Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pingyao: A trip to Old World China

A view of countryside from the train
As I mentioned in a previous post, I visited China for three weeks in May 2011. The trip came about because I attended a conference in Shanghai, but it was a good opportunity to do some traveling in another, very different part of the world.  I was fortunate that my parents, very seasoned travelers, were interested in accompanying me.   In this past post, I talk about the experience of running in China.  As time permits, I would like to catalogue some of the sights and adventures (apart from running) from that trip.  If you find yourself traveling to China, and are interested in more information, please don't hesitate to contact me!

The old city wall (6km)
surrounds Pingyao
We took an overnight train from bustling Beijing and traveled 12 hours to arrive around 5am in the sleepy city of Pingyao.  The Chinese travel predominantly by train, therefore there are many different types and speeds of trains.  We had a K train, which is the slowest and oldest of the "high speed" overnight trains.  We booked a first class sleeping compartment, which was not luxurious but adequate and comfortable.  However, many of the men in our car insisted on chain smoking throughout the night and would not close the car doors.  The smell of smoke filled the cabin and made breathing and sleeping somewhat challenging.  Furthermore, the toilets were beyond disgusting so we minimized use as much as possible.  Because Pingyao is so small, traveling by train is the only option.

A courtyard of our guesthouse
The overnight trip was well worth the effort, because Pingyao was the most interesting and pretty city we visited.  It was the financial capital of the empire during both the Ming and Qing dynasties and the old city layout has been preserved since that time period.  As China modernized, the government bulldozed a significant amount of cultural relics and old cities.  Pingyao is one of the very few that did not fall to this fate, and because of its more than 4,000 well preserved homes and old wall surrounding the city, it is a UNESCO world cultural heritage site.
Bikes and rickshaws rule
the road here

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Pingyao became extremely wealthy and was the closest location of banks to the seat of the empire, in Beijing (then Peking).  Anyone interested in acquiring a loan would have to travel to Pingyao to meet with the bankers.  This stimulated other businesses, such as guesthouses and restaurants.  You can visit the original banks and stay in the guesthouses, all located within the old city wall.  This part of the city does not allow cars, and the predominant form of transportation is bikes.

Intricate gargolyes and lattice work
grace the preserved homes
We stayed two days and one night in the heart of Pingyao.  Our guesthouse was beautiful and had many courtyards and a very pretty, traditional room.  We were fortunate to have modern plumbing and hot water, because in this part of China, both are rarities.  In fact, many of the homes here sport a miniature water tank on the roof.  Most people cook with coal here, and the smell is omnipresent.  Also, the air is filled with particulates, which did give me some allergy problems, especially after 4 days in heavily polluted Beijing.  If I could do it over again, I would have packed some nasal spray and Sudafed.

We spent the days biking around the old town.  There were a few temples and museums to visit, and I walked atop the entire 6km of the old wall, which gave me great views of the city and homes.  We found the local food delicious and interesting, with lots of mushrooms, potatoes, noodles (potato and oat!) and spices.  Preserved beef is common to the cuisine there, but being vegan, I passed on that.  I did try some very interesting Sea hawkthorn juice, which was both sweet and tart and the color of mango juice.  We also visited shops.  Local goods include lacquered boxes and handmade shoes. I didn't indulge in either, but did buy a hand-carved wooden fruit basket and some candies.  My mother bought some very good jasmine tea.

Biking along the old city wall
Because most of China is very densely populated, the other cities we visited were bustling and crowded.  By contrast, Pingyao was tiny (only 490,000 people compared to the 24 million in Shanghai).  The architecture was also very beautiful and I would say it was definitely a highlight of the trip!

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