Take a Step Back in Time And Visit China's Ancient Town, Pingyao
January 1, 1970
by Alexandra Petri
Pingyao Ancient Town
Alex here to tell you about the ancient town of Pingyao, China. I live in Shijiazhuang, China which is an hour southwest from Beijing if you take the bullet train. I’ve lived in China for over a year now, and even before I moved here, I had traveled around China several times. I usually want to do the well-known destinations such as Xi’an, Guilin, Tianjin, or Zhangjiajie, but several weeks ago I didn’t have the time or money for a five to ten-day vacation. I needed a getaway that could be done in one weekend. All my coworkers recommended Pingyao. Within Pingyao is Pingyao Ancient City, which has been restored and styled after the once financial hub ( China’s first bank originated here) that was the Pingyao during the Qing Dynasty. Not only is it an ancient city, but it is also one of China’s walled cities like Xi’an. Constructed during the Ming Dynasty, the walls are excellently preserved and make for a lovely walk overviewing the ancient town. I’ve traveled to over twenty cities in China and Pingyao fast became one of my favorites, and I am already looking forward to visiting again.
When you first emerge from Pingyao Railway Station, you will see a regular city. However, only about two miles walking distance from the train station is the walled ancient town. Cars are not permitted inside (golf carts tote tourists around to an extent) so the inner part of the town is all done on foot. Within the town, there are over thirty sites to see ranging from Buddhist and Taoist temples, museums about the financial history of Pingyao, ruins, and the wall and watchtower entrances. In order to see any of these things, you will need a ticket that permits you to enter these places. They can be bought throughout the town. You only need to ask your hotel or walk around for a bit before you find a ticket office. I went during December which was not peak season so the attraction’s ticket was only 120 kuai as opposed to 150 kuai in spring and summer. If you show a student card, it will only be 65 kuai which translates to about $10 for a one time entrance into all the attractions
The Old City Attractions
My favorite attraction was the Pingyao City Wall itself. Since you can only access each site once, I’d save either the wall or the City Center Tower for a nice sunset view. When I was there, you could not walk the entire wall since they were doing renovations, but that might be different in summer.Another favorite was the City of God Temple. This Taoist temple was incredibly quiet and serene since I visited in the dead of winter as were many of the other religious sites in this town. Another notable temple was the Er Long Temple which was towards the West gate of the ancient town. The Hui Wu Lin Martial Arts Exhibition is located in a beautiful structure with winding corridors and courtyards. There are also a number of museums if you would like to learn about China and Pingyao. One of which is a bank museum where one of China’s earliest banks was established. Another is a newspaper museum. If you want to do some shopping along the center of town while visiting a large number of the sites, you can stroll down the Qing- Ming Street. Decorated with beautiful red lanterns against the backdrop of ancient style shops, it makes for a lovely evening or afternoon. There are also a number of restaurants and coffee shops along this street that you can pop into. Pingyao is popular for Chinese lacquer boxes, so if you like trinkets, be sure to pick one up here.
Come for the Ancient Town, Stay for the Food
Pingyao is famous for its beef. known since around the Ming Dynasty, Pingyao has developed a delicious recipe for beef. First, they pickle it in a mixture of salt and water and afterward, it is stewed. There are several ways to enjoy Pingyao beef. One dish to try is the beef by itself, sliced thin. You can dip it in a sauce or savor it by itself. My personal favorite was Pingyao beef and potatoes, however. With a thicker cut of the beef that has been stewing in potatoes and peppers alongside a steaming bowl of rice, it is one of my favorite Chinese dishes.
If you go in the winter, be sure to try the pear and date tea they sell hot on the street. It’s sweet and fruity and will warm you right up while you explore the town. Pingyao is also famous for its vinegar, so if you like to cook Chinese food, you should definitely pick up a bottle, or at least try it with the Pingyao beef!
How to Get to Pingyao
Pingyao is located in Shanxi Province. It is four hours by slow train from Shijiazhuang and four hours from Beijing by fast train. The fast and slow trains have difference stations. I came in through the slow train station and the ancient town was about 2 km from it. So be careful of cab drivers trying to rip you off. The ancient town is walking distance, so don’t let them charge you an exorbitant amount (I would bargain for around 10-15 kuai). There is no airport close by, so a train or bus are your best options. It also isn’t uncommon for trains to Pingyao to sell out. The most popular route is Beijing to Pingyao, but if you are like me and coming from a different city, you might need to book two trains if it is sold out directly from your city. I use trip.com when traveling by train in China. It’s user-friendly and is in English.
Stay at a Beautiful, Traditional Chinese Hotel
I am usually a cheap hotel or hostel kind of gal, just the bare minimum so I can afford to see more, but Pingyao is the place to splurge a tad. I absolutely loved the hotel where I stayed. The name was Pingyao Drama Hall Guest-House, and I splurged on a Deluxe Kang room which has the traditional Chinese style bed and included two breakfasts. For one night it was just under 400 kuai or $60, which given the quality, was very much worth it. It was also right by one of the gates, so you don’t need to do a lot of walking on foot if a taxi drops you off outside the gate. Across from the hotel was the drama house where you can see a number of traditional Chinese shows. It’s a massive hotel built in traditional style.
Pingyao might not be one of the most famous cities in China, but its worth the trip. Many of the sites here can be done in just a couple days. I only booked my hotel for one evening with two full days in the ancient town, and it felt nicely paced. It’s a relaxed and unique taste of ancient Chinese culture and history. I’m definitely visiting again, and I think you should give it a try as well.