4 Nights in the Best Ancient Walled City in China
Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
195Trip End Feb 28, 2013
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
Where I stayed
Two Bus Rides
Qikao to Lishi then Lishi to Pingyao
SCENIC SHANXI BUS RIDES
At 7:15 we exited through the large wooden doors of the hotel and followed the river to the bridge where two buses and a minivan stood waiting. We pointed to "Lishi 离石区" in our book and were pointed to the bus in front. (We decided against taking the 5:30AM direct bus to Pingyao) We took the seat behind the driver, where there was room of our packs. Soon, Michelle relaxed with her shoes off and feet propped up and resting on the packs. She could not have been more comfortable in a Lazy Boy recliner. That blissful state came to an abrupt end after 90 minutes when the bus veered across the oncoming lane and a bus coming in the opposite direction stopped next to us (door to door).
600 YEAR OLD WALLS
At around 3PM, we exited the toll road following bilingual signs that read “Pingyao Ancient City”. Then we turned off route at the ‘Pingyao 500 Meters’ sign and were let off on the side of a newer city road. A 3-wheeled motorcycle taxi pulled up and took us the rest of the way to Pingyao.
We were impressed as we drove through the southwest gate (or upper west gate) of the massive city walls that date to 640 years ago. The wall is 10 meters high and more than 6 kilometers in circumference and punctuated with 72 watchtowers. The fantastic city gates are some of the best preserved, and most authentic, in China. We rode a few short blocks within the wall and reached a barrier that prevents vehicles from going further. From there, it is the core of the ancient city and only pedestrian and bicycle traffic is permitted. Everyone on foot adds to the ‘ancient’ feeling of the historic town.
We walked the last short block and a half to a lovely hotel with 2 nice court-yards. We were given Room 2, with a 3.5 meter wall-to-wall kang bed, just off the first courtyard. The room size bed left just 1.5 meters in front for our packs. The large courtyard facing window has a ledge where we could set smaller stuff. We liked it. The bathroom was one of the all-in-one 2 x 2 meter varieties with the shower over the toilet. It did have hot water and a western toilet! And the wi-fi signal reached to the room too, perfect.
GATES, TOWERS, PAPER CUT OUTS, CANDY, VINEGAR & PHOTOGRAPHERS
We explored the town within the walls. Our hotel is on the main north-south street choc-a-bloc with court-yard hotels, restaurants and plenty of souvenir shop spilling out onto the street. Michelle admired the detailed wooden lattice work and beautifully painted wooden eves. Much of the town is recently restored but a fair number of buildings still have the age old layer of dust and peeling paint.
This province in known for its vinegar and there is a great shop near Harmony House Hotel. They have 3 or 4 different "grades" and gave samples in tiny plastic cups. Michelle was soo tempted to to buy some of the rich dark sauce – great for meat marinade – but intended as a dipping sauce for dumplings. Michelle imagined using it instead of a balsamic on salads. This town is known for ginger candy. At several storefronts, big lumps of the gooey mass was being pulled and folded by hand over metal hooks. It was very tasty and extremely hot...and addicting.
The streets were crowded, mainly with Chinese tourists. Many were carrying high end SLR Cameras with massive lenses. It certainly was an ideal environment for photography, but this was over the top. We actually felt a little inadequate with just our compact digital with its tiny lens. But some of those photographers were probably lugging 20 pounds of equipment. Then we learned that there was an international photo exhibit and conference in town and photographers from all over the world were in attendance. It took us to the last day to finally getting around to seeing the photo exhibits. They had rooms and exterior spaces dedicated to featured photographer and themes. There was some of the best nature photography we have ever seen. And a famous display by an award winning photographer who has collected photographs of couples who have been married over 50 years.
One of the visiting photographers, Jeremy, is enrolled in a photography school in New York gave us some background on the conference. He also highly recommended renting an electric bicycle for the day. He was having a great time exploring the city on this emerging technology. Late in the day, Dave spotted Jeremy complaining to the bike rental lady about a problem with his e-bike. His battery had run down and he had to peddle. We ended up renting bikes too. But the old style with rusty chains, wobbly wheels and dodgy brakes. We too had to peddle our bikes.
We were treated to the sight of a wedding party arriving at our hotel. An Englishman was marrying a local girl. The large procession arrived dressed in period Chinese Traditional dress, he on a chestnut horse and she in a foot-drawn carriage. Firecrackers announce their arrival. Their party disappeared somewhere into the back of our courtyard hotel.
BLACK-MARKET TRAIN TICKETS TO XI'AN
Guoyu was the next stop on our plan. It is a smaller walled ancient city with few tourists and no hotels. But it’s also hard to get in and out of. We decided Pingyao was authentic enough and decided to bypass Guoyu. Our hotel arranges train tickets to Xi’an but we didn’t want to revisit there having been there in the 1980’s and not worth a second visit (we imagined the crowds). So we went to the train station to get tickets west to the Gansu province and would even settle for a train to the city of Lanzhou. Everything was sold out we were told by the English speaking gal at the information window. We could not even get tickets to Xi’an. We told the owner of our hotel and she said they buy the tickets on the black-market (and resell them at a 50% mark-up).
Overall we were happy with the highly recommended Harmony House hotel. Even paying the high season rate of 180 ($29) for a double was a decent value for China. The owners are outgoing and friendly and always there to help. But all our conversations evolved into them recommended their tours, their restaurant, their ticket service or their
Shanxi Province is a narrow province between the new capital of Beijing and the old capital of Xi’an but still, most tourists don’t know about it. The Hanging Monastery and Buddhist Cave in the north by Datong were highlights of our visit in the late 1980’s. And now Lijaishan and Pingyao are added to our list of most China’s most memorable. Now we will more strongly recommend this province to other travelers to China.
SOME WIKI-TRAVEL NOTES ON PINGYAO
Píngyáo old town is typically considered to be the best ancient walled city in China. The old walled city is 2.6 sq. kilometers (1 sq. mile), inhabited, mostly off-limits to cars, and constructed of cobbled streets and buildings almost entirely from the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The main attraction in Pingyao's walled city is - well, the city itself. i.e. - simply wandering the streets. Nearly every building dates from the Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.
City Walls. Pingyao was originally established some 2700 years ago, during the reign of King Xuan (827-782 BC) of the Western Zhou Dynasty.