Billed as “China’s best-preserved ancient walled town” by the Lonely Planet Guide together with the fact that it “is fantastic”, both Martin and I and those old and new to China had never heard of it…
Mrs Scott, though, had heard of it as her parents-in-law had visited and recommended it. And so given that it was vaguely on the way from Beijing to Xi’an we made a 2 night stop giving us 1 whole day to explore the intact City Walls, it’s oldest surviving building Dàchéng Hall at the Confucius Temple, its prison with torture instruments and China’s first draft bank. Amongst Pingyao’s 4000 Ming and Qing-dynasty residences there are over 18 historically significant sights to see, but we didn’t do them all. Instead we meandered our way through the streets for half a day with our guide, Mina before being let loose on our own for the afternoon.
Upon arrival on the Tuesday night (4ish hours from Beijing on the D2005 train) we were collected by a driver with a minibus, and taken to The Kylin Grand Hotel. We were told that it was “western”. To Martin and I, that meant slightly softer beds. Though the beds were harder, the decoration was definitely Chinese and the breakfasts Chinese. So really not sure what was western about it…However it was highly appointed and with stone lions outside the door to greet us, what was there not to like.
We arrived at 7.40pm having left Beijing at 3.29pm. The journey for us was pretty uneventful, but the three of us were in a different carriage to the Scotts who were something of a curiosity. They had train staff and passengers taking photos of them!
Which gave them a flavour of what was to come in Pingyao!
We travelled about 20 minutes to the hotel, checked in, left our bags and headed out on the streets for food. Not far from the hotel on the left hand side, before the pedestrian (not really – e-bikes and bicycles were carried over the bar) was a quietish restaurant. Music was playing but it wasn’t blaring away. There were some people there, and it was a BBQ. We sat down outside, picked the bits and pieces, watched it being fried, then BBQ’d and then we realised…as did the children that it was also a Kareoke bar. With a projector screen outside. The kids were in their element and kept us and everyone else entertained. It was not a quiet evening!
Having said that no-one had heard of Pingyao we did meet up with our colleagues Rich and Julie who were doing our journey but in reverse. They though, had independently hit upon Pingyao having studied their China Guide book! They started in Xi’an and were ending up in Beijing. We had dinner with them on both evenings swopping stories.
Wednesday morning saw us venture onto the city walls which date from 1370. Though there have been walls around this town for approximately 2700 years. At 10m high, and just over 6km in circumference we had a great view of the rooftops and alleyways. Sadly Mr Blue Sky had disappeared for this part of the trip. There are 6 gates entering into the town giving the appearance of a turtle which signifies long life. There are 3000 lookout spots and 72 watchtowers. As with everything, it all has meaning. Confucius had 3000 followers and 72 wise and virtuous disciples.
The Confucius Temple was where bureaucrats came to take the imperial exams, and now the bannisters of the staircases in the courtyards are covered in red and yellow tags (a bit like luggage tags). On the yellow tags people offer up their wishes for good health to the family and the red tags is for luck in their children’s education. Neither we nor the Scotts did this, but we all jumped through the Dragon’s Gate located in one of the many courtyards. Apparently “there is a popular saying in China that the carp has leapt over the dragon gate, which means success, especially for students who have passed their exams. It is said in a chinese myth that the carp leaping over the dragon gate could become a dragon. Therefore people believe leaping over the dragon gate can bring them good luck, wealth, health etc” (copied from the blurb beside the gate).
After the temple we wandered through the alleyways and visited an area which was used for local government. It also housed the prison that had been used right up until 1960’s. Hopefully the torture instruments we saw weren’t used too. The cells were not glamorous. Made of concrete, door leading out to the elements, just off a courtyard…the cells had a concrete bed with two holes at the base for charcoal/wood so that fires can be lit under it to heat the bed. Sounds lovely save for the bed being made out of concrete. I guess that mattresses were not widely available to the prisoners. There was also a concrete cube, same height as the bed for a kettle, again would have been warmed up by a fire. No doubt fuel for the fire was rationed.
The torture instruments included a wooden horse, the saddle covered in sticking up nails. Used only for women who would be taken through the town naked. They would either have had an affair or been unkind to their parents -in-law. Ouch.
Martin and I have visited the London Dungeons, there, the instruments of torture where on a par…just we didn’t see graphic pictures as we did in Pingyao. After that insight into history which let’s face it all cultures have we had lunch.
After lunch we visited the Rìshēngchāng Financial House Museum, aka, the first draft bank in China dating back to 1823. Risheng meaning “sunrise” and chang meaning “prosperity”. Like banks elsewhere in the world, it began in response to the needs of merchants to conduct their business without having to carry around large quantities of cash. For a country that invented paper, gunpowder and the printing press it is a wonder that they didn’t have something like this in place before then. The Bank of England after all has been around since 1694.
Two brothers from Shanxi Province who owned the Xiyucheng Pigment Shop in Pingyao came up with the bright idea of issuing a draft/ promissory note of exchange that was based on the actual physical existence of the currency in question and in the amount specified. The displays highlighted my pet hate – form filling and going to different people. It appeared that you had to visit the room on the left, to complete a form before going to the room on the right to get your money. The bank buildings was large it included the living quarters of the manager and kitchens.
We were then left to our own devices and we spent some time at the papercutters. I paid by card…could I pay in the shop? No of course not. I was taken by the owner back down the main street, to the cross roads, turned left, walked for about 10 minutes before finally coming to a bigger, more touristy shop where I was able to pay by card. A text to Martin confirmed the paper cutting was ours just in case I was being fleeced. I also bought a cotton top for work. Not for the first time this holiday was I astounded and if I didn’t know better I would have been depressed. My top I bought in Pingyao is XXL, my top from the Great Wall is XL. I am usually a M.
Whilst we had been recommended a place for dinner, we ended up going back to the place we had had dinner at the previous night. Though Eleanor and I left early as she still wasn’t feeling 100%.
On Thursday morning we left Pingyaogucheng station on the D2531 to Xi’an. The train was only 3 hours and both families were sat together.
We are glad we did Pingyao, apart from it being very pretty, it is known for its beef. Something the people are clearly very proud off. A golden bull on a turret like structure meets you at the train station. The beef – tasted like tongue which was a childhood favourite for me so I was quite happy with that dish at lunch.
Coming up…Coffin in a Cave…