The 16 hour train journey into Pingyao was possibly the lowest point of the trip so far. In a fit of thriftyness we chose to travel by hard seat, the cheapest fare available with a guaranteed seat. Our preferred option, the hard sleeper, was sold out and the soft sleeper was four times as expensive so we booked the hard seats. “How bad can it be?” we said. We had seen the hard seats through the window on our previous train and they looked quite comfy, plenty of leg room and nice high backrests that we assumed would recline just like the ones on the high speed train. No. The backrests do not recline because your backrest is also the backrest of the person sat behind you. This meant that the rows of roomy seats we thought were all facing the same direction were actually twice as dense with people facing each other. There are no arm or head rests, no padding, the lights stay on all night and people spend the night chatting, sleeping and eating on what I can only imagine is a complicated rota system to ensure that at any one time roughly a third of passengers is doing each. I had the middle seat of three and at that stage couldn’t comprehend a position which would allow me to sleep so decided I would simply stay awake all night. By 4am I had finished my book, listened to all the podcasts on my phone and grown tired of trying to work out the social dynamics of the people around me (sleeping on someone’s shoulder does not require any kind of familiarity with that person, it would appear). There were still 12 hours of the journey left.
I’m not going to bore you with how the remainder of the journey passed, I’m not sure if I was really aware of what was happening at the time, slipping in and out of consciousness while my Britishness stopped me from napping on the shoulder of my neighbour (Ros is too short to rest on unfortunately, it’s not her fault). Definitely not the first or last time that my social conditioning would disadvantage me in China. Still, waiting at the end of it was Pingyao. I cannot think of a more perfect antidote to a cramped overnight train journey than this small ancient city. The grassy courtyard of our hostel was the first place in China I could describe as tranquil. It was beautiful. We drank tea and chatted with our charming hostel host Ling, who was a fan of British punk music and had heard of Sheffield. We met another traveller called Nikolas at our hostel and together we ventured out into the old town for dinner. Nikolas had a copy of the Lonely Planet guide for China which recommended a particular eatery called “Petit Resto” and I can confirm that it’s a great little place with delicious local specialities such as fried mountain noodles and a local vinegar which is like a watery balsamic.
Pingyao was the financial centre of China during the Ming and Ching dynasties. Like the financial centre of the UK it covers an area of roughly one square mile but unlike the City of London the vast majority of its buildings are single story. Some wealthy banking families had two story dwellings and there are a few towers dotted about but most of the old town is dwarfed by the surrounding wall. This is the main tourist attraction and it is very impressive. On our third day we walked the walls and the views they offer of the old town on one side and the new town on the other are quite striking, I would definitely recommend it.
The surrounding walls have 6 gates in them which are said to match the 6 opening in a tortoise’s shell. One North (the tail), one South (the head) and two on the East and West sides (the four legs). This is an interesting fact, but then there’s the other gate in the south wall which just gets ignored, plus the new gate that’s been built in the north wall too. Also the south wall follows the path of a river so it’s not straight like the others, and its unusual contours are not very turtle-ey. I don’t want to complain, I just feel like for the number of times they mention it is designed based on a turtle, they could have done more to maintain the turtle similarities. Perhaps a giant turtle head constructed around the south gate? I don’t know, I’m not a specifics kind of guy but something like that. I know it’s a world heritage site and therefore you can’t modify it to look like a theme park ride but… well, embrace the turtle.
Pingyao is also full of museums. 22 in total according to our tickets, which gave us access to everything over a three day period. These are mostly the best preserved buildings in the city and their architecture is exquisite. They all contain small exhibits but as these are mostly in Mandarin (Pingyao is mostly visited by domestic tourists) I focused mainly on the layout of these old homes and places of business. They followed a similar plan with an entry gate and administrative offices at the fore and then a series of further gateways providing access to steadily more personal rooms before culminating in a courtyard at the rear. My fondest memories of Pingyao are sitting in its courtyards, watching the trees sway and listening to the muffled sounds of the city at least two sets of gates away. My previous exposure to Feng Shui was a rather cynical documentary about how big corporation’s headquarters in Shanghai are designed to channel negative energy at their competitors. In the intricately designed hearts of these old family compounds I can believe that it’s more traditional use is something worth considering.
There is a stunning temple within the city walls as well. While we were there it started raining but that managed to make the scene even more serene. Rosanna made a short video which captures the mood quite well:
As usual full pictures here (there are quite a few):
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