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Pingyao: step back into Imperial China

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Pingyao is China’s best-preserved walled city. Exploring the streets and ramparts of this former financial region is like stepping back into Imperial China.

Established during the fourteenth century, the city walls enclose one square mile (about 1.6 square kilometres) of cobbled streets and lanes lined with Ming and Qing Dynasty-era shops, houses and temples. It is a perfect example of traditional architecture and urban planning, earning it UNESCO World Heritage status.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) the city of Pingyao was filled with merchants selling products from all over the Middle Kingdom. During the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) the city became a financial centre for China and has been called “The Wall Street of the East”.  This influx of mercantile wealth was exemplified in the grand imperial homes  resplendent in ornamental detail and charming walled gardens.

Ancient Streets

Imperial home in PingyaoAncient streets of Pingyao are a joy to explore at night

Wandering the cobbled streets of Pingyao transports you back in time.  This ancient town is like a movie set, indeed “Raise the Red Lantern” – a thriller based in 1920’s China - was set in one of the old merchant’s mansions which is open to tourists. This  Imperial ambiance and feeling of days gone by is even more pronounced by the restriction on cars anywhere inside the city walls, handing the streets over to pedestrians and cyclists. Walking along the ramparts of the city walls affords charming views of the streets and lanes below. Entry into most of the cities attractions, including the city walls, temples, museums and banks is by a single tourist pass, valid for two days and costing 120 Yuan (about 20USD).

Red lanterns hanging in Pingyao Locals in imperial Chinese dress

Banking

Rishengchang Exchange House, China’s first bank, opened in 1823 and survived until 1932. In 1995 it was completely restored and turned into a museum. As a major stop on China’s trade routes, Pingyao was full of merchants, but dealing with increasingly large sums of money became dangerous, which led to the opening of the bank. So successful was the bank that it opened branches throughout China and traded internationally. It also led to the rise of the banking industry in Pingyao, which at its peak was home to half the banks in mainland China, with many also now restored and  open to tourists.

Ming-Qing Street

Ming-Qing is the main street of Pingyao and has been the commercial centre for hundreds of years. Almost all the buildings along it are originally from the Ming and Qing eras, and it is lined with courtyard houses and most of the tourist attractions. This is also where the majority of shops remain today. Note:  most of what is sold here is cheaper to buy in China's big cities and the ‘antiques’ are seldom genuine.

Local home in PingyaoLocal home in Pingyao

County office

The county office was the office and home of the local Magistrate. Known as a yamen, the county office was built in 1346, although only one building from this period has survived, with the rest dating from the later Qing dynasty. This complex was very important in the prefecture system and includes the court, prison, meeting rooms and offices, as well as an impressive house and garden.

Classic Pingyao courtyardClassic Pingyao courtyard

Temple of the City God

The Temple of the City God is in the exact opposite location from the county office. This is to balance the yin and the yang. While the county office is responsible for the yang, or the human world, the temple represents the yin, or the spiritual world. Each is on the same street, equidistant from Qing-Ming Street. Many locals still worship at this ancient structure, and the main hall is almost entirely original. A highlight amongst the many halls and courtyards is the depiction of those sent to either heaven or hell.

Travel video of Datong and Pingyao

Insider Journeys offers private tours to Pingyao departing from Beijing. Our 4 day/3 night Datong and Pingyao Explorer includes a high speed train from Beijing,  a tour of the ancient caves and grottos of Datong, two days with touring in Pingyao and a transfer to Taiyuan where you can get a train or flight back to Beijing.

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