Mark Vranicar uncovers a sparkling gem in gritty Shanxi where ancient walls and lanes take you back to a quaint (and affordable) China.

If you’re traveling between Beijing and Xi’an, stop off at tiny Pingyao for a side trip that might just turn into a highlight. I don’t believe there’s another city in China that can match Pingyao’s combination of a relaxed atmosphere and ancient Chinese architecture.

As my Chinese girlfriend Jackie put it at the end of our four days in Pingyao: “I don’t think we could’ve come to a more lovely and romantic city than Pingyao.” I couldn’t agree with her more—much to my surprise.

After arriving at the train station, we expected to see a line of taxis waiting to take us into the heart of historic Pingyao. Instead, a row of motorized rickshaws sat waiting for our business.

The look in the drivers’ eyes when we walked out of the train station was if they had just spotted breakfast. It was a cold, quiet Monday morning in the off season. They all began yelling “OK!” while frantically preparing their rickshaws for us.

After a few minutes of bargaining, one driver agreed to take us the short distance into Pingyao’s old city for six yuan.

Within a minute or two, we passed from the recently developed area around the train station through massive city walls into the ancient heart of Pingyao.

Our driver wound through Pingyao’s narrow streets at breakneck speed. As we approached Nan Da Jie where most of the guesthouses are, he asked us where we were planning to stay.

We told him the Yunjincheng Folk Custom Hotel, the hotel that my 2003 edition of the Rough Guide said was one of the “most delightful hotels in all of China.”

Without hesitation, the driver waved his hand and yelled “Tai gui le!” (too expensive!).

He said that Yunjincheng used to be one of the best places to stay in Pingyao, but that the hotel had become far too expensive. We asked him how much a night at the hotel would cost. He said the cheapest room would be 800RMB a night [editor’s note: A year later and with the Olympics behind us, the cheapest room is down to RMB 480]. “Ai ya!” I replied. Way outside our budget.

The old city of PingyaoWe told him to go to the next hotel on my list – the Dejuyuan Folk Style Hotel. He again raised his hands and shook his head. He told us that three years ago the former president of France, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, stayed there and that ever since its prices had gone through the roof.

A bit perplexed, we asked the driver what we should do. Were there any reasonably priced places to stay in all of Pingyao?

He assured us that there were a few, but that the cheaper places did not have as many creature comforts as the more expensive ones. Still, he insisted, the cheaper ones remained true to Pingyao’s folk traditions and were nice places to stay.

As he was telling us this, he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, pointed, and said the place in front of us was a good place to stay. He said a room there – at Pingyao’s Mini Guesthouse – would only be 150RMB a night.

This sounded more reasonable to us, and we were curious just what exactly a “Pingyao folk style guesthouse” was in the first place.

The owner of the place spoke perfect English. He led us through several traditional-style doorways and a number of small open courtyards. There were four rooms accessible from each courtyard. Plants and other ornamentations hung from the roof all around us.

The ambiance was lovely, and when we finally reached an available room, we were delighted. Before us was a mammoth bed, taking up over half the small space. There was a small coffee table atop the bed with radiator pipes winding from the wall beneath the bed. The room also featured a small TV and private bathroom. This charming bed-dominated shoebox of a room immediately won us over.

Exhausted from travel, we were read to try the novelty of sleeping in this folk-style bed right away. I don’t know if it was because the bed was so warm and comfortable or just that we were so tired, but we sprawled out on the seemingly endless plain that was our bed and were asleep within minutes.

After a few hours of rest, we went out into the city to see what we could find for lunch. We soon found that the quality of range of cuisine in Pingyao is awesome. Nearly every building on or near Nan Da Jie is home to a clean and comfortable restaurant, with both Chinese and Western options available.

