Monday, January 11, 2016

Pingyao, China

A friend of mine was leaving China for the foreseeable future and wanted to visit as many places as possible before her time here is up. So she proposed a weekend trip to the ancient city of Pingyao. I love history and exploring new places so I was eager for the excuse to discover something new. Pingyao was the old banking center during the Ming and Qing dynasties, but when the Qing dynasty fell and the financial center moved to Shanghai and Hong Kong, Pingyao was abandoned. This ancient city inside the old walls maintains much of its architectural charm as it did centuries ago. Now it is mainly a town for tourists with shops set up all along the main road, including a variety of restaurants and massage outlets. 

Inside the city walls, vehicles are not allowed so everyone travels by foot. The city is very small and you can easily see much of it in one weekend. In October, we paid 130 yuan (about $20 US) for a ticket that includes entrance to all of the temples, museums and access to the city wall, for three days.

Don't miss the torture museum. There are many ancient torture devices on display and pictures to share how they were used. Even without clear English subtitles, you can gain a clear understanding. 

Another favorite stop was the banking center and underground vaults. I was particularly surprised with the high ceilings that were built in the underground rooms. 

In several of the museums, there were small models depicting daily activities so you can gain an understanding of the lifestyle when the English explanations were lacking.

During our stay, we had terrible weather. It was rainy and cold, which is unusual for this time of year. We probably didn't see as much of the town as we would have if the weather was nicer, but we put a pretty good dent in our itinerary. Due to the weather, we made several stops for hot tea/coffee and who can pass up cheap massages?   

If you're looking for gifts, this is a good place to bargain for inexpensive traditional Chinese style things. I purchased a few Chinese paper cuts for gifts and a cotton handwoven scarf for myself. I found the prices for paper cuts to be significantly cheaper than you can bargain for in Beijing and the scarves are handwoven just outside the shops, which is unique to Pingyao. For map lovers, another of my favorite gifts are the hand drawn (mass produced) maps that you can find in nearly every city in China. They are generally 10 yuan each ($1.50 US).  

We took the fast train from Beijing West Station to Pingyao. It took about four hours and cost approximately 200 yuan ($32.00 US) each way. I recommend staying inside the city walls. There are several hostels and inexpensive hotels that are very cheap. They are standard Chinese style hotels, but being within walking distance to all of the sites is convenient. The bed at the hotel we stayed had the traditional style heating system that heats the bed from below. In ancient times, there would be hot ashes shoveled underneath the bed in the evenings so the heat would rise and warm the bed while you sleep. They no longer heat the bed that way, but the owners installed an electric heater that serves the same purpose. Crawling into bed at night after wandering through the wet, cold streets felt particularly good with the heat rising from below.  

If you have a chance and want to explore an ancient city, give Pingyao a try. Which ancient cities have you visited in the past?

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