China through the Back Alley

China through the Back Alley

I can’t sit still.  I especially have trouble in the classroom when trying to sit quietly through a droll lecture on history.  However, you give me a hands-on look into the past and it suddenly comes alive.  Wandering the back alleys of Pingyao is the best history lesson I’ve ever received.  Pingyao is a wonderfully well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city.  Founded in the 14th century, its tarnished buildings and back alleys offer a close-up look at the evolution of architectural styles and urban planning in Imperial China over five centuries. Previously the financial capital of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pingyao features bank buildings and the remnants of ornate courtyards previously owned by the rich.

Getting lost in the labyrinth of gray stonewalls inside the old city could keep me entertained for hours.  However, my sense of direction is so poor that without thinkCHUA, hours could have easily stretched into days before I ever found the hostel again.  It would have been an enjoyable few days of confused wandering had I failed to find my way out of the maze of intricately carved city gates, towers and charming shops.  Below is a short photo tour of this historical little city.

In 1370, during the reign of the Ming Emperor Hong Wu the city almost doubled in size. It was fortified with a new defensive wall, which has since been partially rebuilt after part of the Southern wall collapsed in 2004.  The wall measures about 12 meters high and 6,000 meters in perimeter complete with 72 watchtowers.  The wall is considered one the best examples of intact ancient city walls of this scale.

The best way to get around the small city is by bike, however the city is easily seen on foot as well.  Pingyao is located on the eastern banks of the Fen River, and is in the southwestern edge of the Taiyuan basin.  Therefore, if you want to explore farther afield, biking is a great option and offers some wonderfully scenic rides.

According to wikipedia More than 300 sites in or near the city of Pingyao have ancient ruins and preserved Ming and Qing style residences number close to 4,000. Not only can the history and sites entertain you for days, Pingyao is a fantastic laid back city to just chill out away from the China crowds.  The streets and storefronts still largely retain their ancient appearance, making each alley way and street a museum of sorts.

Featuring the same city layout since the Ming and Qing dynasties, conforming to a typical bagua pattern, which refers to the principles of Feng Shui applied when the city was built.  These principles are very important as Pingyao was formerly the financial capital of China and a poor layout would not have bode well for money flow.  During the late Qing Dynasty there were as many as 20 financial institutions within the city, comprising more than half of the banks in the whole country.  Until 1914 when Pingyao went bankrupt as larger, more modern banks took over it was one of the most prosperous cities in China.

Other than the ancient buildings and historical layout, another aspect of life in Pingyao that hasn’t changed much from the days of ox carts is the delivery of food.  Many residents still get their fruits and vegetables from farmers selling it fresh from their bicycle carts.

One of the best views of Pingyao is from the Market tower in the center of the city, which gives you the opportunity to inspect the tile roofs at eye-level.  The lookout is especially picturesque at sunset when the tiles are set aglow with a subtle yellow light.

Pingyao becomes even more atmospheric when the sun sinks below the horizon, the storefronts are lit with red lanterns and the outline of the watchtowers are illuminated against the black velvet sky.  The romantic atmosphere could easily convince you to stay one more night in this small town…and you should.


Book your onward ticket ASAP, as much as I advocate spending extra time in Pingyao it can be tough to get an onward train ticket without paying a hefty commission.  So, if you’re on a schedule make sure you take care of your train tickets as soon as you can, ideally before you get there.  Remember you can buy train tickets as soon as 10 days from your planned departure date.

Skip the ticket,  Tourists to Pingyao can buy an all-inclusive ticket at the cost of 120 Yuan. This includes approximately 20 attractions.  However, Pingyao can be enjoyed superficially, which is to say that you can take in all the historic sites without paying to go inside. If you plan to go to all the sites the ticket is a great deal, however if you would rather just soak in the atmosphere as we did, you won’t be disapointed in saving your money and just wandering into the free spots.

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» Kate C :
Sep 10, 2011

Yay, comments are open today! I wanted to say something yesterday as soon as I read this. I have to admit, I’m sure China is great, but I hadn’t seen anything that made me want to visit someday until this post. This place looks so sweet, and historical. I love your pictures of it. I’d want to be the person living in that sweet bridge type building above the street!

LOCAVORista Reply:

Kate, sorry the comments were closed, but glad that you posted today. I loved Pingyao and would highly recommend putting China on your future travel list. It is an amazing country!

» Bka :
Sep 17, 2011

Aren’t you just a little smarty pants………thanks for the history lesson…….love dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, I thought you would be the most likely to agree that a hands on history lesson is more interesting than one delivered in the confines of a classroom.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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