Pingyao bell towerAt our first meal, Jackie and I were anxious to sample Pingyao’s most famous dish – beef and potato stew (tu dou shao niu rou). After a few bites, it was obvious to see why the dish had garnered such a reputation. The beef was the best I’ve tasted in China. The sauce was a bit sweet, a bit sour, and had a slight tinge of spice. In short, delectable, balanced perfection. This dish is a must for travelers visiting Pingyao.

After lunch, we set off to town for an impromptu walking tour. We immediately found that walking along the city’s streets with no particular aim in mind was one of the most satisfying ways to pass time in Pingyao’s old town.

Seeing Pingyao’s old hutong and traditional housing complexes was as fulfilling as the more traditional sightseeing Pingyao has to offer. The atmosphere on Pingyao’s streets is worth a visit in itself.

The entire city of Pingyao is in fact a historic site. Dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Pingyao was once the financial capital of imperial China. There were more than twenty financial institutions located within the city including what was considered the first bank in China.

The city’s layout and impressive traditional buildings are unique among other cities dating from the same period, with over 4,000 Ming and Qing style residence having been preserved.

Buildings are rarely over two stories. High-rise apartments, which litter the rest of China, are nowhere to be found. Residences and stores are adorned with ornate wood patterns rather than cheesy neon lights.

The fact that Pingyao’s rich architectural heritage is still in tact is a marvel. Pingyao’s relative lack of contemporary modernization is largely due to the fact that, after the Qing Dynasty ended, the city was considered an obscure backwater not worth “modernizing” with communist style architecture.

This largely unspoiled legacy, present everywhere in the town, is the reason that Pingyao’s old city was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

That being said, Pingyao has far more to offer than just a superficial glimpse of ancient Chinese architecture and city life. A number of rich historic and cultural sites provide days, or possibly even weeks, worth of sightseeing to anyone into Chinese history.

The most obvious of Pingyao’s historic sites are the imposing city walls. Over 12 meters high with a 6,000-meter perimeter completely encircling the city, you feel the walls’ presence everywhere you go. Dating back to the 14th century, the walls are some of the most well preserved city walls in all of China, with a total of six gates: one each on the north and south walls and two each on the east and west walls. The shape, resembling a turtle, has Pingyao often referred to as the “Turtle City.”

I imagine that walking upon Pingyao’s city walls on a clear day would give one a wonderful perspective of Pingyao. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t know from experience. Though Jackie and I planned on spending an afternoon frolicking atop the ancient barriers, we never made it on to the walls.

Our plans changed when we got to the ticket window at the South Gate and found that the entry fee for the ancient walls was 120RMB a person. We thought about paying for about three seconds. Paying 240RMB for the privilege of walking six kilometers on a cold day was not something in which we were interested.

Then, on our last day, we discovered that guesthouses throughout Pingyao sell tourist passes good for all of Pingyao’s attractions including the city walls for 120 RMB total.

We found this out a bit too late. Oh well. We enjoyed our time anyway, in particular thanks to the surprisingly clear weather.

I was expecting nothing but gray skies traveling to the heart of China’s coal country. The little I knew of Shanxi before visiting the province consisted of Shanxi’s reputation as being the most polluted province in China.

But for us, Pingyao’s skies opened up and were a glorious royal blue three of the four days we were there. That’s not to say that Pingyao is pure and unsoiled–even on sunny days, I cought whiffs of the acrid smell of burning coal.

In the center of Nan Da Jie is a two-story Bell Tower that we went to visit. From atop the Bell Tower, one has a wonderful bird’s-eye-view of the ancient city below.

The other main site we checked out was Shuanglin Si. Located in a small village about six kilometers outside Pingyao, it’s an easy ride on a rental bike.

Built in the sixth century, Shuanglin Si consists of a fortress-like wall protecting ten halls and several monks’ residences. Inside the halls, there are over 2,000 colorful sculptures crafted during the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. The ranging styles of statues at Shuanglin Si, ranging from serence to sublime to scary, make it one of the most unique Buddhist temples in all of China.

If you get a chance to go to Pingyao, I highly recommend it.

Story by Mark Vranicar (China Travel)