In August I ventured to PingYao Ancient City located in the Shanxi Province of China. PingYao has one of, if not the only, best preserved walled cities from the Ming/Qin Dynasties. It is also where China’s banking system first began. It is also home to the best and most fully preserved Ming Dynasty government centers/ courthouses. The preserved walls, houses and ancient China vibes of the UNESCO Heritage site is what drew me to it per a friend’s recommendation for interior Chinese tourist spots to visit. What is even better is that PingYao is still relatively under the radar for foreigners, but just like any other Chinese tourist destination is it packed with local tourists. Unlike many other UNESCO old towns in China, PingYao isnt simply comprised of one single restored old town street full of restaurants and tourist shops, certainly the two main streets that criss cross the central axis of the city are like that, but the entire part thats walled in is home to original structures with families that have been living in the houses for generations. It is a true glimpse into Ancient China. You can even rent costumes and walk around town all day feeling like an Emperor, Judge, servant or whatever you fancy for around $5.
TIP: in China, download Baidu Maps, google does not work in China and Baidu is far more accurate, can be dodgy with English location names but the English version works for the most part.
Further, traveling in China is now relatively easy and the standards are much elevated. Most of the toilets at restaurants and museums and hotels in Pingyao were sitting western style and nicely renovated, gone are the days of open door squatting toilet facilities in these 3rd and 4th tier cities, oh they still very much exist but are slowly being upgraded.
Getting there and around
Getting to PingYao is not the easiest nor is it terribly rough for China. The nearest airport is Taiyuan, which operates mostly domestic flights with a handful of select international flights. From Taiyuan it is about a 1.5 hour car ride, you will be lucky to find a taxi that is willing to take you, and it will be around 500-700RMB (USD$70-100). The other option is to take a taxi to the TaiYuan train station and transfer to the railway or highspeed rail (30 min) to PingYao, it is then a 15-20 minute walk or 5 minute cab to the walled city. The other option is to take a highspeed rail (3-4 hours) from Beijing West station, the price varies depending on class of service (economy, business or first) but it is around USD$20-$100. If flying into Taiyuan, I would recommend asking your hotel to arrange a transfer for you, I did through my hotel for RMB650/way, steep but given that I arrived and departed in the early hours of the morning, this was the right choice. PingYao is often used as a mid point for folks traveling between Xi’an and Beijing, as the highspeed rail passes through between the two main cities. Once in the ancient city, all you need are your two feet, although if you get tired there are buggies that you can pay to ride. There are a handful of sites (mansions and temples) outside of the walled city that do require a car, you can either get a cab or have your hotel arrange or book a tour.
There are many accommodation options in PingYao. I highly recommend choosing one within the walled city, as they are mostly in restored courtyard homes of the era. Most places are 2-4 stars, and most are under $100USD/ night and include breakfast. There arent any luxury or chain options but i found an incredible boutique that evoked Aman vibes through and through, Jing’s Residence, which was around USD$210/night, steep for the city but well worth it in my opinion. Jing’s residence comes with breakfast, afternoon tea, turn down gifts and snacks, all-inclusive mini-bar, spacious minimalist rooms inspired by local design in a stunningly restored courtyard house complex. The service is also some of the best I’ve experienced in China, including in Shanghai. It is also in a prime location on one of the main streets but just off of it a bit enough to feel you are in a very secluded refuge from the main hustle and bustle of the crowds.
Hitting up the museums and sites in town is extremely easy. You will need your passport and cash as most places dont accept foreign cards, and then head to one of the many ticket offices. It is RMBD125 (USD$18) for a ticket. This ticket allows you to enter every single museum and site in town, BUT you can only enter once per ticket to these sites, so plan your route accordingly! They even give you a map showing every museum location. You can also opt for an audio guide. There are English signs in the museums but they are not as extensive as the Chinese ones, nonetheless enough to give you an idea of what you are looking at. As a foreigner, the one site where you might want to plan your timing of your visit is the PingYao Yamen Government Courthouse/Building, there are daily timed reenactments of Ming Dynasty court proceedings, costumes and all. Otherwise during the summer all sites open at 9AM and close around 5-6:30PM.
PingYao and Shanxi province are known for a few things. PingYao specifically is known for their beef, especially their cured beef (looks raw but its not) and varieties of vinegar (note: none of the vinegar is actually produced within the walls, but nonetheless you can visit one of the many vinegar houses to sample and learn about it). Shanxi province is known for its variety of noodles, be it made from mullet, wheat, barley or potato. Most people drink tea/vinegar/beer with their meals, and for breakfast it is the ubiquitous soy bean milk. The food here is hearty and delicious. Id be careful of cocktail bars though, some simply use lots of syrup and questionable alcohol to create very sweet and artificial looking beverages, either stick to beer or head to a nicer place like Jing’s Residence for reliable cocktails (at Jing’s they were around USD$10). The local tourists who come here usually depart PingYao with some beef products, vinegar or lacquer ware. And if visiting the banking buildings, they usually will purchase some symbolic Chinese coin or ingot.
- As is always the case when departing out of Beijing or Shanghai, my flight from Shanghai Pudong to Taiyuan was quite delayed due to traffic control. I arrive in Taiyuan at 1AM, 1.5 hours behind schedule. Nonetheless the driver arranged by Jing’s residence was waiting for me. I was transported by a very nice Mercedes Benz Van, there was water and tea and towels on the van. The total travel time was around 1 hour 15 minutes without traffic. The driver also had to change license plates as there are specific plates for driving within the walled city.
