Article by Tim King
Living in Xi’an is always interesting because of its juxtaposition of the old and new (for example, the more-than-600-year-old Bell Tower is flanked by three Starbuckses and a McDonalds). However, if you’re really looking to immerse yourself in something ancient, a trip out of town to the Pingyao Ancient City may be just the thing.
WHERE IS IT?
Pingyao is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Shanxi Province (山西省). If you’re not familiar with Shanxi Province, it’s a bit north of here, and is firmly coal country. That means a couple of things: you should expect it to be a little cooler on average than Xi’an, and you should not expect the air quality to be magically better.dies, granadilla plantations, and fields of rain-pelted flowers. The mountains were an ominous gigantic figure in-between all the clouds. From the end of the riverside path, I was driven to Moon Hill.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
The high-speed train to Pingyao Ancient City Station (平遥古城站) is your best bet. It’s about 300RMB round-trip, a three-hour trip each way. If you’ve got a bit less money and a lot more time, the slow train will take about four times as long but will be much cheaper.
WHY WOULD I GO HERE?
The short answer is that, if you like old things, there are lots of old things and they are cool to look at. China has huge plans for cultural tourism development in the near future, and Pingyao will undoubtedly be a part of that. At the moment, however, it’s in sort of a happy medium between tourist trap and legitimately interesting place to be (for me, the Muslim District in Xi’an has a similar feel, as far as the ratio of cool stuff to touristy nonsense is concerned).
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
You really can’t throw a stone in Pingyao without hitting a guesthouse, and there’s everything from cheap hostel dorms to traditional guesthouses to more posh hotels. In the off-season, a pretty nice place will run you about 150RMB a night, and a barebones hostel stay will be about 30-50RMB a night. Definitely stay within the walled city, but it’s your call whether you’d want to be on the main drag or in a quieter spot off the beaten path.
WHAT TO DO?
Pingyao is a place very conducive to exploration and a more emergent tourist experience overall. The very first thing you should do is find a kiosk at which to buy a ticket that will get you into around 30 different museums and attractions around the city, including the city wall. It’ll cost you about 130RMB (cash, no WeChat), or 65RMB if you’re a student. I say this should be the first thing you do because, as you wander around Pingyao’s web of streets and alleys, you’ll start to notice turnstiles everywhere. These turnstiles will scan your ticket and allow you one entry to the attraction it guards. While some of these attractions may potentially bore you (the furniture and newspaper museums spring to mind), others will be surprisingly interesting. Pingyao, in a different era, was a finance hub. That influence is far-reaching, meaning you’ll find underground vaults, museums dedicated to kung-fu and the armed guards who protected the wealth moving in and out of the city and more. Your ticket will also get you into the various temples around the city.
Aside from that, a show called “Meet Pingyao” is worth a look as well. It shows daily, just outside the western wall of the city. It’s in Chinese, of course, but English audio guides are available. Without spoiling too much, it’s a staggeringly elaborate performance that guides its audience through huge replica sets to tell a historical story about the ancient city, before answering the question on everyone’s mind, “How many Shanxi people does it take to make a bowl of noodles?” Tickets are a bit on the pricey side (200-300RMB at the door, but your guesthouse may sell discounted tickets), but this surprisingly avant-garde show should be on your radar.
WHAT TO EAT/DRINK?
Pingyao has a couple of notable specialties. The first is Pingyao Beef, commonly served cold and tastes like a leaner cousin to corned beef, but is also prepared six ways from Sunday, including fried dishes and hotpot. The second specialty is vinegar, and you’ll find it everywhere. People who don’t do spicy food will find a lot to enjoy.
Trying to eat and drink in Pingyao is where you’ll find most of the “tourist trap” kind of stuff—restaurants and bars in the city are after that sweet, sweet tourist money. This will probably be where you drop most of your cash on the trip if you’re not careful. You can expect prices similar to Xi’an’s touristy areas—30-50RMB a dish, 40+RMB a cocktail. If you’re looking for a safe bet for meals, Petit Resto is right on South Main Street in the thick of things and is both reasonably priced and used to western customers (it’s been in Lonely Planet); on West Main Street you can find Yunjincheng Restaurant (云锦成饭店), which is a bit more expensive but more authentic and definitely worth the extra money. If you’re looking for some real budget stuff, there are lots of places selling noodles for 10RMB.
For bars, nothing is really exceptional, and prices don’t differ much between them. If a place looks interesting to you, head in. However, there’s a special mention for the kitschy 1969 Bar in the southeast of the walled city, a revolutionary-themed watering hole with a pretty good folk singer.
That’s pretty much it, really. If you’re looking for a quick, cheap trip out of town to see something interesting, Pingyao should definitely be on your list.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease, and he may not get out much but he tries to make it count. He can be reached at