nassuming Shanxi is one of China’s provinces most dependent on tourism. It just happens to be even more dependent on coal, making for a contradictory set of experiences for the visitor. A landscape crowded with coal-burning power stations generates not only electricity, but air pollution for northern China. Heavy palls of coal dust hang over it and when air currents draws the smog northwards it picks up more of the heavy industry fumes and rolls into Beijing to form its airpocalypses.
But the area’s also architecturally beautiful.
Pingyao is a tight grid of 18th century streets, alleys, temples and banks surrounded by towering walls with “horse-faced” watchtowers. In the countryside around, there are fortified clan dwellings and villages, one with intricate defensive tunnels beneath. Add in the culinary quirks of the area and the traditional courtyard homes with kang for beds – raised brick platforms that traditionally had stoves inside and on which all life took place in winter – and you’ve everything for a distinctly regional experience, now just three hours from Beijing West station.
The site of Pingyao has been settled since at least 800BC, but we’re going to skip to the era that led to its glory days as the banking center of China.
At its peak in the late Qing, 80 million taels of silver flowed through Pingyao every year. The Rishengchang bank is China’s first bank and issuer of checks. Founded in 1824, it was one of the first places in the world to offer the service, creating a network across the Qing empire where the checks could be cashed. With the wealth generated, the financiers built themselves mansions around courtyards and a city wall and moat for protection. The general affluence of the town helped shape its smart (well, at one point) streets and temples.
By the end of the Qing in 1912, Pingyao was in dire straits. Empress Dowager Cixi came to secure loans to pay off the Eight Allied Forces. Pingyao’s financial relevance ebbed toward Shanghai, and without its service sector, the town slipped into obscurity. Yet this proved a blessing for its preservation throughout the relentless modernization of the rest of the 20th century in China.
The best way to approach a visit is to get a through-ticket to the sites at a tourist office and then wander the streets, calling in at museums as you pass. Some have informative displays of the financial and security past (“escorts” means the people guarding silver in transit, though it provides for some amusing names around town), though many are worth it more for the building than any exhibits.
Much of this history is highly enjoyable and even brought to life by charming dioramas. Visiting this year, nine years since my first visit, there has been the amusing development of visitors throwing money offerings into the dioramas of bank tellers. Bank notes strewn across the counters and statues give the scenes a distinct element of chaos and inebriation, particularly at the Rishengchang bank museum. For an overview of how money was moved around and protected (and for a spot of archery yourself) visit the First Armed Escort Museum on Dong Dajie.
Even if you didn’t go into a single tourist site, the town itself is fascinating. It is not so much a case of sites being dotted about a place, but that the whole town is an attraction. Every single building is in-keeping, and much of it is tastefully illuminated with lanterns. Pingyao is perhaps the best example of the cliche of getting away from the main drag to find a completely different town. Wander the streets of the northeast corner and you’ll be able to peep through the gates of tumble- down courtyard houses. Further south you’ll come across Catholic churches and Chinese temples. Climb the north wall for views over the elegant rooftops (billowing with smoke in the winter).
You’ll need just a day or a day and a half for Pingyao itself. It is well worth staying the night and arranging a car and driver through your hotel – around 400 yuan (US$60) for a day – to visit the nearby fortified village known as Zhangbi Castle, passing endless power stations along the way. Above ground it’s a delightful Yuan dynasty village (eerily quiet since a local mining company bought the village and rehoused all the residents outside), but below, there is a network of tunnels used for defending against the invading Tang soldiers. Definitely pay the additional 60 yuan (US$9) for a guide as there are many tales to be told about what happened down there. In the village above there are almost as many tales about what happened in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
An unexpected bonus in Pingyao is the cuisine. It’s firmly in the hearty northern school of cooking, but with variety and subtlety that should mean that every meal is a hit. One specialty is the local salted and spiced beef. Try the noodles (youmian kaolao) that stand on their ends in a honeycomb formation. Some of the restaurants are beautiful inside. For something a little rowdy try Tianyuankui on the main Nan Dajie. They serve their wines in measuring jugs so you know you’re not being conned. And if you can’t finish it then you can leave it there till the next day. Make sure to have a nose around all its courtyards. For something a little quieter, wander west to the Yide Hotel where the restaurant and its food are stunning.
Even better than the food are the things you can drink. After years in China I can easily say that Pingyao’s yellow wines are the most palatable. Pop into a wine shop for a tasting (ask for different strengths and flavors such as rose) and to get a cheap souvenir. Ceramic bottles are around 10 yuan (US$1.50), then you just choose your tipple. Perhaps the most intriguing thing for you to try are the vinegars, and in particular the drinking vinegars. Ask for a shot, though the custom in Shanxi is to take it as a digestif rather than aperitif, so just say you’ve had something already if you’re drinking on an empty stomach.