Pingyao is a Ming-era city that has the only remaining fully intact city wall in China (or so is its claim to fame). The six-kilometer city wall encircles the old quarter of the city that hasn’t seen much change in 300 years. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Unfortunately, this gem is located in the heart of Shanxi Province, the coal mining center of China and therefore the most polluted. You might get lucky and be there on a clear day but we doubt there are many in the region. Either way, Pingyao is an interesting step back in time.
Features and Attractions
Most attractions are centered within the old city wall. You can buy a ticket to visit all the sights as well as climb and circumnavigate the wall for an all-inclusive price. The ticket is good for two days and lets you in to see the “Wild Jujubes” dance performance (think Romeo & Juliet a la Chinese-style ballet). The downside is that if you just want to see a few of the sights, many won’t let you buy a one-off ticket.
- Old City Wall: The six-kilometer wall is in good repair and dominates the old city. A dry moat surrounds the outside and watchtowers punctuate the twelve meters high, six-meter thick wall. Climbing up at the Fengyi Gate on the west side of the city, you get a bird’s eye view of the brown-tiled rooftops of the old city and the ugly sprawl of new Pingyao outside the wall. We don’t recommend a wall walk for small children. The battlements are very low with no railings. An accidental trip could result in a catastrophic fall.
- West and South Streets: These two streets are the main arteries of tourist-ville. Shops, hotels, and restaurants are housed inside old Ming and Qing-era courtyard houses. These compounds are part of what makes Pingyao and the surrounding area famous – low one-story brick homes form inner courtyard mazes. Watch Raise the Red Lantern, which was filmed outside Pinqyao in a family compound to get an idea of what these compounds looked like. These two streets are home to many of the major tourist sights (temples and such) and it’s enjoyable to meander down the lanes munching on local snacks from the street stalls and bargaining for treasures.
- Ri Sheng Chang (The First Draft Bank of China): The Ri Sheng Chang bank is one of the most famous sights in Pingyao. Located on West Street across from the North Street corner, the museum is a maze of rooms within a courtyard that housed one of China’s first exchange shops, therefore having an enormous influence on early banking in China. Founded in 1823 during the Qing Dynasty, rooms show displays of things used in banking in early times.
There are too many to name here, but all you have to do is grab a map of Pingyao from any hotel. Everything is marked and you can walk easily to each sight. Other places of interest are the First Armed Escort Agency in China, the Qing Xu Guan Taoist Temple, the Ancient City Building spanning South Street and the Ancient Government Building.
The “Dance Drama” Wild Jujubes performed nightly at the Pingyao Yunjincheng Performance Hall is actually worth the ticket price. We say “actually” because they’re quite expensive, advertised at US$40. We happened into a restaurant and organized a discount (20% off for adults, 50% off for kids), so you should try this too. The two-hour performance starts with a drum troupe welcoming you into the hall, then takes you through a delightfully well-choreographed, well-staged Chinese ballet. Our kids loved it.
There are a couple of family compounds, the most famous of which is the Qiao Family Courtyard House or Qiao Jia Dayuan. Built in the Qing Dynasty, Raise the Red Lantern was filmed there. It’s worth a stop on the way to or from Pingyao from Taiyuan.
Most tourists arrive by overnight train from Beijing or Xi’an. Pingyao is a good one-day stopover on an itinerary that includes both cities.
If flying, Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province is the closest airport. You can also fly to Datong (sight of the famous Buddhist grottoes) and then make a long bus or car journey (about six hours) to Pingyao.