Pingyao was once very important as a centre of banking, now with well preserved city walls and hotels hung with red lanterns and lined with old timber. Most of the buildings within the walls were built in Ming and Qing eras, so this is a wonderful place (albeit ‘brushed up’ for tourists) to get a sense of old China.
Shuanglin Temple is one of the ancient highlights, but lies a few kilometres outside the town, and was founded as a Buddhist monastery almost 1500 years ago. It’s filled with wonderful clay statues, funded by the financiers.
A world heritage site, with town walls more than 600 years old and still in very good condition, Pingyao saw days of power and intrigue, days of decline, and now days as a tourist hub.
The buildings within the walls are also well preserved, with a few thousand small shops along the grid of lanes. The hotels are beautiful, with red lanterns everywhere. The beauty of the place, contrasted with the reality of life there in the past, is captured by Zhang Yimou’s movie, Raise the Red Lantern.
The town’s greatest fame, though, comes from its status as a centre of finance during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties The bankers provided documents to traders so that they did not have to carry large quantities of coins – a service that was much in demand in a world before regular police forces.
Many courtyard houses survive, and some can be visited with the three-day ticket to the towns highlights.
There are now many old towns in China that are also centres of tourism. But to get a sense of the days of the Emperors, Pingyao is the best.
Accommodation: The town’s hotels are ancient buildings that make a wonderful display of Chinese visual culture.
Recommendation: man zou … walk slowly.