A short trip to the Ancient City of Pingyao, Shanxi
Saturday, 1st of April – Sunday, 2nd of April
Extended weekends are ideal to take short trips within China. Especially in Beijing we have the advantage of an excellent railway system, so you don’t necessarily have to take a plane to reach sights that are within a 500-1000km radius. There are night trains that can bring you all the way to your far-off destination while you sleep. Although I have to say that we haven’t done an overnight train ride yet, I’m tempted to try it on our next trip. The rail routes are not too spectecular, so I figure we might as well get there well rested. On this trip though we booked an early morning high speed train to the ancient city of Pingyao.
We rose early to catch our train at 7:45am. Like everything in China, the West Railway station is quite large, so you definitly want to be there ahead of time in case you don’t find your platform right away. Also, security checks at the entrance will slow you down, not because they search you thoroughly, but simply because a few hundred people try to push into the station with you. Everyone just throws their baggage onto a conveyer band that carries the suitcases, rucksacks and travel bags right into a large scanner. So far that’s just good security practice. The interesting part is the person entrusted with checking the contents of the baggage. They’re either fast asleep, are chatting with their coworkers or play candycrush on their mobile phones – surely anything but their job. On a regular day that is a fairly funny sight to behold (when you ignore the security implications). Not so when you are in a rush to get to your platform and still have to endure this work creation program (I apologize for the rant). At any rate, we were in a very good mood this particular morning and actually factored in enough time to go for a coffee before bording the train. If only we had known that the West Railway Station had a McCafé (and a Starbuck) we wouldn’t have bought a black coffee at the regular McDonalds. It still served it’s purpose and refueled us for the four hour train ride some 600 km all the way down to the south-west of Beijing.
A city within a city.
We had bought our tickets over the CTrip platform for 183 RMB, had assigned seats, and an unobstructed view out the window. Early as it was though, we slept most of the train ride anyways, but as mentioned above the scenery isn’t too impressive, so bring music or a good book/magazine to pass the time. And before you know it, you will arrive in Pingyao Gucheng (平遥古城). Prior to our trip we had asked the hotel if it was possible to arrange for a pick-up into town and thus we were greeted by a guy holding a “Fly By Knight Hotel” sign upon exiting the railway station. Once on the road, the first few kilometers take you along an industrial highway, looking nothing like the imagines you saw online. Only after a 15 minutes car ride do the ancient city walls of Pingyao come into sight. To our astonishment, the car drove right through the gates and into the tiny hutong-like alleys. As comfortable as this car ride right to the front steps of our hotel was, being a tourist trying to explore the city on foot among all the cars and golf caddies was quite annoying. You are constantly being honked at, and the streets are too narrow to accomodate cars and people (and cyclers) at the same time. Car drivers on the other hand have figured out that driving at top speed into a group of pedestrians is the best method to get them out of the way as quickly as possible, and so we were constantly pressing into buidling walls to avoid being hit. Fortunately, this was the only issue we faced during our time in Pingyao.
Jelte had been to Pingyao before with his family and recommended the Fly By Knight Courtyard Hotel, which didn’t fall short of his praise. Not only is it located right in the middle of the Old Town, the courtyard atmosphere adds a calm extra layer to your holiday. Many of the rooms have their own bathrooms with good water pressure and hot water, and some even have a small glass conservatory in front of the entrance to their bedroom, which makes for a relaxing reading spot. As the name suggests, the center of the hotel features a large inner courtyard that blocks out the busy city noises and may be used to have an early morning coffee or as ‘basecamp’ to plan your day trip.
Since we were not here to stay in the hotel all day, we just went for a quick shower and headed right out to explore Pingyao. Conveniently, tourists can buy a “through ticket” at one of the visitor center (130 RMB, half price if you have a student ID), which grants them access to each of the small museums and the city wall as well. Just make sure you keep the ticket at a save yet quickly accessible pocket of your bag, because you will need it often. There are more than 20 or so noteworthy houses where former accountants or other prominent bank employees used to live and/or do their business. You walk past them as you navigate the main streets and can easily hop from one museum to the next with only a few steps to walk in between.
Two of the major sights to be explored are the Pinyao Confucius Temple and the City God Temple. Whereas the ‘house museums’ are centered around the families that lived there and their role in buidling up Pingyao as a financial center, these two temples exhibit the religious facet of life in the ancient town. Though they may not have known it at the time, especially the interior designers of the Temple of City Gods had a pretty sarcastic sense of humour. When you enter the temple, the two buildings lining the left and right of the courtyard feature all sorts of gods. The left side was reserved for the ‘good’ and gentle gods, that smile at you and have a serene facial expression. The right side of the courtyard however was set up for the evil gods, that torture and torment people you have sinned (or at least that is my explanation).
An astonishing feature of the building shown last in the galery above is the way its gable was constructed. There are no nails or screws involved and it holds togethers simlpy by a very elaborate plug system.
Of course, one of the main reasons for everybody to visit to Pingyao is the enormous and intact city wall. We saved this bit of sightseeing for the evening hours, so that we could enjoy the sunset as we strolled along the top. Before climing up the wall though we each bought a bottle of local beer so that we could make a quick break and have a drink together. But be warned: each of the four sides of the wall have only one entrance/exit, so you better take a restroom break before visitng this part of Pingyao.
The morning of our second (and last) day of our visit to Pingyao we spend strolling along the smaller streets and eating our way through the local specialities.
The Residence of the Ma Family – 马家大院
A pleasant surprise was a recommendation from our host at the Fly By Knight Hotel. He pulled out a map of the Ancient City and pointed at a sight called the Residence of the Ma Family, the biggest courtyard in Pingyao. The short 15 minute walk there led us through homey hutong alleyways and past private living quarters. A large signs attached to the neighboring building soon announced that we have found the 马家大院. The ‘through ticket’ we had bought the previous day also granted us access here, since it is valid for three consecutive days. Once inside, the English-language tourist descriptions again left room for a lot of speculations, which didn’t deminish the fact that this courtyard still allowed passage to all of its rooms and towers, from the highest of which we had an impressive view over the city below. Since the Ma family accumulated quite a large sum of money over the course of their business activities in Pingyao, the family vault below the property exhibited the equivalent of their wealth in fake gold barrels and was accessible though a whole in the ground and a very steep flight of irregular stairs.
Another quite ironic tourist sight was the Tingyu government building, in which our personal highlight was a wall painting of a naughty fox flirting with an almost nude woman.
The last building on our travel itiniary was the Xietongqing Banking House. Unfortunately, the lighting below in the vaults was too dim to capture it accurately, but in the first room after descending into the cellar there was a tall round stele on which a dragon was snaking up. I didn’t quite catch the exact meaning of this – it sure promised good luck/fortune – but almost every visitor walking past it ended up placing their hand on the lowest part of the dragon’s tail and walking clockwise around it tracing their hand all the way up along the dragon’s body to the top. This made for quite an absurd dance a few meters below the bank’s main building in which some 10 people could participate at the same time.