- Arrived and checked into Jing’s Residence, where I was surprised to see I had been upgraded to a Courtyard Suite. The staff were exceptionally welcoming. I had hot towel, welcome drinks and was walked through the room, and services.
- Despite my late arrival, I slept a bit and woke up early at around 5:30AM, hoping to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately the wall is closed outside of tour hours as such I was unable to go to a high point for these views. Nonetheless it was very peaceful and beautiful to walk through the old town at dawn as it was waking up.
- Went back to Jing’s for a quick nap and hearty breakfast. Jing’s breakfast is a la carte and has both western and local selections.
- After breakfast I headed to the ticket office to purchase my ticket for the day.
- First stop was Ma’s residence, one of many gigantic wealthy family courtyard residence in and outside of Ancient city, these are all like mini palaces.
- Next, was the main and most popular site in PingYao, RiShengCang, the original bank in China, PingYao is where China’s first official banking system was created, right in this building. This is where Id recommend trying for an audio guide or some research beforehand as I wish there was much more English to explain the founding of the system, and the eventual demise of PingYao as an economic stronghold in China.
- I walked under City Tower Shi Lou (featured image), which marks the center point of the city, it is supposed to be open and you are able to climb up but not sure why it was closed during my time.
- It was nearing 10AM, and the crowds were already overwhelming, stores and restaurants were fully operational, with folks making local mullet cakes and hand pulled noodles along the main streets.
- Next stop was the Yamen Government Center, again the best preserved Ming Courts. I had arrived at the tail end of a Ming Court reenactment. The English signs here are a little better and implicitly you can gather all the information you’d need to understand the structure of Ming courts and government and the layout of the court complex, including the prison and torture devices.
- I then walked due east towards the ChengHuangMiao City Temple. This type of temple is a staple in any Chinese/Taiwanese/ East Asian city. The one in PingYao is just ok, but the main entry path is nice, lined with the 12 Chinese zodiac animals. If you’ve never been to a temple of the likes, worth taking a peek, if you’ve been in major east Asian cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, Singapore….etc. then you can skip.
- Just around the corner from City Temple is the PingYao Confucius Temple. Definitely worth checking out as it is both a Confucius temple but also a museum of the National Scholar examinations. A fascinating look into Ming/Qin philosophy and education that has influenced Chinese values/principals to this very day.
- Down the street from Confucius temple on Anjia Street, is a Catholic Church, that is sadlyin decay, but worth stopping by as it is a fascinating structure in the middle of an Ancient Chinese city and a look at the crossroads of religions in China.
- Along one of the main streets, South Street is the Gold Vault Museum, where you can visit the underground gold vault of PingYao, where staff are dressed in period costumes and you can get a blessed ingot if you fancy.
- After a full morning of touring, I headed back to Jing’s for a quick break and some beer from my mini-bar.
- I then headed back out for a lunch at around 12:45PM. I went to one of two restaurants that both the hotel and many online reviews recommended for lunch, I went to the other for dinner. Lunch was at 德居源DeJuYuan restaurant along South Street. Menus in both English and Mandarin with pictures too. They also do take most foreign cards. Had two signature PingYao dishes PingYao 過油肉, basically stir fry chicken, Ping Yao is also known for their vinegar and everyone eats everything wiht vinegar, and 幹版佬佬麵，stir fry PingYao buckwheat noodles.
- After lunch I returned to Jing’s to relax a bit before heading back out to meet with my friend who came from Beijing by high speed rail.
- We meet at South Gate, one of the 4 main gates of the city, but I would say its the best preserved one and offers the best view of town. Due to restoration work, it is currently not possible to walk the entire perimeter wall.
- I needed to get some work done and my friends hadnt visited some of the other sites I already hit up, so while they went touring I headed back to Jing’s for a complimentary afternoon tea. The tea is complete with local finger snacks and tea, including the mullet pancake that is sold and made along almost every street/storefront.
- By 5PM, I was hungry and my friends had finished touring. As such we decided to meet up with dinner. But first I was peer pressured into renting a costume for the night. We rented our outfits by a shop near the City Tower.
- Dinner was at 天元奎客棧 TianYuanKui guesthouse. We ordered PingYao Beef, fried eggplant with sweet and sour sauce, honey vinegar (drunk out of a bowl), Pingyao Flat noodles with sesame crackers, Vinegar egg omelette, honey glazed sweet potato, PingYao/Shanxi shaved noodles, bowl of mullet/bean sweet tea, and beer (which in traditional fashion, was drunk out of a bowl as well).
- We then wandered to Travelers Bar which I would not recommend as the drinks were pricey and terrible.
- After disappointing drinks, we wandered the night through the main streets and back alleys of old town in our costumes, taking in the night and taking lots of photos. We even encountered a man in period costume who I believe was calling the night as they would in the day, and warding off evil spirits as well? It was pretty random but also cool.
- I was jetlag, and running on little sleep. After returning out costumes at the deadline of 9PM, I returned to Jing’s for a delicious nightcap made with local liquor and chili, before heading to bead for an early morning departure.
- I departed Jing’s at 4AM for a 7AM flight. I had asked Jing’s if I could get a to-go breakfast. Thinking of just simply having a fruit and maybe a bun. They went all out with two boiled eggs, bread and muffins, fruit and milk.
- I arrived at Taiyuan Airport and departed for Shanghai.
I highly recommend PingYao and staying at Jing’s residence while you are here. It is 100% a real glimpse into Ancient China and life back in the Ming and Qin Dynasties. It is also fascinating to see where China’s banking system was born. Further, the food here is quite delicious and when the crowds are gone or when you are relaxing in the courtyards of your hotel, it is a very peaceful place to be.