Pingyao: the grey city

I don’t know what Pingyao is like in warm, sunny weather, or during the peak tourist season. If you go to visit it perhaps you will end up with a very different impression.

I, however, got to know it over two and a half cool, misty November days, when visitors seemed to congregate only around the main sights, and most of the streets we wandered were peopled by handfuls of locals going peacefully about their daily business. In my memory, it exists as a quiet place, embraced doubly: first by the thick stone walls (ten meters high!!) that circle and keep watch over the city, and secondly by the seemingly ever-present clouds and mists that hang low over the roofs and slink down the streets, muffling sound, muting light, softening the edges off of everything.

All is rock and fog, grey brick and dark wood, with only sporadic bursts of red lanterns, bright vegetable stands or colorful tiles along temple roofs to remind you that you haven’t somehow landed in an old black and white movie.

To me the shades of the past centuries linger in this place like so much mist. The city is worn, in the best possible way – frayed to softness, smoothness, with traces everywhere of the hands, the work, the people, the times that wore away at this grey stone city. Spend a little time in Pingyao and you can’t help but wonder about all the lives and centuries the city has seen, about the gentle ghosts of the past that linger there today.

The travel-type details

Hotel

We took an overnight train from Beijing (thanks to Roman, who had to enlist the help of a friendly English-speaking hairdresser to help him book our tickets) to get there. It was an easy trip since we both were able to sleep on the train (more details about the train on Roman’s Everlater if you want to know more).

We’d sprung for a nicer hotel, which sent a driver to pick us up from our early morning drop off at the train station. A short ride brought us through the city gates and around some twists and turns to the front gate of the Yide Hotel. I loved – LOVED – staying here. It’s my favorite hotel in China after the Wisdom Inn.

I missed taking any photos of our room, but here is courtyard and a view of the door to our room

The hotel is a beautifully renovated courtyard house, originally built in 1736 – 40 years before the America declared its independence! I didn’t manage to get any photos of our room, but it provided a nice marriage of tradition and comfort, plus it was toasty warm and wonderfully clean so I was a happy camper.

The hotel courtyard lit by lanterns at night – silent, dark, and oh so atmospheric!

Sights

Pingyao is not that big and it’s possible to walk to all of its sights. We took a nice stroll one day on the city wall. I mentioned this in the last post, but it’s worth repeating: the wall was built around 1370. This is some seriously ancient architecture. Only a small portion has been rebuilt; most of it is still original, which is just amazing to think about. Deep grooves in the stone road leading into the city’s Lower West gate were created by years upon years’ worth of carts traveling along the path. Mind blowing.

The city’s wall (left) is higher than most its buildings

Look ma, no guard rails! Roman goofing around..

We had the wall nearly entirely to ourselves for most of the time and being ten meters up gave a fantastic vantage point to take in the monochromatic mosaic of Pingyao’s tiled roofs and stone streets. I also got a kick out of the fact that there were no guard rails what so ever on the inward-facing wall. You know you’re not in America anymore when…. 😉

We visited many of the city’s Confucian Temples. Unlike the Buddhist temples in southeast Asia, I found it consistently tough to connect to any of the Confucian Temples we visited. They certainly are dramatic and impressive, with all their dark wood, dim rooms, swirling incense and fantastical statues. For me, like Taoist temples, they tend to waver between intriguingly foreign/exotic and off-puttingly kitsch/creepy. I enjoyed these temples more than some of the Taoist ones we visited in Vietnam, but the vibe doesn’t melt my heart, like some of the Buddhist temples we’ve been able to visit. Still, it was awesome to see these living spaces of history – the temples are still actively used by the community today and many of them are insanely old.

I did love visiting the Rishengchang Financial House Museum though. China’s first ever draft bank (established in a dye shop in 1823) is now an awesome little museum that gives an interesting glimpse into life for its employees during the 1800s and the beginnings of banking in the country. Pingyao played a major role as a banking center along the Silk Road. Having seen bits of the Silk Road in Xinjiang (which felt geographically so very far away to us at that point, and we’d gotten there and back by the modern day convenience of air travel) it was astounding to think of exotic goods traveling all that way having an impact on and being affected by the efficient bankers of this orderly little walled city.

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