traffic but we got to out appointed spot in time only to be joined by a convoy of firework wielding lads who proceeded to let off bursts of little crackers on the road leaving sooty scars on the tarmac. There was a bit of hijinx with firecrackers being surreptitiously lit while someone else was holding them resulting in them being flung away in horror. I suspect beer was involved.

When the bus arrived we were shoved on but the journey was smoke free, enhanced by a Jackie Chan movie and surprisingly smooth along the deserted six lane freeway.

Full set of Pingyao photos are here

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>