A Brief Glimpse into Ancient China in Pingyao

The images of an ancient China that many search for, those we commonly see depicted in novels and films – that of peaceful, open courtyards with delicately tiled roofs, narrow, lantern-lit alleyways that snake through the heart of a city, hidden temples and shrines identifiable by the fragrant trail of incense smoke, the simplicity of a family’s laundry hanging out to dry on the line, rickshaw drivers ferrying their passengers to and fro, and merchants tending to their shop houses on bustling pedestrian streets – are more often than not being replaced by high-rise office towers, blinding-neon lights, and the buzz of automobile and motorbike traffic in today’s modern society.

As such, it is becoming increasingly difficult to glimpse the same sights and wander around the same villages our ancestors had centuries ago, regardless of where in this vast land you travel.  One notable exception to this new maxim, however, is the diminutive town of Pingyao in the Shanxi Province.  This small but magical village allows visitors to step back into time, wander ancient lanes that have no names, see the patina on the facades that have been weathered by hundreds of years of snow and rain, and experience what life was like before the constant din of engines, construction, and modern technologies took over (however, I doubt ancient China had as many tourist cafes and souvenir shops, but I digress…)

The sunlight playing with shadows through an archway
The weathered façades of many of Pingyao’s buildings
A fresh glazing of rain lends the streets an entirely new atmosphere
See, I promised you laundry hanging on the line and I delivered!
I know, I know — I showed a picture of red lanterns in my last post, but these were just calling out to have their picture taken

The focal point of Pingyao’s layout is the City Tower, located in the heart of the city, where the two main thoroughfares converge.  Further, another of this medieval city’s charms is the existence of the well-preserved town walls, whose watch tower-dotted barriers enclose the entire old town, with four gates located in accordance to the four cardinal directions:

The City Tower, the most recognizable icon of Pingyao’s skyline
The view of the main drag as seen from atop the City Tower
The city walls seemingly stretching on forever as the row of watch towers disappears into the mist (or smog, take your pick)
The tiled roofs of the city’s buildings and enclosures
As night falls, the tower and walls are illuminated by a series of decorative lights and lanterns

Besides walking the cities circumference from atop the towering walls, the best way to enjoy a visit to Pingyao is to simply get lost in the winding streets and alleys, popping in and out of temples as you come across them.  As an added bonus, many of the historic houses and buildings in Pingyao are also open to the public, where you can admire the series of progressive courtyards that would form a family’s housing unit, all the while hidden from the public eye:

Engravings on a tablet within the Chen Huang Temple
Small charms tied along the railings of the Confucian Temple
Detail of a temple’s vibrantly colored roof
An example of a family’s interior courtyard
The courtyard of my hostel, surprisingly enough, lit up at night

Of course, a visit to a new place wouldn’t be complete without sampling the local cuisine.  Here are a few of dishes unique to the city of Pingyao that I was able to find:

Wantuoze – a round, flat noodle that is then rolled up, served cold, and dipped in a spicy tomato-based sauce
Pingyao Beef – hunks of choice beef that are then braised with a variety of aromatic seasonings, allowed to cool, and then sliced thin and served cold
Cao Lao Lao – Thick, Round Noodles cut into large chunks and cooked with cilantro and chili peppers
Pingyao Moon Cakes serve as great snacks and are served from street food stalls all over the city
A glass of what was listed as “Pingyao Yellow Wine,” despite the amber color. It was a pleasantly sweet wine made from rice that was then infused with ginger and a variety of spices

After Pingyao, I’m headed off to the former Eastern terminus of the Silk Road in the city of Xi’an, with the spicy cuisine in the Sichuan Province capital of Chengdu on deck.  Until then, cheers from Pingyao!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

5 Responses to “A Brief Glimpse into Ancient China in Pingyao”

  1. Wow. This looks really special.I enjoy your posts but as a portrait photographer would like to see more portraits of people!

    • I’m glad you mentioned this, as taking portraits has been something I’ve been trying to work on. Taking photos of scenary and landmarks is fine and all, but humans certainly prove to be the most interesting subjects. However, it is often difficult intimidating to attempt portraits, due to respect issues, cultural taboo’s etc, and I find myself shying away more than I do diving ahead. As I said earlier though, I’m trying to work on my courage in this regard, so hopefully I’ll have some better portraits in the future!

  2. your excellent photos reminded me of my stay in Pingyao. The main street looks busy as always and there is small dog in the photo – seems exactly the same as mine photos taken in 2006.

  3. What a fantastic place to visit. As you say it is wonderful to find a place that still has a ”patina” to it! I didn’t get here on my China trip but it will have to go on the list for the next visit now.
    You are going to love Sichuan for the food. Already looking forward to your blog about their hot pot! I think you would also appreciate a visit to Wenshu Monastery. Yes for more food!

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